|Chapter 5.5: The Life of a Tenanant and a Building|
List of Tables, Maps, Illustrations, and Figures
1. Symbolism, Self and Urban Environment
2. Self Selection and Urban Decay
3. Woodland to City Neighborhood: 300 Years of Change
4. Invasion and Succession
5. Micrological Aspects of Urban Problems
6. Stigma and Self-Image in the Inner City
The following pages offer a biographical sketch of a tenant in what once was a luxury building near the Lefferts Manor. It may help us to understand both the relationship between tenants and homeowners in the neighborhood, and more importantly, how buildings and the people who live within them undergo transition. Ruth and her family moved into their five-room apartment on the western edge of Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens in 1945. Her husband had recently returned from active duty overseas during the Second World War, and had obtained a good job with a large accounting firm in Manhattan. They both thought that they had found the perfect neighborhood in which to raise their small family. Ruth recalled that during the first few years in the building, the owner seemed to "take great pride" in maintaining his property. He and his family lived in a large apartment on the top floor. The building's janitor also occupied an apartment in the buildings, and was easily accessible to the tenants. At that time, there were also uniformed elevator men, doormen, and other specialized building service employees who catered to the needs of the tenants.
The tenants, especially the older ones, were wealthy. Half of the residents were Jewish; the other half Gentile. All were white. The Gentiles were mostly middle-aged, or older, and were living in large six and seven room apartments even though their children had grown and had moved away and the space was not needed. Ruth said that these tenants were ". .. Well off. The women in the building would go out shopping wearing white gloves, and hats." Mothers were not allowed to stand outside in front of the building with their baby carriages, and "hanging around" near the entrance was frowned upon by the manager -- "It didn't look good." The tenants' children were permitted to play only in the rear of the property where there was a grassy play-area. "In front of the building there were plants and gardens, and a sculptured water fountain, that worked!" The entrance to the building was covered by a glass canopy and there was a circular drive for cars which was landscaped in the center. In the middle of the ground floor, there was a small courtyard where people could sit and talk.
Of the seventy-five families in the building, only four or five had small children when Ruth moved in. "Most of the tenants thought that small children were a nuisance and complained about them. Most of the younger tenants were Jewish." This age and family-status division between Gentile and Jewish tenants also engendered a number of anti-Semitic remarks from the older, more established residents who were not fond of children. Despite the problem of "feeling out of place," Ruth liked the neighborhood for many reasons. Transportation was excellent; the subway ran directly to Manhattan where her husband worked, and ran in the other direction to the beach. She also remembered that the park nearby was a great place for boating and picnicking. It was a "family" park, and she "no fear of going into the park then." She would walk to the park pushing her baby carriage and meet with a group of mothers there and talk, while the children played together. "When the children grew older the area was good because it was close to the library and the museum." They would attend Sunday afternoon concerts there. "The area was good for shopping too."
As the years went by, and the children grew older, Ruth began to notice the animosity between tenants and nearby homeowners. "The homeowners used to chase the kids away from the block. They felt, "How dare the children ride a bike and play ball; even in the public streets. The homeowners considered the street, a private street and the apartment people did not. I told one that- they did not own the street and that the kids could play there." Homeowners would call the police when children played "stickball" (an urban street game with rubber ball and broomstick handle) in front of their houses. Once a policeman came to Ruth's apartment to tell her that a complaint -had been made against her son for disturbing the peace of the community. She was extremely indignant and angry at the homeowner who had signed the complaint. She thought her son was "very quiet." She also thought that the homeowners were "sick" and hated kids. For example, "One of the homeowners had political influence and had a kid arrested for using abusive language and threatening a homeowner, alleged." When this occurred, in 1955, the parents from the apartment building got together and pro-tested at the police station to have the boy released. "But he got a J.D. [juvenile delinquency] card."
The longer Ruth and her family stayed in the building, the more the high status Gentiles without children moved or died. Middle-class Jewish families replaced them, and gradually the building became popu-lated with "average" younger families. Concomitant with the loss of elites, Ruth noticed, the building and surrounding area became less luxurious. The building then passed into the hands of the owner's son, who promptly became an absentee landlord by moving to a Long Island suburb. The place was no longer good enough for him. "The superintendent and his family were moved into a basement apartment... And the back, where the children used to play, was cemented over. So was the garden. There were no repairs made in the building. The Persian rug in the lobby was removed. The toilet seats were not replaced when they wore out, as they used to be. The landlord's agent said that the people had to pay for them themselves, and the hallways that used to be washed once or twice a week, were not cleaned at all. The light bulbs in the halls were reduced from sixty to fifteen watts. Then the landlord demanded rent increases!"
Apartments were not painted for years, and the tenants were harassed by agents when they complained about the loss of services and the deterioration of the building. "This led to more and more people moving out." Once Ruth went to court with some other tenants to argue that since the landlord had decreased services over the years, he was not entitled to rent increases under the terms of the rent control law. To "prove" their claims, the tenants "before" and "after" photographs of the building. A rear and side entrance to the building had been closed. The landlord had continued to charge higher rents for "furnished" apartments even though he no longer furnished them. At one time there were washing machines and dryers in the basement which were used by servants and later in Ruth's time by the tenants them-selves. Now the laundry room was gone. The expensive paintings that once graced the walls, and the expen-sive floor coverings, were all missing from the building. The intercom and bell system no longer operated properly. Gone were the doormen stationed in front of the lobby to greet tenants and provide security.
The tenants won their case in court, but in the longer run they lost their battle with the landlord. The building continued to deteriorate as the owner argued that he could not afford to maintain it. As the building began its decline, Ruth noticed that the neighborhood also began to "change." "The streets got dirtier and more dangerous." People did not sweep their sidewalks anymore, and there were increased reports of street crimes and burglaries.
When Ruth's children were in public schools in the area, the schools had excellent reputations, and they were virtually all-white. New York, despite its "liberal" image has always had de facto racially segregated schools because of the use of a "neighborhood school" concept in planning. Neighborhoods were segregated; therefore schools were as well. Suddenly, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, racial integration of public schools became the cause celebre of the city's liberal politicians, and experiments in eliminating the segregation were begun. This caused panic in many white communities, and accelerated racial turnover in white areas that bordered black ones.
Eventually, black pupils entered public schools in Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens in large numbers. Black families moved into apartments and homes in the community as white families left. It must be noted here that frequently the "white flight" we hear so much about begins, not when blacks move into white residential areas, but before that -- when black children come into local classrooms. The affluent liberal or conservative sends his children to private schools and when the neighborhood changes, moves. The non-affluent white, liberal or conservative tries to keep black children out of "their" schools and, failing in that battle, also moves to a "whiter" neighborhood.
The Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens neighborhood "changed," and so Ruth and many of her neighbors began moving to other areas southward in Brooklyn, or out of the Borough. This out-migration of white middle-class apartment dwellers took on "flight" proportions in the middle 1960s. The remnants of Ruth's cohort today are the older Jewish and Gentile couples or individuals who continue to resent and fear their "new" neighbors. In the white communities of southern Brooklyn, those that fled Central Brooklyn areas are today fighting against racial integration of their schools and neighborhoods, as are suburban ex-Brooklynites.
Neighborhood leaders in southern Brooklyn white neighborhoods who are now faced with problems of integration often say that "this has happened to them before." A sort of sociological deja vu! Although it is difficult to feel sympathy toward people who are literally bigoted, the sociologist must understand that they have suffered greatly because of their own irrationality. Their prejudices have been so well exploited by others who have profited enor-mously from their fear of nonwhites. Incompetent white politicians continue to be elected by whispering to their constituents that, if elected, they will keep "them" out. Nonwhite politicians see white flight as the opening of new territory. One real estate agent, who "works" the Brooklyn areas I have studied, casually noted that he and his agency have in many instances bought and sold the homes of local people several times; first in northern Brooklyn, second in Central Brooklyn and now the third home in southern Brooklyn. And each time the agent makes a profit. Racial prejudice has been the foundation of lucrative real estate enterprises in many American cities. I should emphasize that the black real estate agents and brokers are no less willing to take advantage of racial fears and the limited availability of decent housing for blacks. This situation allows for the appearance of cooperative black-white relations -- in real estate.