Bed-Stuy as a Model for Social-Democratic Reform in The United States. Michael Woodsworth’s The Battle for Bed-Stuy examines how the Lyndon B. Johnson Era’s War on Poverty affected the historic neighborhood.
Issue No. 1 - Summer 2017.
“In the years leading up to Occupy [Wall Street], the US left seemed influenced by strains of anarchism. Many of these tendencies rejected structural critiques of capitalism and traditional forms of left-wing organization. It may be safe to say that post-Sanders the general moment is more informed by social democracy . . . Would you agree with that characterization of a shift?
MATT KARP: The Sanders campaign was also a return of the US left to electoral politics in a serious way, which opens up opportunities and challenges of its own. I’m hoping that Sanders’ surprising success is a reminder that elections are something the Left should take seriously and participate in. I’m not saying that the struggle should be restricted to elections, but it’s hard to imagine any kind of meaningful left victories occurring without an electoral component.
There’s an opening for social-democratic politics at all levels. But at the same time there are many challenges that come with that kind of strategy. How do you enact social democracy on a state or local level? You really can’t. To even win the barest essence of social democracy, like a national healthcare system, you can’t do that by winning city council seats. We need to engage in lower-level electoral politics while continuing to build a national movement.”*
*“What Did Bernie Do?” A Conversation with Cedric Johnson, Matt Karp, and Jennifer Roesch. Jacobin, Fall, 2016.
As a historian of slavery’s relationship to power in Nineteenth Century America, Matthew Karp is no stranger to critiques of capitalism. But what of his assessment of social-democracy at the local level?
It’s easy to be cynical about the effectiveness of grassroots organizing and the power of local politics when participatory democracy is measured in small donations facilitated by multi-national banks (who are happy to charge service fees on each transaction) and the recent liberal successes of marriage equality and healthcare were fought on the federal level (and won only after receiving moral blessings from corporate America). But social democracy relies on local energies to envision real-world policies, which monolithic structures by their very nature can support but not enact. To see what social-democratic policies look like locally, we need only to look at the work of politicians, community groups, and activists in Bedford-Stuyvesant, beginning in the mid-twentieth century.
Michael Woodsworth’s comprehensive The Battle for Bed-Stuy: The Long War on Poverty in New York City, details the effects of capital flight (joblessness, price-gouging, redlining, urban renewal and decay) that threatened the neighborhood in the early twentieth century; and Bed-Stuy’s struggles against these effects — for better primary schools and basic city services, for a community college and hospital, for jobs, and for representation in local government — exemplify local-level social-democratic ideology in action.
As demographic changes began to settle in the 1940s, and blacks and Caribbeans joined the ranks of homeowners in Bed-Stuy, block associations sprang up among the stoops and steeples of north-central Brooklyn’s handsome brownstone streets. Untethered to any political party or area of academic study, the associations were comprised of small groups of Bed-Stuy citizens concerned with issues like beautification and juvenile delinquency. Initially, members were more likely to organize a garden club than a protest, but nevertheless, the seeds for Bed-Stuy’s future activism were planted here.
When these efforts gained federal attention in the 1960s, it seemed for a brief moment that the Great Society might be able to merge the demands of the Civil Rights movement with the promise of the New Deal. In the end, failure resulted more from a self-interested bureaucracy, concerned with preserving social order over ceding power to the poor, than from the inherent weaknesses of either local American political structures or the initiatives themselves.
“Bed-Stuy fascinates,” Woodsworth writes, “because it was simultaneously emblematic and exceptional. It epitomized the processes by which urban black communities in the mid-twentieth century grew in population, were ravaged by capital flight, and organized to take political action.” Far from the “monolithic zone of suffering and blight” the term “ghetto” implied, Bed-Stuy was a diverse community composed of both the desperately poor and the upwardly mobile, “and those socioeconomic contrasts often overlapped with the cultural cleavages between people whose roots were in the American South and those who hailed from the Caribbean.”
In the late Nineteenth Century, the abutting neighborhoods of Bedford and Stuyvesant Heights had been converted from farmland into upper-middle-class bedroom communities of mostly German, Irish, and Italian families. During the Great Depression many residents, unable to afford their property taxes and eager to get out before they owed more than the houses were worth, sold their homes. Still others defaulted altogether.
The completion of the A train in 1936 connected Harlem with Brooklyn. At the same time, blacks from the American South and the Caribbean were moving to the city, where work — though not plentiful — was still to be found more readily than in rural areas. (Matias Echanove, “Bed-Stuy on the Move: Demographic trends and Economic Development in the heart of Brooklyn” (Masters Thesis, Columbia University, 2003)).
By the 1950s, New York City was home to almost seven-hundred and fifty thousand black people ––– more than in any other American city ––– half of which lived outside Manhattan. Still, it was difficult to figure out how many called Bed-Stuy home because nobody could define exactly where Bed-Stuy was. A neighborhood whose borders “were defined by racism,” the name Bedford-Stuyvesant hadn’t even come into popular usage until around 1939. One War on Poverty-era study went so far as to say that Bedford-Stuyvesant is “wherever Negroes happen to live.” So when local community groups in the 1960s defined “Bedford-Stuyvesant” as a singular “community,” they were “tacitly acknowledging that racism set the parameters for their efforts.”