Since the COVID-19 shutdowns were put into place in New York City this past March, many workers in New York City were affected suddenly. Many workers were unfortunately left unemployed, some were luckily mandated to work-from-home, and others were forced to still work in the public, in proximity with different people daily, at risk of infection. Back in June, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union which represents 900,000 clients stated that about 82 grocery workers have died from COVID-19, with about 11,507 workers infected. In October, MTA reported that 126 workers died from COVID-19. Analysis from New Amnesty reported that 7,000 healthcare workers died from COVID-19 globally.
In the United States, Congress argued back and forth about stimulus packages for all Americans devastated by the pandemic. While Congress settled on a very skimp $1,200 check and unemployment to “aid” Americans in rent, mortgage and bill payments, Congress went on numerous vacations and deliberated for months on the latest stimulus package, which is proven to be even worse than the first one. Many Americans still were forced to work and sacrifice a COVID-19 infection, and be a possible spreader, even with PPE. This ended up being the case, especially in New York City. It became a tradition to make noise every evening at 7PM to show encouragement and praise to essential workers. Even though the gesture is nice, many essential workers still are being mistreated by employers, people they service, and left without any added compensation or benefits for their sacrifices.
I surveyed 7 essential workers in New York City. These are some of their experiences.
A correctional health staff working in Queens, New York:
Were you given hazard pay or any kind of benefits from your job? If so, what kind and how long were they in effect? No hazardous pay. All I got was free hotel stay from April to June. This was granted to help prevent spreading COVID to my household.
How were you treated by your employers during this time? How were you treated by people that you serviced?Was it a drastic change negatively or positively? If so, how? The employers treated us weird at times, and other times with respect. The population we serviced were very intense and sometimes hostile. After spending time and trying to help we appreciated about the population.
What was an experience that impacted you while on the job? Helping people get access to care in life and death incidents.
How did working during this pandemic affect your personal life? It gave me time to isolate from the general population which I felt good. It also made me feel more resilient in which I can use as motivation in my personal life
A Case Manager working in Manhattan:
Were you given hazard pay or any kind of benefits from your job? If so, what kind and how long were they in effect? No
How were you treated by your employers during this time? How were you treated by people that you serviced?Was it a drastic change negatively or positively? If so, how?Not drastic, a lot of changes. It actually works in my favor because I get to work at home which I prefer.
What was an experience that impacted you while on the job? Some co-workers are becoming very complacent and lazy
How did working during this pandemic affect your personal life? Working more independently actually helped the most
A Food Worker in Staten Island:
Were you given hazard pay or any kind of benefits from your job? If so, what kind and how long were they in effect? Hell No!
How were you treated by your employers during this time? How were you treated by people that you serviced? Was it a drastic change negatively or positively? If so, how? Terribly by employers because they didn’t care about how hazardous it was. Not making sure the business followed Covid related laws and restrictions. The customers were rude and ungrateful that businesses are even open during a time like this but I guess privilege and entitlement go hand and hand if you’re white and live on Staten Island. Out of every 25 customers you do get a nice customer that makes your job worth it in the moment if you do enjoy customer service like I do but at this point it’s not worth it.
What was an experience that impacted you while on the job? I was laid off of work due to getting tested for COVID when I didn’t have any COVID related symptoms. I was out of work for a total of three weeks with no pay because I had to wait for my results. When I finally contacted Labor Laws that’s when I found out it was put into law that if you are laid off due to Covid related reasons your job has a disability clause to hold you down(forgot the name of it) until you can go back to work but my job never gave it to me, never told me about or made it accessible. Keep in mind you only have a certain amount of time to fill out those forms before the time period to file is expired. I was at a loss because I was uninformed and I am still behind on bills because of it.
How did working during this pandemic affect your personal life? It’s scared me because as an essential worker you see how careless people are when interacting with you and other people. It’s ridiculous and people need to be more aware of restrictions and staying inside. When the pandemic first began I worked at a Moes Southwest Grill. Please tell me why I was getting customers that came in almost everyday and some even confided that they lived in the area which means they could’ve gotten food delivered. Those same idiots are the reason this thing is still alive and breathing. Having to argue with people while at work who don’t have pre-existing conditions to not wear a mask but just don’t because of their own ideologies is trash as fuck.
A Heating Maintenance worker in Manhattan:
Were you given hazard pay or any kind of benefits from your job? If so, what kind and how long were they in effect? No
How were you treated by your employers during this time? How were you treated by people that you serviced? Was it a drastic change negatively or positively? If so, how?Employer was very unprepared and protocol was very slow to roll out in dealing with pandemic. Overall less in person contact when troubleshooting problems. No negative or positive change about the same.
What was an experience that impacted you while on the job? My employer sending email telling workers to ask tenants do they have COVID or anyone living there and if so they should wait in another room. And worker to open window when servicing apartment. This was a terrible idea and was put out in April or May 2020.
How did working during this pandemic affect your personal life? Very depressing, less interaction with friends and family. Went from panic or great concern in beginning of COVID outbreak, but now like oh well it is what it is.
A Child Welfare Case Planner who worked in the Bronx and now in Brooklyn:
Were you given hazard pay or any kind of benefits from your job? If so, what kind and how long were they in effect? Nothing at all
How were you treated by your employers during this time? How were you treated by people that you serviced? Was it a drastic change negatively or positively? If so, how?Negatively, staff concerns ignored by management
What was an experience that impacted you while on the job? Being required to do a home visit the day before the shut down in March or face disciplinary action, because I wasn’t able to get in contact with my doctor to get a letter regarding my pre-existing respiratory condition. My doctor was a first responder to the pandemic so I’m sure they had other priorities, but management did not take my concerns seriously unless I had a letter.
How did working during this pandemic affect your personal life? I was super sad. Isolation impacted my mental health negatively as I lived by myself at the time.
A Downtown Alliance Security Guard in Manhattan:
Were you given hazard pay or any kind of benefits from your job? If so, what kind and how long were they in effect? No
How were you treated by your employers during this time? How were you treated by people that you serviced? Was it a drastic change negatively or positively? If so, how? I’ve been treated poorly by my employer. They give us the bare minimum of protective gear. They hardly want to give us overtime. Also Allied Universal says they can’t give us the hazard pay but has money to buy a whole company for billions of dollars.
What was an experience that impacted you while on the job? Seeing all the businesses close down.
How did working during this pandemic affect your personal life? I caught Covid 19 back in late March.
A Mathematics teacher in The Bronx:
Were you given hazard pay or any kind of benefits from your job? If so, what kind and how long were they in effect? No
How were you treated by your employers during this time? How were you treated by people that you serviced? Was it a drastic change negatively or positively? If so, how?Having to do double the work to meet the needs of my school. My Principal interest was more on having the schools open then the safety of staff and students. It’s been more negative being blamed for everything. Countless hours at a computer losing motivation to plan. I feel less of a person.
What was an experience that impacted you while on the job? My anxiety has been getting worse as days go by.
How did working during this pandemic affect your personal life? It’s difficult to be positive and feel like a human at the same time. When just so much work is demanded at this given time.
All New Yorkers working in different positions and boroughs, but with many things in common. None of these survey participants were given hazard pay, some were struggling with mental health, exposed to or infected with COVID-19, had concerns ignored by management and ALL expected to perform and produce during a pandemic disgustingly handled by the capitalist class. As an essential worker myself and someone sympathetic to the causes of workers, we deserve more than symbolic praise. We deserve unions that will represent our needs and not sell us out to our employers, and actual benefits that protect us while working in a pandemic that none of us expected or prepared for. With New York strong as a slogan pushed by our beloved governor, we have lost so much and gained so little, while the capitalist class increased their gains at our expense.
On July 13, 1977, fifteen million New Yorkers throughout the five boroughs, parts of Long Island and Westchester County were left to endure hot summer weather without power for 25 consecutive hours. Around 8:37 PM, lightning storms in Westchester County knocked out two circuit breakers that might have drawn power from other utilities, then hit a large power transformer that resulted in an explosion. This explosion forced a nearby large plant to shut down with additional lines hit in the process. Consolidated Edison, or simply Con Ed, ordered voltage reductions to keep the power system running. Unfortunately when safety devices meant to protect against overloads stopped working at a plant in Queens, the entire network was shut down at 9:34 PM.
New Yorkers were unprepared for the events that would ensue for the next 24 hours in sweltering temperatures with no air conditioners, low toilet pressure, and food that would spoil overnight. A line of 18 workers had to relay patients’ meals up to the eighteenth floor at Bellevue Hospital. At Shea Stadium, the New York Mets played against the Chicago Cubs with third baseman Lenny Randall at bat. As the lights at the stadium went out, 25,000 fans in attendance broke out into a chorus of “Jingle Bells.” In Grand Central Station, travelers held candles and flashlights for one another at public telephone booths. A spontaneous block party broke out in front of an Upper East Side restaurant where Andy Warhol and Woody Allen were in attendance. Riders were stranded 150 feet on the ferris wheel in Coney Island.
Mayor of New York City Abraham Beame stated he was outraged at Con Edison’s incompetence and lack of reasoning behind the huge power outage of the New York City area. Mayor Beame prompted an investigation and declared a state of emergency: “Con Edison at best has shown gross negligence, and at worst something far more serious.” This caused United States President Jimmy Carter to order an investigation by the Federal Power Commission, which resulted in the Commission’s conclusion that ConEd never undertook any proper precautions since the 1968 blackout in New York City. ConEd attributed the natural occurrences of the three lightning strikes as the cause of the power outages, as they bizarrely called it “an act of God.” At the time, ConEd officials had no explanation as to why the devices designed to specifically protect ConEd from lightning failed.
During the 1970s, New York City faced economic stagnation, which was intensified as large sections of its middle-class left the city for suburbs. By 1975, New York City’s officials and wealthy class saved itself by budget and policy decisions that would consequently harm poor New Yorkers at the time and years later. Conditions for neighborhoods with poor Black and Latino New Yorkers were still devastated from the economic strangulation of redlining, decrease of manufacturing jobs, unable to get high-paid jobs due to being unskilled, and were left to rely on public assistance. The Welfare Rights Movement was on the rise since the 1960s, but Black and Puerto Rican New Yorkers were still faced with urban poverty.
As decades of racist economic deprivation tore through neighborhoods such as Bushwick, Bedford-Stuyvesant, South Bronx and Harlem, poor Black and Latino New Yorkers were left to fend for themselves, which resulted in looting of stores throughout New York City.
Harlem’s 125th Street saw stores looted between Park Avenue and Lexington Avenue:
There is not a television set left in Harlem,” said Patrolman John Ryan.
The windows of stores in the Bronx were shattered with merchandise taken. Youth in the Bronx went into supermarkets and left with carts filled with goods. The streets of Times Square were filled with youth who stole radios, smashed windows of stores, and opened fire hydrants. NYPD arrested up to 3,500 people, with over 100 police officers injured. The officers profiled lots of New Yorkers and arrested them. The people who were arrested were gathered onto buses for their arraignment at Manhattan’s Criminal Court Building. Many bystanders were caught up in the crosshairs. The city’s jails populations went from 7,000 to 15,000 in a matter of hours. The eight-by-ten “standing only rooms” meant to hold up to 10 people, were packed with up to 40 people. Majority of these people ended up transferred to Riker’s Island.
Mayor Beame used language that dehumanized the poor people who rebelled as “savages,” and dubbed the 25-hour long power outage as “the night of terror.”
On February 4, 1999, four New York City Police Department plainclothes officers fatally shot unarmed Amadou Diallo at 12:44 AM, in the vestibule of his building at 1157 Wheeler Avenue in the Soundview section of the Bronx. Officers Sean Carroll, Richard Murphy, Edward McMellon, and Kenneth Boss let off 41 shots at Amadou, 19 of which struck him. Officer Sean Carroll claimed that Amadou matched the description of a serial rapist that he and the other four officers of the Street Crimes Unit were in search of. Officer Carroll also claimed that Amadou reached into his jacket to pull out an object that he and the other officers interpreted as a gun, then let off a bombardment of 41 bullets. The object pulled out of Amadou’s jacket was his wallet. Police spokesman and investigator Michael Collins stated that investigators did not find a weapon on Diallo’s body or at the scene of his murder.
Amadou Diallo emigrated to New York City in September 1996 from Guinea, West Africa. Diallo was a devout Muslim of the Fulani tribe from the village of Lelouma, where his mother, Kadiatou Diallo, and most of his family resided. While in the United States, Amadou resided in a community of Guineans who settled in the Soundview section of the Bronx. Described as an extremely kind, shy, and hard-working man, Diallo worked 12 hour shifts as he sold gloves,videotapes, socks, and other items on Manhattan’s 14th Street. He shared an apartment with a fellow Guinean, Momodou Kujabi, and his two cousins, Modousalieu Diallo and Abdou Rahman Diallo. Abdou stated “All he did was go to work and come home.” Amadou’s immediate goal was to obtain a degree in Computer Science, which was cut short due to his untimely death. The surrounding Guinean community responded to Amadou’s death and amongst those included his roommate, Momodou Kajubi:
Mr. Kujabi and other men from Mr. Diallo’s native country, Guinea, gathered outside his apartment building in the Soundview section of the Bronx to express quiet outrage and make grim preparations to collect his body, have it washed in the Islamic tradition and send it home.
A Hard Worker With a Gentle Smile, New York Times, Feb. 5, 1999, Amy Waldman
Immediately after the murder of Amadou, the four plainclothes officers were placed on administrative duty, while NYPD investigated the shooting. Three of the four plainclothes officers who murdered Amadou were involved in shootings at least two years prior:
Officer Boss, who has been on the police force for seven years, is under investigation in the October 1997 fatal shooting of a man who the police said was menacing people with a shotgun in front of an apartment building on Sheffield Avenue in East New York, Brooklyn. Officer Mcmellon, A five-year Police veteran, was cleared after shooting and wounding a man in East New York, Brooklyn last June. The police said the man had a loaded 9-millimeter handgun. Officer Carroll,who has also been on the force for five years, was found to have been justified in firing his gun last August on Wilson Avenue in the Bronx.
3 of the Officers Were Involved in Shootings in the Last 2 Years, New York Times, Feb. 5, 1999, Kit R. Roane
On February 8, 1999, up to 1,000 people angered by Diallo’s murder rallied in front of his home to condemn the racially charged brutal actions of the four white plainclothes officer. In attendance at the rally were community leaders, politicians, and demonstrators from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, with most of them being Black:
Most of those in the crowd were African-Americans or immigrants from countries in West Africa, who said they felt as if they had lost a brother. Professionals stood with blue-collar workers who carried homemade posters of skeletons wearing police uniforms. Retirees and college graduates pumped their fists into the air and shouted ”Black power!” And parents coaxed their children to pay attention.
1,000 Rally to Condemn Shooting of Unarmed Man By Police, New York Times, Feb. 8, 1999, Ginger Thompson
There was a sea of chants that included “No justice, no peace,” “41 bullets,” “four officers,” and “one man dead.” The protestors demanded a federal investigation for Diallo’s murder, as they cited Mayor Giuliani’s failure to condemn the officers for the murder and order their arrests: “Mamadou Ka, who came to New York five years ago from Senegal, said of Mr. Giuliani, ‘When people shoot cops, he is there, but when cops shoot people he doesn’t show up.’”
Diallo’s mother, Kadiatou rejected Mayor Giuliani’s offer for financial help in transporting his body back to Guinea from New York City, as she and her husband preferred the help of other African immigrants and relatives. Al Sharpton spoke to Kadiatou’s rejection of Giuliani’s aid:
‘I hate to blow the Mayor’s bubble here, but they are not preoccupied with the Mayor,” said Mr. Sharpton, who has taken a highly visible role in protests over the shooting. ”They are preoccupied with how they are going to deal with political injustice and how they are going to bury someone who shouldn’t be being buried.’
Slain Man’s Mother Rejects Mayor’s Aid, New York Times, Feb. 11, 1999, Blaine Harden
Workers from the Mayor’s office sent people to pick up Saikou Diallo, Amadou’s father, from Kennedy International Airport, but Saikou decided to leave with Al Sharpton and family attorney Kyle Watters. Saikou spent time in Amadou’s Bronx apartment at 1157 Wheeler Avenue.
New York City’s first Black mayor and Giuliani’s predecessor condemned Giuliani’s reaction as “woefully inadequate,” and had more criticism for the handling of the case: ”This business of, the police always are entitled to the benefit of the doubt, should not operate in every circumstance,’ Mr. Dinkins said. ‘Clearly, the fact of this put the burden on the cops to come forward and explain. The mayor should be asking that question.’” Mayor Giuliani spoke to reporters to explain that he understood the frustration surrounding the case and handling of Diallo’s murder, but stated “there is a tendency of some people in our society to blame the police in broad strokes that is just as vicious a prejudice as any other prejudice.” Mayor Giuliani would double down on his stance on the same day Amadou Diallo’s parents transported his hearse from the National Action Network on 125th Street in Harlem, surrounded by Al Sharpton, community members and angry demonstrators, to Guinea, West Africa for burial. While demonstrators chanted “no justice, no peace,” and “Giuliani must go,” Mayor Giuliani continued to defend the New York City Police Department at City Hall:
”When people in other major urban police departments want to learn about restraint,” he said at a news conference, ”they come to the city of New York and look at the things the Police Department in New York City does to teach police officers restraint, cultural awareness, cultural sensitivity. It’s not done perfectly, it will never be done perfectly, it should be done even better, but the strategies actually are working very, very effectively and almost everybody outside New York City who is in this business understands that.”
He also challenged the notion that the police are disproportionately targeting members of minority groups. When a reporter said that 85 percent of the people shot by the police in the last five years were black or Hispanic, the Mayor responded, ”But that is actually less than the number that are actually shot in society.”
Parents Fly Back to Africa With Body of Son Killed By Police, New York Times, Feb. 15, 1999, Paul Zielbauer
Mayor Giuliani also deflected with a “Black-on-Black crime” argument: “There are more shootings involving black victims and black shooters as a percentage than there are of police officers doing it. So I know those are difficult facts for people to deal with but what we should be about in government and what you should be about in the media is leading people to the truth, not to reinforcing biases and prejudices.”
On February 25, 1999, all four officers were acquitted of all charges for their participation in the murder of Amadou Diallo by a jury in Albany. Diallo’s parent, Saikou and Kadiatou, were described as quiet upon hearing the verdict, with Kadiatou moved to tears as they swiftly left the courtroom. After the acquittal, the lawyers who represented the officers blamed Diallo for his murder and the excessive amount of bullets fired on his “suspicious behavior” and supposed failure to follow orders; rather than the racial profiling, excessive force and abuse of power displayed by the officers.
While Mayor Giuliani, the Bronx District Attorney, and the lawyers for the officers praised the “fair trial” while acknowledging “the mistakes,” former Mayor David Dinkins condemned the acquittal as he stated that ”this will send the wrong message to those members of the Street Crime Unit who walk around saying, ‘We own the night,’ ” and Al Sharpton’s claims that there would be a push for the Justice Department to bring a federal civil rights case. Kadiatou Diallo gave a statement outside of the courthouse: ‘I ask for your calm and prayers.” She added, ”As we go on for the quest of justice, life, equality — I thank you all.”
In 2004, Diallo’s family settled the civil lawsuit against New York City in the case of Diallo’s murder for 3 million dollars. The civil lawsuit was filed in April 2000 and initially aimed for 61 million dollars. Diallo’s family used much of the settlement to create the Amadou Diallo Foundation.
The NYPD disbanded the Street Crimes Unit which prior to Diallo’s murder came under scrutiny various times with criticisms from politicians and community members. The only officer involved in Diallo’s murder still employed with the NYPD is Kenneth Boss. Former Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly expressed to Kadiatou Diallo that he would not restore a gun to Kenneth Boss, but in 2012, Kenneth Boss indeed received a fireman. Kenneth Boss briefly served as a Marine in Iraq in 2006. Boss was determined to receive a firearm back after several denials to his pleads for one. Kadiatou characterized it as a betrayal from the NYPD, especially on the part of Commissioner Raymond Kelly.
Amadou Diallo’s legacy lives on through his family and the Amadou Diallo foundation at amadoudiallo.org. Amadou’s untimely death has also been honored by musical artists such as Bruce Springsteen, The Strokes, Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean, and several others; as well as in television, movies, and writing. Diallo’s high-profile case has drawn parallels to other deaths due to police brutality and racial profiling such as Sean Bell, and the thousands of cases that occur from policing in the United States.
Dr. Thomas Matthew was an important and controversial figure in New York City during the 1960’s and 1970s, but somehow many New Yorkers haven’t heard of him. Dr. Thomas Matthew was born in a basement next to Harlem’s Knickerbocker Hospital after his mother was refused service due to her being a Black woman. Dr. Matthew’s father actually worked as a janitor at Knickerbocker Hospital. Dr. Matthew attended Bronx Science High School and Manhattan College, becoming the first Black graduate of both schools. He went on to attend to Meharry Medical College in Nashville and completed his internship at St Louis City Hospital. Dr Thomas Matthew successfully became a neurosurgeon in the United States and the head of neurosurgery at Coney Island Hospital.
Aside from his wide array of accomplishments, Dr. Matthew was an activist and founded NEGRO, National Economic Growth and Reconstruction Organization. He advocated against the use of welfare programs for the advancement of Black people and pushed “Black capitalism” as the solution. 63 members of NEGRO squatted on Ellis Island which landed in a victory of the organization’s permission to develop the island as a rehabilitation center for prisoners and people with drug addiction. One of the major focal points of Dr. Matthew’s solution for Black advancement through capitalism was the creation of different businesses to employ Black people through, such as textile factories, chemical plants, and other small businesses in cities such as New York, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles. Dr. Matthew would go on to found the Interfaith Hospital in Jamaica, Queens to contribute towards more jobs.
In 1967, Dr. Matthew observed the lack of public transportation in South Jamaica, Queens, the neighborhood his hospital served directly. According to Dr Matthew, 50,000 Black people in the area had to walk up to 10 blocks to reach the nearest line, then transfer to buses, and end up paying up to three fares just to get to the nearest hospitals in the area. Black patients in the area became frustrated with the complicated and costly trips to the hospital. In response to the adverse effects of this lack of convenient transportation in South Jamaica, Dr. Matthew stated “the result is that they don’t come, and they don’t get proper medical care.” Dr. Matthew began running two 1954 Ford school buses to help with community requests of additional routes, that were met with no responses from the Transit Authority and private lines in the area. The bus company only charged 20 cent fares and ran from the predominantly Black neighborhood of South Jamaica directly to Interfaith Hospital, 175-10 88th Avenue, the border of Jamaica Estates, a predominantly white neighborhood.
Dr. Matthew’s reasoning for not applying for a franchise although it was a required by the City of New York was precise and calculated: he simply did not want it to be delayed by “bureaucratic red tape:”
“Detroit is burning with $300 million worth of damage in a ‘hot’ riot, he said. “What we are in the process of doing is creating a ‘cool’ riot. The cool riot, which we purposefully undertake, is doing things that will be productive for our group and all society, but couldn’t be done through bureaucratic red tape.”
Negro Surgeon Starts Bus In Line Without Franchise, New York Times, November 2, 1967
Reporters reached out to Morris Tarshis, the Director of Franchises for New York City, but he was never reached. A representative of the Transit Authority said an application submitted by Dr. Matthew for his franchise, would most likely be discarded to rid the city of competition. Dr. Matthew’s expectation was to be arrested at the inaugural run of his bus operation known as Blue and White bus line. Officers ignored the run of the line as Black people in the neighborhood cheered happily at the sight of the new bus line. A white shopkeeper in South Jamaica stated that he believed the Blue and White bus line would increase more traffic to businesses in the area, with a Black real estate worker also claiming that property values would rise because of it. Dr. Matthew would go on to create a Blue and White Bus Line for Black residents of the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles, California.
In 1969, Dr Matthew was sentenced to six months in prison for willful failure to file an income tax return. After serving 59 days, President Nixon granted special clemency to Dr. Matthew:
Dr. Matthew had contended that he would not contribute money to a Government whose official policy was the continuation of welfare. Since being released from prison he has paid the $9,000 cited in the indictment and says that he will pay the rest, which has been estimated at $150,000, when the Internal Revenue Service sets the amount.
NEGRO’s Tactician, New York Times, August 20, 1970
In September 1972, Interfaith Hospital lost its certification and became defunct. Later in 1973, Dr. Matthew would have yet another run in with law enforcement after being charged with 121 counts of grand larceny and conspiracy, which accused him of taking $200,000 of Medicaid funds from the Interfaith Hospital and diverting it towards several of his two projects: the Watts bus line and a drug-addiction facility in Harlem, known then as Freedom Village. Dr. Matthew acknowledged that money had been spent towards both projects, but stated it provided job opportunities for people who were treated with drug and alcohol addictions at Interfaith Hospital. These charges were announced by Queens District Attorney Thomas J. Mackell. In response to his arrest, Dr. Matthew called it a “political thing to use a popular Black man to whitewash their own problems.” After a three-week trial in October and November of 1973, Dr. Matthew was sentenced to three years in prison: “The truth will come out in the appeal,” the surgeon said. Asked how he felt about going to jail, he said, “If I have to go to prison to establish justice and equality of opportunity for Black America I’ll go.”
On March 3, 1975, an appeals court in Brooklyn reversed the 1973 conviction of Dr. Matthew: “The five-member court unanimously dismissed all 71 larceny counts in the original indictment, threw out a three-year prison sentence pending against Dr. Matthew and suggested that the case against him had been so flimsy that Justice Thomas S. Agresta, who presided, should have dropped it halfway through the trial.” Following the reversal, The Appeals Court stated “there is not one fragment of testimonial or documentary evidence to suggest that the defendant acted with larcenous intent.”
Dr. Thomas Matthew viewed his ventures as preventive medicine: ““I really think that every thing that I do is part of my practice.”
How ironic is it to see people who barely interact with Black people from the neighborhoods they’ve moved into, hang “Black Lives Matter” banners and placards from their windows? Or in front of properties and businesses that have largely ignored the Black people existing around them? Do Black lives matter when you take over the community gardens? Do Black lives matter when that old building is renovated after Black people were evicted to now house others from other cities and different class background and/or race? Do they matter when that group of men are outside loud late at night, drinking, smoking, playing dice, and you’re calling the cops on them because you won’t be able to wake up on time for your fancy job? Do Black lives matter for the people in the NYCHA complex that have no heat or hot water in the winter, dirty building conditions, infestations, and more, while you live in your beautiful apartment in a building across the street from it? Do Black lives matter when you rush to the train to go to work or to a bar or anywhere, and you see a Black person homeless and addicted to drugs?
This may strike a nerve for liberals who are only outraged by anti-Black state violence that is recorded and shared for masses across the country and world to see. An argument against this is that it may be “divisive,” that “it’s not the same,” and “at least they’re standing up for us now,” “or that gentrification is making life better for Black people.”
State violence is not only getting your ass beat and/or murdered by police. Gentrification is state violence perpetrated by local and state officials against poor Black people to “revitalize” neighborhoods that they’ve been red-lined into and economically strangled in for decades. Being pushed in and pushed out is a historical phenomenon for Black people in the United States and the diaspora; we can refer to the Middle Passage.
Again, people will say this is divisive, not the correct time to bring it up, or at least we have “allies,” but none of this can be refuted against actual research. So let the hurt feelings commence.
Let’s look at some statistics from the Furman Center:
While rents only increased modestly in the 1990s, they rose everywhere in the 2000s, most rapidly in the low-income neighborhoods surrounding central Manhattan.
Most neighborhoods in New York City regained the population they lost during the 1970s and 1980s, while the population in the average gentrifying neighborhood in 2010 was still 16 percent below its 1970 level.
One third of the housing units added in New York City from 2000 to 2010 were added in the city’s 15 gentrifying neighborhoods despite their accounting for only 26 percent of the city’s population.
Gentrifying neighborhoods experienced the fastest growth citywide in the number of college graduates, young adults, childless families, non-family households, and white residents between 1990 and 2010-2014. They saw increases in average household income while most other neighborhoods did not.
Rent burden has increased for households citywide since 2000, but particularly for low- and moderate-income households in gentrifying and non-gentrifying neighborhoods. • The share of recently available rental units affordable to low-income households declined sharply in gentrifying neighborhoods between 2000 and 2010-2014.
There was considerable variation among the sub-borough areas classified as gentrifying neighborhoods; for example, among the sub-borough areas classified as gentrifying, the change in average household income between 2000 and 2010-2014 ranged from a decrease of 16 percent to an increase of 41 percent.
This is a broad look at New York City. Now let’s look even more specifically at a neighborhood such as Bedford-Stuyvesant, widely known for its rapid gentrification. This information comes from An Economic Snapshot of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Neighborhood straight from the New York State comptroller’s office:
The population in Bedford-Stuyvesant grew by 34 percent between 1980 and 2015, faster than the citywide rate of growth
In 2015, there was a wide disparity in median household incomes between new residents ($50,200) and long-term residents ($28,000).
The number of households with incomes below the federal poverty level has increased by 13 percent since the end of the recession.
The share of households that devoted more than 30 percent of their incomes to rent increased from 47 percent to 55 percent between 2005 and 2015.
Residents suffer from above-average incidences of chronic health problems.
Interesting, right? Let’s look into some more information from this publication:
Overall, more than one-quarter (29 percent) of the population had at least a bachelor’s degree. However, there was a disparity between long-term and new residents.1 In 2015, less than one-fifth of long-term residents had at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with nearly half of new residents (46 percent).
An Economic Snapshot of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Neighborhood
It gets even more grim in terms of housing and income. Research from the SAME PUBLICATION notes:
In addition, there is a wide disparity between long-term and new residents with respect to income. In 2015, new residents comprised one-third of the households. The new residents had a median household income of $50,200, compared to $28,000 for long-term residents. This is a relatively new development. In 2010, the household income of new residents was similar to those of long-term residents. The share of households living in poverty has hovered at about 30 percent since the end of the recession, significantly higher than the citywide poverty rate (19 percent). Moreover, the number of households in poverty increased by 13 percent from 13,800 in 2009 to 15,600 in 2015. One-third of all households receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits (i.e., food stamps), compared to one-fifth citywide. There were 14,000 senior residents (defined as 65 years or older) living in the neighborhood. Most seniors are long-term residents. Their median household income is low ($25,500 in 2015), and 42 percent rely on SNAP benefits. The number of residents aged 55 to 64 rose rapidly (by 18 percent) between 2010 and 2015.
An Economic Snapshot to the Bedford-Stuyvesant Neighborhood
It’s even harmed the Black children in Bed-Stuy’s school district:
Rising housing costs and low incomes have contributed to increased displacement and homelessness. Bedford-Stuyvesant has a large number of homeless shelters and other temporary housing sites. School District 16 (which covers most of the neighborhood) has one of the highest concentrations of homeless students in New York City, according to the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness
An Economic Snapshot to the Bedford-Stuyvesant Neighborhood
This is just a look into New York City as a whole and a brief delve into Bed-Stuy. Think about Long Island City which is facing rapid gentrification and almost had to face an Amazon headquarters funded by New York tax payer money. Or Harlem that is facing a quick demographic shift with conditions becoming worse for long-term residents. Or the South Bronx also facing gentrification, with politicians and artists marketing Hip Hop culture as the gateway to displacement and revitalization.
What are we supposed to do with a street in every borough named “Black Lives Matter?” Sheer symbolism is a slap in the face to long-time residents that are barely living check-to-check, ignored and shunned by local and state politicians, and the new residents who treat them as outsiders. When you’re done with your photo opportunities and feel-good theatrics, your life will remain the same, as Black people who are being gentrified out are facing even worse conditions during a pandemic that has harmed them disproportionately. What about Black and Latino New Yorkers receiving more than 81 percent of social distancing summonses by the NYPD? It is not enough to have our oppression recognized and seemingly funneled into liberal politics and marketing for corporations.
Before Netflix’s “Tiger King,” that follows a white trash gay, drug-addicted, narcissistic zoo owner from Oklahoma known as Joe Exotic, his ally Doc Antle, an exotic animal zoo and sex cult owner, and his arch nemesis Carole Baskin, a “sanctuary” owner, and the unfolding of their melodrama and crimes, a Black man once reigned as the “tiger king” in a New York City Housing Authority complex.
Antoine Yates, a 31-year old cab driver from Harlem, New York, purchased Ming, an 8-week old male Bengal-Siberian hybrid tiger from the BEARCAT Hollow Animal Park in Racine, Minnesota in April 2000. Yates lived in a five-bedroom apartment in the Drew Hamilton Houses on West 141st Street with Ming. On September 30, 2003, Antoine Yates admitted himself to Harlem Hospital for what he described as a bite on the leg from a pitbull dog. Medical personnel from Harlem Hospital were suspicious of Yates’ story, attributing his bites to an animal with a huger jaw than one of a pitbull. It was later found that Antoine was bit as he tried to protect a cat from Ming’s attack.
Yates checked out of Harlem Hospital on October 3rd, and the investigation started as the New York Police Department was anonymously tipped off about Yates’ potentially housing an exotic animal. A day later, officers dramatically raided Yates’ apartment to hear the roars and see the enormous face of a 2-year old 350-pound Ming. A police sniper rappelled the side of the building to fire tranquilizer darts at Ming through a fifth-floor window of apartment 5E. Once inside Yates’ apartment, officers found a 5-foot long alligator roaming.
Ming was subdued as police officers struggled to get him down the NYCHA elevator. By the next day, Ming was sent to the Noah’s Lost Ark Animal Sanctuary in Berlin Center, Ohio and met with journalists trying to break the story.
Antoine Yates faced seven years on reckless endangerment charges. His mother, Martha Yates, also faced charges for endangering the welfare of a child she was babysitting. In 2004, Martha and Antoine reached plea agreements, which granted Antoine five years’ probation and six months of jail time. Martha’s charges were reduced to disorderly conduct and no time served.
Antoine expressed the sorrow that came with the raid of his Harlem apartment that resulted in the loss of Ming and his personal life:
”I feel hurt, torn up,” he said. ”I have lost everything: my house, the only friend I had — Ming — and I lost my honor, so that my mother could be free.”
Antoine has maintained that he shared a bond with Ming, as he fed him 20 pounds chicken parts daily, built him a sandpit and even shared his bed with him. Animal advocates and city officials condemned the ownership of big cats as pets:
Ellen Whitehouse, who runs the sanctuary where the tiger is now being kept, says all but one of the 22 tigers at her sanctuary were kept as pets, including one who was kept chained in a basement.
“There are a lot of people out there that think they can be tamed,” she said. “And they can’t. They are wild animals and wild animals can’t be tamed.”
Housing authority spokesman Howard Marder also condemned it:
“It’s under investigation,” spokesman Howard Marder said. “We were incredulous to learn that someone residing in public housing could have such disregard for the safety of his neighbors. … It’s not to be tolerated.”
Friends of Antoine supported him and lauded him as someone who deeply cared for Ming:
Jerome Applewhite, 43, who lives on the 18th floor, first encountered Ming about three years ago, when he stopped at the apartment for a visit and saw Mr. Yates sitting with the tiger cub cradled in his arms.”
He was feeding it with a bottle,” Mr. Applewhite said. ”He cared for his pets.”
Some even suggested he treated Ming better than those at the Bronx Zoo:
Darryl Windwood, a childhood friend of Mr. Yates, said any punishment seemed excessive. ”He was unjustly done,” said Mr. Windwood. ”He wasn’t being cruel to his tiger. The tiger was healthier than some animals at the Bronx Zoo.”
In February 2019, Ming reportedly had a harmonious ceremony with his cremated remains sent to Hartsdale Pet Cemetery in Westchester County, with a beautiful memoriam.
Antoine Yates and Ming’s story is one that has become city lore, a story that doesn’t seem odd or an anomaly in a city such as New York.
Rest in peace, Ming and much peace to Antoine Yates.
The Grand Concourse, one of the Bronx’s most famous thoroughfares, has gone through a tremendous transformation in terms of class character and race in over a century. Conceived by French engineer Louis Aloys Risse in 1870, the Grand Concourse was built between the years of 1902 and 1909. It extended only as far as 161st Street until a widened portion of Mott Avenue was included. As the Grand Concourse became a prime location for government, entertainment and shopping centers, the main route for parades and a plethora of other events and commercial buildings, it attracted wealthy residents. The Interborough Rapid Transit, also known as the IRT, was the gateway that would allow people to move from Manhattan to the Bronx’s Grand Concourse. The IRT Jerome Avenue line opened in 1917 and allowed for a housing boom amongst wealthy Jews and Italians who fled the tenements of Manhattan.
By the 1950s, the racial demographics of the Grand Concourse started to transform. Blacks and Puerto Ricans gradually began their migration from the hoods of Morrisania and South Bronx to the north and west, in search of better living conditions on the white, wealthy, maintained avenues parallel to the Concourse: “A recent study by a social service agency predicted that the area, 98 percent white in 1950, would be less than 50 percent white in 1975.” With this emergence of Black residents in the area, the white residents started to seek elsewhere as their presence on the Grand Concourse declined swifter than imagined:
The builders of Co-Op City, a 15,000-unit middle-income development planned for the Northeast Bronx, have reported that a ‘sizable’ number of their first 5,000 applications came from the Concourse area.
This report paired with the numbers of whites who fled the Concourse, city officials feared that the area was on a decline and wanted to save the Concourse, “not as a white preserve, but as a stable, integrated community.” Whether the city officials actually were for integration or not, they definitely sought to keep the neighborhood from deterioration due to white flight:
Thirty building inspectors are thoroughly examining an area four blocks on either side of the Concourse from 138th Street to Burnside Avenue. The area from Tremont Avenue just south of Burnside at 177th Street to Fordham Road will receive city and Federal aid for rehabilitation and new construction under the low-rent public housing programs.
The white flight of the Grand Concourse began with white families who sought “better areas” to raise children in, elders who retired to Florida and adults raised in the area as children who sought to break from the area’s bourgeois character. With the loss of residents, vacancies occurred at a rapid rate. Rather than losing out on money from vacancies, the landlords decided to rent to Black people: “The landlords decided to accept Negroes rather than vacancies,” said a real estate man.”
City officials claimed they did not believe that Black people’s move into the Grand Concourse area caused the area to deteriorate but that the reaction to the Black migration produced reactions that lead to decline: “People have become afraid simply because there is change,” said one official, “and it is intensified if the change is also racial.” Whether the officials believed that Black migration into predominantly white neighborhoods directly caused the areas to collapse, the officials openly admitted to the racist reactions from long-time white residents. The acceleration of Black migrants to the concourse area led to building managers’ careless approach to maintenance. Sanitation workers, police protection and recreational facilities grew unreliable to the community.
The flight led the Grand Concourse to become susceptible to predators that suddenly appeared in the area to play on the fears of racist white residents to employ the use of blockbusting. These same predators exploited poor Black families :
“When someone dies they move in an undesirable family, one on welfare with three kids in a bedroom. They cut services to the bone. Less stable families come in, sometimes several in one apartment so they can pay the rent, which of course goes up 15 percent.” – Aide to Representative James H. Scheuer
Racist white residents chose who were the “acceptable” and unacceptable Blacks in their eyes: the acceptable Blacks were “the new neighbors who can afford the rent in their buildings,” but the poor Blacks from the ghettos from the east and south were a problem: “There is no wall between us and the slums.” The residents could not separate the acceptable Blacks and the Blacks from the slums who they feared, especially at night as businesses employed the use of metal screens to guard their windows. The fear of integration with Blacks and Puerto Ricans, especially if poor, was the core of white residents’ white flight and pushback. A school teacher from the Concourse said: “for most of these parents, a good school is a white school.” Others in the neighborhood chimed in about the ongoing demographic changes to the concourse:
It’s too late to save the area. We’re not going to stop it. If Negroes and Puerto Ricans come in, there is no incentive to keep up the buildings. Maybe that’s prejudice, maybe that’s bigotry, but that’s what happens.
The quote was proven true by the city officials in the decades that came. By the 1970s, the Grand Concourse area eventually faced an era of decay due to neglect for its Black and Puerto Rican constituents, which was a trend in neighborhoods in New York City such as Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant. Blocks were abandoned with vacant buildings left unattended by landlords who fled the Bronx and the decay of the Grand Concourse. During the 1980s, landlords worked with private developers, tenants, and community organizations in hopes of neighborhood resurgence. On December 18, 1987, New York City officials transferred the last five vacant apartment buildings on the concourse to developers in hopes to aid a revitalization of housing needed in the area.
Present-day, the Bronx has become the subject of gentrification as politicians and developers have used its history as the birthplace of Hip Hop to market the borough as a new hot-spot. The gentrification comes with an ethnic change in the racial demographics of the Concourse that actively displaces Blacks and Puerto Ricans: “The elevated housing demand in the neighborhoods around the boulevard pushed the median home sale price to increase 68% in just 5 years—from 2014 to 2018.”
Celebrated as the most diverse place in the world, the borough of Queens has a dark history under its melting pot of nationalities.
On July 4th, 1989, a group of eight young Black family members decided to celebrate the holiday with fireworks on the Public School 195 playground on 253rd Street and 149th Avenue, in Rosedale, Queens. A 22-year-old white man by the name of Michael Sims, a former Rosedale resident, falsely posed as a police officer and demanded the group stop setting off firecrackers. Sims then proceeded to tell the group of Black youth that he can have them killed “at the snap of his fingers.” When asked for identification, Sims left and returned with a group of estimated 35 white men, wielding bats and sticks. The white supremacist mob taunted the group and said “this is our park!.” and chased the group of Black youth out of the playground.
The group of Black youth was able to retreat to a house on 254th Street where one of them, Fabrice Thembaud, was actually visiting. Unable to get inside, the white supremacist mob surrounded the house, shouted racial epithets, and pounded on the door before they ran off.
Five men apart of the white supremacist mob were arrested and indicted for the harassment and assault on the eight members of the Black family. Prior to being charged with first-degree assault and facing 15 years for a felony charge, the first arrest in the mob attack, was charged with just second-degree aggravated harassment, a misdemeanor with a punishment of only one year in jail. This charge was given to 17-year-old James La Greca, the son of the Assistant District Attorney of Queens, Linda La Greca. Theodore Wellington and Stephen G. James, lawyers for the Black family, said the charges were way too lenient and at the very least, La Greca should be charged with assault and attempted murder for using a stick on one of the victims.
Alongside the upgraded charges for the five men arrested, was police Captain Robert Cividanes’ public acknowledgment that it had been about 35 minutes between the time the police received the first 911 call about the mob attack on the Black family, and the time that the first police car was assigned to respond to the incident. Cividanes’ excuse was that the 105th Precinct “was in a backlog condition.” The Black family stated that “a police car didn’t show up for an hour or two.”
The lawyer for James La Greca proclaimed he was being treated unfairly due to being the son of the Assistant District Attorney after the charges were sharply upgraded but the prosecutor James Hubert, told Justice Charles J. Thomas that La Greca “clearly acted in concert,” with the other defendants. James Hubert also said that La Greca made incriminating statements in his testimony and to the police.
One of the five defendants, Robert Gadero, a 24-year-old from The Bronx, was found to not be a participant in the July 4th white supremacist mob attack, lessening the defendants to four in total. The four defendants, James La Greca, Gary Santanastasio, Michael Sims, and Richard De Curtis, had their bails set at prices ranging from $1,500 to $5,000, and not-guilty pleas entered by their defense lawyers.
The sentiment from the white residents of Rosedale remained on the side of support for the participants in the white supremacist mob attack:
”They’re trying to make it a Howard Beach and it has nothing to do with Howard Beach,” said Kenneth Gallub, a 22-year-old who had lived in Rosedale and had returned for a visit. He was referring to a 1986 racial attack in another Queens neighborhood in which a black man was struck and killed by a passing car as he sought to escape from a group of whites chasing him.
”It wasn’t racial,” Fran Jannello, a 20-year-old white resident of the area, insisted heatedly as she and a group of friends stood outside the yard of Public School 195 at 149th Avenue and 253d Street, the site of the incident.
Denise Zumpano, also 20, said James La Greca, a 17-year-old who lives across the street from the schoolyard and has been charged with aggravated harassment in the case, ”had nothing to do with it,” Mr. La Greca was the only person arrested as of last night.
– The New York Times
The white residents deflected and despised being seen as another Howard Beach. On the flipside, Black residents of Rosedale told a different narrative that contradicts and tells the truth about the reality of race-relations in Rosedale:
“Black residents of the area interviewed as they stopped by the schoolyard said they had not witnessed the incident, but spoke of the sometimes uneasy proximity in which whites and blacks lived in Rosedale, a working-class and middle-class community of predominantly private homes, which lies along the Nassau County border.
”When a black moves in, you can feel the tension,” said Harold Weekes, a 36-year old employee of a car-rental agency who also lives down the block from the schoolyard. ”People stand around and point.”
– The New York Times
Despite Queens and New York City as a whole being seen as a melting pot multiracial paradise, the history of race relations needs to be examined and not swept under the rug. As white people fled neighborhoods due to the rise of Black and other ethnicities moved in, they continued to engage in violent acts such as the mob attack in Rosedale, Queens to strike fear in the hearts of non-whites who dared to move in “their neighborhoods.”
Usually, when horrorcore is a topic in rap discussions, lyricists such as Brotha Lynch Hung, Geto Boys, Three 6 Mafia, and even Eminem are the subjects; and rightfully so. Defined perfectly by The Michigan Daily:
Marked by harsh, aggressive beats and over-the-top depictions of taboo subjects, horrorcore is hip hop’s foray into the supernatural. Often it was an outlet for their twisted fantasies. Drug abuse, slasher-style murder, mental derangement, and satanic messages all found a home in horrorcore.
With horrorcore’s huge presence in Midwest, West Coast and South, New York’s participation and pioneering in the horrorcore subgenre can be traced back to Kool Keith and Jimmy Spencer before the term was even invented. Gravediggaz, as pioneers of horrorcore, were composed of The Undertaker, The RZArector, The Grym Reaper, and The Gatekeeper. Gravediggaz’s music was filled with themes of black humor, death, suicide, and more taboo subjects that were met with criticism by the media upon the release of their first studio album in 1994, “6 Feet Deep.”
Another pioneering group, Flatlinerz, composed of Tempest, Gravedigga and Redrum, meshed hardcore and horror to create some horrific rhymes and visuals.
Although horrorcore is largely known for its gruesome lyrics and themes that can be deemed as “cartoonish,” as the use of imagery can paint scenes straight out of a slasher flick, New York’s horrorcore often used dark realities of the poor Black experience as its “horror.” Here are a few of my favorite examples:
Big L – “Danger Zone”:
Still, one of the most creative ways to explain the horrors and ills from the poverty he experienced in Harlem. He metaphorically treats Harlem as “hell” due to all of the occurrences stemming from such poverty and placed himself first person as the “Devil’s Son.”
2. Mobb Deep – “Survival Of The Fittest”
All throughout their second album, “The Infamous,” Prodigy and Havoc explore the dark days they’ve spent throughout Queensbridge. In “Survival Of The Fittest,” the duo spit about the depression faced as they casually hustled for money, sported bulletproof vests to see another day in conditions “similar to Vietnam.”
3. Onyx- “Last Dayz”
The gritty and raspy trio from Queens which composed of Fredro Starr, Sonny Seeza and Sticky Fingaz was also spitting about the dark realities of incarceration, committing crimes against their own, and wishing for riches.
4. DMX – “Damien” trilogy
DMX’s Damien trilogy starts in his debut album, “It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot,” continues as “The Omen” featuring Marilyn Manson in “Flesh Of My Flesh, Blood Of My Blood,” and finishes as “Damien 3” in “The Great Depression” album. DMX commits acts of violence for Damien, a character that symbolizes the devil, in exchange for fame and fortune, even being convinced to shoot a friend. The Damien character references the movie “The Omen.”
New York horrorcore has proven that life’s ills create some of the scariest realities that one could imagine, and laying it on wax gives listeners the chance to hear the horros for themselves.
DISCRETION: This thesis research paper was done for the completion of my Bachelors of Arts in History at Mercy College 2019. For any inquiries, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org!
HARLEM & BEDFORD-STUYVESANT:
HOW RACISM AND PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION DEVELOPED TWO OF NEW YORK CITY’S BLACKEST NEIGHBORHOODS
Beginning in the early 20th century, New York City’s Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhoods developed into two of the largest African American enclaves in the United States. The creation of the New York-Harlem railroad helped African Americans commute from downtown Manhattan to Harlem in search of suitable housing. As 6 million Southern Black Americans migrated to the Midwest and Northeast to flee economic deprivation, Harlem developed into a black mecca with the political, intellectual, and cultural arts explosion historically known as the “Harlem Renaissance.” As the neighborhood became overpopulated, the Independent Subway System (IND) made an extension to its Eight Avenue-Fulton Street A train line which resulted in more opportunities for living space and jobs for African Americans. Harlem’s black residents fled the overcrowded neighborhood using the A train which led to the creation of another black neighborhood in Bedford-Stuyvesant. As history has shown, accessible and affordable transportation has been the principle reason as to why black people were willing to migrate from the south to the North and then furthermore from Harlem to Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Prior to the influx of Dutch settlers during the 1600s, indigenous people populated what would become the five boroughs of New York City. The Lenapes, which translates to “the Peoples,” had already inhabited the land for 1,500 years by 1500 AD with a population of about 5,000. Lenapes called their homeland Lenapehoking which extended to the Mid-Atlantic portion of the United States covering New York City, Long Island, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Amongst the band of Lenapes were the Rockaway, Hackensack, Manhattan, Canarsee, Wappinger and Rechgawank. The Lenape created routes to avoid swamps and marshes several of them still used in present-day such as Broadway, Flatbush Avenue, parts of Atlantic Avenue, and Kings Highway. In present-day Harlem, the indigenous band known as the Wappinger inhabited the land and stretched to Dutchess County and Connecticut. Similarly in present-day Bedford-Stuyvesant, the indigenous band of Canarsee inhabited the land.
By the 17th century, Europe was crippled by plagues and wars. Aside from the epidemics, many Europeans cited “religious freedom” as their reasons for leaving the countries they inhabited to move to the Netherlands for sanctuary. Europeans in the Netherlands were becoming merchant capitalists and began to travel abroad in search of new land to conquer. The island of Mannahatta, soon to be renamed Manhattan, was the first part of New York City to be settled by the Dutch. At the southeastern tip of the island along the Hudson River, the Dutch West India Company created an outpost in 1624 and named the entire colony named New Netherlands to capitalize on the fur trade. At the southern tip of Long Island, Brooklyn was also settled by the Dutch West India Company almost a decade after Manhattan. With neighboring wetlands, forests, fertile lands and harbors, the Dutch West India Company did not hesitate to begin buying the land. The Lenape and other indigenous groups would lose a hold of their home through dishonorable land deals, smallpox, and wars. In Brooklyn township, the Dutch settlers would establish villages with other European settlers from Germany, Scandinavia, England, and France.
The Dutch West India Company imported eleven enslaved African men to the New Netherlands in 1626 with three enslaved African women imported the following year in 1627. The purpose of the newly imported African slave labor was to transform New Netherlands from wetlands and wilderness into a prosperous port. The enslaved African workforce was used to build houses, infrastructure, tend to livestock, construct Fort Amsterdam and to protect the settlement from attacks by indigenous bands. Slavery under the Dutch West India Company was not as restricted as other slave holding colonies. African slaves and white indentured servants were treated as “a single social class, subject to the same restrictions with regard to personal freedom and property ownership.”1 Many enslaved Africans and white indentured servants were able to buy their freedom. The Dutch West India Company allotted lands to slaves downtown outskirts for their own farms in the 1640. A simple conversion to Christian faith allowed formerly enslaved blacks to work wherever they pleased and be married by the Dutch Reformed Church.
Named after the Dutch city of Haarlem in the Netherlands, Harlem was settled in the seventeenth century by Dutch farmers. The first Dutch settlement in the Upper Manhattan area was established by Jesse De Forest. Disputes between the Lenape and Dutch settlers began to sharpen leading to the Wappinger War, also known as Kieft’s War. General William Kieft of New Netherlands had attempted to subdue Lenape natives since 1641 which resulted in the beginning of the war in 1643. On February 25, General Kieft’s militia massacre 120 Lenape natives. In the same year, 1,500 Lenape natives retaliate and destroy 40 farms with failed attempts at peace. The results of Kieft’s war resulted in several European deaths and over 1,000 deaths of Lenape. The buying and selling of enslaved Africans in New Netherlands began in 1646 with the first imports coming from Africa through Brazil. By 1655, Africans were being brought to New Netherlands directly from Africa. In only five years, New Netherlands held the biggest slave market in the North American continent while also home to free black landowners “The Company will endeavor to supply the colonists with as many blacks as it possibly can, on the conditions hereafter to be made, without however being bound to do so to a greater extent or for a longer time than it shall see fit.” The English captured the colony and transformed New Netherlands to New York. The English continued to build the slave market built up by the Dutch.
By the nineteenth century, Harlem’s population were made up of mostly white people. A major construction of a railroad line would lead to a shift in Harlem’s demographics despite it not being the intention of those who planned and constructed it. In 1832, the first railroad connecting Lower Manhattan to Harlem would be constructed, known as the New York and Harlem Railroad, New York City’s first ever railroad. The intent of this line was to make it easier for the wealthy white people travel between Lower and Upper Manhattan by means of an easily accessible mode of transportation and ultimately to transform Harlem into a white suburb:
The line of route fixed upon by the Board of Directors, September 13th, 1831, is through the centre of Fourth avenue from the north side of Twenty-third street to Harlem river. The track was first laid from Prince street to Twenty-third street. On the 26th of November, 1832, the track was completed from Prince Street to Fourteenth Street, and cars began running between these two points, about a mile apart. This was the first street railroad built in the City of New York. Locomotives ran down as far as Fourteenth Street.2
Prior to wealthy white people moving into Harlem, it was a place where immigrants were living due to cheap rent while commuting downtown using the railroad during the middle of the nineteenth century. Tenement houses were created for the poor, working-class population of Harlem out of old houses. The first tenement opened in lower Manhattan in 1833, but by the 1870s tenements were all over Harlem filled up with Puerto Rican, Jewish and Irish immigrants. By filling in the swamps and flattening the hills, the New York City authorities made attempts at creating more housing for the poor residents for Harlem. Poor immigrants were forced to live in tenements and old rundown buildings in horrific living conditions while still going to work. Harlem’s poorest residents lived in “wretched, improvised shacks constructed from wooden crates cast off by factories in Manhattanville and East Harlem.”
Men, women, and children, dogs, cows, pigs, goats, geese, ducks, and chickens are almost promiscuously mixed together. The street is rank with filth and stench, and the consequence is that mortality holds high carnival there.3
As the living conditions in the Lower East Side section of Manhattan deteriorated, the prices were incredibly expensive and the neighborhoods were overcrowded, wealthy white people started to move uptown to Harlem for cheaper rents. Opportunist real estate developers decided this was the time to beautify Harlem for the wealthy. As the poor immigrants lived in tenements, shacks, and old rundown homes, real estate developers decided to tear down the slums of Harlem to create luxury housing for new wealthy and working-class, white residents. The real estate developers invested deeply in Harlem for the white wealthy newcomers, leading to property values in the area to rise. In its writing of Harlem, the New York Times wrote that the neighborhood was “one of the most densely populated and prosperous wards in the City,” with almost fifty thousand people, a police precinct, a public library, and four newspapers.”4
As Harlem became a bastion for economic growth, it was annexed by the city authorities in 1873 due to a nationwide financial crisis. Despite the annexation and financial crisis, Harlem saw new construction of sights such as Oscar Hammerstein’s opera house on 125th Street in 1889, the world’s largest gothic cathedral, St. John the Divine in 1892 on West 112th Street and Amsterdam Avenue and finally the completion of the Columbia University campus on 116th Street and Broadway in 1897.5 Brownstones lined the blocks along West 110th Street with the real estate agents ensuring that “great care is taken of the property to preserve its exclusive appearance,” in its advertisement to white wealthy New Yorkers.6 Costs of rent differed drastically in other parts of New York City filled with working-class residents between 10 to 12 dollars in contrast to the starting price of 80 dollars for upper-class white Harlem.7 The over-investment into Harlem’s new demographic backfired as the neighborhood saw hundreds of newly constructed homes unsold and thousands of apartments unoccupied. The real estate developers and owners of buildings could not convince the white, upper-class to stay in Harlem after investing in property for them specifically. This reality did not stop white Harlem real estate agencies from trying to keep Harlem filled with white tenants. One example case of white owners and agents attempt to remove black tenants took place in April 1904:
It was the Hudson Realty Company that put the colored tenants out of the three houses. This concern had bought a tract of land fronting on 135th Street near Lenox Avenue. In order to increase the desirability of the property, which they were preparing to cut up in lots for sale to a builder, they bought the three tenements which are situated across the street from their own building lots, and which were then inhabited by negros and put in white tenants.
The Hudson Realty Company shamelessly purchased the three tenements with the intent to evict the black tenants and rehouse white tenants within them. Rehousing them with white tenants was the Hudson Realty Company’s desperate attempt at pitching to racist white owners who were now looking away from Harlem to own or rent.
A move to show power over black residents and how far the racist white elite would go to maintain Harlem as an upscale white neighborhood, the Hudson Realty Company ignited a fire in black residents that would yield results they weren’t prepared for. Between the years of 1890 to 1900, the black population of Manhattan grew by 41 percent from 25,674 to 36,426.8 Behind Manhattan’s surge of black residents were growing numbers of blacks leaving the South to escape segregation, racialized violence, poor living conditions and declining economic opportunities. Black people in downtown Manhattan were also facing violence from anti-black riots such as in Tenderloin, Minetta Lane and San Juan Hill.When the black people of Harlem saw the black tenants displaced for white tenants by the Hudson Realty Company to “increase desirability” for prospective white owners and renters, a plan of retaliation began. Banking on the desperation of the real estate agents and landlords of these buildings, as well as the black working-class in downtown Manhattan looking for suitable housing, Philip A Payton Jr sought to make sure black people would fill out the vacant homes, apartments and tenements in Harlem. Payton opened an office in 1900 which money from his custodian job to create housing opportunities for black people in Manhattan and published advertisements in an array of real estate publications. One of Payton’s advertisements read:
COLORED/TENEMENTS WANTED/Colored man makes a speciality of managing colored tenements; references; bond. Philip A. Payton, Jr., agent and broker, 67 W. 134th9
Years later, Payton would see the housing disputes between black and white people in Harlem. The frustration of the displacement of the black tenements led to the creation of the Afro-American Realty Company led by Philip A Payton Jr alongside other well-off African Americans. The Afro-American Realty Company began with an authorized capital of $50,000 and vowed to lease, buy and build flats and apartments to rent to black people in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn, so that any black person could live wherever in New York City if they had the money to pay for it.10 The men who started the movement were William Ten Eyek, Winston Dabney, Walter E. Handy, James A. Garner, John Stevenson, Wilford H. Smith, James C Thomas and, of course, Philip A Payton, Jr. Thomas was the President of the company with Payton Jr vice president and General Manager. In the prospectus of their company’s subscription magazine, they wrote:
The reason for the present condition of the colored tendency in New York City today is because of the race prejudice of the white owner and his white agent. When the owner becomes colored and his agent colored, then there is compelled to come an improvement of the condition.11
The Afro-American Realty Company suggested that racist white owners and their agents could never improve the housing segregation in New York City because they simply did not want to. Racist white owners and agents did not believe that black people should be living or simply coexisting in neighborhoods with white people. The mere presence of black residents would make the neighborhood look uninhabitable for the white renters as we saw with the the Hudson Realty Company’s move to evict black renters, and the Afro-American Realty Company sought to capitalize on the racism of white owners and agents also written in their prospectus magazine by Randolph:
Race prejudice is a luxury, and like all other luxuries, can be made very expensive in New York Cty. With a cash capital of $50,000 the Afro-American Realty Company can turn race prejudice into dollars and cents. The very prejudice which has heterofore worked against us can be turned and used for profit.12
The Afro American Realty Company’s methodical plan to house black people in New York City wherever they desired worked. Housing discrimination implemented by the Hudson Realty Company were not helping to occupy the very homes and buildings created for the prospective wealthy whites. Payton and his colleagues capitalized on the money the white owners were not receiving due to their racism, but not without retaliation.
In 1905, white tenants of three tenement houses on West 135th Street received dispossess notices from the Afro-American Realty Company.13A New York Times article wrote that “Philip A Payton Jr., who is chief organizer had obtained the title to the houses where they made their homes and decided to put out the white residents and put negros instead.” Payton and Afro-American Realty Company gave these three white tenants the same fate in which the black tenements faced at the hands of Hudson Realty Company. In the same New York Times article is stated that:
“Philip A Payton Jr in a few days will begin to fill the tenements on the other side of the street with negroes. The houses were bought, not from the Hudson Realty Company, because that concern had sold them long ago, but from Kassel and Goldberg, another real estate concern. Yesterday, they were sold again by Payton to a “client. No one doubts that the client is the Afro-American Realty Corporation.”14
Payton and his real estate partners sought vengeance against the Hudson Realty Company by putting the white tenants in the same exact position the Hudson Realty Company did to the black residents of the dispossessed tenements. As the Hudson Realty Company exerted their power to keep Harlem white, Payton and the Afro-American Realty Company returned the favor to assure that black people would live wherever they wanted in Harlem and that the neighborhood was now for them. The white residents of the tenements dispossessed by the Afro-American Realty Company were of working-class background and pleaded to keep their flats. This occurrence led to the sale and acquisition of the tenements that Hudson Realty Company originally dispossessed and evicted black renters from by the Afro-American Realty Company. In 1906, Payton and his company ventured even more Uptown as they called for black residents to rent in three-story flat house they purchased on 525 West 151st Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue. This flat house was also filled with white residents living within. The purchase of the flat house took place in late July of 1906 and the white residents were notified that they would have to leave by August 1st. The advertisement from the Afro-American Realty Company calling for black residents was a sign posted right outside the flathouse with a white background and red letters reading: “Choice Four and Five-Room Apartments for Colored Tenants. Apply [with] Janitor.”15
This purchase confused and angered the white residents within the flat house. The news of the flat house sale spread around the neighborhoods paired with the sign caused the white residents to grow indignant. The property at 525 West 151st Street was first owned by that Herman Raabe Sons of 161 Boulevard Lafayette who built the flathouse a year before the purchase and sold it to Louis Meyer of 320 Broadway as Louis Meyer eventually sold it to the Afro-American Realty Company.16 Louis Meyer introduced Payton to the woman who worked as the janitor in the flat house as “the agent for the new owners of the house here. He’s going to get all the white families out and put negro families in their places.” The woman went to tell all the white families who occupied the flat the bad news as Louis Meyer tasked her to nail the sign that called for prospective black residents to inquire about the newly available flats. The janitor, Mrs. Roth, refused to nail the sign as Meyer insisted he’ll have someone else, a black man, nail it instead. According to accounts from fifteen white flat house families, Payton greeted them with the August 1st move-out date: “You’ll have to get out by Aug. 1. We’ve got black families to take your place.”17 Soon enough word around the neighborhood spread so fast that even the Herman Raabe Sons found out the fate of the flat house they built:
It’s a trick to make us buy them out,” they declared. “We own other property in the same block, and anybody with common sense can see that if negroes move into that apartment building our values will be ruined. It’s an outrage—a shame. We’ll fight it to a finish.18
The other real estate company, Shearer & Ginsburg, shared the same sentiment as Herman Raabe Sons and vowed to fight for the properties in the neighborhood to remain filled with white residents. White real estate companies viewed the Afro-American Realty Company’s acquisition of properties as a conspiracy to bring down their property values with black residents. These real estate companies would not acknowledge how their racist practices led to the Afro-American Realty Company’s creation and bid to house black residents all over Harlem.
Payton’s successful housing of black residents earned him the nickname “Father of Harlem,” but his tendency to acquire more properties than tenants led him to suffer the same fate of the racist owners and agents he capitalized on. Legal troubles began to plague Payton as he continued his real estate venture. By 1907, Payton was arrested for fraud in a civil suit “brought against him and his company by Charles J. Crowder, acting for himself and as assignee for other stockholders in the company, to recover money paid for capital stock of the company and to have stock subscriptions cancelled.”19 Crowder’s complaint against Payton accused him of running the Afro-American Realty Company with the intent to deceive the general public and black people.20 Crowder alleged that amongst of Payton’s fraudulent statements:
$100,000 of the capital stock of the company had been paid in; that the company was in a position to do away with negro colonization in the City of New York; that the company was in a position to double the interest paid by savings banks; that it would pay from 7 to 10 percent dividends on every dollar invested in its stock; that the company held five-year leases on ten flats, while as a matter of fact all the leases contained sixty and ninety day cancellation clauses; that the company owned four five-story flats valued at $125,000, while as a matter of fact the company held an equity in four five-story flats worth about $10,000. Crowder also alleges that Payton concealed the fact that $50,000 of the stock of the company was issued to Payton and his associates fraudulently.”21
Payton retorted the claims of fraud brought onto him by saying that “the whole affair is a spite action brought against me by the former counsel of our company and several dissatisfied stockholders.”22 What would be left of the Afro-American Realty Company crumbled in the recession of 1907-1908. By this time, Harlem was already developed into the African American enclave as white property owners continued to resist, forming block associations and insisting on only renting or selling to whites. Organizations such as the Save Harlem Committee, the Protective Association for 130th to 132nd Streets, Anglo-Saxon Realty and the infamous Harlem Property Owners Improvement Association all fought to keep Harlem white. One tactic used by these organizations was petitions to keep black owners from renting to black people in Central Harlem led by a man named John G. Taylor. Amongst other tactics he used were:
Moral suasion to prevent other deals, opposing policy changes that allowed Negroes to use the New York Public Library branch at 103 West 135th Street, approving of mass evictions of blacks, working for the resegregation of the Sixth Avenue and Ninth Avenue elevated trains, hiring detectives to investigate new arrivals, and advocating a twenty-four-foot-high fence along West 136th Street to keep blacks from moving north.23
The employment of all these tactics showed the desperation of white Harlem residents and how fearful they were as they saw the transformation of Harlem into a black enclave from the stoop of their brownstones. The Harlem white owners and their agents invested into did not come into fruition as they hoped. The peculiar circumstances of racial prejudice and economics would continue to transform Harlem into a highly-populated black neighborhood. Years before World War 1, racial segregation led to “vacancy rates in black neighborhoods elsewhere in Manhattan dropped to the extraordinarily low rate of 3 percent by 1914.”24 Black and white landlords alike were more than willing to rent to black people in Harlem as they were able to pay the rent. Soon enough, the black exodus of the South, known as the Great Migration led to another spike of black population within the neighborhood Harlem. By 1916, an estimate of 6 million Southern Black Americans would migrate North to escape segregation, racial violence, and economic deprivation. By the end of World War 1, Harlem Between the years of 1920 to 1930, Harlem’s black population increased to 120,000. with the white population decreasing by the equivalent amount.
With an influx of black people from the South, black people from other parts of New York City and blacks who immigrated from the Caribbean, Harlem’s culture would develop into an expressive black art movement. The New Negro Movement, also known as the Harlem Renaissance, was an intellectual, artistic, and sociopolitical explosion characterized by the assertion of black voices in regards to race and class conscious demands. Harlem became home to black intellectuals, musicians, and writers such as Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Marcus Garvey, Claude McKay, W.E.B Dubois, Josephine Baker, and Jessie Fauset. The Cotton Club was a whites-only establishment but featured a variety of black musicians such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and Lena Horne. The Apollo Theater helped propel careers of black musicians such as Ella Fitzgerald. Political organizations such as the National Advancement Association for Colored People and the United Negro Improvement Association were invested in how to uplift and empower black people. The explosion of black and art within Harlem, led it to become overpopulated. Black people in Harlem needed more space to live and jobs to maintain their livelihood and a new train line would help address both needs at once.
Bedford Stuyvesant, colloquially known as Bed-Stuy, was named after the Dutch village of Bedford and governor Peter Stuyvesant in 1667. Bedford Stuyvesant was originally considered two separate neighborhoods: Bedford and Stuyvesant Heights. Bedford as a separate neighborhood was the first major, settlement in the borough positioned east of Long Island and Stuyvesant Heights was farmland built by enslaved black labor. In 1790, 60 percent of white families in Brooklyn held enslaved black people while only three percent of black people in Brooklyn were free. This would change with the abolition of slavery in New York state in 1827. Formerly enslaved African Americans moved to a subsection between Bedford and Flatbush named Weeksville which was recognized as one of the first free black communities in the United States in 1838. One of the country’s first black newspapers, The Freedman’s Torchlight, launched in Weeksville which helped fund community institutions such as the Berean Baptist Church, the Colored School No.2, the Zion Home for Aged Relief and the Howard Colored Orphanage Asylum.25 When arsonists burned down the Colored Orphan Asylum in Manhattan during the draft riots of 1865, many traumatized African Americans fled to Weeksville for shelter. Weeksville would lose its identity as a free black community with mass European immigration to Brooklyn. In 1883, the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge encouraged white wealthy people from Manhattan to inhabit Brooklyn. Stuyvesant Heights still housed a small, black bourgeoisie that lived in brownstones with white servants and traveled by horse and carriage in 1895. With the Williamsburg Bridge’s opening in 1907, Irish, Italian and German Jews people from the Lower East Side section of Manhattan moved in numbers to Brooklyn with many of them merchants, shopkeepers and professionals. The elite class fled Bedford and Stuyvesant Heights which left both sections to be inhabited by working-class Jews and Italians. The Great Migration would shift the demographics again dramatically.
In April 1936, the Independent Subway System line or IND, IND Eight Avenue line that covered the Inwood, Washington Heights, and Harlem neighborhoods of Manhattan was extended. New York City Mayor La Guardia announced the new IND Fulton Street line:
The new Fulton Street line, the Board of Transportation announced yesterday, will be served by trains from 207th Street and Broadway, the present Washington Heights “A” line. These trains, which have been running to Church Avenue, Brooklyn, since October 1933, will continue to enter Brooklyn by way of the Fulton Street tunnel from Manhattan. But at the Jay Street-Borough Hall station they will turn into Fulton Street. Beyond Fulton Street they will serve the following stations: Hoyt-Schermerhorn Street; Lafayette, Clinton-Washington, Franklin, Nostrand, Kingston-Throop, Utica, Ralph and Rockaway Avenue.26
Out of the eight stations that the new IND Fulton Street line extension would cover, five of them opened in Bedford-Stuyvesant: Franklin Avenue, Nostrand Avenue, Kingston-Throop Avenue, Utica Avenue, and Ralph Avenue. The IND Eight Avenue line-Fulton Street line connected Harlem to five different parts of Bedford-Stuyvesant with just one ride on the A train. Harlem’s black residents sought better living conditions, less crowded neighborhoods and more job opportunities, especially at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II.
As the influx of black residents leaving Harlem for Bedford-Stuyvesant increase, the white residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant were becoming fearful. White fear turned into tactics to intimidate the Bed-Stuy’s black newcomers. The Midtown Civic League, a white supremacist group, organized resistance and terrorism against the black residents. The Midtown Civic League worked alongside other groups of white Bed-Stuy residents such as the Bedford Home Owners’ Association to defame and scapegoats the black migrants as intruders turning the neighborhood into an unsafe, crime ridden area and the primary group behind racial tension. With the support of the Midtown Civic League, the Bedford Home Owners’ Association protested that the neighborhood was not patrolled enough by cops. In June of 1937, members of the group held a meeting in Fosters Temple’ on 295 Gates Avenue where they voted to demand more cops on patrol in Bed-Stuy to help curb the supposed crime committed by the black newcomers. This was a methodical plan to smear and possibly cause unnecessary arrests as police brutality was a growing phenomenon for African Americans in New York City. A committee of the group would go on to alert Mayor La Guardia and the Police Commissioner Valentine of their demands:
And if we don’t get results a series of meetings will be called to crystalliez the popular demands of the people of this community for an investigation of conditions as they really exist here,” Thomas A. Sheridan, president of the group, asserted.27
The Midtown Civic League employed other measures to ensure black people were not acquiring property in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Later in the month of June of 1937, the Midtown Civic League held a meeting aimed at the white residents of Bed-Stuy:
A vigorous fight to keep the Bedford and Stuyvesant sections as a high class residential district has been mapped by the Midtown Civic League of Brooklyn. At the June meeting in the Bedford Branch YMCA, Bedford Ave. and Monroe St., it was announced that residents who wish to sell or rent their properties may expect assistance from the league in procuring desirable tenants or purchases.”28
The Midtown Civic League wanted to preserve Bedford-Stuyvesant as a wealthy, white neighborhood. The aim of their assistance was to limit the influx of black residents in Bed-Stuy as much as possible. They wanted no black newcomers to acquire homes from white residents and no opportunity for white residents to rent to black tenants. The Midtown Civic League would come under fire by December 1937 as they faced charges for violations of civil rights against black people in Bed-Stuy. The inquiry into the charges was sponsored by a black Harlem organization known as the State Temporary Commission on the Condition of the Urban Colored. The organization held hearings where allegations were brought upon the Midtown Civic League was a “vigilante organization to terrorize Negroes.”29 At the hearings, Malcom Martin of the National Negro League, accused Sumner A. Sirti, a main figure of the Midtown Civic League, of leading the movement among white residents in Bedford-Stuyvesant, encouraging them to be vigilantes:
Mr. Martin said the “vigilantes” wished to prevent the spread of Negroes in this area, and that pistol permits had been obtained by the organization’s members who held “gun practice” in their campaign to frighten Negro residents.”30
Sirti of the Midtown Civic League did not attend the meeting, laughed at the allegations of vigilante terrorism towards the black residents of Bed-Stuy, and defended the gun practice as a means of home and business defense despite it actually being an intimidation tactic for the black residents: “He described his organization of 11,000 members in the Bedford-Stuyvesant of 33,000 blocks as interested only in maintenance of health and order.”31
Black people in Bedford-Stuyvesant were at odds with racist, white organizations but also with the US government. In 1938, Bedford-Stuyvesant was redlined by the Federal Housing Authority and the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, creations of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal to revive the collapsed housing market after the Great Depression. Redlining was the systematic practice of denying or limiting financial services to certain neighborhoods based on racial or ethnic composition without regard to the residents’ qualifications or creditworthiness. Areas populated with African Americans were heavily discriminated against. Bedford-Stuyvesant was assessed by an appraiser for the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation. After he placed the lowest rating of a D, the appraiser described what put the redline around Bed-Stuy: “Colored infiltration a definitely adverse influence on neighborhood desirability.”32As an effect, few prospective homeowners in Bed-Stuy, black or white, were able to receive access to federally guaranteed mortgages. Foreseeing a plummet in the property value, existing homeowners sold their properties as fast as they could, fled the neighborhood along with other whites for suburbs, and encouraged residents to keep African Americans away, whose mere presence risked damaging the investments in the suburbs. Black people found themselves confined to redlined neighborhoods such as Bed-Stuy. By the year of 1940, housing in Bedford-Stuyvesant was the neighborhood’s biggest priority. As New York state approved a loan of 20 million dollars to create housing for low-income black families, the City Planning Commission used a portion for Bed-Stuy: “a site in Beford-Stuyvesant district of Brooklyn, which is inhabited largely by Negroes, for a municipal housing project to accommodate 1,000 families. The project was aided by the Federal Housing Authority.”33 Ironically the Federal Housing Authority was on board to create low-income housing for black people in Bedford-Stuyvesant while they were directly responsible for the economic strangulation of black Bed-Stuy.
Despite many whites fleeing Bedford-Stuyvesant due to its redlined status, the Midtown Civic League remained hard at work to smear the black population who now inhabited majority of the neighborhood. In his campaign for re-election, Mayor La Guardia made a visit to Bedford-Stuyvesant’s Concord Baptist Church on Putnam and Marcy Avenues on October 30, 1941. He spoke to 500 members of the Bedford Neighborhood Council in an effort to win over black voters and separate himself from the racist Midtown Civic League.:
Pray for forgiveness of those evil men with hatred in their hearts who, with strong words on their tongues, hurling invective and vituperation, create racial hatred because they are so desperate. Pray for them—they need it. Let us be serene, kindly and forgiving—for they know not what they do.”34
In 1943, the Midtown Civic League launched a campaign to get the Kings County grand jury to investigate Bedford-Stuyvesant’s supposed crime problem. Police Commissioner Lewis J. Valentine delivered the Bedford-Stuyvesant crime report from the data gathered by police to Mayor La Guardia at City Hall on November 20, 1943. A mass meeting was also held by the Midtown Civic League at the Bedford branch of the Young Men’s Christian Academy (YMCA) on Bedford Avenue and Monroe Street. With Sumner A. Sirti as the facilitator, members at the meeting complained of black people making noise on the streets past midnight and an attack on an older white woman by a young black man: “An employee at the Navy Yard, reported to the Gates Avenue station that a hatless young Negro in a zoot suit attacked her over the head while she walking in Macon Street.”35
Three days later, a meeting was held by the National Negro Congress and the Bedford-Stuyvesant Congress of Industrial Organizations Community Council at 474 Sumner Avenue with 100 people present to protest against the August Kings Country grand jury presentment on crime conditions in Bed-Stuy. City Councilman Peter V. Cacchione asserted that the Bedford YMCA should “open its doors to all regardless of race, creed or color” and expressed his aims “to expose the enemy agents who had started this organized move.”36 The “enemy agents” that Councilman Cacchione wanted to expose was the Midtown Civic League. The State Attorney General demanded an investigation of the organization. The meeting ended with a decision to create “two committees to investigate conditions and formulate reports to disprove the grand jury presentment.” 37
In December of 1943, the Midtown Civic League’s constant smearing of black residents of Bed-Stuy would be put to an end with the help of the NAACP. Led by Walter White, the executive secretary, the NAACP requested permission of Judge Nathan R. Sorbel to allow prominent New Yorkers to address the Kings County grand jury on the recent crime presentment on racial crime in Bed-Stuy. Judge Sorbel invited a popular black Brooklyn citizen and Henry Ashcroft, probation officer of Special Sessions to address the panel. Judge Sorbel invited Ashton for the sole purpose of addressing misstatements made by the Midtown Civic League at the August Kings County grand jury presentment:
The colored people residing in the real Bedford-Stuyvesant district had their pride hurt, their sensibilities wounded, their intelligence overlooked and their daily livelihood endangered as a result of the incisive and language of the August grand jury.
The August grand jury charged the La Guardia administration with “failure to check the lawlessness in Brooklyn’s Little Harlem” and utilized the presentment as a political attack on Mayor La Guardia and a racial attack on the black residents of Bed-Stuy.38 Judge Sorbel took it upon himself to criticize the August grand jury resentment. He called it dangerous and gave an explanation: “It indicts an entire people for the faults of very, very few. it places the great body of decent, law-abiding Negros in a most humiliating position; it stirs up resentment, hatred and fear.” Next Judge Sorbel pointed out that “in 1943 only 220 Negroes had been convicted of felonies committed in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area, constituting less than one-fifth of one person of the youth and population.”39 Judge Sorbel also noted that convictions for all crimes showed that black people constituted less than one percent. These statistics contradicted the smearing done by the Midtown Civic League and their grandiose stories of crimes committed by black people in Bed-Stuy. Judge Sorbel went on to comment about the influx of black migrants from the south:
What are we to do about it? Are we to erect a fence around the Bedford-Stuyvesant? I think we have enough. We have welcomed our Negro brethren from the cabins in the south to the slums of New York. We have extended to them the privilege of paying the highest rents for the rottenest roosts out of the poorest wages for the dirtiest jobs. Now let us deny them relief! Let’s punish the poor being poor and the ignorant for being ignorant! Maybe we can create a smokescreen that wil hide the real culprits– ourselves.40
Judge Sorbel pointed out the hypocrisy behind racist, white organizations such as the Midtown Civic League who fought to keep black people out of their neighborhoods after they escaped the poor, starving conditions of the south, only to end up in the slums of New York City and work for extremely low wages.
By 1963, Bedford-Stuyvesant rivaled Harlem as the “Negro population center.”41 1,100,000 black people lived throughout New York City’s five boroughs. Approximately 400,000 black New Yorkers lived in Harlem while 300,000 resided in Bedford-Stuyvesant by the 1960 census. As racial tension throughout the United States and New York City increased, “Bedford-Stuyvesant has also begun to rival Harlem as a focal point for racial protests, with Negro clergymen serving as the catalyst.”42 Protests and riots reached its peak in the year of 1964 with police brutality, daily discrimination and institutionalized racism aimed at black New Yorkers that brewed over the prior three decades.
On February 3, 1963, approximately 464,000 students from New York City participated in a citywide school boycott which resulted in their absence for the day. Although segregation in New York was not put into law like Jim Crow legislation in the south, the city’s school system evidently adhered to de facto segregation. Among the students were teachers, picketers, parents and activists who marched to over 300 New York City schools which went over the Brooklyn Bridge to the Board of Education’s building on Livingston Street in downtown Brooklyn. Bayard Rustin, long-time Civil Rights activist, directed the boycott. The organizations behind the boycott were the Presbyterian Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the City-Wide Committee for Integrated Schools, the NAACP, the Harlem Parents Committee and the Brooklyn, Harlem, and Bronx chapters of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). The three chapters of CORE were the only to support the second citywide school boycott on March 16, 1964.43
The 1964 World’s Fair was to be held the following month in New York City. Backed by Mayor Robert F. Wagner and Governor Nelson Rockefeller, the World’s Fair would attract tourists to its extravagant exhibits and enrich the city, meanwhile everyday life in Bed-Stuy and Harlem was plagued with police brutality, unemployment, poverty-related crimes, uninhabitable housing and extremely underfunded schools. The CORE chapters of Brooklyn, Harlem, Bronx and Queens planned a subway tie-up in April 1964 to disrupt attendance to the World’s Fair:
Teen-age girls and boys who fanned out in Harlem and Brooklyn with leaflets were told to ask Negroes who felt they could not participate in the demonstrations not to go to the fair on opening day.44
The Willets Point Station in Queens was designation as a picketing to discourage commuters from attending the opening day ceremonies for the World’s Fair. The purpose of the pickets was to “contrast the technical and material achievements inside with the reality of police brutality, denial of the vote and complete subordination to the man.”45
A high-profile police brutality case would bring the two blackest neighborhoods in New York City together in unison against state violence. On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the “Civil Rights Act” which banned discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin and ended segregation of public places. Two weeks after the signing of the act, a case of police brutality plagued the borough of Manhattan. 15-year-old African American, James Powell, was murdered by an off-duty white police Lieutenant Thomas Gilligan on July 15, 1964. Gilligan alleged that Powell threatened him with a switchblade outside of an apartment building on East 76th Street in Manhattan. Powell’s murder enraged the Harlem community as another instance of a black life lost to police brutality. The first two days of protest regarding Powell’s death were peaceful in Harlem and other communities of New York City. On July 18th, protestors were at the police station in Harlem to call for the resignation or termination of Lieutenant Thomas Gilligan. The station was being guarded by police officers leading to some protestors throwing bricks, rocks and bottles at the officers who walked through the crowd with nightsticks. After word about the confrontation outside of the police station got back to different communities, riots began in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant:
MONDAY. There was new violence in Harlem 17 persons were injured. For the first time, violence broke out in in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where a CORE rally turned into a riot.
TUESDAY. In Bedford-Stuyvesant there was large-scale looting as gangs broke into stores and shattered plate-glass windows. Two Negro men were shot by police; their wounds were described as critical. In Harlem, too, there was looting and fighting, but on a smaller scale.46
The riots lasted in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant for six days with businesses being vandalized and set on fire. It all came to a cease on July 22 with roughly 450 arrests, 100 people injured and $1 million dollars worth of property damage. The riots in both boroughs were part of a series of summer riots in different parts of the country such as Rochester and Philadelphia. President Lyndon B. Johnson feared these riots would cause a rise in white backlash, putting a dent in his election hopes: “One of my political analysts tells me that every time one occurs, it costs me 90,000 votes.”47
Gilligan was cleared of any criminal liability by a New York County Grand Jury on September 1, 1964. Later that year in November 1964, black New York City residents protested as Lieutenant Gilligan was exonerated in the shooting death of 15-year-old James Powell. After the riots occurred, a group known as the Unity Council of Harlem Organizations formed and repeated their demand that “Mayor Wagner dismiss Police Commissioner Michael J. Murphy,” who failed to terminate or force resignation upon Gilligan: “The action taken by the Police Department’s review board was a deliberate slap in the face to the Harlem community,” Arnold P. Johnson of the unity council said.”48
Arnold P. Johnson exclaimed that the community was “seething with resentment over the complete whitewash of Lieutenant Gilligan in the killing of James Powell.”49 The community believed the “whitewash” of Gilligan was him killing Powell and getting away with it scott-free due to his power and protection as a white police officer. Representatives from Brooklyn also came out to detest the Gilligan exoneration. A civil rights activist from Brooklyn named Reverend Milton A. Galmison spoke about the case:
“This modest demand on the part of the Negro community has been callously ignored by the Mayor,” he said, “and as a result Gilligan, be he innocent or guilty, finds himself exonerated by forces in which the people have no confidence.”50
As shown with the development of accessible public transportation in New York City, black populations have typically taken action to migrate from economically destitute areas to those with greater economic opportunities. This however, did not happen in a seamless fashion as institutional racism and other factors have caused a great deal of harm to these same communities before and after migration. In today’s time the embryonic policies and strategies of the past used against black and immigrant communities have consolidated themselves on paper while merely shifting appearances in practice. Phenomenons such as redlining, police brutality in historically oppressed communities, and the economic disadvantages that black owned businesses face all still carry a deep thread in New York’s current fabric. Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant in particular have since become two of the most gentrified zipcodes in the United States as of 2018. Without radical movements to change the current political-economic system in place, major communities within the United States will suffer the same fate as the heavily afflicted neighborhoods in New York City.
Gill, Jonathan. 2012. Harlem: The Four Hundred Year History from Dutch Village to Capital of Black America. New York: Grove Press
Hyatt, E. Clarence, 1835-. History of the New York & Harlem Railroad