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Brooklyn: The Sane Alternative

But all of us working there, even in the early '50s, knew that the Navy Yard could not make it. To begin with, it was not a very economic place to build ships. It could be used for repair work, of course, but the big jobs—the new carriers, the atomic submarines—almost all went to private industry, or to shipyards where the workers were a little hungrier. In the Navy Yard you were a federal civil servant; it was very tough to get rid of you over small matters. The professionals at the Yard did a good day's work, but for a lot of the people who saw it as a day's pay, there wasn't much work done at all. At Shop 17, they would punch in at 8 a.m. and immediately dash to the men's room on the second floor. They would then grab an empty stall (not an easy matter), put an arm on the toilet-paper roll, and pass out for an hour. Later, they would go down to the floor, check out to the tool room, and spend an hour smoking. There might be a little work done, but by 11:30 it was back to the men's room to start washing up for lunch. After lunch, the pattern repeated itself, except that washing up to go home often started at 4 p.m., a full hour before checking out. There was something beautiful about the sheer audacity of those malingerers, but it also spelled the doom of the Yard. The 70,000 dwindled to 10,000 and finally to none. When Robert McNamara finally ordered the Yard closed, there was great public hand-wringing; nobody who ever worked there was at all surprised.

In addition to the loss of immediate jobs, there were other things involved for the people of Brooklyn. Many small factories and businesses lived off the Yard as subcontractors. In the immediate vicinity of the Yard there were bars, gas stations, naval outfitters, whose lives were intimately involved. In the long years of rumor and uncertainty, many gave up and moved on. The workers themselves were wary of signing leases, buying homes, purchasing anything on credit; they simply did not know when the ax would fall. A number of smaller businessmen in Brooklyn felt that if the Navy Yard could not make it, with its natural advantages, its federal subsidy, then they never could make it. The Navy Yard, in the years of its decline, became still another emotional symbol. Brooklyn without the Yard was not Brooklyn. It was as simple as that.

"Even in the years of its decline, the Navy Yard was an emotional symbol. If it couldn't make it, nothing could make it."

The black migration hit Brooklyn harder than any other part of the city. There were pockets of Puerto Ricans in Brooklyn, clustered around Smith Street in Boerum Hill, around the Williamsburg Bridge, and out in Sunset Park. But the really large numbers of Puerto Ricans had gone to East Harlem and the South Bronx. The southern black man came to Brooklyn.

There were several reasons for this. It was far more difficult for a badly-educated rural black man to get an apartment in Harlem than it was in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Harlem was a society, the black capital of America, with its already well-defined institutions: churches, numbers runners, landlords, restaurants, artists, after-hours places, con men, musicians, etc. Bed-Stuy was much looser, much less structured. In Bed-Stuy you didn't have to be hip.

Bed-Stuy was also easier to block-bust. A number of black real-estate operators (in addition to whites) made fortunes busting Bed-Stuy. They often employed white salesmen, who would purchase a house in a white street, move in a black family, and then start calling up everyone else on the street. Since many of these areas had two-family houses, or old elegant brownstones, this was much easier to do in Brooklyn than it was in Harlem, where old-law tenements were the rule. Less money was involved, and more heartbreak, especially for the unfortunate hardworking black man who thought he had escaped the ghetto only to find that it was coming out behind him.

So Bedford-Stuyvesant exploded. Whites began leaving by the hundreds. In places like Brownsville, they left because Brownsville had almost always been a slum, and the second generation that was making it did not see any need for further loyalty. Others simply saw the whole thing as hopeless: Brooklyn, which in their youth had been the city of trees and free spaces and security, was being torn apart by drugs and gang wars. The Eagle was gone, the Dodgers had departed: Take the money and get out while you can. There was racial fear involved, of course, but it would be too easy to explain it all away that way. It was race plus despair plus insecurity about money plus desires for the betterment of one's children plus—the most important plus—the loss of a feeling of community.


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