Brownsville and Manhattan: A Tale of Two Cities, Thirty Minutes and a Continent Apart

The early morning mist shrouded the East River bridges as I pedaled along the riverside bike-jogging path. I cruised past the tracks and ball fields, kids with private school uniforms were running sprints. Asian older folk were engaged in yoga under the Manhattan Bridge, the fisherman were casting for whatever fish ply the murky waters and as I approached the Battery the ferries dumped boatload after boatload from Brooklyn onto the shores of Manhattan. In the Union Square Farmers’ Market chefs clad in their whites perused the produce plucked from the vines hours before and fish fresh from the briny deep. I fill my backpack and pass shiny new buildings where million dollar plus condos are the norm. The new bike-share racks are already filled with brightly colored two-wheelers.

Life is good in Manhattan.

Brownsville is a half hour drive from the glittering streets of Manhattan. Once the landing place for immigrants moving out of the Lower East Side, the streets were packed with kids, the cacophony of languages and the aroma of ethnic cooking. In the postwar years the attraction of the suburbs drew immigrants and their children to Long Island and the migration out of the South changed the neighborhood from Southern and Eastern Europeans to Afro-Americans with roots in the South.

Fiscal crisis after crisis battered the city, housing deteriorated, schools were packed, and slowly jobs began to migrate around the world. The crack epidemic devastated neighborhoods, the “Bronx burned,” and other neighborhood suffered the same fate.

Finally, in the nineties Brownsville started to recover – new housing, the streets were cleaned up, small business began to return, schools were getting better – and “bubble burst.”

The recession of 2008 was a depression for the poorest neighborhoods – foreclosures, unemployment sky rocketed and the hardscrabble communities in the city slid back in the depths of despair.

We wove our way through Brownsville, the streets were virtually deserted, boarded up and abandoned buildings, empty rubble-filled lots, and an eerily silent.

A kid wearing a hoodie was slowly cruising down the street on a very nice bike.

“Wait till he passes,” said my passenger, a long time Brownsville educator, “… these days you gotta be careful. He may be a gang kid patrolling his turf.”

My educator passenger tells me, “During the crack years the gangs were highly organized and they battled over business, now there are cliques within gangs, crips fight crips, bloods fight bloods, teenagers, young teenagers, fight over turf, guns are commonplace, a sign of pride and importance, every kid needs a cell phone, the fights, the violence jumps out of a Facebook post or a video clip, parents and grandparents have gang connections. This neighborhood has a lot more in common with Afghanistan than Manhattan.”

“We used be a school district with a superintendent, we met with teachers and supervisors from neighboring schools, now, we’re in different networks, I never meet my counterpart two blocks away. The charter schools snatch up the families with social capital and chase away the kids who aren’t making it. We get a steady flow of charter school pushouts.”

Sadly, the range of city social services are fragmented, programs come and go, a phone call from a city agency, meetings, more meetings, planning sessions, a program begins with little support, stumbles and fades away. City agencies rarely coordinate services; the only constant partner is the local police precinct.

A frustrated principal told me he challenged a Tweed bureaucrat, “Spend a week in our school, walk the walk instead of telling us what will work, show us,”

He agreed to spend three days in the school.

“It’s a five block walk from the subway, is it safe?” asked the Tweed resident.

The principal jokingly responded, “Just wear the right gang flags – no one will bother you.”

The importantish Tweed apparachnick just couldn’t find the time.

Will the new mayor acknowledge that the Brownsvilles of the city exist?

The teacher union emphasis on community schools, clustering a wide range of health and social services within a school building is a beginning. The funding for the community schools did not come from the mayor, did not come from the department, the funding came from the City Council and private sector (Trinity-Wall Street was a major supporter).

Fifty years ago Michael Harrington wrote “The Other America,” frighteningly not much has changed.

…. tens of millions of Americans are, at this very moment, maimed in body and spirit, existing at levels beneath those necessary for human decency.� If these people are not starving, they are hungry, and sometimes fat with hunger, for that is what cheap foods do.� They are without adequate housing and education and medical care. (1962)

The Bloomberg policies of school closings and choice and charter schools may resonate in the aeries of the reform think tanks and the hedge funds market reformers, the life on the mean streets is unchanged.

David Coleman, the architect of the Common Core movement, at a recent Roosevelt Institute function called the problems of poverty “intractable” and with a snide ignorant comment,

“Those who believe that poverty is an insurmountable obstacle to improving student achievement should offer to cut teacher salaries and redistribute those funds to the poor.”

The anchor of poverty can be lessened by excellence in instructional practices, but not eliminated.

With the proper structures in place, a chancellor working with not battling the unions, superintendents leading principals and teachers in collaborative school environments, parents welcomed into schools, nothing dramatic but antithetical to everything we have seen for the last dozen years.

The next mayor must understand that no matter how thoughtful his/her educational policies without jobs, without a light at the end of the line, all school initiatives will founder.

The recent teenage immigrant riots in Sweden warn us that unless we create a route to employment we may be facing the same poverty issues for the next fifty years.

Before the bike-share program comes to Brownsville we could use supermarkets and employers.

Read wonderful The Nation “Resurrecting Brownsville” article by Ginia Bellafonte (

7 responses to “Brownsville and Manhattan: A Tale of Two Cities, Thirty Minutes and a Continent Apart

  1. Every fact that you allude to is all the moe reason why our next Mayor must be Bill Thompson. He is the only candidate with a record of public scholl support and appreciation. ai began my career in Harlem and served in the FD JHS 139/IS 10 for 12 years. I was a tough white kid raised in the Bronx Park House, attendede De WiTT Clinton HS, and upon graduation from College drove a truck before taking a substitute teacher test. I was telegrammed to report to FD and w/o any pre service or ed 101 courses began as a 7th grade math teacher. The ganga were there then, they just had different names. There were codes of behavior and signs that we all had to learn how to read. There was also a double standard as far as school discipline was concerned. Black teachers favored corporal punishment, while it was a prohibition for white teachers.Thankfully that divide has more or less faded out (it took 40 years). In 1975 i was transferred to Bed-stuy wher I served my final 25 years. Blood, Crypts, 5 Percenters were in every classroom. Where there were strong ties between the community and its schools, there was success to be had. That fact has always been a constant. Where we had parochial school pupil dumping, we now have charter school pupil dumping. What our present Mayor has done over the past 12 years is in a word reprehensible with regard to the public school institution. His negative pre-disposition towards unions moved him to destroy the public school, ergo no public schools no unioon problems. He almost succeeded! Anyone who supported this MAyor as Ms. Quinn has, cannot be trusted to not have been influenced by those policies. WE see it in her declared policy changes towards The NYPD, and you better believe that out school system will be dangerously close to life support with her mayorality. Bill Thompson will work well with a public trust behind him, and a compatible Governor with regard to PS education.


  2. I’m perplexed; everthing KK writes makes sense except the bottom line. I don’t get how he narrowed the primary race to Quinn vs Thompson; I wish it were that simple because I like at least three Democratic hopefuls.. Did de Blasio and Liu, for example disappear over the long weekend? I hadn’t heard.

    I, for one, look forward to the UFT’s guidance in sorting out candidates. I certainly wouldn’t be averse to Bill Thompson; I just don’t get how KK got there.


  3. Eric Nadelstern

    It’s not that poverty is not pernicious, but it cannot be determinant!

    I also attended DeWitt Clinton HS in the 1960s and taught ESL there for most of the 70s. I remember breaking up a fight one morning in which one of the combatants had stabbed the other. Despite my blood-soaked clothing, no one offered to relieve me from my duties, so I went on to teach 5 plus a homeroom that day.

    No one ever suggested that teaching in poor, violence-ridden neighborhoods was easy. But it is possible for teachers to teach under those circumstances and for students to learn and succeed. More to the point, it is vital that our schools offer poor youngsters the opportunities they don’t have elsewhere in their lives. Anyone in our schools who doesn’t believe that we can succeed with poor children should not be there. I believe that was Coleman’s point despite his unfortunate way of expressing himself.


  4. I’m wearing 2 hats- one as a kid who came out of Brownsville and an educator who taught in Bed Stuy and was a principal in Bushwick. Poverty is a societal issue. The politicians all of us elect give us the government we deserve! Education is society’s hope especially in a democracy. There was a program I believe in the 70’s called the M. E. S. schools, More Effective Schools. The concept behind it was to make the neighborhood school the community resource by housing as many services such as medical, dental, social, and in some cases, legal in the school. The schools became the focal and rallying place and changed the neighborhood into a community. It was abandoned because, you guessed it, $$$$$.. The determining factors for us as educators is which of the candidates will address school segregation, his/her program for school funding, the criteria (s)he will use to pick the next chancellor, and how (s)he identifies and defines a “successful” school. When these are addressed in specific terms and not campaign rhetoric deliberately designed to both pander and obfuscate at the same time then we’ll be able to make and informed decision as citizen/educators.


  5. Ginia Bellafonte, NY Times columnist has a wondeful article. “Resurrecting Brownsville” in the May 6th issue of The Nation ( ).

    As school leaders and teachers we impact kids lives and in neighborhoods like Brownsville our impact can change lives – I agree with Eric – if you don’t think so this is not a career for you, however, the job is debilitating, especially when the school system leaders and the electeds are not supportive.


  6. YJosh Gutterman

    Totally accurate!


  7. Pingback: Brownsville and Manhattan: A Tale of Two Cities, Thirty Minutes and a Continent Apart | Ed In The Apple ← NPE News Briefs

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