Author Michael Woodsworth Discusses Anti-Poverty Activism in Bedford-Stuyvesant

Encore: March 30, 2017

Bedford-Stuyvesant, like so many parts of Brooklyn today, has become synonymous with gentrification and displacement. But fifty years ago, the future of the community was also uncertain. Poverty, crime, and run-down housing threatened to stop investment in the neighborhood, until residents organized to fight back. As part of our ongoing Chasing the Dream initiative on poverty and opportunity in America, Maya Navon talks to author Michael Woodsworth about his book Battle for Bed-Stuy, which details the history of this ever-evolving community.


Bedford-Stuyvesant, like so many parts of Brooklyn today, has become synonymous with gentrification and displacement.

But 50 years ago, the future of the community was also uncertain.

Poverty, crime, and run-down housing threatened to stop investment in the neighborhood until residents organized to fight back.

President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty brought new hope to Bed-Stuy, but much of the change relied on community-based action and local policy initiatives.

In his new book 'Battle For Bed-Stuy,' author Michael Woodsworth discusses the long history of grassroots activism in Bed-Stuy, it's ultimate successes and shortcomings, and its role in national anti-poverty efforts in the second half of the 20th century.

Joining me now to talk about his new book is Michael Woodsworth, as part of our Chasing The Dream Initiative on Poverty and Opportunity in America.

Michael, thanks so much for joining us today.

Thanks, Maya.

Happy to be here.

So, to get started, what makes Bed-Stuy so endlessly fascinating to you?

Well, Bed-Stuy today, and even more so at the time I wrote about, was a particularly big community.

In the 1960s, it was often defined as having close to 400,000 people.

So, that size meant that it was a community with a lot of diversity in it.

It was a majority African-American community, but among that group there were very strong class differences and strong ethnic differences.

Bed-Stuy had people who had migrated there from Harlem, people who had migrated there from the South, and people who had migrated there from all over the West Indies.

In addition, there was a significant Puerto Rican population at the time -- about 15% of that 400,000 people in the 1960s was from Puerto Rico.

And there was also a small and dwindling white population.

20 years earlier, Bedford-Stuyvesant had been majority white.

By the late 1960s, that was no longer the case.

So, this was a community that was diverse and rapidly changing.

And 'neighborhood' or 'community' is a bit of a misnomer, right, because it was such a large geographical area?

Well, it was.

In Colonial times, when this area had got its name, Bedford Corners and Stuyvesant Heights, as the two neighborhoods were known, were distinct communities, and they remained so up until the late 19th century.

In the 1930s, as the first generation of people who had bought the townhouses in the neighborhood started to leave, and there was this in migration of African-Americans, this term, double-barreled term, Bedford-Stuyvesant started to spring up increasingly.

And that became a term that was a racialized kind of code word for 'place where Black people live in Brooklyn.'

And as more and more Black people started to live in Brooklyn, around this area between Bedford Corners and Stuyvesant Heights, the boundaries of that thing called Bedford-Stuyvesant started to grow, incorporating neighborhoods that today we would call Clinton Hill, Crown Heights, parts of Ocean Hill-Brownsville, and sometimes all the way into Fort Greene and close to downtown Brooklyn.

So, as the outside -- initially journalists, and then later funding agencies -- adopted this enlarged version of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the population grew and grew up to 400,000, 450,000 people.

Now, that was a source of labeling that was not particularly appreciated by the people within the community who would often say, 'I live in Crown Heights.

I don't live in Bed-Stuy.'

But it also held within it the potential for strength, in that the local community activists recognized that, by petitioning for a much larger group of people, they could get greater amounts of funds, and dramatized the problems of the community.


And what were some of the main issues that residents faced in the 1930s and 1940s?

Well, in the 1930s, initially there was a group called the Midtown Civic League, which was a white-based group, which was organizing to keep out Black homeowners.

One of the major issues coming out of the Great Depression for places like Bedford-Stuyvesant around the country was the issue of redlining.

And this was the process by which the federal government gave guidance to banks about what neighborhoods represented good credit risks at a time when the federal government was beginning to underwrite mortgages.

In short, basically, the government provided these maps on which they drew red lines around places that represented bad credit risks, and those places tended to be inhabited for the most part by African-Americans.

So, in Bedford-Stuyvesant, as more and more African-Americans moved in, the dangers of disinvestment and the lack of mortgage capital started to grow.

Now, white homeowners didn't like this.

They organized against this.

They organized against incoming Black homeowners.

So, that was one of the initial challenges.

And a lot of the block associations which formed in Bedford-Stuyvesant in the '30s, '40s, and '50s, and many of which continue to exist to this day, were initially organized around that particular issue.

These block associations started to grow around the community, and they began to address larger issues.

The disinvestment by city government, not only by private banks, but a lack of sanitation services, for instance.

Increasingly segregated schools.

The menace of urban renewal.

At this time, 1950s, there were a lot of large-scale city-government projects and federal projects that threatened to demolish large swaths of old brownstone neighborhoods.

So that was another cause for organizing.

The menace of youth gangs and crime became something that led to partnerships between local government --

Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that.

That was particularly interesting to me.

They basically had social workers kind of embedded within gangs in a way, sort of to create change from within.

Can you talk about that a little bit?

They were often people who had themselves been gang members only a couple of years earlier.

They were very close in age to a lot of the gang members.

They knew the area.

They knew the community.

And they would try to get the gang members to, for instance, start a social club or start an athletic club.

The most important thing that they would do was try to get jobs for these usually teenagers, and sometimes guys in their 20s.

And they were successful in that?

To some extent they were, yeah.

The dangers of street gangs in the 1940s and '50s are a little bit different from what we would talk about today when we talk about gang activity.


Many of them were not all that violent.

They were more concerned with turf and reputation, but not so much concerned with the kinds of things that we talk about today.

For instance, drug cartels and that kind of thing.

So, they would stage what were called rumbles, as people who have seen 'West Side Story' would be familiar with.

And so the job of the street workers was to stop the rumbles, and to get the gangs to learn how to collaborate with each other.

That was one half of what they were trying to do.

The other half was an attempt to organize the community around this issue of youth behavior, and to get the community to begin to address what were known as the root causes of this youth behavior.

And speaking to that, I know there was a few other sort of pre-War on Poverty grassroots efforts.

What else was being done at the community level besides efforts to stem gang violence and get to the cause of it?

What else was going on in the community?

Well, the most important one in Brooklyn was a group called the Central Brooklyn Coordinating Council, which was founded initially by a group of local activists along with the city's Youth Board as a way to reach out to the gangs.

But the Central Brooklyn Coordinating Council very quickly turned into something more like a civil-rights group.

It included, at its peak, about 100 different local organizations -- church groups, civic groups, fraternities, and the likes.

And they would organize protests, they would organize meetings, they would organize all sorts of grassroots initiatives to get people to activate around political issues.

This was really important at the time, because in the official political arena, the electoral political arena, African-Americans were almost entirely frozen out.

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