Walkabout: Saving Bedford Stuyvesant, Part 4

Prospect Place in 2018. Photo via GoogleMaps

Read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 of this story.

The Superblock project was one of the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation’s programs to better the lives of the people of Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, aka the largest ghetto in America, circa 1967.

Although small, only two blocks were involved, the program was an experiment to see if Superblocks could be expanded to other parts of Bed Stuy, and other urban areas.

As reported last time, this project was only one of the many programs instituted by the BSRC, America’s first community development corporation, combining federal funding, local administration and staffing, and off-site corporate mentoring and private funding.

Bed-Stuy Design

Photo via Pei Cobb Freed and Partners

In discussing the Superblocks, this final article in the series will use the project as a microcosm of the Corporation as a whole. Did it succeed in its mandate to lift Bedford Stuyvesant out of poverty and despair?

Or was the BSRC, as many cynics assert, only another do-gooder liberal government program that helped only a few, lined the pockets of many, and in the long run, did nothing at all to combat the problems of the inner city?

Bed-Stuy Design

Photo via Pei, Cobb, Freed and Partners

Robert F. Kennedy’s grand idea to lift the ghetto out of poverty, and back to being a safe, and healthy, working neighborhood, had many parts to it, including home ownership, home repair and restoration, new affordable housing, and a new urban plaza that could provide a cultural and business center to Bedford Stuyvesant.

It meant job training and the creation of thousands of much needed jobs for community people, with new industries coming to the hood. And it meant changing the dynamic of the street, which was seen as a boiling cauldron of problems, from child safety and recreation, to the ability to enjoy sitting on one’s stoop in safety and peace.

In comes one of the mid-20th century’s most influential architects, I. M. Pei, a Kennedy favorite. It was his job to come up with a radical plan to turn urban streets into urban parks and recreation spaces.

Bed-Stuy Design

Photo via Pei, Cobb, Freed, and Partners

In this plan, a series of Superblocks was proposed, relieving the monotonous urban grid by providing a variety of focal points for neighborhood activity and identity, as stated on the project’s entry on Pei Cobb Freed and Partners’ website.

They searched all over the vast area of Bed Stuy to find two adjacent blocks that would work for the project, and also work in terms of traffic, safety and other more mundane concerns. They also wanted blocks that were eager to receive whatever was being planned.

After much searching, they picked St. Marks Avenue and Prospect Place, between Kingston and Albany Avenues, now part of Crown Heights North. (The area between Flushing Avenue and Eastern Parkway was all considered Bedford Stuyvesant until the 1970s.)

Bed-Stuy Design

The two blocks couldn’t be more different, and there lay the problem and the challenge. St. Marks has several groups of row houses, but the majority of the block consists of apartment buildings, some of them quite large, all of which were run down and ill-served by their landlords or tenants.

It was a classic ghetto block. Prospect Place is almost entirely row houses, with only a small eight-unit apartment building midblock, on one side, and another small apartment building on the corner of Kingston Avenue. St. Marks had a much more transient population and many more children.

There was far more unemployment, more drugs and more crime on St. Marks. Junkies inhabited one of the abandoned apartment buildings on the block, and they hung out in the streets and nodded out on stoops.

Bed-Stuy Design

In comparison, Prospect Place had many more working homeowners, far less unemployment, far fewer children, and a very strong block association. The people on that block were better educated, and included the family of Shirley Chisholm, and a family headed by one of the famous Tuskegee Airmen.

I.M. Pei’s original plan was to close off Kingston and Albany Avenues between the two blocks, and cut a new street through the middle of the blocks, creating an enclosed enclave that could be enhanced from the inside, using the old streets as park and recreation spaces.

Buildings would have to be destroyed in order to cut the new streets. In return, they would get a playground and recreation space, as well as Pei designed street structures that would encourage outdoor activities and allow people to safely hang out in their streets.

Well, needless to say, that plan did not fly. Neither block was in favor, and Prospect Place’s strong block association quickly vetoed that idea. Nobody was going to bisect their street and destroy their homes, not after they had worked so hard to get them, and further worked to keep the block safe and attractive.

Nor did they want the problems of St. Marks coming over to them. All Prospect Place wanted from the city was some better lighting, better sidewalks, and a way to keep people from speeding through their block. St. Marks needed so much more.

After much planning and re-planning, Pei and his team came up with this compromise: the blocks were not closed off, and the idea of bisecting them midblock was abandoned. St. Marks, a much wider street, got a park and playground in the middle of the block, and the street was reconfigured into two cul-de-sacs, with center parking on either side of the park.

Prospect had its sidewalks widened, and new Pei-designed streetlights installed. The street was narrowed at both ends and speed bumps were installed, causing cars to enter single file, and slow down.

Finally, cast concrete seating areas were built into both sides of the sidewalk at midblock, creating places for residents to socialize. Both blocks also had substantial landscaping projects put into place.

As can be expected, it cost far more than planned, and took far too long to finish. The project received a million dollar grant from the Astor Foundation, as well as other budgeted funding.

Money put aside for subsequent Superblocks ended up being spent on this one, and what money remained, went into buying an apartment building. The grand plan had also had included long range urban planning, but that too, didn’t happen.

However, the blocks were highly lauded as successful, and Pei and Restoration won several prizes for the design and execution of the project. Prospect Place, which needed much less, and had so much more going for it anyway, was trotted out as the poster child for the program, when in reality, they didn’t do all that much.

As icing on the cake, Prospect Place was the location for scenes from the 1978 Sidney Lumet movie adaptation of The Wiz, cast as Dorothy’s home. Diana Ross, Richard Pryor, and Michael Jackson starred in the movie.

In 1969, right after the Superblocks were finished, the Village Voice printed a scathing review of the Superblock project, as well as the BSRC in general. They saw Restoration as a typical white do-gooder project, run by clueless rich white guys in Manhattan, with complicit black folks fronting for them in the trenches.

Using the Superblock project as a metaphor for the entire endeavor, they said, St. Marks Avenue west of the Albany Housing Project in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn used to be an undisguised urban slum, but through massive infusions of money and good will, it has been thoroughly transformed until now it is the glossiest slum block in the world.

They went on to describe the project as being totally absurd, that what was needed on St. Marks Avenue was not a park, but jobs. They pointed to the irony of having to hire 24hr/7 days a week security service to protect the project from the people it was supposed to serve.

They took both the BSRC and their corporate partners the D&S to task for having a weakness for the kind of flossy-glossy project, which at best has some small beneficial effect on community moral.

The Voice did admit that the BSRC did succeed in some of their programs, specifically their mortgage loan program and home repair program, as well as in the building of Restoration Plaza, which wasn’t finished when the article was written.

But as to lifting the poor out of the morass of poverty? No. And I’d have to agree. The most successful programs helped those who were already best able to help themselves: working people who needed mortgages, homeowners, even the people of Prospect Place, whose block had long been organized and its people more successful than their poorer neighbors in roach invested apartments on St. Marks.

IBM’s contribution was a great contribution and training ground to 400 people, but they had applications for 4,000. Massive job creation never happened, but could that reasonably ever had happened?

Perhaps if 25 or 30 IBMs had relocated to Central Brooklyn, but industry was fast disappearing in all of New York City at this time, headed south and west to cheaper manufacturing locations. There was no real change in schools, either.

Did Kennedy, Javits and the white board of businessmen, politicians, and social activists lie to the people of Bed Stuy? No, I don’t think so. They underestimated what they were up against, and sometimes couldn’t see the trees while looking at the pretty forest.

As any sociologist can tell you, Bed Stuy’s problems in the 1960s were the result of complicated issues of racism, discrimination, poor education, lack of skills, the breakdown of the black family, a heroin epidemic, crime, societal indifference, segregation, ignorance, hopelessness, victimhood, Viet Nam, dependence on the welfare state, the marginalization of black men, especially young men, and a host of other issues, as if that wasn’t enough.

Unfortunately, many of those issues still hamper the progress of what is often called the underclass to this day. Overcoming those obstacles and moving into productive society is easier today, but still by no means easy, and these people are the ones first forgotten and first cut when the budget ax falls.

However, when all is said and done, the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation should be commended for its efforts. Bed Stuy’s progress in the last 40 years was made easier by their presence, especially the physical presence of Restoration Plaza.

Bed Stuy has more banks present than better neighborhoods like Clinton Hill, PLG, or even parts of Park Slope. Today, Super Foodtown is a better market that the everyday markets of most neighborhoods.

The mortgage program of 40 years ago enabled now long-time homeowners to get their start, building a core of neighbors who fought long and hard to keep their blocks free of drugs and criminals.

Today, these are still the people involved in block associations, the community board, police council, and other organizations. What’s important is no longer that wealthy and well-connected Manhattanites lend a helping hand, as most of them are now gone, but that the Bed Stuy community has been able to bring itself back.

Not just because newer and whiter people have discovered its charms, but because many of the recipients of Restoration’s programs decided that the community was worth saving, for themselves and those who come after, despite the odds. Today, the country’s largest ghetto is hardly a ghetto. When I moved here in 1983, I didn’t think it was one then, either.

[Photos by Suzanne Spellen]

Related Stories
Suzanne Spellen, aka Montrose Morris, Is Writing Brownstoner’s First Book
Saving Bedford Stuyvesant, Part 1
Saving Bedford Stuyvesant, Part 2

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