Chapter 2.1: Self Selection and Urban Decay



List of Tables, Maps, Illustrations, and Figures


1. Symbolism, Self and Urban Environment
    Residential Succession: How "Losers" Win
    Negro Pioneers and White Flight
    Relative Selectability among Minority Invaders
    Symbolic History and Self
    Symbolic History: Modern and Ancient Foundations

2. Self Selection and Urban Decay
    The Social Character of the Manor

3. Woodland to City Neighborhood: 300 Years of Change
    Indians, Geology and Transportation
    Protecting the Community: Covenant and Zoning
    Increasing Community Parameters

4. Invasion and Succession

    Irish and Italian Catholics
    Veterans: Undesirable Heroes
    Blacks and the Special Problems of Nonwhite Invaders
    Back to City Brownstones: A Confused Invasion
    The Invasion Mentality

5. Micrological Aspects of Urban Problems
    Involuntary Change: Aging and Death
    Attidues of Heirs
    Apartment Houses: The Big Change
    The Life of a Tenant and a Building
    Understanding Intricate Urban Problems

6. Stigma and Self-Image in the Inner City
    Achievement and Residentia Movement
    The Moral Careers of Inner-City Residents
    The Community Paradigm
    Implications and Applications


Beginning in the 1960s and continuing through the 1970s, American society seemed to be at war with its largest and oldest urban areas. In some cases whole cities have succumbed to intensive attacks on their social, economic, environmental and political bases. As the smoke of battle clears, and for some cities the haze is just beginning to clear today, not only isolated ghetto neighborhoods, but large portions of the nation's once vital and energetic urban centers can be seen to lay in ruin. Some observers have compared these desolate urban landscapes such as the South Bronx in New York with Nagasaki, Hiroshima and the bombed-out European cities at the close of the Second World War.

Over the past ten years I have walked the streets, during the daylight hours, of the devastated sections of many American cities as well as those of my own New York. Having been stationed with the United States Army in Frankfurt am Main during 1964 and 1965, I was made personally aware of both the scars of wartime bombardment, and of the possibility of building upon ruins. I must admit that the view of burned-out hulks of buildings in American inner-city neighborhoods have troubled me more than those war scars in Germany. Throughout history, major cities, and other centers of civilization, have been obliterated by man-made and natural disaster. Leipzig in 1941 was no less damaged by bombs than was Pompeii by a volcano; but to understand the destruction of Pompeii one needs only to understand Nature, and Nature needs no motives for what it does. To fathom the devastation of London, Dresden, Phnom Penh or Jonestown, it is human society and the people who comprise and influence it that must be analyzed. The internal wars waged in modern American cities were, except for the urban riots of the 1960s, less dramatic than military tactics used against European and Japanese cities. Our own urban warfare is, however, more interesting because it is far less comprehensible.

The difficulty in understanding today's extensive urban blight stems from the apparent cooperation not only of government agencies and powerful interest groups, but of the city's indigenous peoples who assist in the destruction of their own communities. In many cases the spread of deterioration takes on an almost epidemic and suicidal pall. For some, urban decay in the form of arson is cause for celebration as witnessed below:

The flames dance high as heat bites into old woodwork, searing and twisting the wooden frame until it gives in floor by floor, wall by wall. Condemned to death by the living, the abandoned building on East 4th Street burns madly. A couple of Molotov cocktails carefully ignited and carelessly thrown light up the block as hundreds of local residents mill about, singing and dancing, having a good time. An impromptu block party. In their faces can be seen the last power left to poor people. Fire power.1

The mass self-destruction of Masada, as Jewish residents chose oblivion rather than surrender to the Roman siege, is a polar version of modern urban neighborhood negation. There, Jews sought to preserve their social integrity through mass suicide. The ruins of slums will not be memorialized. In large measure the social and economic problems of American cities are caused, and accelerated, by decisions of millions of middle-class people to abandon their homes and neighborhoods, while fleeing for the "better world" of the suburbs. These exurbanites are somehow convinced that the places in which their own families had lived for generations are not worth saving, or maintaining. The city is "not good enough" for them. So they leave, and with them they take their money, their skills, their education and their political power, creating a vacuum that is soon filled with the less fortunate. America became over the last two decades a suburban nation. The urban middle class in the inner city, and some fringe areas, were replaced by the poor, the disadvantaged and the disenfranchised. This mass migration accentuated the self-fulfilling prophecy which continues to echo: "The cities are dying".

The loss of the urban middle class is essentially a function of what is often called "White Flight". In New York City it reached such crisis proportions in 1975 that the New York City Commissioner of Human Rights Eleanor Holmes Norton (herself black) publicly predicted a "Dim Future for City if White Exodus Continues".2 In a widely reported news release, she noted that between 1970 and 1975 the minority (nonwhite and Hispanic) population survey showed that between 1970 and 1973 the city's white population had decreased by 8.3 percent, or from 4.9 to 4.5 million people. At the same time the black population had increased by 5.6 percent and the Hispanic by 11.5 percent.3 All of these facts led the Commissioner to openly state that "We [New Yorkers] have a very good chance of being in the situation Newark is in by 1980".4 The 1980 Census showed that the white exodus continued.

Articles such as these cannot help but to make the problem worse, for bad publicity about city environments and prospects convinces more people that the time to move is "now". They also add credence to the common-sense belief that blacks, and other nonwhites, equal urban blight and disaster. We shall see in later pages that this equation is a major factor in the creation and spread of neighborhood deterioration by which nonwhites paved the way for bulldozers.

There have been many books and articles written, and research studies conducted, which have attempted to describe and explain what happened to American cities since the great exodus of white and middle-class families began. My work differs only in focus from these other contributions. You might say that it is an attempt to describe and explain what might have happened versus what actually did happen in at least one inner city neighborhood: Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens. The story of this community belies the assumption that the disease of urban blight is a purely natural and inevitable phenomenon.

New York City, always in the forefront of developments in urban life in America, shared the unenviable position of leader in urban decay with many cities of lesser renown. Harlem and the Lower East Side in Manhattan, the South Bronx, Bushwick and Brownsville in Brooklyn today compete in notoriety with Newark, Watts, Chicago's South Side, Boston's Roxbury and East St. Louis. All these neighborhoods have become household words which arise in discussions of what is wrong with modern cities. The Borough of Brooklyn, as a whole, may soon have the opportunity to be added to the infamous list of urban failures, as deterioration spreads from the desolate confines of low-income ghettoes into middle-class communities. Map 1 indicates those areas in 1969 which were considered severely deteriorated. Over the next ten years the major change was the gradual increase in the area of blight.

As shown in Map 2, Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens is located in the center of Brooklyn. Close by to the north is Crown Heights, and slightly beyond is Bedford-Stuyvesant. Crown Heights gained some fame in the 1950s via the actions of "Maccabees", a group of Orthodox Jewish men who patrolled neighborhood streets with clubs in an effort to stem the tide of a growing number of muggings and robberies. In 1978 and 1979 vigilante activities, in Crown Heights and elsewhere in New York's changing communities, splashed across newspaper front pages once again. Although at first deplored by public officials and seen by many social critics as a temporary unique aberration, vigilante groups are now a national phenomenon. Crown Heights, besides being the home of the Lubavitcher Hasidim, is also reported to have a very large population of legal and illegal Caribbean immigrants who work in basement sweatshops and crowd into dilapidated apartments. Bedford-Stuyvesant, the largest black community in America, is struggling to recover from the almost complete ruin of the 1950s and 1960s. To the east of Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens are East New York and Brownsville, large minority communities depopulated by fires and urban renewal. There, as in parts of Bedford-Stuyvesant, huge tracts of open land where once homes and apartment houses stood are slowly being reforested. In many places in Brownsville hardy urban tree varieties and shoulder-high weeds completely hide the underlying rubble.

Each day several more houses and buildings burn to the ground in Brooklyn, and arson is an almost daily occurrence, for fun, profit and revenge. In Brooklyn's low-income ghettoes Fire Department officials complain that their men are pelted by stones and bottles (sometime they are also shot at) thrown by neighborhood residents. At times, firemen are escorted by police as they respond to alarms. Today, the well-known Flatbush area of Brooklyn is experiencing the first phases of urban blight; commercial street deterioration, mortgage redlining and increasing crime rates. Most worrisome of all is the decreased confidence of residents that their community will be able to survive much longer.

Although the general picture of Northern and Central Brooklyn has been bleak, even in the middle of extensive decay one can find a small number of residential neighborhoods which have effectively resisted deterioration, and are "surviving". These inner city anomalies, most of which are exclusively black middle-class communities of one and two family homes, offer a glaring contrast to images of the inner-city ghetto neighborhood. It is hoped that by understanding the conditions which exist in "surviving" areas, and the processes which have taken place in them, that we will be better able to combat the spread of urban blight into other communities in New York and other cities.

Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens is located in the southwest corner of New York City Community Planning District 8.5 CPD 8 is one of sixty-two such districts, ostensibly created by the City Planning Commission in 1960 to facilitate the decentralization of city services and political control. These districts are shown in Map 3.

Although there are many extant analyses of the decentralization phenomenon in New York and other American cities, it is the affective and ideological values associated with this decentralization that are here the most As expressed by the then Mayor John V. Lindsay:

The plan I am proposing would establish a single Community Board for each Community Planning District in the City, with full-time staff, community offices, and a Community Cabinet of local city officials. This plan provides for one local body to deal with all city problems, with a broadly based membership and the capacity to monitor effectively local services. It can end duplication, broaden citizen involvement, and make city government more accountable to the communities they serve.6

The original boundaries for the districts were adopted by the City Planning Commission in 1968. Most of the boundaries have remained stable over the years, but those for CPD 8 were recently changed to reflect the political differences between the black political powers of the Bedford-Stuyvesant area and Orthodox Jews in Crown Heights. Such ethnic and political differences will continue to loom larger and larger as the Community Planning Boards themselves are given greater powers and service responsibilities as called for by the recently revised New York City Charter.7

From the outset, the districts were intended to be "meaningful" communities, at least from the perspective of the delivery of municipal services. Topographical, economic, social, historical and political boundaries were all taken into account when drawing up the present lines for the Districts. Despite the planning that went into the formulation of the CPDs, the original District 8 was far from being a homogeneous community. Part of this problem is that these "Community" Districts tend to be extremely large in population. For example, in 1960 CPD 8 had a population of over two hundred thousand people, greater than many American cities.

Because this study emphasizes the changes in the center of Brooklyn over the years, the original Community Planning District Boundaries will be used ... as reference points. Within the boundaries of the area there are many distinct neighborhood communities that have very little in common with one another. These neighborhood communities range from the Lubavitcher Hasidic community of Crown Heights, to the Haitian immigrant community a few blocks away, and from the upper-middle-class black neighborhoods of Bedford-Stuyvesant, to nearby low-income housing projects. Also, the landscape of the area offers scenes that range from large urban parks, to block upon block of burned-out ruins.

The community district arrangement does, however, provide some advantages for the urban researcher. Principal among these assets is the compilation of census and other information on an area-wide basis. This situation allows us to compare the experiences of specific neighborhoods with the general conditions of the District and makes it easier to chart larger scale demographic changes.

Table 1 shows that during the 1960 to 1970 decade the District had changed from one that was predominantly white, to one that is predominantly nonwhite in racial composition; in 1960 CPD 8 was seventy percent white, in 1970 it was seventy percent nonwhite. In 1980 it is nearly ninety percent nonwhite. Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens, in the southwest corner of the District, was in 1970 considered to be on the leading edge of the nonwhite migration southward across Brooklyn, yet in 1970 it was still sixty percent white. By 1980 the neighborhood is close to eighty percent nonwhite. The reasons for this slower rate of racial turnover in the Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens neighborhood are both cause and effect of the lesser degree of physical deterioration in the area.

The acceleration of the racial turnover between 1970 and 1980 was related to the differences in tenancy of white and nonwhite populations in 1970 as shown in Table 2. Then, the basically middle-class black residents lived in local houses zoned for one and two-family occupancy. Others lived in the large number of small multiple-family dwellings on the major thoroughfares running north and south through the neighborhood. The white population was concentrated in the high-density, large apartment houses which were successful for many years "keeping out" nonwhite tenants. A large proportion of the white population in these buildings were older, single and two-person households. Younger, more affluent tenants began to leave in large numbers in the early 1970s, and today most of these buildings are almost exclusively nonwhite in composition, with a smattering of aged, poor white tenants. This situation seems to be a common characteristic of changing neighborhoods in New York City; apartment houses resist change for a longer time, but change more rapidly once the racial barrier is breached.

These and other demographic and ecological features of the Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens neighborhood are in themselves fascinating, as well as the numerous community organizations that have developed over the years to both foster and retard social changes in the area. However, it is not the changes in the community that have been most apparent and intriguing, but the things that have remained the same. It is generally assumed that a necessary feature of ethnic and racial residential succession in the inner city is the rapid decline of the invaded area as evidenced by increased social and physical decay. One expects crime, deterioration, housing abandonment and other problems to expand drastically. It is also expected that the class and physical structure of the community will change.

Initially, Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens did not conform at all to these almost stereotypical expectations. The neighborhood did experience many urban problems during and after transition, but they were more the result of city and nationwide economic dislocation which simultaneously occurred with the influx of nonwhites. For example, Table 3 shows that the median income for individuals in the southwest sector of CPD 8 increased from twenty percent in 1959 to twenty-five percent in 1969. Maps 4 and 5 indicate that, except for a relatively small number of apartment houses, in the early 1970s, the neighborhood had also not suffered greatly from physical decay and economic decline. This was true despite the fact that during the same time outside the southwest sector of CPD 8 there was considerable urban blight and significant numbers of welfare cases.

While most Central Brooklyn commercial streets were almost devastated by the 1970s, the main commercial avenue serving the Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens neighborhood, Flatbush Avenue, was found to be "sound" by a Housing and Urban Development study in 1972. Commercial sectors outside the neighborhood were found to be in need of extensive governmental assistance because of the bleak business pictures presented there. The general findings of the HUD report in reference to the Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens area were as follows:

The section of Crown Heights with the highest income, smallest poverty population, and the highest proportion of owner-occupied and well-maintained buildings.... The Southwest corner has the highest percentage of middle-income families and some of the finest housing in Crown Heights.

The southwest corner includes the fine Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens neighborhood where half the families earn over $10,000 a year while only 7 percent of the households receive welfare. (The Community Planning District average is 19 percent.) A section of the southwest has applied for designation as an Historical District by the City Landmarks Preservation Committee.8

By 1978 the commercial streets which traverse the neighborhood lost much of their vitality, but were still, relative to other Central Brooklyn communities, attractive to large numbers of shoppers. My own survey of the stores on the western edge of Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens showed that while almost half of the stores went out of business between 1973 and 1978, most were replaced by new, mainly minority, businesses. Essentially, the ethnic changes in the residential parts of the community have been mirrored on the commercial strips. The 1977 summer "Blackout" riots in Brooklyn also differentially affected certain parts of the Borough. For example, Flatbush Avenue, which runs by Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens, suffered a great deal of looting but it was well outside of the neighborhood, to the South where more severe social and physical decline had already bypassed the neighborhood.

Physical decline of a city neighborhood is usually associated with major increases in local crime rates. Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens is part of the 71st Police Precinct in Brooklyn, which was until the early 1970s a "moderate" per capita crime precinct as demonstrated in Map 6. Although such a designation was not much for community people to cheer about, in comparison to nearby neighborhoods they had much for which to be grateful. Local groups have for over ten years been increasingly concerned with what they see as an alarming increase in area crime rates. Officials of the precinct are quick to explain, however, that the crime problem in the neighborhood was actuarially low, and for this reason the neighborhood was in many ways under-patrolled. In 1980 the 71st Precinct had the second highest incidence of reported crime in the city.

Hot spots of local street crime are generally found on the extreme edges of the neighborhood where most of the low-income population lives and which spills into the rest of the community. Particularly dangerous pedestrian routes are near subway stations, and walking on commercial streets at night and in the early evening, as in most parts of New York City, is not advisable. As noted there still remains in the neighborhood a number of elderly people living in large apartment houses. They are especially concerned with the crime problem, as they are the most likely victims. Juvenile delinquency has also increased locally as a larger proportion of the total community population are youthful, poor and unemployed in summer months.

In general, the fear of crime in the neighborhood is always greater than the amount of crime itself. Symbolically, such perceptions of crime-filled streets can undermine the stability of any inner-city neighborhood and are therefore constant threats to the Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens area. Many of the elderly residents with whom I have spoken are so fearful of being attacked that some do not venture outside their apartments and have all their necessities delivered to them. Others go out only during the daytime and in the company of other elderly friends. One of my neighborhood elderly informants was mugged only a few weeks after his wife had her pocketbook snatched by a teenager. What might seem incredible to the reader is that people will remain in a community despite its problems. For example, in the spring of 1981,street crime became such a large problem that community members formed a security association and paid $200 per year for a private security patrol. To understand this it is necessary to understand the balance, or imbalance, of the positive and negative definitions residents hold of their community, and to realize how much, or how little, local residents have at stake in their homes, both economically and psychologically.

The question as to why the anticipated destruction of the Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens community has not yet occurred should be of great interest to the urban sociologist, and those who are generally interested in the urban scene. Although it is undeniable that larger scale social and economic forces played important parts in creating this anomaly, my research suggests that a special positive meaning connected to this particular neighborhood by many residents was the most important factor in its survival, and also the deflection of extensive urban blight from the area. If we are concerned with preventing urban decay, or rehabilitating those areas that have already undergone severe deterioration, symbolic values and definitions of residential places must be studied and understood by urban policy makers and implementers. Decisions about saving and improving urban communities should be based on an awareness by experts of the subjective, as well as the objective conditions, of neighborhood life. Community development plans, for example, might include public relations campaigns, such as those associated with suburban development, coordinated with physical reconstruction, demolition and rehabilitation in order to attract and keep desirable community members.

The study of the social and psychological processes set into motion by the movement of succeeding waves of ethnic and social class groups into Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens, and other Central Brooklyn neighborhoods, is reinforced by demographic, geographic, ecological and historical materials I have collected covering four centuries. Other materials employed are: oral histories from long time residents, personal documents such as letters provided by local informants, local and city-wide newspaper articles, intensive interviews of community leaders, and extensive participant-observation of formal and informal social groups in the community. A great deal of information was gathered merely by talking to people, and listening to people talk, at local information centers such as coffee shops, grocery stores and private gatherings. Personal contacts with informants at local police precincts, fire department, schools, sanitation and other public service locations also provided a great deal of information and, in particular, gave insight of public employees toward the Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens area. These attitudes have great influence on the kinds of city services provided to a local community.

The research immediately uncovered distinctive physical and social patterning in the neighborhood. The overall residential layout of the area, especially in reference to social class and ethnic creating t segregation, was found to have changed very little over the entire life-span of the area as a populated neighborhood--about eighty years. This has been accomplished, in part, by the repeated official sanction of locally produced land-use patterns via zoning regulations, traffic routing systems and restrictive covenants which have protected "special" parts of the community.

Although Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens has a long and significant "official" history, i.e., that found in history books, as a populated urban place it has had a relatively short existence. Often scholars studying modern urban communities forget that these neighborhoods, filled with buildings and people, had previously existed as woodlands, farms, rural areas, suburbs or as small towns. They may also not realize that events a century or more in the past continue to have influence on modern urban life. The most important factors in the rise and fall of some present-day urban areas may have taken place in the nineteenth, or even earlier, century when many urban neighborhoods were initially established or designed.

The nonwhite invasion of Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens is indeed dramatic, but it is only one part of a long series of invasions that have taken place over the entire life-span of the community. Even the current in-migration of nonwhites contains a number of smaller ethnic "mini-invasions" that are not easily detected. The racial terms "black" and nonwhite obscure the fact that a large number of different non-European groups have moved into the area in significant numbers commencing around 1940. American blacks from southern rural areas and cities are mixed in with migrants from other northern cities and other New York City neighborhoods. Other black invaders began their migration to PLG in the Caribbean, Central and South America, as well as England and Canada. In this group Haitians, Jamaicans, Barbadians, and Dominicans have been the major nationality components. Beginning in 1970 a large number of Asians and Middle Eastern peoples have also become visible in the area. Most of these families, Asian and Middle Eastern, live in apartments above stores on commercial streets while other foreign-born nonwhites form small ethnic pockets in various parts of the community. There is also a small Hispanic "barrio" in the center of Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens, as an example of the non-European community enclaves.

It is important to note that the Asian and Middle Eastern invasion of the neighborhood is related to the replacement of Jewish and other white-owned businesses in the area by recent immigrants, which gives the commercial strips an extremely diverse ethnic make-up. The drastic changes in the United States Immigration Law made in 1965 have made these more recent and exotic ethnic invasions possible. Earlier laws had especially discriminated against Asian, African, Middle Eastern and Western Hemisphere emigrants, and when quotas were raised they were quickly filled.

Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens has been the goal of selective invaders for almost one hundred years. In many ways the migration history of the community reflects the immigration history of the nation. In small neighborhoods, at the micro-social level, one can observe the processes of immigration, assimilation, urbanization and cultural accommodation up close. Just as the founders of European colonies in the New World set the tone for mainstream American society and culture, so did the original settlers, and their heirs set the standards for the future Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens community.

The key to understanding the situation in the wider neighborhood has been, and continues to be, knowing what takes place in the strategic Lefferts Manor, a small socially and economically select area within Prospects-Lefferts-Gardens where local elites have lived since the seventeenth century. Map 7 shows the location of the Manor and local environs. Most studies of residential succession have taken somewhat of an actuarial approach, but changes in a community and its character are not just functions of numbers. It is important for us to be able to appreciate the personal and group experiences of invaders as they come into contact with dominants and each other. We should also be made aware of the obvious and more subtle modifications in the local culture of community that results from these interactions. Most dramatically, three hundred years after the Dutch settled in the area, descendants of slaves, who may have worked this very soil, now walk upon their own property as doctors, lawyers and school teachers.

The symbolic aspect of residential succession is an important and intriguing phenomenon, for it brings into focus the historical imagery of a neighborhood and gives insight into the continuing problems of community development and maintenance. People who maintain their community must believe that it is worth preserving and this belief is always difficult to hold given the disenchantment and alienation of modern urban society. Believing that one's community is, so to speak, "sacred" in the same sense that Romulus believed Roman soil to be, also leads people on occasion to display the less noble side of human nature. Objectively, social scientists might not approve of it, but protecting a community against the invasion of minority groups, for example, can be viewed as a "natural" feature of neighborhood stability.

The collection of groups who have over the years inhabited and protected the Lefferts Manor has been, aside from social class, extremely diverse. All those who are identifiable as members of a multitude of minority ethnic or religious groups (non-WASPs) have had similar initial experiences in the Manor as they sought to take their place as co-equals with resident elites. When they first moved in, hostility was directed toward them by the older more established residents. This social rejection was followed by the newcomers gradual acceptance into the community, and their becoming part of the dominant residential (not ethnic) group. Later, as they became dominants they either directly or indirectly participated in efforts to keep out "undesirable" newcomers. Also, with each subsequent invasion it was evident that the longest established Manorites were the most likely to leave the community. Those that chose to remain took it upon themselves to informally and formally re-socialize invaders or to make the most of a less than perfect social situation. The excerpts from the Lefferts Manor community newsletter, which was published on and off for about twenty years, provides some of the flavor of this local community socialization process. They were taken from the Letters to the Editor section of the Manor Echo.

Dear Editor,
In the spring and summer I enjoy walking to the subway station by way of Maple Street. The gardens are beautiful and the grass is green. However, now that winter snow and ice abound, I try to avoid Maple Street.... Although many of the residents are diligent about shoveling their sidewalks, there are a few constant delinquents on the block who cause hazardous conditions by not clearing their sidewalks properly.
          Old Time Resident
          January 1969

Dear Mr. Leffman,
I have lived on Midwood Street for many years and always appreciated the quiet atmosphere on the block. However, in recent months we have been plagued by a great deal of noise and boisterous laughter in one of the homes on the block. What course should I follow to stop this nuisance?
          January 1969

Dear Mr. Leffman,
I sweep my sidewalks regularly and take the garbage cans in when the sanitation trucks have passed as most of my neighbors do. However, there are a few people on the block who leave them out for a good part of the day.           Neat and Clean
          January 1969

Dear Lefferts Manor Association, Several people in the neighborhood put their dogs in the backyard at 7:00 in the morning and leave them there for at least an hour or two. I work late and find that the noise of all the dogs barking and howling at each other interrupts my sleep.
          November 1974

Other articles in the Manor Echo mirror the conversations of neighbors concerning unruly children, unkempt gardens, unswept sidewalks and uncurbed dogs. It is these almost oblique networks of communication within the Lefferts Manor community, which include community meetings and the passing of unsigned notes to troublesome neighbors or anonymous phone calls by "concerned" residents, that have carried the Manor "message" for about 70 years.

When speaking to Manorites about the history of their community, during their own lifetimes, one must remember that they are quite likely residues of earlier dominant neighborhood groups. They tend to evaluate changes in the Common in relation to their own personal, and their reference groups' ideals about the neighborhood at present, and what is most often referred to as "better" times past. To older Manor residents the community can never again be the exclusive community it once was.

It is imperative to keep in mind that "history" is merely a collection of stories told by different people, and that everyone does not tell the same story in the same way. The bulk of the following sections on the Lefferts Manor are based on an assemblage of various official and symbolic histories. Some are personal accounts of the history of the area provided by old-timers and newcomers. In every case, the stories which are told, official or not, should not be regarded as true or false, accurate or inaccurate, but as meaningful accounts that are used by people to explain their own social worlds to themselves and others.

All histories are intended to create a desired picture and to convey selective information and meanings. In fact the "official" history of the community was for the most gathered from documents published and re-published by local community groups to promote interest and pride in the neighborhood and more recently to justify the demand for a special Historical Landmark designation to help preserve the character of the area, which was granted in the autumn of 1979. Much of the material was provided by people who learned that I was "writing a book" about the community. One of these contributions which was most useful for demonstrating the symbolic value of local history, was a series of six booklets reporting on the history if the "Original Six Towns" of what is now the Borough of Brooklyn, New York. The documents were published by the defunct borough newspaper, the Brooklyn Eagle, in 1946. The reason for the publication and distribution of these short history texts demonstrates clearly what is meant by an "intentional" history. According to Frank D. Schroth, the publisher of the Eagle:

The borough is a community of homes, churches and schools, and in population is exceeded by only one city in the country. In importance it is second to none. It is the hope of the Brooklyn Eagle that the printing of these histories of the original settlements will interest not only our adult readers but--and this is more important--will also serve to make the youth of the Borough more conscious of the stirring events that have transpired in the last 300 years on the very ground they pass each day about their appointed tasks.... Each of the six towns has its own history, is great in its own right, and has characteristics which definitely contribute to the fascinating whole that is modern Brooklyn. The Eagle has attempted to "take Brooklyn apart" to show what makes it the fabulous place that is--the best known community in the world.9

Because of the propagandistic bent of history, one should not pay as much attention to details of "assumed" facts, as to how the interpretation of those facts has affected the current status of the Lefferts Manor and Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens. Not only have actual historical events and decisions by powerful people had an impact on the contemporary structure and function of the neighborhood, but also historically, the images of the community held by insiders and outsiders have had great impact on the local area.

Additionally, important aspects of history are often overshadowed by the attention to strict empirical realities. As a result, one often misses the moral texture and context of history. For example, an attempt has been made, where applicable, to find the similarities of experiences in the Lefferts Manor by different invading groups. It is especially interesting to hear the cries of outrage by representatives of one ethnic group at being defined by old-timers as undesirable, and to see that group make the next newcomers run the same social gauntlet that they once had to run in order to be accepted. The fact that "history repeats itself" is a moral as well as an academic maxim.

<< To Ch. 1.6 | To Ch. 2.2 >>

Notes to Chapter 1.6

1. Shane Stevens, "Instant Urban Renewal," New York Times, June 19, 1971.

2. "Dim Future for City if White Exodus Continues," Daily News, February 25, 1975.

3. "Middle-class Whites: A New Minority?" Sunday News, March 2, 1975.

4. "A Plan to Halt White Flight," New York Post, February 25, 1975.

5. In 1978 CPD was split in two. Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens became part of CPD-9.

6. For analysis of New York City decentralization see: Ravitch (1972), Berube and Gittell (1969), Katznelson (1973) and Altschuler (1970).

7. Plan for Neighborhood Government for New York City (New York: City Planning Commission, 1970), p. 4.

8. Champ Strategy, City of New York Document NYCPC 72-04 (New York: City Planning Commission, 1972), pp. 68-69.

9. Historic and Beautiful Brooklyn (Brooklyn, NY: Brooklyn Eagle, 1947), p. 1.

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