Battle for Bed-Stuy: The Long War on Poverty in New York City
Hardback: Harvard UP, 2016
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Reviewed by Leslie Klingensmith
Too often, we learn history as an impersonal set of dates, geographic locations, and the names of the major players. While those academic facts are important, our collective past can potentially be much more alive to us in the present and, therefore, more helpful as we seek solutions to the social ills that affect us all. Historical writing is most effective when it is able present people and scenarios from the past in a way that humanizes those who were there and shows us how decisions made “at the top” actually changed the lives of ordinary people.
Michael Woodsworth, in his book Battle for Bed-Stuy:The Long War on Poverty in New York City, makes a credible attempt to look at one community through a period of decades. He analyzes Bedford-Stuyvesant’s (“Bed-Stuy”) efforts to combat poverty and remain a safe, vibrant, appealing place for people to live. Battle for Bed-Stuy is especially useful for learning how President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty legislation and its programs played out in a real community populated by people committed to improving their surroundings and their lives.
Bed-Stuy is a massive Brooklyn neighborhood, almost a borough in itself. In the 1950s and 60s, it was home to approximately 400,000 people. Woodsworth gives an even handed account of the tension in Bed-Stuy that developed in those decades. There were enough residents who were poor and black that for a time people called Bed-Stuy “America’s largest ghetto.” At the same time, however, there was a committed group of middle class black professionals who were determined to stay in their homes and elevate their historic community.
Battle for Bed-Stuy gives us an inside look at the development of creative programs that developed to address problems such as juvenile delinquency, teen pregnancy, a dropping high school graduation rate, lack of jobs, and lack of business investment in the community. While in theory, everyone wanted the same thing – a thriving, hopeful community, there was tension between various groups of people as well as divergent opinions as to how the goals should be accomplished. There was little trust in the New York City government at that time, as it was largely perceived as corrupt, out of touch with everyday people and their needs, and uninterested in the plight of the poor. The black middle class found themselves in a position of going between the poor residents (who had the most at stake, and were justifiably frustrated and angry) and the city government, making an effort to interpret the intentions and actions of one to the other. The poorest residents also did not believe they could trust the wealthier ones to represent their interests, so resentment emerged around issues of wealth and class as well as race. While understandable, it is clear that the infighting for position and access to power at times hindered the progress of restoring Bed-Stuy.
Woodsworth offers us a timely look at the ego skirmishes and turf wars that too often plague public advocacy work. Much of the narrative is devoted to the power plays between the various citizens’ organizations, and the consequences of those conflicts. His book is a reminder that when people place self-advancement ahead of hard decisions, and self-aggrandizement ahead of executing plans and programs, it is the powerless who suffer.
One of the book’s strengths is the attention Woodsworth pays to some of the lengthy battle’s more memorable soldiers – many of them people who do not show up in your standard history textbook, probably because they are not famous enough. People who have studied history probably at least recognize the name of one character, Shirley Chisolm, a Bed-Stuy luminary who eventually became the first African-American woman elected to the United States House of Representatives (she also ran for President in 1972). Other activists are less well known – Elsie Richardson, for example, who served her community for decades and whose fingerprints remain all over the community of Bedford-Stuyvesant to this day. Battle for Bed-Stuy provides the reader with a window into a troubled community and reinforces the truth espoused by anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Bedford-Stuyvesant was blessed with a number of thoughtful, committed citizens at the time when they were most needed, and I appreciated the chance to get to know some of them.
Having said that, Battle for Bed-Stuy is not for everyone. It is an academic text much more than an engaging narrative. Although I learned people’s names and the chronology of some of the most significant events and programs in the neighborhood’s history, I felt throughout the book like something was missing. I don’t have a sense of what it felt like to walk down a Bed-Stuy street in 1960, or what it feels like in 2010. I know about programs that were implemented to lift people out of poverty, but have no idea what it was like to be poor in that place and time. Even the prominent players in the book are presented as a series of conflicts and speeches and programs instead of people with hearts and spirits and tears. I remember books when I have a sense of connection and relationship with the people in them, and I do not think I will remember this one for very long.
I understand that a deeper sense of the peoples’ humanity may not have been Woodsworth’s goal as he wrote his book, and that is his right as the author. I can envision Battle for Bed-Stuy emerging as a useful resource for scholars of sociology, urban planning, and social work, and I hope it does. It is well-researched and contains important information that deserves to be part of the Bed-Stuy collective memory. But, even as a history buff myself, I do not see myself recommending it to those who read history for pleasure and inspiration. Although not difficult to read, it is too dry and lifeless for all but the most committed scholars.