The New Ghettos

BY the late 1960s and early '70s, two communities in New York City were the epitome of poverty in the United States: Brownsville in north central Brooklyn, and Mott Haven in the South Bronx. During a bus tour of Brownsville in 1971, Kevin White, former Boston mayor, ominously remarked that the area ``may be the first tangible sign of the collapse of our civilization.'' During this period, the city moved large numbers of families displaced by public-works projects into New York City Housing Authority projects in Brownsville and Mott Haven. A community organizer from Brownsville complained in 1973: ``All of the poor have been herded into one community,'' adding that ``the middle class is nonexistent.'' Local merchants and residents complained about ``dumping.''

Some of the newcomers were placed in vacated tenements; the more fortunate gained admission to new, high-rise public-housing projects. Yet even these projects, so desirable when built in the '60s, now are regarded as one of the city's greatest mistakes. They have become so dangerous that families with other options quickly move out.

Today the bright spots are the new working-class neighborhoods: pockets of private houses recently completed in fringe areas. The more stable families who once lived in the area's public-housing complexes and apartment buildings have moved to these developments.

Their departure has left the older cores of these communities even weaker. They have become a different kind of urban ``dumping ground.'' As buildings go up on empty lots and formerly abandoned buildings are rehabilitated, a new type of publicly managed community is emerging. Mott Haven and Brownsville are typical: neighborhoods saturated with homeless shelters, drug-treatment centers, correctional institutions, and other facilities that are shunned elsewhere, and populated with displaced people shipped there from other boroughs. In their semi-institutional character, the uprootedness of their population, and their extreme poverty and drug addiction, these government-supported communities represent a new form of ghetto.

NEW York City's new wave of shelters, the largest in the nation, mark the heart of the new ghettos. Occupying a city block and built at a cost of $10 million to $20 million, the shelters signal the weakest neighborhoods. These institutions anchor complex poorhouses, just as large department stores anchor suburban shopping malls.

The dense concentration of facilities has obvious consequences. For example, in Mott Haven, so far the most developed of the new ghettos, three large shelters have brought nearly 300 young, single women to an area within a three-block radius of Jackson Avenue, instantly creating a busy prostitution district.

As much as they are defined by what they possess, new ghettos are defined by what they lack. In other parts of the city, once as poor and hopeless as these, local community-development organizations (LDCs), acting as advocates for these areas, have rebuilt economically mixed neighborhoods and stopped the city from building large shelters. New ghettos, however, lack effective LDCs.

The ``war on poverty,'' whose goal was to uplift the poor, has been redesigned to contain the poor and simply to keep them alive. As a result, in remote, ruined, and destitute communities, a new publicly created urban form that further segregates poor, minority people and reinforces human misery is emerging.

The recent, badly needed fair-share rules of the New York City Planning Commission support an even distribution of unwanted facilities among rich and poor sections of the city. But the new regulations give a false feeling of relief. They are coming too late to make a real difference, since most of the controversial facilities are completed or under construction. Moreover, in the city's present financial situation it seems unlikely that it will embark on another round of large-scale construction for at least another decade. Fair-share does not dismantle what political expedience and racial prejudice erected.

The new ghettos, with their gigantic shelters, busy social-service facilities, and deteriorating housing, employ thousands of social workers, guards, correctional officers, nurses, and doctors at a huge cost. But they are even costlier in their contribution to dependency, illness, delinquency, and waste of human beings.

An ironic ray of hope: These large-scale poorhouses are too expensive for the city. As fiscal pressures crowd in, budgets that maintain the vast array of welfare and governmental facilities in these areas will have to be shrunk. In the words of a local resident, these facilities would then look like ``just another rathole.'' Before the full completion of these nightmarish new ghettos, we need to begin plans to dismantle them and begin again.

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