A toxic combination of housing fraud, nightly arson, and declining city services left Bushwick desolate.
A toxic combination of housing fraud, nightly arson, and declining city services left Bushwick desolate.

These days, when Morris Todash walks the streets of Bushwick, a two-square-mile neighborhood of 100,000 people in central Brooklyn, he likes what he sees. On the long-abandoned seven-acre site of the former Rheingold Brewery, new two-family homes and condominiums have sprung up. On the side streets along Broadway—not so long ago, pockmarked with desolate lots where stray dogs wandered amid burned-out cars—more new homes arise and old ones get impressive face-lifts. New businesses—an organic grocery store, a fashionable restaurant—seem to be opening on every corner. Todash, whose insurance firm has served the neighborhood for more than 40 years, can hardly believe that this is the same Bushwick that became synonymous with urban chaos during the late 1960s and early 1970s, ravaged by fires, rioting, and looting until it resembled a war zone. “When I first came here to open a business, this was a shopping destination for all of Brooklyn,” Todash says of the neighborhood’s commercial district. “After the looting, no one wanted to come here any more.”

Often described by residents as a forgotten neighborhood, Bushwick was once a solid blue-collar community. But starting in the 1960s, a steady barrage of demographic changes and ruinous Great Society policies battered it down. So total was the devastation that even as New York began rebounding in the mid-1990s, Bushwick remained largely untouched by gentrification. Only recently—after years of tireless work by government (especially the police), local groups, and the private sector—has the revitalization of this once-proud neighborhood begun. With Bushwick beginning to thrive again, New York City has finally left behind the disorder and failure that flowed from the misguided liberal reforms of the sixties and seventies. Yet if Bushwick is back, no one should forget what happened to it.

Little in Bushwick’s evolution from a bucolic seventeenth-century town to a robust twentieth-century working-class neighborhood suggested that it would one day symbolize urban breakdown. Dutch, Swedish, and Norwegian settlers first decamped in the vicinity in about 1640, and by 1660 had formed Boswijck (Town of Woods). By the 1830s, Bushwick had begun to lose its rural character. Advances in water transportation had remade the nearby Brooklyn waterfront into a bustling zone of shipyards, warehouses, distilleries, sugar refineries, and manufacturing plants, all attracting German, and later Italian, immigrant workers. The newcomers steadily built up Bushwick; densely packed two- and three-family homes came to line its streets, interspersed with retail strips and a smattering of warehouses and factories. Beer barons and factory owners even erected elegant mansions on Bushwick Avenue and a few other streets.

Bushwick’s decline began in the mid-1960s, as impoverished Southern blacks and Puerto Rican immigrants surged into northern urban areas, including central Brooklyn. As race riots ripped apart other cities, including Detroit and Newark, unscrupulous real-estate agents and speculators tried to frighten white Bushwick residents—a practice known as “blockbusting.” Homeowners would find ominous messages in their mailboxes—“Don’t wait until it’s too late!”—as well as encouraging ones: “Houses wanted, cash waiting.” In a massive scandal reminiscent of today’s subprime-mortgage meltdown, speculators bought homes from Bushwick residents for an average of $8,000 apiece, and then, using fraudulent appraisals and a Great Society federal mortgage program that insured home loans to low-income buyers, sold them to poor blacks and Puerto Ricans at prices that they couldn’t afford— on average, about $20,000 per home. Many defaulted, abandoning their homes and massively depressing local property values. By 1972, in one city estimate, some 500 Bushwick buildings stood empty because of the bad loans; others, not part of the federal program, also emptied as housing prices plummeted and buyers balked at investing in the neighborhood.

A big reason they balked was rising disorder. To collect on fire insurance, owners began torching their own empty buildings; gangs set fire to abandoned buildings, too, and then waited for the fire department to do the hard work of knocking down walls and floors, making valuable fixtures and copper wiring easier to steal. By the early seventies, infernos blazed nightly. The neighborhood’s wooden row houses, tightly packed together and often sharing attics, proved particularly vulnerable; a fire would erupt in one building and swiftly spread, sometimes consuming half a block. At bedtime, residents began dressing children in street clothes instead of pajamas so that they could make a quick escape from late-night fires. Men living near abandoned homes began sleeping on porches, guns by their sides, ready to drive off arsonists. “Whoever said the Bronx was burning was only half right,” Todash remembers. “Bushwick was burning, too.”

Bushwick residents tried to save the neighborhood by forming block patrols and anti-blockbusting campaigns, but Mayor John Lindsay’s administration made this a losing cause. One big Lindsay misstep was to hike rental subsidies for welfare recipients, which encouraged Bushwick landlords to fill vacant units with such tenants, since they now brought higher rents than ordinary tenants would pay on the open market. By the mid-seventies, half of Bushwick’s residents were on public assistance. After discovering that the city also paid generous relocation costs if fires displaced them, the welfare tenants began setting their own government-subsidized apartments ablaze. Investigators arrested one local welfare family that had collected $40,000 from the city for 13 fires that it set. Nor were firebugs the only problem. Crime in general in Bushwick soared 50 percent during the first half of the seventies, with burglaries and robberies leading the way, increasing to nearly 8,500 per year—up from 4,500 in 1971.

This chaos broke out just as New York was rocked by a deep fiscal crisis, largely the product of Lindsay’s wild overspending on social welfare. To save money, the city laid off thousands of fire and police personnel, leaving Bushwick residents isolated and increasingly panicked. In one telling case, Pat Piccione—a longtime Bushwick homeowner who had showed police some thugs who’d roughed him up—found himself besieged in his home by friends of his first attackers. Five desperate 911 calls went unanswered. Finally, to defend his family, Piccione grabbed a gun and blew away several of his assailants (he was charged with manslaughter but acquitted). In another startling incident, marauders seized a Bushwick apartment building in order to strip it of fixtures and piping; residents’ calls to the police went unanswered for three weeks. Nothing better exemplified the growing defeatism of the NYPD, which was reacting to crime rather than aggressively fighting it, than a detective’s response when asked why the local precinct hadn’t responded: “We do what we can with the gang. It’s not the easiest job in the world. I can send a car there or the gang unit to see if we can get them out.”

Lindsay won kudos—and eventually a spot on a national commission on race—for keeping a lid on racial tensions in New York, which didn’t experience the kind of cataclysmic riots that tore apart Watts in 1965 and Memphis, Newark, and Detroit in 1967. But Bushwick was experiencing a kind of slow-motion rioting, ultimately just as destructive, which lasted through Lindsay’s administration and that of his successor, Abe Beame. Perhaps because it didn’t explode all at once, Bushwick remained largely beneath press notice, its problems unaddressed by the city.

Finally, though, Bushwick burst into national headlines. On the evening of July 13, 1977, a massive blackout plunged New York into darkness. Within minutes, residents began assembling in Bushwick’s streets, chanting “Broadway, Broadway,” before marching off to that street, the area’s main shopping district. As the mob arrived, someone drove a car through a sporting-goods store’s iron security gates. Frenzy ensued. Some looters tore away more iron gates, shattered store windows, and carted away anything they could carry. Others hustled off to find trucks, vans, and cars, and then returned to load them with stolen goods. “People were running around crazy like a pack of wild dogs,” a looter told the authors of Blackout Looting!, a study of that unhappy night. Morris Todash showed up at his small storefront to assess the damage and noticed that the furniture outlet next door, protected by iron gates, remained undamaged. “Suddenly, I heard a buzzing in the streets, like a hive of bees, and I looked outside and saw a crowd of several hundred people gathering,” says Todash. “Someone drove up with a truck and hooked a chain around the gates of the furniture store, then used the truck to pull them off. I decided to get out of there because there was no one to protect you.”

On Broadway alone that night, looters pillaged 134 stores and set 44 of them on fire, burning some, like Woolworth’s, to the ground. After a decade of disorder, Bushwick had hit bottom—whole blocks were now abandoned and destroyed. On some streets, the only thing left standing was the local church. Surveying the devastation a few days after the riot, a priest told his congregation: “We are without God now.”

Yet the scenes of anarchic destruction, broadcast around the world, also brought the first faint signs of hope. In the middle of a bitter mayoral race, with the fiscal crisis as backdrop, candidate Ed Koch journeyed to Bushwick to survey the devastation and promised, if elected, to begin rebuilding the neighborhood. “I remember sitting in the living room of some longtime residents of Bushwick who described what they had been through,” Koch says. “These were people who were determined to die in their community, and they just wanted to be able to do it with dignity.” Elected that November, Koch did pay some attention to Bushwick. The city knocked down vacant buildings, cleared lots, and auctioned them off cheaply to local residents. And it joined forces with a private-sector initiative, the New York Housing Partnership, to begin constructing two- and three-family middle-income homes again in the neighborhood, using vacant city-bequeathed land and money from private donors. New York also rebuilt its police and fire forces and constructed a new precinct house in Bushwick—moves that helped reduce crime in the area during the early eighties.

Yet Bushwick had undergone such a demographic transformation that no revival could be as simple as clearing some lots and building new homes. By the early 1980s, 45 percent of the population lived below the poverty level. In this once-family-friendly area, nearly 60 percent of all children were born out of wedlock, and two-parent families constituted fewer than half of all households, down from 64 percent a decade earlier. Upward of 70 percent of female-headed Bushwick families were impoverished. With fathers in short supply, gang membership spiked among teens, and the local high school had one of the worst drop-out rates in the city. “These were kids who just wanted to be kids, but they were facing overwhelming odds,” says Meryl Meisler, who taught in Bushwick from 1981 to 1994. Toting a camera during her teaching years, Meisler captured some of the impressions that the collapsing neighborhood made on local children— an abandoned playground overgrown with weeds, a view from a classroom of ruined buildings and empty lots. “This is what the kids saw every day,” she recalls somberly.

Such physical and cultural fragility left Bushwick defenseless before the great crack plague that struck in the mid-1980s, short-circuiting any renewal. Indeed, Bushwick became one of New York’s centers of drug dealing and abuse. The neighborhood’s abandoned lots and buildings soon housed crack dens; its mostly deserted side streets accommodated drug dealing. Violence—especially gang violence—flared up again. By 1990, murders had nearly tripled in Bushwick, reaching a high of 77 that year, one of the worst rates in the city.

Bushwick’s brand of the crack trade was among Gotham’s most vicious. “Out here you see your people livin’ on the street. . . . They’re like cavemen,” a local addict named Cookie told two criminologists studying the area. “If they could eat each other, they would, if it comes down to that. That’s how this neighborhood is getting—very thirsty.”

Bushwick’s civic fabric had unraveled so completely that any restitching now seemed impossible. Yet the mid-nineties saw a breathtaking restoration of order in the neighborhood, beginning when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s first police commissioner, William Bratton, revamped the NYPD and its crime-fighting methods. Murders dropped from 1990’s 77 to 12 in 1998. Total violent crime in the area fell 66 percent over the same period. By 1998, Bushwick saw 1,500 fewer annual robberies, 1,000 fewer burglaries, and 675 fewer assaults than it had eight years earlier.

Central to this success was Bratton’s innovative use of computers to track citywide crime patterns quickly, deploy extra officers to the hardest-hit areas, and hold commanders accountable for the results in their precincts—a crime-fighting approach that has remained in place ever since. In Bushwick, newly empowered cops blocked off drug-dealer-ruled streets with barriers and conducted sweeps of a neighborhood zone called the “Well” (since buyers could openly purchase an unending supply of drugs there). Local commanders also asked Bushwick community leaders to rebuild organizations like the old block associations, which had glued together the neighborhood, and urged landlords to repair buildings to create an air of civic order. The community began trusting the police and helping them rid the area of the drug trade. “The police recognized that the people who knew the most about what was going on were Bushwick’s citizens, and they turned to us for information and help,” recalls Reverend Michael Clarke of Bushwick’s Global Ministries in Christ Church.

Bushwick benefited, too, from a citywide economic revival spurred not only by the dramatic drop in crime but also by a more business-friendly attitude in New York City. Giuliani passed the first substantial tax cuts in decades, as well as welfare reform that was soon expanded by federal legislation, which put many of those on public assistance back to work. The number of Bushwick residents on welfare dropped from 37,000 in 1994 to about 17,000 in 2000 to under 12,000 today.

Bushwick’s full revival took time, though, and happened long after other areas of the city, with less sordid pasts and better-preserved infrastructure, came back. Only when rents and home prices skyrocketed in the late 1990s—not only in the city’s stable neighborhoods but also in edgier areas like Dumbo (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) and even Williamsburg, which borders Bushwick—did a new generation of deal-seeking New Yorkers begin finding their way to the still-struggling locale. Many were artists, writers, or students, either unaware of Bushwick’s fraught history or willing to risk living in a place where the crime rate, while declining, was still higher than in many other neighborhoods.

Some early arrivals claim that landlords hoodwinked them into thinking that they were moving to an already gentrifying Williamsburg. “I was looking for a place I could afford to live in on my own,” remembers freelance writer Hrag Vartanian, “and the price was right here, though the place still had an edge to it. Our super was an ex-con who would regale us with stories of the local drug trade that used to be here. I quickly figured out this wasn’t really Williamsburg.”

Back in the late nineties, Tom Le, a choreographer who moved to Manhattan from San Francisco, found himself regularly visiting artist friends who had staked out a piece of Bushwick, attracted by the large loft spaces in abandoned warehouses that ringed the area. At the time, he found the Bushwick streets desolate and frightening at night. But when he shifted careers and became a real-estate agent a few years ago, he started guiding buyers disappointed by Williamsburg’s high prices to Bushwick. “When you look at the homes on some of these streets, you can see how this was once a family neighborhood,” says Le. “I saw that it could become that again.” Two-family homes in Bushwick now fetch anywhere from $500,000 to $650,000—still inexpensive by New York City standards, but unthinkable in the area only a few years ago.

After decades of shunning Bushwick, investors and builders have squarely set their sights on it. In 1996, the city granted just 46 residential building permits for 92 units of housing in Bushwick; by 2003, annual permits had risen to 174 buildings and nearly 700 units. The bulk of this new investment is in one- and two-family homes, the kind of housing that has long characterized Bushwick, but some multi-unit condominiums—the neighborhood’s first—have also been built. The housing revival has helped jump-start some long-proposed projects, including redevelopment of the site, deserted since 1976, where Rheingold once brewed some 3.4 million gallons of beer a year. There, a joint effort by the New York Housing Partnership and a leading community group, the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, has built 300 housing units.

Bushwick’s residential resurrection is also spurring bold entrepreneurs to gamble on the area’s commercial future. One group of investors, for example, recently purchased an empty warehouse on Bushwick’s fringes and revamped it into office space for artists and designers. Rather than rent the units, the owners are selling them as office condominiums for between $380,000 and $500,000. “We think people want to bet on the future of this neighborhood by owning their own offices,” says Joe Irving, a real-estate agent representing the building. Not far away, Kevin Lindamood, a transplanted Virginian, has transformed empty factory floors into OfficeOps—a venue featuring a rehearsal space for arts groups, video production facilities, and room for large events. “The most surprising thing is we now get people coming here to do events because they hear Bushwick is the hot neighborhood,” says Lindamood. “Young kids from Manhattan are now getting married here because it’s something different.”

Now that it’s safer, Bushwick’s still-somewhat-gritty, blue-collar feel does lend it cachet among New Yorkers who find heavily gentrified areas like the East Village no longer edgy enough. In a kind of reverse cultural commuting that would have been unthinkable when Bushwick was consumed by fires or crack, Manhattanites now venture to the neighborhood to check out its emerging scene. Typical is this December escapade recounted by a twentysomething Manhattan woman on the blog New York Adventures: “After an afternoon spent at the Bryant Park Christmas market and the Clinique counter at Lord & Taylor, I convinced Rachel that it was a good idea to do something a bit more adventuresome for dinner on Saturday night . . . in the Bushwick part of Brooklyn. . . . We popped out of the Jefferson Street subway on the L train and were greeted with nothing but warehouses and lights in the distance. We hoped the lights were the restaurant because otherwise I had led everyone on a total boondoggle. Indeed they were and we were shocked to find a 45-minute wait to get a table.”

Bushwick represents one of the last places in rapidly changing New York City where bootstrap entrepreneurs can still get a business off the ground with a minimum of investment (and a lot of hard work). Chris Parachini, a musician who moved from the Lower East Side of Manhattan to Williamsburg and now to Bushwick in search of cheap living quarters, recently opened Roberta’s, a trattoria on a fairly empty strip of Moore Street. The restaurant’s warm feel, accentuated by a wood-burning pizza oven imported from Italy, contrasts sharply with the building’s stark exterior, which once housed a construction company. “I was kind of attracted to the desolate look of the building on the outside, because it surprises people when they come inside and see what’s here,” says Parachini, who did most of the work on the place with his partners.

Despite this buzz of activity, Bushwick’s revival remains precarious. One worrying sign: lenders made a huge number of subprime mortgages in Bushwick—more than half of all mortgages in the area in 2005 and 2006—which could mean lots of foreclosed and empty homes back on the market as the subprime crisis continues. The key to keeping the market vibrant and ensuring that new buyers grab those foreclosed homes isn’t government mortgage bailouts, as some have urged; it’s keeping a handle on Bushwick’s crime and disorder.

It’s encouraging that crime dropped to an all-time low in Bushwick in 2006, with just five murders. But last year, there were 13. Cops and community leaders attribute the troubling uptick to a trend afflicting urban areas across the country, in which teens settle their differences in ever more violent ways even as other crime continues to decline. In Bushwick, nothing is more important than smothering any incipient rise in crime before it can take a significant toll on the recovering neighborhood.

Bushwick also faces ethnic tensions. Many of its newest residents are young, single whites, but the neighborhood remains largely Hispanic. At times, the groups have viewed each other warily. A mural painted by students of El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice, a local high school, depicts Bushwick’s newcomers as vultures. And an advocacy group, the Youth Power Project, has been rallying the area’s Latino youth against some of the new building and renovating, claiming that it will push out poor residents. “Expensive housing sucks,” protesters chanted recently outside a condo project.

Still, there’s little evidence that the transformation will do anything but benefit most Bushwick residents. “Gentrification drives few low-income residents from their homes,” writes Columbia University urban-planning professor Lance Freeman, who has studied the effects of neighborhood change in New York. Instead, demographic changes take place gradually, prompted not by precipitous hikes in rent but by normal turnover in the housing market. Far from pushing people out, Freeman has found, neighborhood upgrades like Bushwick’s encourage many residents to stay and enjoy the fruits of revival.

And for the residents of Bushwick, for so long a bleak landscape, those fruits couldn’t be sweeter.

Research for this article was supported by the Brunie Fund for New York Journalism.


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