Book review: How East New York Became a Ghetto
By Walter Thabit
NYU Press 2003
Architects and planners who take on projects in impoverished areas are up against more than appalling conditions of the area. They also must contend with the social forces that creates those conditions. Hassan Fathy's Architecture for the Poor described his work creating a village for relocated peasants who had previously been situated on a treasure trove of antiquities outside of the town of Luxor in upper Egypt. The first part of the book is an inspiring description of community architecture, ancient building techniques, and use of on site materials. The second part however, is an object lesson in despotic bureaucracy.
Walter Thabits' How East New York Became a Ghetto is a similar to the latter part of Fathy's work as he describes the decline of a solid middle-class area in eastern Brooklyn into what is now known as the murder capital of New York. Part history, part case study part personal account; Thabit chronicles the disintegration of the neighborhood from the 1960's to the present (with emphasis on the period from the late 1960's to the mid 1970's). It is lacerating reading for anyone who cares about the health and future of cities.
Thabit worked in East New York on the Vest Pocket plan and the Model Cities program, in his account East New York becomes the focus of a national phenomena. The chronicle has a historical perspective as well. Thabit records 1960's block-busting, red lining, rioting through to heartbreaking but riveting accounts of recent gang activity and family's living with the AIDS pandemic.
The book is not gloom and doom, but even the heartening accounts of the small victories (the work of Reverend Youngblood, the low-cost but serviceable Nehemiah houses) underscore the author's frustrations of what more have been done.
Not grandly prescriptive, the author seems too jaded to set forth a comprehensive new agenda to solve the nations problems, but on occasion he breaks his cool historian demeanor and speaks his mind. In these instances his voice jumps off of the page to advocate a specific program like the creation of East New York youth centers or the expansion of violence prevention programs. Otherwise the prescriptive message seems to be simply: don't do again what was done before.
The grim descriptions of civil neglect, community disorganization and institutional racism make this a difficult read, particularly when one keeps in mind that this is the story of just one neighborhood in one city. And that such a story can be told of hundreds of other neighborhoods in hundred of other cities by hundreds of other authors. However, were it the case that hundreds of planners were so minded, we may not have found ourselves in this predicament to begin with.