This story is the final installment of What The Hell Happened In East New York? a co-production with The Big Roundtable, that that seeks to answer that question in two parts. The first is a four-episode podcast that chronicles Kevin as he unravels the issues with East New York, and ultimately, himself. The second is this: Kevin's story.
I've been hearing about how East New York, Brooklyn is that bad that hard that street since 1983, when I was sixteen years old and heard a NYC felon and dope shooter in a halfway facility playing as if he were in prison, calling out and toasting East New York cross streets (Pitkin and Pine) as if the phrase was a standard thug-life signifier, on par with On the gate; On the lock In; Don't reach over my food; You better sleep with one eye open.
And though East New York's Wikipedia entry lists "Dodge City" as its nickname, and though one of the most thorough block-by-block ethnographies of a crime zone in song and video that I know of (I'm From East New York/Fish Grease Jenkins) refers to the place by its older nickname, "The Killing Fields," nobody is really street proud to be from this tough hood.
Because — and I say this not just as hyped-up journalism rhetoric for the sake of touting an all-or-nothing false narrative, but as someone who's worked a long time struggling to understand and categorize this place, constantly disbelieving how much worse I find it every time I dig in — when we talk about hoods and bad neighborhoods, crime zones and ghetto areas in NYC and you then compare them to East New York, all those areas that fit those definitions are nothing like East New York. East New York is sicker, sadder, more dysfunctional, more isolated, harsher, frailer, madder, toxic, broken through and through everywhere.
It's closer to a hundred-year-old failed state, complete with its own NYC version of a Pottery Barn U.S. defense policy: We haphazardly broke it and we haphazardly take ownership of it, cycling through mission objectives. We want to wage war there (on crime, drugs, poverty); we want to do nation building; we want to drain the swamp, clean up the place; we want to wash our hands of the place; we send in enough troops to occupy; we pull enough troops to not be seen as occupying; we break the place some more.
Now there's a new plan for nation building in East New York, this time on an outsize scale commensurate with how significantly neglected and in need the place is. Steven Winter Associates, a consulting service contracted by the city, described just the housing portion of the city's strategy in a December 2014 in-house publication, calling it "the most comprehensive affordable housing plan in the city's history" and "the largest municipal housing plan in the nation."
Is it possible to renew, rehab, reform an area that for so long has been designated as the city's wasteland? A designation that resulted in an infrastructure so entrenched in dysfunction and resistant to improvement that East New York has for decades ranked as New York City's worst neighborhood, statistically, in almost every quality of life measurement?
This is a neighborhood that isn't even afforded the respite of having its own bad old days. While other urban hoods in New York city wax and wane in their dysfunction — through the modern blight history of the '60s riots era; the New York is Burning era; the Fort Apache era, the original OG Willie Bosket/fear of the young Super Predator era (New York State's 1978 Juvenile Offender Law was enacted then, allowing thirteen-year-olds to be tried as adults); the '80s crack epidemic era; the Killing Fields era of the early '90s — in East New York time stands still. The neighborhood went through those crises, but each one accumulated, festered, became a permanent part of the community. East New York lives its past alongside its present, with 1902 electric substations still standing and contaminating alongside present day toxic sources, with 1990 crime rates still around in 2015.
For New York City to have a realistic chance of revitalizing East New York, it should know and prepare for what it is up against.
This is how East New York was characterized in a 2003 National Research Council journal article about school violence:
The image of a brutal island prison captures a piece of the isolation that characterized East New York. It is a neighborhood away from the major expressways. It lacked cultural, recreational, or commercial facilities that might tempt outsiders to visit. It was far from the center of either New York or Brooklyn. There was no reason for the average New Yorker to ever see East New York. It was equally possible for an East New Yorker to never leave the neighborhood.
Geographically, East New York is boxed in, celled off, from the rest of New York City — bordered on the east side by the Belt Parkway and Kennedy Airport and its surrounding swamplands and landfills (long a Mafia and general-criminal dead-body dumping ground). On the western border with Brownsville is a massive expanse of housing projects including the Van Dyke Houses, a twenty-two-building New York City Housing Authority project covered by 200 security cameras that has more annual arrests for major crimes than any other housing project in the city (down the road a bit is the Division of Youth and Family Justice-run Crossroads, a 95,000 square-foot secure/maximum juvenile detention facility that replaced the old Spofford, where Mike Tyson came of age).
To the north running horizontally is a nine and a half-mile stretch of heavily trafficked Atlantic Avenue and beyond that is a parallel stretch of cemeteries running horizontally for two and a half miles (broken, like everything else in East New York: Once a week, in the back pages of the New York Post or the Daily News, are legally required classified ads serving notice of abandoned grave plots, when someone failed keep up payments). On its southern border is polluted Jamaica Bay, and a 6,000-acre 26th Ward Waste Water Treatment Plant (broken — under emergency federal funding and undergoing a $407 million upgrade). On the shore sits New York State's largest residential facility for the developmentally disabled (broken: a 2013 DOH Medicaid report imposed sanctions for consistent non-compliance in maintenance, treatment, and client protections. The facility will be closed on December 31st).
To get to East New York by subway you take the L Train toward the last stop and into the city's vacant expanse of nothing-there badlands, or take the 3 Train to the very end of the line. The L starts in Chelsea on the west side of Manhattan and travels east through the Flatiron district, Union Square, and the East Village (always extremely crowded), then crosses the East River into Brooklyn where it goes through Williamsburg and Bushwick making thirteen stops. The deeper you go into Brooklyn the emptier the train. Near the end of the line small groups of middle aged women — black and Latina, extremely tired, one usually wearing healthcare aide or nurse scrubs — get off. Then you start hitting the East New York stations — Sutter Avenue, Liberty Avenue, Pitkin Avenue, Cypress Hills (those street names that ring bells). Here the train is often empty, just me in the car.
Just riding the subway through East New York can be an ordeal. This past winter and spring along that route: February 25th Livonia Avenue Station, broad daylight, a forty-nine-year-old female train conductor pokes her head out of the train for the required check and a teenager punches her squarely in the face; May 8th Liberty Avenue Station, 6 a.m., a fortyish woman is found stabbed, unconscious, her skull cracked; May 17th Broadway Junction Station, broad daylight, five teenagers severely beat a fifteen-year-old boy, knocking him unconscious, detaching his retina, stripping him of his pants, sneakers, and cell phone; June 1st 9:05 p.m., a female victim is stabbed at Fulton Street Station; a male suspect flees. June 3rd Euclid Avenue Station, broad daylight, a man with fifty prior arrests slashes the neck of young Swedish tourist on her way to Kennedy Airport. The victim's injuries require twenty-five stitches.
East New York has twelve NYCHA developments, housing about 12,500 residents — massive projects that look like the worst stereotype of projects, all with huge mobile units sitting outside the buildings: four 1,250-watt spotlights that are blinding at twenty feet, their generators grinding loudly all night. Linden Houses has nineteen buildings on thirty acres; Boulevard Houses has eighteen buildings on twenty-six acres; Cypress Hills Houses has fifteen buildings on twenty-nine acres; and the Louis Heaton Pink Houses has twenty-two buildings with 1,500 apartments and 3,788 residents.
An account of a tour through East New York reads like a Dickens parody. Walk the streets and you'll pass scrapyards; junkyards; auto dismantlers; methadone clinics; prostitution motels that charge by the hour; seventeen mental health facilities; fifteen drug-treatment facilities; twelve homeless shelters; half-way houses and three-quarter houses. Walk more and you'll pass a drugstore with a handwritten sign on the front window, We have no Oxycontin; on another block, Fuck the NYPD is graffitied large on a wall. You'll pass nursing homes, large residential facilities for the old and the young who can no longer function, nestled in between a Department of Sanitation Derelict Vehicle Storage Lot, salvage yards, landfills, lot after lot of broken down cars, and a city Animal Control Center (this year a wild pit bull jumped a cop on horseback, puncturing the horse's chest).
You'll pass twenty-three waste management facilities, including a transfer center that has eighteen tractor trailers a day going back and forth hauling waste, and one of the largest waste removal companies in the city (operating twenty-four hours a day, processing 1,100 tons daily with a fleet of thirty-five trucks). You'll pass eighteen bus lots and a hulking brick thirty-foot-tall, abandoned LIRR substation built in the early 1900s and still there; not torn down, replaced, or functioning, but degrading and contaminating into the land air water of NYC for 100 years. It sits on three miles of land that a recent Port Authority study determined was contaminated with PCB waste, benzene, hydrocarbons, cyanide, and lead.
East New York ranks high in the number of abandoned buildings and in hazardous materials storage. Also lead paint violations. In April 2015 the Daily News reported that two-year-old Akayla Jackson, who lived her whole life in East New York's Linden Houses, had a blood-lead level more than triple the acceptable level. The city Department of Health did X-ray analysis in her apartment and found nineteen spots that tested positive for lead paint.
Keep on walking and you'll pass thirteen different sites officially designated as hazardous and enrolled in an environmental cleanup program. You'll pass Clean World Laundromat on Pine Street, for example — former home to a serious chemical-dumping dry cleaner that the EPA investigated and cited back in 1999. The site was supposed to be remediated but never was, so the soil and groundwater and air vapors nearby remain contaminated with the chemicals Trichloroethylene (an industrial solvent — short-term inhalation exposure can affect the human central nervous system), and vinyl chloride (classified as a Group A human carcinogen). In 2014 the EPA agreed on a plan to remediate the site at a projected cost of 2.5 million dollars. But it hasn't yet happened, and for sixteen years EPA has allowed residents of East New York to shop, wash clothes, congregate, shoot the breeze, and do construction work at a site it knows was poisoned.
You'll come to a 100-acre Industrial Business Zone where industry products and byproducts include brass, bronze, lead, phosphorized copper, epoxy, cadmium, zinc, industrial batteries, fuel storage tanks, and heater cores. EPA databases cite various companies there for oil spills sinking into groundwater and other violations.
You'll pass twenty different food programs and drop-in centers. According to the Family Resource Center, East New York has one of the largest proportions of any neighborhood in New York City of homeless families, families recently moving from shelter, and families who are at substantial risk of homelessness. More than one in three families are poor and nearly 40% of children here live in poverty. The death rate due to drug abuse and overdose is 50% higher in East New York than the rate in NYC overall. The death rate due to HIV is more than twice than New York City overall.
East New York even has an infrastructure of a freight train line that was built in the early 1900's and abandoned in 1969 — broken down freight cars are scattered and weeds grow wild over train bridges and massive concrete-sealed warehouses; abandoned and partially sealed tunnels are filled with graffiti, garbage, homeless camps, a wild Rottweiler, explorers, the no good, art adventure photographers, and train buffs.
Crime is not the root, the cause, the symptom, or even the biggest problem of East New York, but crime is where this catalog of unhealthy factors finds its outlet, its expression.
There are seventy-six police precincts throughout the neighborhoods of New York. East New York is covered by the 75th Precinct, the largest in the city, with 350 officers (including 150 rookie cops right out of the academy to flood the High Impact Zone that is East New York), and thirty-two detectives carrying an annual caseload of 6,200 (the largest caseload of any city precinct). Also covering East New York is the NYPD's Brooklyn North Patrol (with 206 detectives including seventeen in Homicide); the Housing Police Service Area #2; the Brooklyn North Gang Squad; and the Brooklyn North Narcotics Division.
For at least the last twenty years East New York has had the highest number of crimes and arrests in New York City — in every single category, for every single year. The crime is astounding: The average annual number of felonies committed in the seventy-six NYC precincts (averaging from 2000 to 2013) is about 1,059. East New York averages 2,622 felonies a year.
In misdemeanors, too, East New York is a leader. In 2013, the 75th Precinct recorded 12,510 misdemeanor arrests, by far the most in the city. (By comparison, in Brooklyn's Bushwick precinct — gritty but gentrifying — there were 4,808 misdemeanor arrests that year.) Also in East New York in 2013 the police issued 1,890 violations (for lesser offenses like harassment, disorderly conduct, marijuana possession, and trespass) — the highest total in the city and more than double the city average.
Since 2000, under the Broken Windows policing theory, the police have been targeting both misdemeanors and violations in East New York and from 2000 to 2013 they racked up a total of 177,814 misdemeanors arrests in that little 5.6 mile patch of a neighborhood. Such numbers approximate a prison more than a neighborhood.
From 2006 to 2010 the 75th Precinct also had the highest number of police stops in the city according to the New York Civil Liberties Union: 26,938 just in 2010. And in the first half of this year, the NYPD's Civilian Complaint Review Board fielded more complaints against East New York's 75th Precinct than any other precinct in the city.
In the five-year period from 2009 to 2013, the 75th recorded 1,585 incidents that led to a complaint. There were 1,059 in neighboring Brownsville and no other precinct in the city — with the exception of two hotspots in the Bronx — comes near those numbers. (Park Slope, by comparison, had 120 in that five-year period). East New York's 75th Precinct also logged the most chokehold complaints.
Over the past twenty years, meanwhile, East New York has been a kind of policing test kitchen. Numerous programs and initiatives come and go — CPOP (Community Police Officer Program); SNAG (Street Narcotics and Gun); the Street Crimes Unit; Weed and Seed, a federal program started in 1998; an East New York Urban Youth Corps program called PACT (Police and Community Together); the Community Security Initiative (CSI), where office working the streets would try to develop rapport with the locals; the Federal Trespass Affidavit Program, in which landlords of private apartment houses entered into an agreement with police that allowed officers to conduct vertical patrols from ground floors to the roofs; Community-Based Response Teams (CBRTs), consisting of police officers and probation officers who conducted unannounced home visits, curfew checks, car spot checks; Tactical Narcotics Teams (TNTs); The East New York United for Safety Project, funded by the CDC and bringing together Victim Services, the New York City Department of Health, the Cypress Hills Development Corporation, the East New York Urban Corporation, and the United Community Center, as well as an evaluation team from New York University and The Blue Group, a highly structured intensive-group-counseling-and-therapy outfit.
In 2007 there was Operation Impact, with a special variation for the high crime zone of East New York called Operation Trident that divided the neighborhood's 5.6 square miles into three separate areas, each under a different Police Captain. Then Operation Takeback, in which 200 officers working 4 p.m. to midnight conducted high-visibility uniformed patrol around locations identified as hotspots.
Today there is Operation Crew Cut (going after gangs or crews); the All Out Program, in which 330 extra officers are assigned to high crime precincts; the NYPD Firearms Suppression Division; Audio Shoot Tracking technology, such as the Shot Stopper System; a Facial Recognition Unit, in which Intel officers scan mug shots of known criminals with pictures from social media, surveillance cameras, and anywhere else police can find images; a Shooting Incident Crisis Management System piloted in the five neighborhoods where gun violence is highest, East New York being at the top of the list; a Cure Violence Program (a public health approach: gun violence can be compared to a communicable disease). As for technology, there are SkyWatch Observation Towers, which rise out of a van to about twenty-five feet, equipped with a spotlight and four cameras (one pointed in each direction). There are police officer body cameras, too, in a pilot program launched in six high crime precincts (including the 75th).
The police, public officials, and media drumbeat the idea that crime is down in the city from the bad old days, usually focusing on the murder rate. Murder is down everywhere. Criminologists and public affairs experts who study the NYPD say it is important to remember that murder, arguably the most violent crime, was a relatively rare occurrence even at its peak in 1990. There were 2,200 homicides in 1990, in a city of 7,305,000. In 1990, the 75th Precinct had 109 murders, the highest in the city. In 2014 it had twenty-one murders, still the highest in the city.
Some police history is in order.
In 1992, Mayor David Dinkins established the Mollen Commission, a twenty-person staff of attorneys and investigators, to investigate NYPD corruption and, in particular, an officer named Michael Dowd and his precinct — the 75th in East New York.
The commission held two weeks of public hearings and Dowd was the star witness, with a criminal career as a police officer that spanned six years beginning in 1985 when he was cited for threatening his wife and engaging in sex with prostitutes in the local Bailey's Bar. On March 4, 1986 the NYPD had opened a case on Dowd and his then-partner, Gerard Dubois, based on an allegation received from the 75th Precinct's commanding officer, Deputy Inspector Kevin Farrell, that Dowd and Dubois stole money from drug dealers, prisoners, and deceased persons. Four days after the initiation of the Dowd and Dubois investigation, the Internal Affairs Division opened another investigation into allegations of brutality by Dowd and other 75th Precinct officers.
What emerged in testimony is that by the summer of 1987, Dowd and his new partner, Kenneth Eurell, were on the payroll of a major drug organization, taking $8,000 a week in return for protection, information, and assistance. The 75th had a gathering location known as "The Pool" — an isolated inlet near Jamaica Bay where Dowd and as many as fifteen other officers from his crew would gather — while on duty — to drink, shoot their guns, meet their girlfriends, and plan future criminal activities.
Dowd testified that he and his crew — including Officers Dubois, Henry "Chickie" Guevara, Jeffrey Guzzo, Brian Spencer, Walter Yurkiw, Henry Jackson, and others — had for more than a year been routinely involved in stealing money and drugs from street dealers and by otherwise "stealing almost every opportunity that presented itself."
Dowd, Yurkiw, Guzzo, and Guevara, with the aid of drug dealer accomplices, were committing armed robberies in East New York (for money, drugs, and to assist the drug gang he was protecting by intimidating competing dealers and disrupting the business of rival drug traffickers). The NYPD, Internal Affairs, or related agencies received sixteen separate allegations implicating Michael Dowd and his associates. But after six years of investigations, every case against Dowd was closed as unsubstantiated, "despite overwhelming evidence," the Mollen Commission notes. Dowd was rated as a good cop on performance reviews.
Then in May of 1992, Suffolk County Police arrested six New York City police officers assigned to two different Brooklyn precincts — including Dowd and Eurell, who were by this time selling cocaine in Suffolk County, where Dowd's brother was a police officer.
The Mollen Commission focused, insightfully and powerfully, on the issue of policing, especially in high crime and minority neighborhoods. They found that the 75th was a dumping ground for corrupt or deadwood cops. As the Mollen Commission put it:
One group [of police officers] in particular … from Brooklyn North believed that their Patrol Borough is considered a 'dumping ground' within the agency. They stated that they are regarded by officers from other Boroughs, as well as by the Department's executive cadre, as a collection of misfits, incompetents, malingerers, and undesirables inhabiting a series of 'shithouses.' This perception coexists with, and perhaps has created, a strong group identity marked by an undercurrent of perverse pride in their deviant status.
Many officers reported that Department commanders often assigned sergeants and other supervisors to high-crime precincts without regard to prior experience, training or the needs of the particular command. Too often, inexperienced, probationary sergeants were assigned to busy corruption-prone precincts where experienced and proven supervisors were most needed. This practice is even more alarming because the Department also often sent those officers with disciplinary problems, those most susceptible to corruption and most in need of effective supervision, to these crime-ridden precincts — which are widely perceived as the Department's 'dumping grounds.' Indeed, one method of dealing with corruption was simply to transfer problem officers to unattractive assignments including, crime-ridden precincts. This 'dumping ground' method of discipline punishes the community more than the problem officers by assigning them to the very precincts where the opportunities for corruption most abound, where the need for talented, committed officers is the greatest, and where minority populations often reside.
The Mollen Commission also found a definite correlation between brutality and corruption — brutality in whatever form, including unnecessary force, abuse of authority, and discourtesy in civilian interactions. The commission found that brutality is also used "as a rite of initiation to prove that an officer is a tough or 'good cop,' one who can be accepted and trusted by his fellow officers not to report wrongdoing. Dowd, like other officers, reported that brutality strengthened the bonds of loyalty and silence among officers and thus fostered corruption tolerance."
Dowd served twelve years in prison. In 2015 a documentary was released, The Seven Five, reuniting for the first time Dowd with his former partner — in crime fighting and in crime — and the man who "ratted on him," Kenneth Eurell. As one reviewer noted, hearing Dowd "pour out the details almost seems like a pleasure to him at times."
Another reviewer put the entertainment value of the film into context: "Mr. Dowd's vehement narration does have, at times, a vague Joe-Pesci-in-GoodFellas feel, which is amusing only if you ignore the historical record. In 1988, when Mr. Dowd was still on the force, an estimated 100 people were murdered in East New York [actually 105, a record]. Those dead should haunt The Seven Five, which instead breezes through its crimes while tossing out grim images of unidentified black and brown bodies."
Is any of this relevant today? One of the Mollen Commission's concluding criticisms was the adversarial behavior of the police union, the PBA, which is still criticized today. (Consider, too, a June 22, 2015 article in the New York Post containing this quote from a police source: "Three or four officers were sent to a certain precinct in Brooklyn and instead of going and walking foot posts, they up and retired." The precinct is the 75th. In all the time I spent in East New York, I never saw an NYPD foot patrol.)
The Mollen Commission most of all emphasized the need for an external independent monitor with real power and oversight, pointing out that for the last century the New York City police force has been plagued by serious corruption/misconduct problems roughly every twenty years, like clockwork (before Mollen there was the Knapp Commission in the '70s). The department cleans up after each censure. But without an external watchdog agency, Mollen argued, the department would backslide.
Today there is still no independent oversight entity with real teeth in NYC — and here we are twenty years out from Mollen. If corruption emerges now, it will likely be in a different form than in Dowd's day and the department and the public might be just as slow to recognize it. So every amber light bears watching.
In April 2015, the NYPD's Inspector General released a report "calling for the NYPD to upgrade its method of grading cops, starting with how it looks at the number and substance of misconduct suits filed against individual officers." In the last five fiscal years, 15,000 lawsuits have been filed against the NYPD, costing taxpayers $202 million in jury verdicts and settlements. In 2013 alone, settlements and judgments against NYPD cost the City $137.2 million. In April 2014, NYPD removed an officer from street duty who reportedly had been sued twenty-eight times and had cost the city at least $884,000 in settlements.
The IG also found that the NYPD "was often unaware of the ultimate settlement or resolution of pre-litigation claims filed against the department and individual officers." Under the current model, if an officer is sued three or more times within a year or six times within five years, he or she goes on what's called a "level two monitoring list." But an officer's direct supervisor would not know that unless the supervisor went into the system and checked.
According to city records, Officer Fritz Glemaud of Brooklyn North has been sued twenty-one times and the city has paid out $420,000. Officer Warren Rohan of Brooklyn North has been sued twenty times, with the city paying out $242,000. James Riveria, another Brooklyn North officer, has been sued nineteen times, with the city paying out $437,000.
Meanwhile, here are some career highlights of David Grieco, an officer in the 75th Precinct, and a few of his colleagues there:
Back in September 2012, four men were busted in a Brooklyn recording studio with piles of heroin and pot that were allegedly in plain sight when cops from the 75th arrived. As the Daily News put it in an investigative piece, it looked like a slam-dunk case. Ten months later, allegations were made that the cops involved had pushed their way into the apartment that contained the studio and conducted a search without a warrant. The Daily News revealed that the cops were accused in an ongoing Internal Affairs Bureau investigation of manipulating evidence — bringing bags of heroin that had been hidden in a back room to a front coffee table and photographing the drugs in an effort to justify the warrantless search.
Then it gets more interesting. According to the News, one cop then allegedly told at least two of the suspects that they would make the drug charges "disappear" if the suspects could produce a gun by midnight. A defendant named Reginald Sykes told the News that it was Grieco who offered up a gun-for-freedom deal. According to Sykes: "He was saying, 'Look, guys, I got 150 guns off the streets last year. If I can get more this year, I'll get promoted and can transfer closer to home. Just get me a gun.'"
Grieco and other officers in the probe have a history of credibility issues dating to 2009, according to the News. The officers have been sued at least fourteen times in federal and state courts for allegations that include illegal searches and fabricating evidence, costing taxpayers more than $200,000 in settlements. The News reported that lawyers in at least nine different criminal cases have been notified either orally or through official letters from the Brooklyn District Attorney's office — that officers involved in their clients' arrests are under Internal Affairs Bureau investigation (IAD became IAB after Mollen) related to questionable searches. These include a related complaint about a stolen television, another about a stolen $50, and a charge from an ex-con and his girlfriend that the cops took $3,600 in cash during one bust and $1,000 and pair of $229 gold earrings in another. According to a News report in 2013, seven officers from the team were under investigation for a range of complaints including theft.
A court filing in a separate case lists five other gun busts by this police crew that have resulted in "unusually favorable outcomes" for the defendants, including three dismissals. And two other gun busts by the anti-crime team "went poof," as the Daily News put it. One was tossed in 2011 because a judge found Officer Stephen Berardi's story about a 2010 search "not credible" and his warrantless search illegal. Another ended in acquittal after court transcripts show conflicting police testimony.
Officer Grieco is still on the job. According to a federal lawsuit filed in November 2013, he was one of two officers who cuffed a man, Quinson Shingles, during a warrantless search and told him to rap, saying that if his rap was "hot" enough, they'd release him. Shingles, who was not arrested in the search, subsequently sued the city for this humiliation. He reportedly settled for $11,500 in 2014.
ENY didn't get to degenerate into a ghetto. It was designated as a ghetto and then allowed to degenerate from there.
As early as 1880, East New York had tenements, and by the early 1900s it was already crammed with all of the city's industrial NIMBY — the coal industry, ash removal, scrap metal, gas, tires, plastics, salt/urea, steel and iron works, masonry yards. Then, between 1960 and 1980, according to a solid report from New York's Department of City Planning, East New York lost 80% of its manufacturing jobs. Eighty percent. In that same period it lost a third of its population (population has since recovered somewhat). And half of its housing stock.
As a City Planning Department document notes about this period:
During this time mortgage lending practices contributed to widespread deterioration in East New York; when homeowners were unable to keep up their mortgage payments, the federal government foreclosed on their properties and the owners were forced to move, leaving many homes vacant. Formerly occupied blocks quickly deteriorated as vacant homes burned and then were demolished for safety. This created patches of vacant land that affected the value of other nearby homes, causing deterioration to spread further. Soon, much of East New York between Liberty Avenue to the north and Linden Boulevard to the south was marked by blocks of vacant buildings and a steep decline in property values.
As reported in How East New York Became a Ghetto, Walter Thabit's book on the history of the forces that shaped the neighborhood, by 1965 some 9,000 neighborhood school-age children were not attending school in East New York. There were some 1,400 reported fires there that year. As the National Academy of Sciences report on school violence, in a chapter that focuses on East New York, points out, "Much of what burned were private houses and apartment buildings. What remained was the public housing." Eleven massive projects were built between 1958 and 1973.
Here is part of how four scholars who wrote the 2003 National Academies report characterized some of the neighborhood's challenges:
Three features stand out as defining East New York for purposes of this case study. First, it was internally fractured, with clusters of massive housing projects forming an archipelago of mutually antagonistic residences amidst acres of burned and abandoned housing. Second, it was flooded with guns and drugs. Third, it was isolated from the rest of New York.
Add racial strife to the mix. Here's one old timer reminiscing, closer to flashbacking, on a StoryCorps-like website devoted to East New York in the old days:
My memories of ENY are as follows: I remember running home from JHS166 to avoid getting beatin up, having my Halloween candy stolen, getting attacked with eggs, firecrackers thrown at me, my bicycle being stolen, getting punched in eye just because I was walking down the street in broad daylight just minding my own business, getting slugged in the abdomen b/c I was Jewish, getting my ass kicked b/c I was white, getting sewing pins stuck in my butt going up the stairs at Gershwin, or a hand up my dress going up the stairs at Gershwin, being surrounded in the girl's locker room at Gershwin by "classmates" wondering if I was going to make it out of there alive. And these were my friends and neighbors. I don't think this was a normal childhood. But I will say this, I'm a lot tougher, more resourceful, not easily intimidated, more confident, and definitely more street-wise (or paranoid) than most people I encounter on a daily basis.
In 1966 there were gang turf wars between blacks, Puerto Ricans, and Italians — guns, bricks, chains, pipes, Molotov Cocktails. In June of 1967 after a race-related stabbing, sixteen white teenagers were arrested; the next day a riot broke out, with whites carrying signs Two Four Six Eight We Don't Want To Integrate and Whites Were Born Free, Blacks Were Born Slaves — Let's Keep It That Way. In July, an eleven-year-old black child was killed by a sniper bullet; massive riots ensued and a thousand police officers were called in. By 1971 there were a thousand vacant buildings in East New York. The white flight mass exodus that began in the mid to late sixties was soon complete. Today East New York is about 99% non-white.
Over the years, with varying levels of energy, New York has attempted to revive East New York. Walter Thabit's planning firm was contracted in 1966 by former New York Mayor John Lindsay to help design a revitalization plan for the neighborhood after the rioting of the '60s. Nearly fifty years later, in 2003, Thabit published his How East New York Became A Ghetto. He was a young man when he tackled the neighborhood. By 2003 he was eighty-one, and wrote that East New York's housing projects were "some of the most dangerous spots on earth."
He wrote that East New York has been a ghetto for more than three decades "with no hope in sight." He's been outraged, heartbroken, sorry about East New York his entire adult life and died not long after his book was published, his eulogy, maybe East New York's as well.
But here in 2015 the city is not giving up.
As outlined in Sustainable Communities: East New York, a detailed blueprint from NYC's Department of City Planning, the vision is to harness some of ENY's resources — its "rich transit network," its "vacant and underutilized land available for redevelopment," and the neighborhood's "strong local organizations and leaders." The Sustainable Communities plan, backed with HUD money, focuses on a mile-square chunk — mostly in northern East New York, plus a small slice of Brownsville on the southwest and Cyprus Hills to the north. That chunk, in turn, is divided into three targets with three strategies:
• A "mixed-use, job-intensive, regional destination" at Broadway Junction, which is served by multiple subways, bus lines, and a train line;
• A mixed-use commercial and housing development along the Atlantic Avenue corridor;
• And improvements to the existing industrial zone in East New York's western side, where the city hopes to support and encourage job growth. Rezoning discussions are underway.
The plan emphasizes street and park improvements, too. Also: a new 1,000-desk school. But at the heart of the effort to lift East New York is affordable housing. East New York is planned to be the first target for the city's new "mandatory inclusionary housing" — proposed new zoning rules that would require lower rental units in any new housing. (The formula for what will define "affordable" is under intense discussion and negotiation with local leaders).
Parts of the big East New York project are beginning to roll out. Below is part of a press release from last spring:
NYC Press Release — April 7, 2014 – Mayor Bill de Blasio today joined developers and community partners to break ground on Livonia Commons, the first phase of a major new multi-phase project in East New York, the Livonia Avenue Initiative, that will create more affordable housing, local jobs and space for community organizations to grow….Today, we're breaking ground on a project that will deliver the affordable housing, good local jobs and vital services this community needs…."
It included this relatively small but heartening development, too:
Recognizing the severe shortage of youth programming and facilities in the East New York community, The Boys' Club of New York will build its first Brooklyn facility at Livonia Commons. Located at Livonia Avenue between Williams Avenue and Hinsdale Street, the BCNY Livonia Avenue Community Facility will … provide a range of youth programs in the arts, music, athletics, and academics and leadership support for boys aged 6-20 and girls aged 13-20. Developing this clubhouse as part of a larger mixed-use complex of affordable and supportive housing, retail and public space will contribute to the transformation of the heart of East New York….
The hope is that East New York can become, finally, a real part of New York City, a place where people get to live in a neighborhood, not in exile.
I've been following East New York since 2012. I tracked crimes every day there for three years, and got to know every street in that neighborhood from crime map to satellite map to a road map (the Hagstrom NYC Five-Borough Atlas — Post-It'd, dog-eared, and opened a few thousand times to Map 21, with ENY's boundaries highlighted). I've walked its alleys, streets, and half streets in the morning, afternoon, and night, and spent one night in one of the area's ten-dollars-an-hour prostitution motels. I climbed fences, went into Dustbowl-era looking rooming houses, stood on the corner with Man Up volunteers, poked around Danger/No Admittance signs in a high-security waste water treatment center (ENY broken: I just walked in).
I stood outside a housing project where young mothers sat outside with beautiful sweet they-deserve-better-than-ENY kids while young men from a window up high were dropping bottles down, smashing them on the pavement. (The mothers said they had called the police, but that they came and did nothing. One mother said, "They don't care about us. Look at how we're living. They want us to kill each other.") At one point in my East New York travels I was handcuffed to a bench for six hours by Port Authority police, accused somehow of calling in a 911 threat to lure 75th Precinct cops into danger (untrue). And two weeks later, after thirty minutes of degradation (an officer had me on my knees picking up paperwork that he had thrown), I was body slammed/thrown/smashed (it happened quickly) by a Port Authority officer who sent me flying through a door in full view of his fellow officers.
My connection to East New York, my sympathies, my There-but-for-the-grace-of-God, run deep. My great-grandmother lived in East New York and would take my mother shopping on Pitkin Avenue when she was a child. East New York is also where we picked up my grandmother when she took the bus to come and visit. And I spent the first ten years of my life living next door to East New York, in Lindenwood. My house was about a half mile away from ENY's Pink Houses projects.
They were different worlds: My neighborhood was working class and had Gotti and Mafia social clubs. But we did share a sensibility, maybe partly because of the shared physical environment. The city didn't treat or regard our neighborhood with deference or concern. In fact if you looked around, it seemed to be just the opposite. They didn't care about the place. They didn't treat it like other neighborhoods, and I think we somehow got that message and acted accordingly.
The area is near the swamps and low flying aircraft noise and all the generated pollution from John F Kennedy Airport and right next to the still-trotting-in-the-ruins of Aqueduct Raceway (my best little buddy from PS 232 — in the gifted class no less — grew up into a compulsive gambler with a crooked ruined life thanks to the proximity of The Big A). Also right in our area were all manner of garbage dumps and landfills; that's where we all played as kids. It's where packs of us eight-year-old boys would light massive fires in the dump's craters, flames shooting in the air. It's where we'd have regular dirtball/rock fights. I once got hit in the head with one of those rocks. I saw blood streaming down, was scared to death, and took off running to my house.
In those days my mom left me at home with my grandmother in charge, and Bubbe (from the old country, very much so) didn't know from First Aid, the hospital, using the telephone, or contacting neighbors. She just helplessly gave me bath towel after bath towel that I helplessly soaked with blood that wouldn't stop. There was no one we knew who we could ask for help. So there we huddled, Bubbe and me, bleeding, trapped on the outskirts of East New York, on our own. I was unable to protect myself, to be protected. So it still goes in East New York.
East New York's crime stats, the environment/pollution stats, the rubble like Beirut physical environment — that's how the place is commonly defined and characterized. But there are statistics that explain the place much better, stats that get to the fundamentals:
Seventy-seven percent of families in East New York have to rely on food stamps to eat. It has the absolute highest ranking of all fifty-nine New York City districts for population of families in homeless shelters. It has the #1 population of children who are physically or sexually abused or neglected by their parents and in need of state involvement (5,000 kids in 2011). It also has the largest-in-NYC population of resettled sex offenders (804 high-level sex offenders currently abide in East New York).
It has the #1 population of children under sixteen arrested. Along with being #1 in violent felonies and the highest murder rate, it has the highest rates of death by alcohol/liver disease, the highest HIV rate, the highest gonorrhea rate. It has the most vacant lots; the most dangerous roads. It has the worst, most dangerous schools. It is the most policed; its people are the most incarcerated. It is the most isolated; it has the most broken infrastructure. It has least availability of normal healthy food in stores, both per population and area. It has the most guns.
Ensuring that children are somewhat protected and somewhat nurtured and given a somewhat decent chance to grow up normally — that is emphatically denied in East New York. They say send a person to prison for twelve years and they come out worse than they went in; they're pathologized, broken, malnourished psychologically. They can't function well back in normal society because prison is such a negative, deprived, and burdened environment. So too is East New York's environment. Spending the first twelve years of your life there is a punishment, and for many of those twelve year olds, a life sentence any which way.
One police officer I met on the street asked me what I was writing about. I told him about a mother I had interviewed earlier in the day whose ten-year-old daughter had been shot. He said, "Hey it's New York. A lot of ten year olds get shot." I had just met this mother on the street. Her girl got shot in the face in 2011. An eighteen-year-old gang member had perched on top of a roof on Pitkin Avenue and opened up with an automatic pistol, firing at least a dozen shots at a rival crew (caught, convicted, and doing a fifty-five year sentence upstate).
This was right near an elementary school, P.S. 298, in broad daylight, at the time school was letting out. A thirty-three-year-old pregnant woman who was picking up her own son from that school threw herself over a bunch of children to protect them. She did so and was shot to death. The woman's name was Zurana Horton. Another woman picking up her child was also shot in the arm and chest.
The ten-year-old-girl's name is Cheanne. Her mother was still upset and said her daughter has been troubled since the shooting. She didn't know what to do, how to help. She wondered if, somehow, a stranger she had just run into on a junkyard-lined street, who stopped for a minute to listen, she wondered if I might somehow in some way help.