Containing Multitudes: Death, Destruction, and Rebirth in Brooklyn

October 31, 2008

Money is the most egalitarian force in society. It confers power on whoever possesses it. —Roger Starr

Not long ago, on the corner of starr Street and Wyckoff Avenue in the northern Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick, a restaurant that did not serve food was in need of “waitresses.”1 The word appeared in quote marks in the handwritten Spanish-language sign in the window. White curtains were always drawn across the restaurant’s windows. At night, some of the neighborhood’s recent arrivals—mostly Dominican, Mexican, and Ecuadoran men, along with the occasional Puerto Rican—drank beer, shot pool, and, in dim light and shadows, listened to rancheras, corridos, bachatas, salsa romántica, música norteña, or merengues at ear-shattering volume on the jukebox. Some held waitresses close as they slow-danced for $2 per dance; some discreetly consumed cocaine on the premises, but drugs were not sold; prostitutes entered, left, and worked the sidewalk, but not the floor; and men with multiple cell phones conversed with a steady flow of “associates” (socios) who came and went.

Down the block at the corner of Wyckoff and Troutman, past the Chinese import-export warehouse, a restaurant that opened in late 2005 featured wood-paneled walls, wooden tables and benches, backlighting by candles, and the ear-shattering chatter of multicultural, but mostly white, middle-class renters and aspiring property owners. The restaurant served red wine, carrot-parsnip soup, and BLTs with no-nitrate bacon and balsamic mayonnaise. In the middle of the block stood a newly rehabilitated building, owned, developed, and managed by the neighborhood’s only nonprofit housing agency, property of political cacique Vito López, which flew a banner advertising Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s “New Housing Marketplace.” By fall 2006, on the first floor, the building featured an upscale, bustling coffee shop for the neighborhood’s new residents.

After being closed down briefly in late June 2006, the “restaurant” on the corner of Starr and Wyckoff went semi-legit, with bright lights, curtains pulled back, a menu, and waitresses who served food rather than danced. When, in March 2006, The New York Times Magazine ran an article in its annual real estate edition headlined “Pssst . . . Have You Heard About Bushwick? How an Undesirable Neighborhood Becomes the Next Hot Spot,” it was already old news for artists, hipsters and the real estate industry.

The neighborhood’s rebirth had long been in the making. In the 1970s, Roger Starr, then head of the city’s Housing and Public Development agency, helped convert Bushwick into an “undesirable” place when he argued, in a stream of op-eds, essays, interviews, and books, that “sick neighborhoods” should be starved of public services so that they might die a natural death. Then, after a lengthy period of “lying fallow,” they could be reborn, Phoenix-like, to attract investment capital, commercial as well as real estate, and the right kind of “demographic,” i.e., middle-class people, most of them white. Starr was a visionary of the gentrified neoliberal city that reached its apex during the housing bubble presided over by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as Bushwick saw property values skyrocket together with subprime lending.

Starr, a product of Yale and veteran of the OSS in World War II, was among the first crop of neoconservative think-tank intellectuals conscious of the importance of ideas and ideology in politics. By 1959, he led the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Council, the principal lobbying and planning group for New York’s real estate caste. Together with the leading family of developers in the outer boroughs, Starr helped the Pratt Institute of Architecture and Design, where he taught during the 1960s, transition into a new, post-liberal phase that would not only deny the extension of the New Deal and postwar achievements of New York’s “white” working class to blacks and Puerto Ricans, but roll it back altogether. Working with the Rockefeller brothers, the Pratts used their institute to carry out experiments in “urban renewal” in northeast Brooklyn during the 1960s.

Seduced by visions of City Beautiful, like most urban planners and theorists of his day, Starr conceived of neighborhoods in terms of “natural” cycles: They are born, develop, age, and die. In a 1966 treatise, he attacked liberal nostrums, particularly “communities,” which, being “essentially superficial and highly mobile,” could be “disassembled and reconstituted as easily as railway cars,” provided “homogeneity of social class and income” were maintained. Starr argued that the only sensible policy to adopt toward “dying” neighborhoods—where poor people of color lived—was to kill them off so they could be reborn.2


Bushwick is situated along a two-square-mile area along the northeastern border of Brooklyn. By the 1950s, the neighborhood had become an Italian American stronghold, but as white ethnic families fled toward neighboring Ridgewood and Long Island, African Americans, West Indians, and Puerto Ricans began to take their places, buying homes at elevated prices or, more likely, moving into apartments with newly raised rents. Banks, real estate interests, and the federal as well as local government transformed the neighborhood from a lower-middle- and upper-working-class white neighborhood to a black and brown enclave with a similar class composition. In spite of the neighborhood’s vibrant block associations, solid schools, and neighborhood-improvement projects, white flight led the City Planning Commission to reclassify Bushwick as a slum. For new African American and Puerto Rican migrants, who arrived by the hundreds of thousands in the 1950s and 1960s, discrimination in housing was even worse than in employment. Many had little choice but to move into neighborhoods like Bushwick, Brownsville/Ocean Hill, and East New York.

Insurgent movements of the urban poor, led by young African Americans in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and Puerto Ricans in the Young Lords Party, challenged the status quo, espoused revolutionary rhetoric and adopted radical anti-imperialist positions. In practice, however, they challenged government to take responsibility for improving jobs, education, housing, and health in their neighborhoods. In short, they called for the extension of postwar social democracy—the great conquest of the trade union struggles of the 1930s and 1940s—to blacks and Puerto Ricans. In line with community demands, they organized their own social services in the absence of, or alongside, state programs.

This spurred the counter-mobilization known as the “backlash.” Close on the heels of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam and urban riots in ghettos across the country, counterinsurgency strategies and tactics designed to defeat guerrillas in Asia, Africa, and Latin America were openly “repatriated into domestic policing.”3 Like contemporary urban planning, right-wing criminology has its origins in this period of riots, insurgency, and counterinsurgency, involving the militarization of policing and criminalization of poor people of color. Mounting anti-drug hysteria was instrumental to the assault on the communities of color, who also happened to be the most recent migrants, in the cities. A draconian new crime bill, the war on drugs, and legislation facilitating grand jury investigations into alleged conspiracies, decimated the leading community organizations.

Thus were the limits of social democracy fixed. New York’s “fiscal crisis” in 1975 provided an increasingly vocal neoconservative minority with the means with which to attack organized labor, gut the welfare state, and criminalize poor people of color. In the thick of the crisis, the bankers, financiers, developers, and their conservative ideologues made their move to take over the city. Mayor Abraham Beame appointed Starr head of Housing and Development Administration, where he caused an outcry at a meeting of the real estate lodge of the B’nai B’rith, declaring that through “planned shrinkage,” the city should “accelerate the drainage,” i.e., stop blacks and Puerto Ricans from migrating in search of manufacturing jobs that no longer existed.

With the disappearance of manufacturing, the city’s tax base was shrinking, and Starr argued that rather than thinly spread scarce resources throughout the city, budgets for schools, hospitals, subways, fire, and police should be cut in neighborhoods like the South Bronx and Bushwick. Blacks and Puerto Ricans should be encouraged to migrate elsewhere in order that their neighborhoods might “lie fallow until a change in economic and demographic assumptions makes the land useful once again.”


In Bushwick, the critical period was the worldwide recession between 1973 and 1975, when financial institutions refused to continue lending the city money, ushering in a lasting period of neoliberal economic and social restructuring. Bushwick had begun to feel the effects of declining manufacturing in the latter half of the 1960s, and all three of its famed breweries had closed by 1976. The Rockefeller brothers filled in the port of lower Manhattan in order to build Battery Park City, a high-rise, government-subsidized luxury waterfront park and residential development. This cut off the supply of West Coast hops, which had been ferried into the port on the Manhattan Transfer.

The Rockefeller brothers required colossal government subsidies and direct state intervention on their behalf. Like the consolidation of national brands like Budweiser and Miller, the development of lower Manhattan for office towers and luxury housing—welfare for the rich—severed Bushwick’s link to large-scale industrial production and cultural recognition. Then, on July 13, 1977, the city was plunged into darkness after lightning struck a major transmission line near the Indian Point nuclear facility. By the time Con Edison restored power 24 hours later, raging fires had already engulfed Bushwick, and looting was widespread; it took police days to restore “order.” In the wake of the blackout, one third of local business closed. A full 20% of the housing stock was lost.

Soon after the 1977 riots, Starr joined the editorial board of The New York Times. Pathologizing a sector of poor black and Puerto Rican families as disorganized, welfare-dependant, shiftless, criminal, and drug-addicted, Starr aimed to discredit urban liberalism by diagnosing communities like the South Bronx and Bushwick as so sick that to help them with government programs would be cruel and unusual. Starr was an early advocate of quality-of-life policing, arguing that rigorous enforcement of minor violations in communities of color would reduce crime, improve quality of life, and lead to more investment and jobs.

For Starr, and mayors like Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani, fighting crime became the rhetorical centerpiece of urban policy toward the poor. Fewer blacks and Puerto Ricans had been directly affected in earlier “slum clearance” campaigns connected to “urban renewal” during the 1950s and 1960s, and public housing was built to re-house some of the displaced. The Rockefeller brothers and other elites fell out with city planner Robert Moses, who in their estimation had built too much public housing, thereby slowing urban redevelopment and the restructuring of the economy away from transport and manufacturing. After Moses, housing construction for the poor was abandoned. Eventually, prisons were built instead. This is how the shift toward an economy centered on finance, real estate, insurance, and services played out in ghettos.

Where planned shrinkage took place—the south and west Bronx, north Brooklyn, north Queens, upper Manhattan, the East Village, and the Lower East Side—the drug trade took over as the motor of economic growth, job creation, and youth socialization in the 1980s. Bushwick was no exception. Both addicts and sellers were concentrated in these neighborhoods, where police had all but disappeared and jobs were scarce. As manufacturing jobs disappeared, job growth was concentrated in securities, banking, legal services, management, consulting, accounting, entertainment, culture, tourism, and corporate law. Ghetto youth could look forward to jobs as janitors, maintenance workers, day care workers, non-unionized health care workers, security guards, and child care workers—jobs that offered little security and no benefits, nor opportunities for upward mobility.

Unsurprisingly, young people became involved in street distribution of narcotics. For many, work in the narcotics industry offered the only hope for social mobility, structure, discipline, and socialization into the traditional values of capitalist enterprise: loyalty, dependability, hard work, and risk-taking initiative. For a generation increasingly enmeshed in the criminal justice system, networks forged in prison became a substitute for shredded social networks in neighborhoods. Meanwhile, Bushwick witnessed the spread of a new epidemic, AIDS, and the return of an old one, tuberculosis, beginning in 1978. By the mid-1980s, Bushwick was one of the city’s leaders in arson as well. Then crack took over, with open markets along Knickerbocker, Troutman, Jefferson, and Putnam. Homeless shelters opened in buildings owned by absentee landlords that rapidly changed hands until being set alight.

Ambitious federal prosecutors like Rudolph Giuliani made crime, drugs, and welfare the new lingua franca of backlash politics. In 1986, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act stipulated 29 new offenses carrying mandatory minimums. Nationally, the number of drug busts, along with the prison population, doubled between 1985 and 1990. New York City led the way, as drug arrests quadrupled between 1980 and 1988. Between 1985 and 1989, the number of people busted for drugs nearly doubled from just over 700,000 to 1.4 million per year. More than a third of the NYPD’s budget now went to anti-drug enforcement. In effect, as a consequence of its drug policy, the state engineered a large-scale relocation program: 80% of all prisoners sent upstate between 1980 and 1990 came from seven neighborhoods in New York City.


By the early 1990s, with the city’s deepest recession since the 1970s, middle-class panic picked up sharply in response to rising crime, random gunfire, and crack-related violence, as well as massive corruption connected to anti-drug operations. Fears of urban decay, ongoing since the 1970s, intensified. The New Deal coalition in New York, made up of labor, African Americans and the middle class, had come apart over the issue of racial equality. What mattered now was fighting crime and penalizing poor people of color. If middle-class property owners—mostly white, but also African and Asian American—were to feel safe and secure traveling from their neighborhoods to work in the central business districts, rather than threatened by the growing mass of poor, dark humanity that surrounded them, more would have to be done to police the victims of crisis and restructuring.

Ironically, in Bushwick as in Spanish Harlem, the historically unprecedented inflow of working-class Latin American immigrants, whose labor runs the city’s low-wage service economy, has presented a daunting structural barrier for would-be gentrifiers. From a century-long low point of 92,500 in 1980, Bushwick’s population expanded to 102,600 by 1990, and to 104,400 by 2000, with working-class immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean accounting for almost the entirety of the inflow.

As in the previous decade, Dominicans were the largest group of migrants in the 1990s, but now they were joined by people from small towns and rural areas of the Andes and Mesoamerica fleeing neoliberal agricultural policies that pitted small farmers against U.S.-government subsidized agribusiness. Since the 17th century, rural Ecuadorans have used migration to escape anti-indigenous racism and exploitation on haciendas. With the economic devastation and instability wrought by 20 years of neoliberal policies and protracted political stalemate between corrupt, entrenched oligarchies and heterogeneous popular forces—only recently reversed by the election of Rafael Correa and the ratification of his new constitution—Ecuadoran migration to New York has made it Ecuador’s third-largest city after Quito and Guayaquil. And following the implosion in the Mexican countryside post-NAFTA, and the collapse of national industry and wages after the peso crisis in 1995, huge numbers of Mexicans began populating Bushwick after the mid-1990s.

Thirty-five percent of Bushwick’s total population is foreign-born, 73% from Latin America and 16% from the non-Hispanic Caribbean. Puerto Ricans represent the single largest ethnic-national group in the neighborhood. A little more than half the population five years of age and older is not proficient in English—slightly higher than average for both the borough and the city as a whole—with 91% of that group speaking Spanish at home. Unemployment rates are close to double the average in Brooklyn and the city as a whole, and more than triple the national average. Those receiving Public Assistance, Supplemental Security Income, and/or Medicaid increased from 37% in 2000 to 49% in 2007. Rates of asthma, infant mortality, housing code violations, overcrowding, and rent burden are among the highest in the city. Many of the neighborhood’s people are barely surviving.

The “innate charm” referred to in the city’s lifestyle magazines does not cover this part of the community. While the percentage of whites rose from 3% to 4.5% between 2000 and 2005, this hardly offset the net loss of 45% that took place between 1990 and 2000. Would-be gentrifiers have their work cut out for them, especially now that the orgy of subprime mortgage debt has led to the slowdown of the housing market and the near-collapse of the banking and credit system.

Bushwick remains a poor, peripheral neighborhood, far from the central business district, that is segregated between a tiny minority of privileged, mainly middle-class white people and a majority of Latin Americans, West Indians, and African Americans. There is little rubbing of elbows outside of places like the “restaurant” on the corner of Starr and Wyckoff. In María Hernández Park, the neighborhood’s largest public space located two blocks south of Starr and Wyckoff, one finds Ecuadoran volleyball games, Mexican and Ecuadoran soccer games, Puerto Rican and Dominican handball, Puerto Rican touch football, and African American and Puerto Rican youth basketball. Non-Hispanic whites jog by and walk their dogs.

For the most part, restaurants, bodegas, and groceries are similarly segregated, while businesses along the neighborhood’s retail strips cater mainly to blacks, Puerto Ricans, and new immigrants, not white or multicultural middle-class professionals. “They just come to sleep,” says Eurides Echevarria, a local merchant, of the white newcomers. “They bring everything from the city: They don’t spend. And they don’t talk to anybody.” The newest migrant wave has local origins, originating in the already gentrified neighborhoods to the west. In the mid-1990s, as New York City’s real estate market began to pick up again after the doldrums of the early 1990s, a population of young, mostly white middle-class settlers was pushed into Bushwick by rising rents on the Lower East Side and Williamsburg. People in the arts and culture industries led the immigration. After performing to standard in Manhattan as first-wave gentrifiers, they were summoned to Brooklyn. Aspiring property owners would follow, or so the theory went. All that was before the economic meltdown of 2008, though; the neighborhood’s gentrification may have reached its saturation point.


Not long after Friedrich Von Hayek’s disciples imposed the world’s first full-blown neoliberal program in Chile under General Pinochet, New York’s fiscal crisis allowed the local-global ruling class to roll back gains achieved by organized labor in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as demands for their extension to poor communities of color in the 1960s and 1970s. For neighborhoods initially targeted for improvement by the war on poverty under Mayor John Lindsay in the 1960s, there were service cuts in fire, police, parks, libraries, transit, health care, sanitation, and education, as well as spreading arson, disinvestment, and rising crime, especially among unemployed black, Puerto Rican, and Dominican youth. Though crime rates fell dramatically throughout the 1990s under Mayor Giuliani, thanks to the Rockefeller Drug Laws, there was no corresponding drop in incarceration rates.

Thus was neoliberal structural adjustment imposed on the city. In New York, and later the rest of the country, the approach was two-pronged: planned shrinkage, on the one hand, and a war on drug users, petty dealers, and young people of color on the other. In the 1980s, this was followed by epidemics of infectious disease and incarceration, facilitated by the meteoric rise of the crack business in the burned-out zones. These are the broad outlines of neoliberalism at home: not spectacular, like Pinochet’s coup, but murderously routine. Like the “low-intensity” counterinsurgency used to roll back revolution in Central America, it relied on collaborators—particularly black and Puerto Rican elected officials and businesspeople.

As a result, New York has become a city of “quarters,” as urban theorist Peter Marcuse puts it, or concentrations of people created by the housing market, rigidly divided along the lines of race, class, and/or ethnicity-nationality.4 Though the image of hard-working immigrants remains central to the city’s mythology, especially after September 11, even those immigrants with formal citizenship—in Bushwick, one in three—are potentially subject to political persecution and police harassment, even deportation. Most immigrants, as well as their children, live in fear of the both “soft” and “hard” aspects of U.S. state power, and police harassment, particularly of young people, is a matter of public record.

Some combination of electoral politics and mass collective action would appear to offer the only hope for improvement in housing, education, jobs, health care, and other services. Indeed, along Knickerbocker Avenue, Mexican, Ecuadoran, Dominican, Puerto Rican, and African American workers in the wholesale and retail sectors have been fighting for higher wages, health insurance, and the right to unionize. For undocumented immigrants in manufacturing as well as services, unionization offers the only chance to earn minimum wage, while for Dominican, Puerto Rican, and black packing workers, it holds out the possibility of wages in cash rather than in kind. On Knickerbocker Avenue, young black and Puerto Rican workers with citizenship are fighting to be paid a cash wage for packing jobs.

So far, signs are promising. Beginning in December 2004, Despierta Bushwick, a campaign combining direct action with consumer boycotts—led by Se Hace Camino al Andar/Make the Road by Walking, one of New York’s largest, most militant community organizations—has helped Knickerbocker retail workers obtain hundreds of thousands of dollars in back pay. A $5 per hour minimum wage, no overtime pay, sick days, or vacations, health and safety violations, and unfair firings remain widespread, but it is possible to imagine the tide continuing to change as the Restaurant, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) teams up with Se Hace Camino/Make the Road New York (

Sadly, the majority of the neighborhood’s low-wage immigrant workers, under- and unemployed African Americans and Puerto Ricans do not belong to community or labor organizations. Community-labor struggles along the lines of the Despierta Bushwick campaign, along with visionary initiatives like Make the Road’s Youth Power Program, will likely be the venue for the forging of new class solidarities. This indicates the possibilities of multinational, multiethnic protest and mobilization from below—the only hope for a “renaissance” that would benefit Bushwick’s black and Latino working-class majority. For that to happen, robust community organizations would need a labor movement to match—at present, venerable progressive locals like SEIU’s 1199 and 32BJ are conspicuous by their absence.

Without sustained mobilization of the sort U.S. cities witnessed in May 2006, electoral politics remains the primary avenue for political participation. Latinos had begun to reconfigure city politics through the ballot by the mid-1990s, and participation in the 2005 mayoral race was equal to that of the presidential election in 2004. The New Americans’ Exit Poll in 2005, carried out by the New York Immigration Coalition and Barnard’s Lorraine Minnute, points to the potential for the reconstruction of social democracy and participatory citizenship in the United States. Unlike other groups, Latinos vote in the same numbers for state and local elections as they do in federal elections, and want better schools and hospitals, affordable housing and health care, safer workplaces, jobs with benefits, and higher wages.

When a global history of the police terror that accompanied neoliberal structural adjustment is written, stories of neighborhoods like Bushwick’s will have to be included alongside those of Roçinha in Rio de Janeiro or Manrique in Medellín. As in the great industrial cities of the Global South during the 1980s and 1990s, shrinking opportunities for industrial jobs in Brooklyn coincided with record numbers of migrants. Even as cities ceased to be job machines, neoliberal policies pushed peasants out of the countryside and into cities, where they were free to invent jobs or starve: a new form of urban peonage.5

In New York City, surplus humanity has been African American, Puerto Rican, and to a lesser extent, Dominican, for no productive function other than the low-wage service work, or non-union industrial work, has been allotted to them since the 1970s. In the 1980s, violence, addiction, unemployment and underemployment, unsafe housing, high levels of crime, arson, infectious disease, and personal insecurity resulted. As the Deborah and Rodrick Wallace argue, “Before the burnout, when the communities were far more structured, families were poor but not abject and not simply straws on the tide of urban waves of destruction.”6

Stated more generally, before the disaster, democracy had been linked to redistribution, equality, an expanding public sphere, and freedom understood as the welfare of the collective. Wealth was not an end in itself and came with social responsibility. The magnitude of the reversal was tremendous. Today, Bushwick’s inhabitants struggle to remake Bushwick according to their aspirations—as opposed to those purveyed by city’s lifestyle magazines and the interests they represent, which produce, and are produced by, amnesia of the city’s recent history.

Forrest Hylton, a Ph.D. candidate at New York University, is writing a dissertation on indigenous social movements for self-government in late-19th-century Bolivia. He is the author of Evil Hour in Colombia (Verso, 2006) and, with Sinclair Thomson, Revolutionary Horizons: Bolivian Politics Past and Present (Verso, 2007). He is in the early stages of a history of Brooklyn to be published by Oxford University Press.

1. This is a revised, updated version of an essay that appeared in CounterPunch 14, no. 1 (January 2007). It relies very heavily on the pioneering work of Deborah and Rodrick Wallace, A Plague on Your Houses: How New York Was Burned Down and National Public Health Crumbled (Verso, 1998); Christian Parenti, Lockdown America: Policing and Prisons in the Age of Crisis (Verso, 1999); and Joshua Freeman, Working-Class New York: Life and Labor Since World War II (The New Press, 2000). For data on Bushwick, see the profile for Community District 4 from the mayor’s office ( and at NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy (

2. Roger Starr, Urban Choices: The City and Its Critics (Penguin, 1969), 43.

3. Parenti, Lockdown America, 18.

4. Peter Marcuse, “Migration and Urban Spatial Structure in a Globalizing World: A Comparative Look,” paper, Conference on African Migration in Comparative Perspective, Johannesburg, South Africa, June 4–7, 2003.

5. Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (Verso, 2007), 13, 16–17; idem, “The New Industrial Peonage,” Dead Cities: And Other Tales (The New Press, 2002), 191–204.

6. Deborah and Rodrick Wallace, A Plague on Your Houses, 114.


Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.