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The Master Planners of New York: Inside Look at Brownsville, BK

Byron A. Nicholas, AICP - August 15, 2018

Livonia Avenue Elevated Train Station  - Courtesy of DeShaun Craddock via  Flicker

Livonia Avenue Elevated Train Station - Courtesy of DeShaun Craddock via Flicker


Dependent, defenseless, disenfranchised, disabled, and vulnerable to change are usually the characteristics of impoverished and distressed neighborhoods. Neighborhood changes are all about who possesses the power or authority to do what. 

Let's see who possesses the most power to influence Black urban neighborhoods, explore the effects of being powerless in your neighborhood and how you can assert power in your neighborhood through non traditional ways. An example will exhibit the effects powerful decision makers have had on Brooklyn's notorious Brownsville neighborhood. 

For nearly a century, powerful decision-makers used their ability to physically and socially alter Brownsville making it resistant to gentrification as other NYC neighborhoods endured. But for this neighborhood, resistance to gentrification comes with a price.

To some, gentrification is a blessing, providing safer streets, more public infrastructure, and cool new bars and eateries. However, to many others, gentrification is an epidemic: displacing thousands of people, closing hundreds of mom and pop stores and depleting neighborhoods of what was strong and unique cultural values. 

Within the past decade, neighborhoods throughout the City of New York and throughout America has undergone some sort of urban resurgence, with improvements to streetscapes, transportation centers, civic centers and opportunities for new restaurants, bars, and galleries businesses. These physical and social changes have significantly impacted everyday life in the city and revitalizing once seemingly abandoned parts of the city. 

Brownsville is one of Brooklyn's eastern most neighborhoods, surrounded by Canarsie to its south, East New York to the east, Crown Heights and Bedford- Stuyvesant to its North and East Flatbush to its west. Compared to the city's 41% completed college education attainment and 11 percent unemployment rate, Brownsville is notoriously known as one of the City's most challenging neighborhoods with a dismal 18% completed college education attainment, 16% unemployment rate, the highest in injury assault rates and the second highest incarceration rate in the city.

If the residents of a poverty stricken neighborhood such as Brownsville are generalized as powerless, then who are the ones in power and possess the following characteristics: Authoritative, capable, dominating, forceful, and persuasive. 


Robert Moses, the "Master Planner"

Ever since its conception, it seems like Brownsville has been plagued by the effects of poverty. According to Ginia Bellafante's Resurrecting Brownsville, the neighborhood was once a predominately Jewish neighborhood, consisting of poor and working class residents, with a sustainable local economy. However, in the 1940s, the neighborhood was transformed to a public house mecca after slum clearance policies by Robert Moses relocated thousands of Black families in undesirable areas of the city. Brownsville, - which currently houses more than 21,000 people comprising of 1/3 of the neighborhood's population.- was a dumping ground for the City's relocated Black and poor families from more desired lands in Manhattan. 

Robert Moses played a major role in the physical transformation of many New York City neighborhoods throughout the Bronx, Manhattan and  Brooklyn, including Brownsville. ... Moses was known as a "master planner", New York City's Park Commissioner from 1934 to 1960, and Chairman of the Triboro Bridge and Tunnel authority from 1936 to 1968, and was responsible for building public beaches, pools, parks, parkways, bridges, tunnels, and highways throughout the city. Unfortunately, many of his projects were not inclusive to most of his constituents, the poor and people of color, including Black Americans and Puerto Ricans, who were migrating to New York en mass. 


Emperor Michael Bloomberg

Fast forward to the 21st century, Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration initiated a vigorous attempt to curtail homelessness and out-priced residents, but instead exacerbated the very same problems his administration tried to fix. During Bloomberg's 12 year tenure, NYC underwent a very apparent first wave of gentrification through housing and urban planning policies. The high disproportion between applicant to affordable housing was exacerbated by tens of thousand of affordable units went off-line as landlords exited subsidized programs and regulated apartments went market rate.

In addition, the administration was often blasted for poor management of the city’s public housing system, The city discontinued the "Advantage Program"  which gave homeless families priority for Section 8 vouchers, and cut funding to many rental assistance programs. 

The Bloomberg administration, under the Director of City Planning, Amanda Burden, re-zoned nearly 1/3 of the city's land uses to favor new residential and mixed use development allowing large development companies to participate in a land grab well into Di Blasio's Mayoral term. 


Bill Di Blasio 

Di Blasia's Housing policies are not that far from Bloomberg's. Despite the continuation of creating more affordable housing units, As part of the Mayor’s initiative to reduce the record level of homelessness in NYC, NYCHA completed the rehabilitation of 865 apartment to house homeless families from shelters into permanent homes.In addition, the city pays landlords more than $2,000 per month through the cluster-site program which incentivized landlords to push out low-income residents to house homeless men and women with guaranteed rent paid from the city. Anti-homelessness advocates criticize this policy as being wasteful and ineffective.

In attempt to curtail the homelessness problem in New York, Di Blasio has announced a plan to open nearly 100 homeless shelters throughout the City to reduce the number of homeless people who participate in the cluster-site program and reside in commercial hotels.  

These housing policies create new implications for a neighborhood like Brownsville, in which the City claims nearly 40% of residents live below the poverty level. Housing people without homes but need dire resources in an already low-income, poverty stricken community exacerbates the poverty level in the community and makes health and education resources become more scarce. Di Blasio, seems to have continued the same policy initiated by Robert Moses; concentrating the City's poor into undesirable neighborhoods.


Advancing a community-driven revitalization of Brownsville is personal to me; I was born in the community
— Eric Adams, Brooklyn Borough President


East New York Rezoning

Zoning is used as a tool to spur neighborhood economic redevelopment. The 2016 East New York rezoning Plan has sparked interest to investors and speculators after the City began investing nearly $100 million in public infrastructure projects. The neighborhood shares similar socio-economic demographics to Brownsville.

Some community advocates fear the rent and proposed amount of affordable housing units in East New York will not be enough to counter the effects of gentrification in the neighborhood, as tenants would still be pushed out by landlords to obtain higher rents.

To councilman Raphael Espinal Jr’s point, the rezoning will allow East New York to enjoy the neighborhood’s first state-of-the-art community center, 1,000 affordable housing unit,  a planned school, numerous park projects and streetscaping of Atlantic Avenue. To battle gentrification, under the Di Blasio administration and East New York’s councilman Espinal, the city has created a Homeowner Helpdesk for the borough and has invested nearly $93 million to provide free legal services for low-income residents facing anti-eviction legal services throughout the city.

Based on the East New York rezoning process, it becomes apparent that government intervention is necessary to prevent neighborhoods from collapsing or becoming exclusive to people who possess higher incomes. In addition, high standards need to be set from a coalition from neighborhood leaders including city council members who ultimately votes on rezoning plans. Can Brownsville benefit from a redeveloping plan that would put the current residents’ needs first?

Borough President Eric Adams is lobbying for the city to rezone the Livonia Avenue corridor in Brownsville in hopes to create equitable housing opportunities and catalyze economic growth for the neighborhood.

“Advancing a community-driven revitalization of Brownsville is personal to me; I was born in the community,...creating and preserving affordable housing that meets a diverse range of socioeconomic needs across Brooklyn is the top priority of my administration...,” said Adams in a press statement.


Neighborhood Power Players

The power players in Brownsville, soon became clear. Robert Moses has set a precedent to exacerbate Brownsville's poverty, and to Bellafante's point, it was out of mindful orchestration. In addition, the Bloomberg era did nothing to aid Brownsville, and other neighborhoods with high concentrations of public housing simply because it does not possess the characteristics of a neighborhood that can be easily transformed from the cookie-cutter policies that initiate gentrification. 

If the leaders of the city truly wants to improve the livelihood of those living in Brownsville, more drastic approaches needs to be taken. Although government should be held to greater accountability, power players should not always be politicians They can be residents of a neighborhood just like you and me. Providing positive impacts in your neighborhood can be done through both civic and community based engagement and participation. Once you positively  influence your local residents the bond and level of trust between residents will be greater. Only then can a coalition tackle the most prominent inauspicious political leaders. In fact, this is the true way to become a master planner of your neighborhood. Just ask Jane Jacobs!

If you feel overwhelmed by the challenges in your neighborhood, do not like the way your leaders are dictating policies that effect your neighborhood, or would simply would like to contribute someway to positively impact your neighborhood,  the best thing to do is participate. For example, there are many organizations that aim to improve the lives of local residents in Brownsville, but these two below are truly worth-noting:

The Brownsville Community Justice Center provides services to reduce crime and incarceration sentences. The program provides short-term social services, community restitution and other services as incarceration alternatives. Men and women with probation sentences are afforded GED and college assistance, internships, and professional training.  The Brownsville Community Justice Center  also provide positive youth development services part of their strategy to prevent young and men women from entering the criminal system. More information can be found on the program's umbrella organization website: Court Innovation which usually seek Case Managers, Counselors, Project Managers, Research and Data Analysts to join their team.

The Brownsville Community Culinary Center, is what we need to see more of in Brownsville and distressed neighborhoods throughout the county. Founded by Lucas Denton as a non-for profit organization, the Center provides a long list of benefits to the Brownsville neighborhood, including a comprehensive culinary arts education program,  preservation of Afro-Caribbean cultural foods and employment  eligible discounts for local residents. Don't forget to check out their eatery's menu on their website: Melting Pot Foundation USA