Chapter 5.2: Involuntary Change: Aging and Death



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


The original residents of the Lefferts Manor are all but extinct. When they passed away, their homes became part of family estates; the houses and contents being sold or inherited by, in most cases, distant heirs. One pair of newcomers to the Manor in 1973 purchased a house which was previously owned by two unmarried elderly women. While rummaging through the house, the newcomers became a team of amateur archaeologists, discovering indications of a past civilization. The artifacts they uncovered gave them some insight into the life-styles of early Manor Brahmins. They found symbols of affluence and opulence -- silver serving pieces, a luxurious dining area and many very formal pieces of furniture, and artwork. They hypothesized that the household included a number of servants, because of an extensive bell system which connected living areas with work areas of the house. Also, among the archaeological evidence were diaries, newspaper clippings and letters which, upon reading, conveyed to them the impression that the owners were of high social standing. And in one room, they found the personal effects of a brother who was a nineteenth-century captain of a merchant ship.

The history of the family who lived in this three-story brownstone also shows how some of the residential succession in the Manor took place. It seems that many of the earliest residents of the Manor moved away, but retained their homes in the community as town houses as the community underwent various transitions. In many instances the propensity of white upper-middle-class urbanites, who were once in the majority, to have limited progeny eventually led to their disappearance not only from the Manor, but from the human community as well. The two spinsters and their bachelor brother who lived here left no heirs. The sisters died, alone, in the house. They also had no close relations, and the home passed in probate to a distant nephew.

The fading away of the original manorites might be partially illuminated by these bits of local history gleaned from the pages of the Manor Association's Manor Echo.

One family which is to be ranked among the very early residents of the Manor is the Cox family, now represented by Miss Eileen Cox and her aunt, Kathleen McMurray. Among the first "settlers" in the Midwood block between Rogers and Bedford was Jere J. Conran and his wife Mary V. Conran. It is interesting to learn that the only remaining member of the family, Virginia Cheasty (Mrs. John C. Cheasty still resides at 196 Midwood Street to which her mother moved as a bride.. .. She says there were relatively few children in the Manor during the early part of the century. . . .

Mr. Lawrence J. McSherry of 28 Maple St. has an estate on Long Island but retains this home as his town house.. .. He remembers when much of Maple St. between Flatbush and Bedford consisted of vacant lots. (January 1969)

The early Manorites remaining in the community are rare, and very old, but still play an important social role in the area. Long-term residents are, so to speak, the living social conscience and memory of the community. One old lady, for years before she died, sat outside her home every afternoon under the watchful eye of her black nurse-companion. She had been nearly blind for many years. Despite her lack of sight, she would chat with neighbors who passed by about "seeing" the neighborhood going downhill. The cause of the decline, she said, were the black newcomers, to whom she referred as the "element."

The "element," or similar code word, has been used in the past and present to stand for Jews, Catholics, Italians and others who were seen as threatening the Manor by their proximity to, or residence in, the community. In the early 1970s, the "element" was the founders of the Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens Neighborhood Association which promoted racial integration, and tried to service the lower-class people in the area through community programs. These people were viewed as a threat because they highlighted the problems that defile the sacred character of the Lefferts Manor.

There is some irony in the perceptions of older residents as to the causes of the neighborhood decline. In many cases it is their homes, particularly the property of oldsters with no family and limited income, which are in the worst physical condition. Not having younger family members to care for them, or their homes, and being extremely security conscious (so much so that they do not invest in repairs and maintenance), their once beautiful exteriors fall into disrepair; front yards are over-grown and littered: broken windows and peeling paint are highly visible features of the poorer senior citizens' homes. The newest invaders to the Manor, when they buy homes from these estates, are faced with extensive repairs due to the long years of neglect and abuse of the property. For example, the young "archaeologists" mentioned earlier, related that they had a great deal of trouble removing urine stains from their parquet floors. Other couples interviewed told of even more indelicate hygienic situations in rooms of houses they had purchased. One local resident said that he knew of several instances of elderly people dying in their homes, alone. In some cases it was several days before neighbors investigated. When the homes were entered by police or neighbors, what they saw was shockingly depressing: human waste and food garbage strewn on the floors, gaping holes in ceilings due to leaks that were never repaired -- a horror of filth and disarray. The causes of these disgraceful scenarios are quite simple: age, disability, fear, loneliness, and poverty. In many places the poorer abandoned aged confine themselves to one or two rooms of their huge homes for the many years prior to their passing.

Within a community all individual parts are interconnected to form a comprehensive whole. Therefore, the Problems of the disadvantaged elderly are a problem for the Manor. Since they cannot care for themselves, they cannot help to maintain the image of the community. Fortunately for the Manor, the proportion of elderly experiencing economic hardship is small. Although this segment of the population has given up the defense of the special image of the community, and their own image as well, their participation in the degradation of the community has been for the most involuntary.

Some of the other older residents have found that living alone is unbearable and so some form what might be called old people's communes. Brothers, sisters, close relatives and old friends come together in order to share the burdens of their twilight years. It is not unusual to see, during the day, old people assisting one another as they try to follow patterns of everyday life that they have established over the many years spent in the Manor. Even walking a city block to get to a grocery store, however, becomes a major chore, and some do not venture outside their homes for these short excursions. They have all their provisions delivered to them at home. The presence of elderly people, and the many more in nearby apartment houses, makes security a primary concern of both old and young Manorites. Old people in city neighborhoods attract crime like a magnet because they are such easy targets.

It is not difficult to imagine the intense fear that grips the elderly as they walk the streets. They are presented with so many unfamiliar faces, and to an old person, a young black or brown face is a symbolic threat to their safety. At night the elderly lock themselves behind strong doors and occasionally peer out between the bars on windows. Stronger bars, locks and alarm systems are often the only improvements they have made on their homes in recent years. These people are not merely reacting to the actual crime rate in the Manor, which, although high, is much lower than in other nearby areas, but to the "signs" of urban crime. They also react to media reports of city and national crime waves. To the aged even the Manor can become the proverbial "jungle" of the modern urban world.

Besides the actual crimes against the elderly which take place, even the smallest incident is spread among the old-timers and in the process is inflated to major proportions; pocketbook snatching becomes robbery and assault. Crimes that take place blocks away are believed to have taken place around the corner. Reactions to crime and crime reports are bound to be exaggerated due to inefficient communication networks and the pervasiveness of fear. To the aged some "element" is always responsible for crime and other social problems in the Manor. Unable to flee, they retreat further and further into their mental worlds and the neighborhood for them becomes, what Joseph P. Lyford called, an "Airtight Cage" (1966).

The most important need for the viability of a human community, which is after all a biological unit, is generational succession. As a social community, generation succession is also the passing of traditions from the old to the young, regardless of the existence of biological connections between them. It can be argued that for older Manor residents, their community will pass with them into oblivion. They themselves, however, are history and tradition, and they will-always have an impact on those who come to the Lefferts Manor after them. From the first to the last, Manorites are eternally and historically fused. By their constant negative remarks on the changes in the community and by their overt discrimination over the years, the old-timers will always be remembered by newcomers. The Lefferts Manor has a long history of making people feel unwanted, undesirable and unworthy of receiving its sacred grace. Perhaps that is part of the reason why it still is such a "good" neighborhood today.

<< To Ch. 5.1 | To Ch. 5.3 >>