Vital City | The Long View: The Evolution of Flatbush (2024)

Economic currents, rising tides

Most New York City origin stories begin at the foot of Manhattan, but Brooklyn’s Flatbush provides an equally interesting starting point. The neighborhood lies across the East River and over the terminal moraine, where the iconic intersection of Flatbush and Church avenues sits in the once-wooded plain of central Kings County. At this corner lives the sanctuary of one of the city’s oldest congregations, the Dutch Reformed Church, founded in 1654. The first church at this intersection was a wooden building, erected in 1662; it was rebuilt as a stone structure in 1699, then rebuilt in an even sturdier fashion after the Revolution in 1796, a century and a half after the first worship took place. It stands there today.

Visitors to the intersection now, two and a half centuries after the founding of the small Dutch farming community, will find a teeming neighborhood and a vibrant commercial crossroads. This emerged across the span of the 20th century. The saga of what happened between then and now suggests some important lessons about the neighborhood architecture of New York City, namely that it can remain resilient despite major ebbs and flows of ethnic groups.

Flatbush was still countryside in the 1890s, when the growing city of Brooklyn annexed it and the remaining Dutch townships in 1894; Brooklyn was in turn amalgamated into Greater New York City in 1898. A major impetus for this pivotal consolidation was to provide borrowing power to fund roads, services and eventually subway lines into Brooklyn and Queens that would — and did — promote the boroughs’ development.

As the new metropolis made these public investments and franchised subways extended through the area beginning in 1904 and 1912, the population surged in Flatbush, and in Brooklyn as a whole. Undeveloped parts were built up as planned communities of near-mansion houses in Prospect Park South and Ditmas Park and broad swaths of six-story apartment houses and attached single-family dwellings attracted working- and middle-class families of Irish, Italian and East European Jewish descent. Only after World War II were the farthest reaches of South Brooklyn fully built out in a form of within-city suburbanization.

As a result of these investments, the borough’s population more than doubled between 1900 and 1950, reaching a peak of 2.7 million. The neighborhood around the intersection of Flatbush and Church thrived in this period and became one of Brooklyn’s two major shopping districts. Markers of the neighborhood’s commercial importance included the Brooklyn Dodgers (who played just up the hill in Ebbets Field, built in 1913 but demolished in 1960), the magnificent Loew’s Kings Theatre (built in 1929, closed in 1977), the landmark Sears, Roebuck store (opened in 1932, with remarks by Eleanor Roosevelt, and in operation until the company bankruptcy in 2021), a branch of Macy’s, and the Brooklyn Union Gas building on Duryea Place (opened in 1931 and later an important branch of Loehmann’s discount women’s clothing chain). CWA funding and WPA workers built the magnificent new Brooklyn College campus during the Depression, and Erasmus Hall High School was completed in 1940.

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Culturally and politically, the neighborhood proved to be fertile ground (and it remains so today). Notable Erasmus Hall graduates of the 1950s included Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, Lainie Kazan and many other artists, intellectuals and writers. Politicians representing central Brooklyn in the postwar period, particularly Stanley Steingut, Stanley Fink and Mel Miller, exercised considerable power in the state legislature. A statistical profile of the community based on the 1950 federal and 1957 city censuses depicted a thriving community with native white Protestant, Italian and Irish Catholic, and East European Jewish residents with modest but above-average educational attainment and incomes. The report counted 30 Protestant churches in the area, 24 synagogues, and seven Catholic parishes hosting six parochial schools.

This era of postwar white ethnic ascent did not last. Although suburbanization, racial succession, disinvestment and fiscal crisis had more devastating impacts on other Brooklyn neighborhoods, such as Bushwick, these forces also undermined Flatbush’s prosperity. Racial succession created tensions and anxieties, presaged perhaps by the Dodgers’ last season in Brooklyn in 1957 and punctuated by looting in the 1977 blackout. The prospect of racial change sped the departure of white residents to the suburbs, especially as their children moved away for college or careers.

At the same time, Flatbush represented upward mobility for the West Indian families who were moving from more crowded and less well-maintained housing in Crown Heights. For them, too, owning a house in Flatbush was part of the American dream. As lower-income newcomers filled places left by departing higher-income residents, many stores and all the local movie theaters closed, and city planners began to use social statistics to chart the problematic aspects of the area. (Loehmann’s, Macy’s and Sears hung on longer but succumbed to corporate bankruptcies and restructurings.) Between the early 1960s and the early 1970s, the student body at Erasmus went from nearly all white to nearly all Black. Brooklyn’s population fell by 500,000 between 1950 and 1980.

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Two countertrends emerged to offset these patterns, however. As the neighborhood became increasingly Afro-Caribbean, immigrant newcomers joined with remaining white residents to form neighborhood organizations that would counter disinvestment and promote interracial cooperation. East Flatbush residents even refused to be designated a poverty area under the city’s community action program in 1979, a legacy of the War on Poverty. Instead, the West Indian community produced a thriving commercial landscape, and activists formed the Flatbush Community Development Corporation to fight neighborhood deterioration and promote housing renovation.

Starting in the 1980s, young, largely white, professional families were also attracted by the still-grand parts of the housing stock and life in a multiracial neighborhood. Brooklyn ethnographers Judith DeSena and Jerry Krase provide a street-level view of these dynamics. As time passed, these white residents too created local institutions that reinforced the neighborhood. One building alongside Prospect Park, for example, became a naturally occurring home to various musicians and artists who had a symbiotic relationship with new venues in the neighborhood.

This did overlap with intergroup tensions — as manifested in, for instance, the Black-activist-led boycott of the Korean-owned Family Red Apple greengrocer on Church Avenue in 1990 and 1991 and the protests over the deaths of Gavin Cato and Yankel Rosenbaum in nearby Crown Heights in August 1991. But the neighborhood has gradually come together over the last 30 years. Today, Flatbush and East Flatbush are racially diverse communities where Afro-Caribbeans make up a bit more than one-third of the population, non-Hispanic whites a bit less than a quarter, African-Americans about one-fifth, Latinos about one in 10, and Asians, mainly South Asians, one in 14 residents. Over the last decade, the population of white residents has gradually increased, Blacks have declined, and Latino and Asian groups have been growing slowly, mirroring the demographic trends in the city as a whole and providing a model of the multiracial neighborhoods emerging in many parts of the city.

We might think of the stock of city neighborhoods as a horizontal and vertical lattice of places gradually constructed over time.

Today, the Kings Theatre has been beautifully refurbished under the aegis of the city’s Economic Development Corporation and features top music acts. Brooklyn College remains a pivotal avenue of upward mobility for borough residents. And although Sears, the last of the old big-name commercial tenants, closed, a Brooklyn developer filed plans to construct 650 market-rate housing units on its former parking lots. Just as in the 1950s, the neighborhood and nearby constituencies have politically powerful representatives, including Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, U.S. House minority leader Hakeem Jeffries, and U.S. Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer.

What does this thumbnail sketch of Flatbush across the centuries tell us about the larger structure and dynamics of neighborhood hierarchy and change in New York City? Demographers like to talk in terms of stocks and flows, stocks being the current structure of populations and flows referring to the people moving into and out of those populations and slowly but steadily altering them. Here we might think of the stock of city neighborhoods — clusters of residential blocks around one or more commercial streets, elementary schools, churches and other community facilities — as a horizontal and vertical lattice of places gradually constructed over time. The lattice stretches horizontally across the extent of the city, framed by land use patterns, transportation infrastructure, zoning and the like, but it also has a vertical dimension of desirability, amenity, cost and access to employment and leisure activities.

The formal or informal ability of current neighborhood residents to attract newcomers of equal status and exclude lower-status groups and insulate their neighborhoods from land uses they do not want is an important part of this vertical dimension. Zoning, cooperative ownership, community associations, discrimination in lending and renting, and transferring property through family networks and neighborhood organizations can all be mechanisms of this type. But when adverse flows weaken residents’ capacity to maintain their position in the neighborhood hierarchy, these mechanisms can break down and allow new groups to enter.

Initially, the owners of large holdings in Flatbush could allow whatever developers wanted to build — including a significant number of one- and two-family homes as well as larger apartment buildings. The Tenement Housing Act of 1901 and the 1916 Zoning Resolution gave city government some influence over what developers could do. Transportation technologies and investments also strongly shaped the lattice by providing access to jobs, shopping and recreation, with proximity being associated with greater density and higher costs. The extension of the subway system through Flatbush and public infrastructure investments paved the way for subsequent development. Such factors frame the structure of the neighborhood lattice.

This structure is neither rigid nor self-reproducing, however. Flows matter. Having made their home in one spot, people may decide they want to move elsewhere. People tend to cluster with those with whom they share traits or even family ties. Yet even social groups with close ties have earnings trajectories and life cycles, and they shift their locations across generations. It thus matters a great deal whom a neighborhood can attract, to offset the inevitable outflow of groups that are aging out or moving elsewhere.

Formerly middle-class Catholic and Jewish Flatbush became a middle-class West Indian neighborhood.

Overall trends in income distribution, where different racial-ethnic groups fit into that distribution, and what their resulting mobility trajectories are — these factors can dramatically reshape the structure of this lattice. New York City learned this all too well in both the traumatic decade of the 1970s — as residential flight and job loss caused many neighborhoods to deteriorate and experience abandonment — and the opening decades of the 21st century, when immigrants were finding their way toward new opportunities, and an increasingly educated professional workforce sought high-quality, historically significant housing with good access to Manhattan’s employment, recreation and learning centers.

Initially, in this sequence, Brooklyn and Flatbush fell out of middle-class favor. Compared with new suburban areas, its residents increasingly saw 19th- and early 20th-century neighborhoods as aging and unattractive. This opened up opportunities for new groups to move in. International migration to New York City after the 1965 Immigration Act saved the city from the downward spirals that white flight, deindustrialization and racial change triggered in many old industrial cities of the north. Formerly middle-class Catholic and Jewish Flatbush became a middle-class West Indian neighborhood. While discrimination in housing and mortgage lending might have prevented West Indians’ entry in 1950, by the 1960s, white out-movement provided opportunities for upward housing mobility that continued through the 1990s. Immigrant families found better places to live and forged new commercial landscapes.

In parallel, in a dynamic Alan Ehrenhalt dubbed the Great Inversion, New York and many other cities with strong economies have seen large numbers of well-educated young white adults want to live in central cities, particularly in the ring of 19th-century neighborhoods well connected to central business districts by transit, with a premium on neighborhoods that had been high in the lattice in that period. While this has the potential to make it more difficult for lower-income immigrant-origin groups to stay or expand in the neighborhood, it has also increased amenities for all.

What was once highly desirable became so again, but in a new form.

Because much of Flatbush was developed for the working and middle classes, the quality and desirability of its housing stock did not initially pull white newcomers as strongly as Brooklyn Heights or Park Slope, which were built by and for the upper strata of late-19th-century New York. Still, Flatbush is full of attractive and historic housing, particularly in places like Ditmas Park or Prospect Park South. The new white residents have much more progressive attitudes about living with diverse neighbors and even being a minority compared to other racial groups. What was once highly desirable became so again, but in a new form.

Flatbush residents responded to the challenges of change after the mid-1950s by revitalizing old neighborhood institutions and organizations and creating many new ones. The thickness of their neighborhood civic engagement — their ability to work together — has been a key element to its successful adaptation through a cycle that potentially challenged all of the city’s neighborhoods.

John Mollenkopf is distinguished professor of political science and sociology and director of the Center for Urban Research at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

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