Book review: Wendell Pritchett's Brownsville, Brooklyn: Blacks Jews, and the Changing Face of the Ghetto
For the English novelist Anthony Burgess, writing on New York in a 1976 contribution to a Time/Life series of books on cities on the world, the mainly black neighbourhood of Brownsville constituted the nadir of American urban decline. Burgess described the district as "a wretched patch of carious buildings, dead shops, filthy tenements, dejection, alienation, families with little or no income" entirely unrelieved by the partially redeeming features of Old World slums such as the "picturesque" look of Naples or the lively, if "sordid," "gaiety" of "the old East End of London." The "problems" in Brownsville, the "rock-bottom" of black disenfranchisement and poverty, Burgess concluded, "are so immense that they just have to enforce action".1 In Brownsville, Brooklyn, Wendell Pritchett also uses the metaphor of "rock bottom" to describe the neighbourhood in the 1970s (the relevant section is titled "Hitting Rock Bottom"). In the 1970s, Brownsville was plagued by terrrible poverty (more than 30 per cent of residents earning incomes below the poverty level in 1970), very high rates of unemployment (30 per cent of males in 1973), and an escalating crime rate, with "crimes against the person" (murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault) especially high. The crime rate increased dramatically city-wide during this period, but Brownsville was at the forefront of the crime wave (250-52). Such devastating problems indeed demanded "action," as Burgess puts it. But Pritchett’s book documents not only the efforts of "external" agencies (implicitly appealed to in Burgess’s peroration) to alleviate the problems of Brownsville, but also a tradition of neighbourhood activism: an ongoing struggle for economic and social services and opportunities which goes back to Brownsville’s beginnings, which continued through the very worst of times for the district, and which testified to a sense of community (if not gaiety or picturesqueness) undiscernible in Burgess’s characterisation of Brownsville as a peculiarly New World ghetto defined by a combination of dejection, alienation and urban decay.