Thursday, May 18, 2017

My Family History of White Flight From East New York in the 60s

My neck of the woods in East NY - bottom right - Gershwin athletic field - upper left was the old Straus JHS 109.
The NY Times had an op ed by Leah Boustan on Monday -

The Culprits Behind White Flight - The New York Times

Boustan talked about how whites began fleeing the cities for the suburbs as black began migrating up north in massive numbers from 1940-1970 and how it was a combination of racism and economic anxiety -  my parents and most of their neigborhoods were guilty of both.

What Boustan doesn't get into much was the white flight from changing neighborhoods to other city neighborhoods - ours and many others from East NY to Canarsie. What is funny is that ENY may be the only as yet ungentrified area in Brooklyn - if you happen to be looking for property, move fast. Maybe you can buy my old house.

My entire East New York neighborhood left en masse in the 1960s - some to the suburbs, but many for other neighborhoods like Canarsie which is about a mile or two away.

East NY had been a well-known mob area - Murder Inc - in the 30s and 40s and beyond. The Scorsese film Goodfellows is an ENY story. So it was not considered a tony place at any time.

We lived in a 2 family house at 551 Alabama Avenue between Riverdale Ave. and New Lots Ave. about two blocks from the
Current view - on the left - 551 Alabama Ave - the house I lived in from 2-20 years old - the gate wasn't there when we lived there.
Pennsylvania Ave. stop on the New Lots line (I could hear the trains run all night). In this current Google View, the houses on the block are still pretty much intact and looking good - even better - that they were when I was growing up.

The big store in the area was Fortunoff's which opened about 10 different stores on Livonia Ave, a dim and dingy street under the elevated line. My friend's dad was once Fortunoff's only employee in his first small store and when old Max offered him a partnership, he decided to go to work in the post office instead for a safe salary.

The L train also ran through the neighborhood from Canarsie through Bushwick/Williansburg. You couldn't transfer from the L to the 3 - though there has been some talk of making that happen.

My aunt bought the house in the 20s or 30s and when she moved to Florida around 1957 she sold it to my parents and my other aunt who didn't live there for about 8 grand. It was an amazing brick house -- 2 family - 7 rooms over 6 with the only private driveway on the block. The block had 3 doctors living on it with their offices. There were apartment buildings on the corners.

Throughout the post WWII period until the early 1960, our house was grand central for refugees - many holocaust survivors - coming over from Europe and then after 1959, others coming from Cuba. Like I'd come home from school and find a bunch of strangers speaking a foreign language staying in our house - some stayed for a year. Lontsmen and women from all over Brooklyn would just drop in any time. At times it seemed my mom was running a hotel.

One day in 1960 when I was 15, I came home from school to find my hot 17-year old cousin from Florida who had run away from home -- she stayed for 6 months and we had to beat all the older guys off as they came swarming around. At Jefferson, guys who never spoke to the nerdish me, started talking to me and asking me about my "cuz."

Believe me, this is just one story. I've written short story fiction about some of the goings on in that house, especially in the finished basement which my parents rented out at times including to a guy who was using the place to meet up with a girlfriend who was a nurse - with me laying on the floor above them with a glass pressed to the floor trying to hear what was going on -- it didn't work. Years later my friend told me how he used to make out with a young lady from the midwest who lived there for 6 months while I was studying for finals upstairs - I retroactively hoped he failed the exam.

My elementary school was a block and a half from my house - PS 190 on Sheffield Ave - which I attended from 1950-1956 - was mostly Jewish. I remember the one Catholic girl in my 6th grade class - Betty White - in our class and there was one kid of color named Pedro Polonaise. I heard that some of the people in that class recently attended a Jefferson HS reunion in Florida.

Our locally zoned JHS was fairly good walk away - Straus JHS 109, an  old building on Dumont Avenue - we had to cross over an overpass over the L train - and as the neighborhood around the school had been changing from white to black in the 50s - was considered a black/white dividing line and there was some friction as the school began to turn. Parents were getting nervous about sending us there. Then we heard, as we were getting ready to graduate, the school was going to be closed down due to age and the entire school would be moved to a brand new state of the art JHS - George Gershwin - 166 - on Linden Blvd and Van Sicklen -- entirely in the opposite direction and also a good half mile away.

But in September 1956, Gershwin wasn't finished yet and ready to open -- we were told it would be another month - and thus we began the school year at 109 -- that first day we crossed that bridge nervous as hell. There was a tradition of hazing new students and  we were lined up in the school yard by older students -- and they all seemed to be black. Parents went wild as stories floated back and after 2 days the entire rookie 7th grade was pulled and sent to the unfinished Gershwin where the roof was still not completed - Imagine that response from the Board of Education - they had to pull a whole bunch of teachers from 109 and sent them along with us to the new school -- the rest of 109 followed a month later.

The new neighborhood was deeper into East NY -- not far from Howard Beach - was entirely different --- brand new housing was going up in what was a fairly empty area and it was mostly populated by whites. There were 16 classes on a grade and they were pretty segregated - not only white and black -- but even though we were mostly what would be considered working class - the oft more studious Jewish kids often in the top classes and working class non-Jewish kids whites in the lower level classes - and black and Spanish kids in even lower level classes.

From Gershwin, unless we got into Tech or Stuy, we went to the local high school from 1959-1962 - Thomas Jefferson - where the white kids from Canarsie, which didn't have a high school, were bused in. So were kids from a wide area including Brownsville and points north and west -- Wingate hadn't opened yet. Jeff was a real melting pot but again we were segregated into honors classes which were almost all white and very Jewish - again, the white working class kids were mostly not included.

My block even as late as the early 60s was all white and mostly Jewish. The PS 190 school yard was a major hangout after school and on weekends. Then suddenly the yard became deserted as gang activity increased - white gangs - as more poor whites began to move into the neighborhood.

Then came the day that a black family bought a house on our block and people panicked -- aided by the block buster real estate agents who besieged us. What is interesting was that this family seemed to be more middle class than everyone else on the block - and they ended up moving before we did.

Then the muggings began. The corner grocery store owner was beaten. The drug store was robbed until Mr. Chesler gave up and left. Mendel's candy store and soda fountain was soon gone.
My parents began to think of selling - I think my friend's dad was mugged coming from the subway. And they got a good price in 1965 -- $20 grand - from a black couple - he had been in the army I believe. A good friend of mine still lived on the block for a few years until they were a minority.

I was in my junior year at Brooklyn College and we rented an apartment on East 82 St in what was known as new Canarsie, while old Canarsie further south and east had historically been Italian.

In 1971, shortly after I moved out in prep for getting married, my parents bought a co-op in Lindenwood, a subsection of Howard Beach, where they lived for most of the rest of their lives. Lindenwood is just over the border from East NY -- you can walk to the Lindenwood Diner on Linden Blvd which is still around and seemingly doing very well.

The irony now is that most of Canarsie is black - many of West Indian decent. And most white abandoned that neighborhood a decade or two later.

What happened to the blocks around my house? I would drive around and it looked like a war zone. Rubble on all the apartment houses. Fortunoff's, which had employed so many people, bailed out and left Livonia Ave looking like Dresden.


  1. Wow! Really interesting. Looks like Gershwin in part for be one of the most dangerous schools in the state. Would be interesting to see a post about the neighborhood during the end stages of white flight. Who stayed around?

  2. I received this comment on Aug. 12, 2020
    I grew up a few blocks away and a few years earlier. I went to PS 182 on Dumont Ave and JHS 149, which is pictured Goodfellows. Your description fits well with my own memories and the photo of your old house looks very much like the one my grandmother owned and I grew up in on Bradford Street, between Sutter and Blake. I came upon this blog and your story in connection to a book I'm writing on the emergence of white consciousness and found that tracing the history of my old neighborhood, where we never really thought of ourselves as white (I grew up Polish Catholic) except when confronted with those we called 'colored'. I'm thinking of white flight, my family mover first to Queens and then, when I was in the military, to Long Island, as a countermovement to the great black migration, which I see now that others have done as well. Unlike you though I have never returned to the old neighborhood, because I feared its destruction. However, and again like you, when I look on Google street view i see the old brownstone two family house my grandmother sold looks much better now, that I remember it!

  3. Did you go to Jefferson HS too? Bradford was on the other side of Pennsylvania Ave as I remember. They built a new school Gershwin on Linden Blv and Van Sicklen and opened it in 1957 with a big park complex - that area was growing phenomenally as Brownsville deteriorated. ENY is possibly the last area in Brooklyn not yet gentrified but is up for rezoning. It has some good transportation -- the New Lots line and the L train out of Canarsie. Penn Ave connects to Bushwick Ave and it's an easy car or subway ride into north Bklyn and even into the city. You should visit the area - some interesting shoots of growth and property values are or were going up. Keep in touch about your book.


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