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  • Brownsville, Brooklyn: Blacks, Jews, and the Changing Face of the Ghetto
  • Joe W. Trotter
Brownsville, Brooklyn: Blacks, Jews, and the Changing Face of the Ghetto. By Wendell Pritchett ( Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. xii + 317pp.).

Beginning with the Jewish community, Wendell Pritchett documents both continuity and change in Brownsville's history over more than a century of time. Brownsville changed from an ethnically and to some extent racially diverse rural community before the 1880s into the largest Jewish community in the U.S. by 1930; from Jewish to a predominantly African American and Puerto Rican community by the 1960s; and from an industrial to an increasingly post-industrial environment during the late 20th century. Within the context of each major historical change, Pritchett documents certain enduring continuities from one era to the next. These continuities revolved around Brownsville's emergence and persistence as a predominantly poor and working class community through the closing years of the 20th century.

Pritchett does not make the point explicitly, but Brownsville, Brooklyn is organized around the complicated interplay of "structure" and "agency" in the lives of African Americans and Jews. While African Americans would face the most entrenched and implacable forms of racial and class discrimination, Jews and African Americans gained employment in low wage and largely nonunionized jobs in the industrial workforce (particularly the garment industry); occupied tenements and rental structures rather than single family homes; and lived in the most unhealthy part of the city's environment. Like African Americans, Jews also confronted barriers to their movement out of Brownsville into other areas, and were largely excluded from teaching positions in the public schools, until the onset of World War I and the 1920s. Moreover, Brownsville's Jewish community expressed increasing concern with juvenile delinquency (particularly youth gangs) and adult crime, including the activities of syndicates like the so-called "Murder, Inc" (p. 44). As African Americans and Puerto Ricans [End Page 1113] gained ascendancy during the post-World War II years, outside perceptions of the community as a socially and culturally "inferior" and isolated slum/ghetto intensified.

Spatial and social separation from the city was not an entirely demeaning feature of life for Brownsville's workers and their communities. During the era of Jewish ascendancy, a thriving commercial center and open air pushcart market, respectively, emerged on Pitkin and Belmont Avenues. At the same time, the community founded a variety of synagogues (many of them storefronts), women's societies, and civic, education, social welfare, labor, and political organizations: the Hebrew Ladies Day Nursery, the Hebrew Educational Society, and the Brownsville Labor Forum (later the United Hebrew Trades union), to name only a few. In a careful analysis of the ideological and philosophical foundations of Jewish organizations, Pritchett shows how Brownsville's Jewish community developed a radical socialist ideology and promoted interracial cooperation. Under the impact of the Great Depression and World War II, changes in the labor movement brought even greater emphasis on interracial cooperation among the community's black and white industrial workers. These activities gained focus in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (i.e., the Industrial Union Councils) and local branches of the Communist party, the Socialist party, the American Labor party, and later the Democratic party.

Despite the Jewish community's effort to combat class, ethnic, and racial inequality, it failed to fully embrace its growing African American and Latino communities. As the black population gradually increased during the late 19th and early 20th century, African Americans endured racial as well as class barriers to their occupational, housing, and social mobility. Although large scale white mob violence did not greet the Great Migration of African Americans into Brownsville, both Jewish and non-Jewish whites alike "tolerated" rather than accepted blacks on an equal footing.

While a coterie of Jews forged cold war era civil rights alliances with black residents through organizations like the Brownsville CIO and the Brownsville Neighborhood Council, white activists viewed race as a problem of the Jim Crow South rather than the urban North. Thus, they largely ignored the mounting racial barriers confronting African Americans in the day-to-day life of Browns- ville: police brutality and disproportionately poor social services, dilapidated...


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