Politics, Poverty, and Place: Michael Woodsworth’s Battle for Bed-Stuy

Reviewed by Nick Juravich

Battle for Bed-Stuy: The Long War on Poverty in New York City  By Michael Woodsworth Harvard University Press (2016) 424 pg.

Battle for Bed-Stuy:
The Long War on Poverty in New York City

By Michael Woodsworth
Harvard University Press (2016)
424 pg.

As a local Brooklyn blogger in the heyday of local Brooklyn blogs, the politics of place were my stock and trade. Writing on the border of Crown Heights – or was it Prospect Heights? – at the bleeding edge of gentrification from 2008-2013, I covered fights over everything from the names of restaurants to the placement of bike racks. These struggles always served as proxies for a larger set of questions about who wielded the power to define and shape urban spaces. In one particularly memorable episode, a realtor’s idle speculation about the possibility of selling the neighborhood as “ProCro” – quoted in the fourth paragraph of an online Wall Street Journal article – prompted local outcry so fierce that our State Assemblyman at the time, Hakeem Jeffries, introduced legislation in Albany to outlaw the practice of real-estate rebranding. As law, the bill was a dead letter, but as politics, it was dead-on: as Jeffries explained, rebranding was not just part of the process of raising rents and home prices, but served to erase the presence, impact, and needs of existing residents. “Neighborhoods have a history, culture and character that should not be tossed overboard whenever a Realtor decides it would be easier to market under another name,” Jeffries told the New York Times.

The making of urban space has always been a political process, but as Michael Woodsworth shows in his fascinating new book, Battle for Bed-Stuy, these definitional questions took on new urgency for city dwellers at midcentury as a new era of “place-based politics” dawned. The book’s opening vignette is, fittingly, a tour of Bedford-Stuyvesant in 1966, led by Elsie Richardson, a longtime resident and activist, for Robert F. Kennedy, then the junior senator for New York. Richardson strove to redefine Bed-Stuy for RFK as its diverse residents saw it: a “community, not a ghetto,” composed both of “grim stretches” and “tidier streets.” In the community meeting that followed the tour, Kennedy reasserted his official prerogative to define places – and their needs and problems – by promising a new study of the area. Richardson replied by telling the Senator: “We’ve been studied to death.” Her statement captured local frustration with the distorted view elite New Yorkers held of her neighborhood, which rendered black poverty hypervisible while obscuring the presence and contributions of local organizers like Richardson. It also captured her determination to define her own community.

Battle for Bed-Stuy charts the arc of a “long war on poverty in Brooklyn” from the Second World War through the 1980s, tracking the intertwined evolution of place, poverty, and politics in this iconic – and, as Woodsworth shows, nationally-influential – Brooklyn neighborhood. As a study of antipoverty policy and grassroots activism, the book builds on a decade of scholarship that has revealed a “War on Povety from the Grass Roots Up,” as the title of an influential collection edited by Annelise Orleck and Lisa Gayle Hazirjian puts it. This activism, in Bed-Stuy as across the nation, was led by Black women through the practice of “activist mothering,” in Nancy Naples’ influential formulation.

Stretching far beyond the lifespan of Lyndon Johnson’s federally-funded War on Poverty (1964-1973) in both directions, Battle for Bed-Stuy highlights the “importance of activist women who, though ignored at the federal level, often took the lead in organizing communities.” These women developed a sophisticated and holistic critique of poverty and inequality in Bed-Stuy and worked tirelessly to build political organizations to address these issues. Listening to their stories, Woodsworth argues, allows us to see “the continuity of reform efforts across the civil rights era.”

A rich vein of new work on the mid-century Black freedom struggle has sought to replace what Jack Dougherty calls the “abandonment narrative” – from integrationist civil rights to separatist Black power – with more nuanced analyses of continued struggle for democratic self-determination throughout this period. By keeping his lens trained on Brooklyn over half a century, Woodsworth shows just how sustained, and self-supporting, this activism was. His early chapters reveal a robust landscape of activism in 1950s Bed-Stuy, well before the civil rights movement purportedly “moved north.” His final chapters capture some of the very same activists struggling to secure resources and opportunities in the 1970s and 1980s, long after media attention and federal dollars had abandoned neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy.

This historical revelation of continued activism rendered invisible in popular memory has political implications. Policymakers and pundits may have resigned themselves to an “urban crisis” after 1968, but resident organizers never did. In this respect, Battle for Bed-Stuy contributes to a narrative of continued progressive organizing in the lean years of New York City history documented by scholars including Roberta Gold and Tamar Carroll (whose work appeared, and was reviewed by this author, on the Gotham Blog last year). The work of these activists matters because in many neighborhoods today, including Bed-Stuy, the narrative of renaissance that undergirds gentrification begins with the nadir of the 1970s and 1980s. As oral historian Zaheer Ali of the Brooklyn Historical Society recently explained in reference to Crown Heights, Bed-Stuy’s neighbor to the south, depicting neighborhoods as spaces in crisis, inhabited only by victims and villains in these years, provides an “origin story in a triumphant narrative” of gentrification. Listening closely, as Woodsworth does, provides a counternarrative, one that demonstrates the essential role of Black women’s activism in preserving and shaping the spaces that have become so desirable for gentrification today.

Demonstrating the continuity of activism in Bed-Stuy, of course, is not to argue that the politics of place and poverty did not change across this period. Battle for Bed-Stuy is deeply attentive to the competing imperatives of local and national politicians, including three-term mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr., who declared his own War on Poverty, and RFK, who sought to re-envision antipoverty policy in the mid-1960s as a challenge to Lyndon Johnson, whom he despised. In Wagner, Woodsworth shows us a politician who “encapsulates the contradictory nature of postwar urban liberalism,” simultaneously committed to fighting poverty and discrimination but woefully unaware of the ways his city reproduced these problems. Following a trajectory that mirrored the larger “policy genealogy” of the War on Poverty, Wagner and many of his fellows came to understand poverty as a problem rooted in particular, pathologized places. In this analysis, these neighborhoods sat apart from the rest of the affluent city, rather than functioning within it as parts of an unequal, systemic whole. The policies that resulted from this view, as critical accounts by Ira Katznelson, Michael Katz, Alice O’Connor, and others have shown, narrowly sought to fix the people and places in poverty, rather than offer structural approaches to poverty itself.

Kennedy, joining the fight later, realized earlier than most that the War on Poverty’s focus on “community action” had left untouched key economic challenges faced by residents of Bed-Stuy. Pivoting from “community action” to “community development,” RFK sought to provide a version of locally-managed urban reinvestment by creating the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation. However, he and his team, too, had drunk enough of the “culture of poverty” kool-aid to be wary of actually letting locals control reinvestment. They thus created a two-tiered system of local input but professional wealth management. The result, unsurprisingly, was a massive fight, one that was resolved, as Woodsworth notes in an understated moment, when the elites managing RFK’s money realized that board staffed by locals was “by far the more competent of the two.”

The stories that Battle for Bed-Stuy tells about politics and poverty in this era contribute to a burgeoning reassessment of the War on Poverty. In addition to the long view the book employs, Woodsworth’s re-examination of “place-based politics” makes these contributions feel immediate and relevant today. As noted above, the place-specific politics of the War on Poverty have come under intense criticism. Drawing on fellow New Yorker John Mollenkopf’s work, Steven Gregory described the War on Poverty and its legacy in the 1990s as a “war on politics,” a narrowing of political possibility that co-opted local leadership to lead petty crusades on “blight” while obscuring larger issues. Such a politics of place rendered residents poor and undeserving by zip code, and promoted class divisions as middle-class elites sought property-value increases instead of solidarity with working-class neighbors.

Woodsworth acknowledges these problems early on, noting that the formulation “Bedford-Stuyvesant” itself came into being as a racial distinction, a name for the part of Brooklyn in and around the older neighborhoods Bedford Corners and Stuyvesant Heights that was defined by blackness (though not by black people) Across the policy landscape, he notes, “by making neighborhoods the main unit of analysis for theorizing social change, community-based reform ended up reinforcing the boundaries of impoverished, segregated urban spaces.” Middle-class women like Richardson, Woodsworth notes, helped “codify” this way of thinking about Bed-Stuy in the 1950s in exchange for recognition as legitimate voices of the community. By the 1960s, the question of community exploded as a wide range of stakeholders from politicians to business owners to radical activists sought to define themselves as the true representatives of Bedford-Stuyvesant. Such infighting, Woodsworth notes, served to undermine political support for the War on Poverty, allowing politicians like Ed Koch to attack and ultimately dismantle local organizations as the patronage machines of “poverty pimps.”

And yet, Battle for Bed-Stuy suggests that a politics of place need not be reductive, pathological, or disconnected from structural approaches to poverty. Yes, middle-class women sought recognition from Wagner as representatives of this new, black place called Bed-Stuy, but “homeowner activism in Bedford-Stuyvesant was more than a narrow expression of class privilege.” These homeowners sought improved city services that benefitted all residents, and made common cause with working-class neighbors that linked “the streets with the elites.” By the early 1960s, the fight to define the community was understood, locally, as a fight for resources, including employment, credit, and public reinvestment.

In the late 1960s, Bed-Stuy residents rehabbing brownstones did not define their neighborhood as an “urban wilderness” nor themselves as “pioneers,” as their more messianic counterparts sometimes did in Brooklyn Heights or Park Slope. Rather than seek an origin moment in the wreckage of the urban crisis, these brownstoners shared battles with their neighbors for jobs and access to investment capital. Their efforts yielded uneven results, as Woodsworth’s last chapter shows, and never delivered the true “community control” of resources that activists sought, but they nonetheless brought real gains to Brooklyn. These included the massive rehabilitation of Central Brooklyn’s housing stock, the creation of jobs in doing so, and the expansion of public institutions in the area, including the creation of a four-year public college in neighboring Crown Heights.

Battle for Bed-Stuy closes with a brief reflection on the arrival of global capital in Bed-Stuy’s real estate market. It is a sobering one; Bed-Stuy organizers have no more control over these funds than they did over the urban renewal dollars of yesteryear. Many of the brownstones they rehabbed beautifully now sell to elites for millions of dollars (displacing any tenants who might have found homes on upper floors). Woodsworth’s is a clear-eyed history, but it is still one in which today’s New Yorkers can take heart, as it reveals a politics of place that could and did be more than narrowly local, classist, or inconsequential. In New York City today, where urban space itself has become the city’s most lucrative product, such a politics is well worth revisiting.

Nick Juravich is a PhD candidate at Columbia University, and Associate Editor of Gotham.