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The Jewish neighborhood of Brownsville first took form as Jewish immigrants seeking “lower rents and a more healthful country environment” relocated from the Lower East Side to Brooklyn in the late nineteenth century (Soyer, 40). Brownsville had been a quiet farming town, but following the resettlement of the Lower East Side Jews, its growth and urban development took off as Jewish real estate developers began to recognize the area’s potential and geared their efforts towards its development. Next to come were garment manufacturers along with their families, workers, and workshops. The neighborhood developed around these garment factories and by the early 1890s there were about four thousand Jews living in Brownsville.
Brownsville’s population boomed in the first two decades of the twentieth century, and by the 1920s there were about a quarter million Jews living in the neighborhood, representing about 80 percent of its total population. The construction of the first subway line between Brooklyn and Manhattan, and the opening of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903 and the Manhattan Bridge in 1909, facilitated the easy resettlement of residents from Manhattan to Brooklyn, and greatly contributed to Brownsville’s advance.
As it grew the neighborhood became a hub of Jewish cultural activity and distinctly progressive politics. Becoming known in Orthodox circles as the “Jerusalem of America,” the neighborhood hosted dozens of synagogues (the most prominent being the Oheb Shalom, founded in 1889), the Stone Avenue Talmud Torah, and the Rabbi Chaim Berlin Yeshiva. Radicals gathered at the Labor Lyceum and the Socialist Party briefly dominated local politics, to be replaced by the Democratic Party led by homegrown ward leader Hymie Shorenstein by 1920. Elite Jews also constructed a number of charitable institutions, including Beth El Hospital (Soyer, 41). Schoolteachers in Brownsville’ public schools were mostly Jewish, and with their knowledge of the labor movement helped organize the first teacher’s union in 1916, and a Jewish teacher’s organization by 1924 (Ford, 130).
Though the culture and practice of its residents were quintessentially Jewish, Brownsville was never characterized by a particularly strong religious orientation. Author Carole Bell Ford, who grew up in Brownsville, writes that “Brownsville, unlike other Jewish neighborhoods, had ‘an egalitarianism in tone and manner.’ Within its boundaries it was possible to find ‘the entire spectrum of Jewish political and cultural associations.’ And it had a secular character.” (Ford, 131). Yet for Ford, Brownsville’s insularity aided the preservation of a strong Jewish identity, language and tradition amongst its residents, which was undermined when members of the Jewish community began to relocate throughout the mid-century.
Despite its lively atmosphere, Brownsville remained a troubled neighborhood and its Jewish residents were among the poorest of the city. Alfred Kazin, who grew up in Brownsville and wrote about his memories, described the neighborhood in the early twentieth century as “New York’s rawest remotest, cheapest ghetto, enclosed on one side by the Canarsie flats and on the other by the hallowed middle class districts that showed the way to New York” (Kazin, 18). Historian Daniel Soyer writes that Brooklyn’s inhabitants also represented “the strained relationship between so-called Uptown Jews (wealthy, Americanized Jews mainly of central European origins) and Downtown Jews (poor eastern European immigrants)” (Soyer, 40). Brownsville’s small circle of middle class Americanized Jews remained anxious at the turn of the century, first that the influx of poorer eastern Europeans would undermine their own hard-won respectability, and second because they continually compared themselves to their Manhattan counterpart, a much larger and wealthier Jewish community (Soyer).
Continual efforts made by elite New York and Brooklyn Jews to Americanize their poorer counterparts led to the founding of the Hebrew Educational Society (HES) in 1899, the result of efforts by prominent New York Jews associated with the Baron de Hirsch Fund. As the purpose of the institution was to Americanize members of Brooklyn’s Jewish community, in the beginning HES emphasized instruction in English and citizenship, with all activities geared towards “teaching [Jewish immigrants] valuable lessons in thrift, manners, and citizenship.” Soyer writes, “Despite the condescending intentions behind many of the programs, Brownsville participants responded favorably” (42). HES’s donation of 7,000 volumes led to the opening of the first Brownsville public library in 1905, which was heavily utilized by the local population from the start (Brownsville Library website).
In the 1930s began the decline in Brownsville’s Jewish population, which accelerated in the 1950s and especially in the 1960s when Jews left as African Americans began to move into the area following World War II (Soyer). The number of blacks in Brownsville doubled between 1940 and 1950, making up 22 percent of Brownsville’s population by 1957. As demographics shifted, Brownsville became the site of both developing racial tensions and new progressive efforts to combat racial injustice and inequality by groups such as the racially integrated Brownsville Boys Club (BBC). Many blacks had come from the South seeking jobs in the garment industry but found dwindling numbers of factory jobs and a good deal of exclusion (Snyder-Grenier, 102). Sorin describes, “Younger, poorer, more recently uprooted, and victims of historic oppression and deprivation, blacks in Brownsville were disproportionately the perpetrators and victims of vandalism and violence” (22).
Levine and the BBC and other progressive political organizations with strong bases in Brownsville helped to build a left-leaning alliance between Brownsville Jews and blacks, which represented a facet of the progressive alliance between organized labor and the civil rights movement being forged on a national scale. However a dent was put in the coalition following May 9, 1968 when the local school board of Ocean Hill-Brownsville fired thirteen unionized white educators. The firings were carried out as part of a policy of “community control,” which proposed that students of color would perform better in schools if the school board hired more people of color as role models. The firings led to a series of three strikes led by the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), which shut down the schools for a total of 36 days between September and November of 1968. Ultimately, the UFT won the teachers back their positions, but the incident caused a rift in the alliance between Brownsville’s residents. To the black community city-wide, the UFT action seemed designed to undermine black leadership (Ahern, “The Strike That Changed New York”). Putting the progressive coalition back together and promoting positive intergroup relations remained the primary goal of Irving Levine and the Brownsville boys well into the 1990s (Sorin, 127). Meanwhile, Brownsville residents and merchants continued to organize to improve the community on other fronts. The church took on a new active role in the neighborhood, as the East Brooklyn Churches, a non-profit coalition of mostly black churches, set out resolving Brownsville’s housing problems with the construction of the Nehemiah homes.
Meanwhile, as interracial dialogue and action continued to be promoted by progressive organizations within Brownsville, white flight out of Brownsville continued. In the post-war period, rather than migrating to Flatbush or Eastern Parkway, many Jews began to migrate to Canarsie or suburban communities in Long Island or New Jersey. By the late 1960s, following a “wholesale exodus,” fewer than five thousand Jews remained in Brownsville, most of them elderly (Ford, 135).
Some areas of Brownsville have retained the bustle of the early century, such as Pitkin Avenue which remains an active retail district. The neighborhood is no longer ethnically insulated, as long-time Jewish business owners have been joined by Israeli newcomers who now dominate the garment industry, as well as Korean, East Indian, and African American merchants (Snyder-Grenier, 102-103). Still, many social problems associated with poverty, including crime, violence, and drug addiction, have continued to burden the neighborhood for decades.
Ahern, Sean. “The Strike That Changed New York: Blacks, Whites, and the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Crisis.” http://sdonline.org/34/the-strike-that-changed-new-york-blacks-whites-and-the-ocean-hill-brownsville-crisis/
“Brownsville Library – Local History & Photos | Brooklyn Public Library.” Brooklyn Public Library. http://www.brooklynpubliclibrary.org/locations/brownsville/photos (accessed May 30, 2012).
Ford, Carole Bell. “Nice Jewish Girls: Growing Up in Brownsville, 1930s-1950s.” In Jews of Brooklyn, edited by Ilana Abramovitch and Seán Galvin. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2002.
Kahlenberg, Richard. “Ocean Hill-Brownsville: Unleashing American Liberalism.” http://www.nysun.com/opinion/ocean-hill-brownsville-unleashing-american/76108/
Kazin, Alfred. A walker in the city. 1st ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1951.
Soyer, Daniel. “The Early Years of the Hebrew Educational Society of Brooklyn.” In Jews of Brooklyn, edited by Ilana Abramovitch and Seán Galvin. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2002.
Snyder-Grenier, Ellen M. Brooklyn: An Illustrated History. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.
Ford, Carole Bell. The girls Jewish women of Brownsville, Brooklyn, 1940-1995. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 2000.
Sorin, Gerald. The nurturing neighborhood: the Brownsville Boys Club and Jewish community in urban America, 1940-1990. New York: New York University Press, 1990.
Brownsville Black and White (film), directed by Richard Broadman. See more info at <http://tjctv.com/movies/brownsville-black-and-white/>