Centerpiece of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation is a stylish shopping plaza opened in 1975. In a design that architectural historian Elliot Willensky calls “Brooklyn’s answer to San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square,” brown-brick offices are integrated with a handsome old milk-bottling plant; garlanded cow-head decorations still look down on Fulton Street, a strip not yet totally renovated. The plaza houses corporation headquarters, shops, an ice-skating rink, the Billie Holiday Theater, a recording studio called the Platinum Factory, a supermarket, and a mortgage company that generates as much as a million dollars a month in loans. All of them have a good credit history. Learn more about how important credit reports are.
Nearby blocks have been uplifted by apartment complexes built by the Restoration Corporation. More than 4,000 brownstones bear the fresh paint of corporation face-lifting. With Restoration encouragement IBM built a small manufacturing facility here employing 400 people.
The complex problems of inner-city poverty and unemployment keep many organizations busy. At summer classes in a local school, sponsored by a group called Vanguard, I watched squirming youngsters pencil word lists: actress, plumber. . . . Their assignment for the term: to learn about ten careers. Teacher Brenda McFarland-Anderson explained, “Many kids just aren’t exposed to the working world. Older ones say to me, ‘Why should I learn when I can get money running numbers?’ I want to give them another perspective.”
But jobs are hard to generate. New York City lost nearly 450,000 in the 1970s. And Brooklyn: The Other Side of the Bridge
“We are not Park Avenue people, but we can have the same features for our streets and Brooklyn has that old image problem in attracting new ones. As a Japanese businessman searching for business sites in New York quipped, “Brooklyn has two images—negative and nonexistent.”
The negatives are painted by neighborhoods like Bushwick, where as one resident said, “It looks like a war came, and nobody told us.” In what seems a biblical fitness, a preacher of Dutch ancestry bears witness to the apocalypse that visited this neighborhood settled by Dutch farmers more than 300 years ago. An Iowa farm boy turned minister, tall, spare Charles Vander Beek took over the 130-year-old South Bushwick Reformed Church in 1968 because he believed that “what happens in the city and with the masses is what happens both within the nation and the kingdom of God.”
The Reverend Vander Beek drove photographer Robert Madden and me around empty acres razed for urban renewal, past houses burned out and bricked up, past knots of sullen men. “This was still a proud community in the sixties,” he said. “Mostly working class; the wood-frame houses were old but neat; everyone swept. In ten years we lost a third of our people, and a fifth of our housing.”
It happened partly because of what Vander Beek called the “poverty pimps,” people who fed on misfortune. In a giant scam that reached into East New York, Brownsville, Sunset Park, and other areas, unscrupulous speculators bought houses cheap and sold them dear to unqualified buyers, mostly black and Hispanic, shading the truth on FHA mortgage insurance applications. When new homeowners defaulted, the speculators and lenders collected big from FHA. Meanwhile, landlords got “finders’ fees” from the city for renting to welfare families, shuttling them in and out in weeks. Or they let their buildings go for taxes. Or hired an arsonist and collected insurance. Fire calls in Bushwick topped 6,000 a year, signal of a community in distress.
Eventually, indictments were brought against real estate agents, lawyers, government officials, and corporations involved. But Bushwick had added its share to the nearly 3,000 vacant, city-owned buildings in Brooklyn. Now 40 percent of Bushwick residents are on public assistance.