My great grandparents arrived in America over a century ago from Sicily. They were dirt poor, uneducated, swarthy, and considered undesirable by the ruling Protestant standard of the day. Sicilians weren’t much liked by other Italians to the north back home either. They wandered the country from Alabama to Chicago and eventually settled in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn.
This is the church where members of my family were married, baptized, and eulogized. In the days of the Great Depression in the 1930s my great grandparents raised ten children in a one bedroom apartment with a toilet down the hall they shared with other families. The bathtub was in the kitchen. Water was heated on the stove. In order to help pay the rent they took on boarders – yes, in the same one bedroom apartment – and my great grandmother had to cook for them and do their laundry by hand along with all her other responsibilities. My great grandfather lost both his legs while on the job at the railroads. He was fired for being careless. No pension. No Social Security. No nothing. He had to buy his own wooden legs. Afterward he sold things from a pushcart on the street to earn money.
The Boerum Hill of the 1940s and early 50s was slightly better. The economy had improved, the working class was able to more easily provide for essentials, and new government programs had created a partial safety net. My maternal grandfather had multiple sclerosis and died when my mother was six years old. After that things went from one kind of bad to another. They moved to live with relatives in Hialeah, Florida and later migrated to Los Angeles with other relatives. That’s one benefit of having nine siblings and an endless supply of cousins.
The thing that fascinates me about Boerum Hill is the way the neighborhood remained largely the same physically for nearly two centuries, but experienced wild demographic and economic pendulum swings. Beginning in the 1840s wealthy families built grand single family homes and luxury apartment buildings on what had been an old Dutch farm belonging to the Boerum family. Poor people don’t build elegant four story brick row houses with intricately carved doors and stone architectural details. And no landlord ever builds such places for low rent inhabitants. The place had declined spectacularly by the time my immigrant ancestors arrive. Otherwise they would have been priced out. As it happens, property owners could subdivide a grand old home into a dozen cramped apartments and get them to cash flow by sheer volume and deferred maintenance.
The raft of policies collectively called the G.I. Bill that were signed in to law by President Roosevelt near the end of World War II created an artificial middle class out of the same impoverished immigrant stock that had once occupied tenement buildings. The Irish, Greeks, Jews, Slavs, and Italians didn’t change. Instead, the nature of our national institutions shifted in such a way as to more completely fold them in to the fabric of society. As that freshly minted middle class migrated to the newly built suburbs an economic and cultural vacuum was left behind in the older urban neighborhoods. That vacuum in Boerum Hill was filled by the segments of the population that were intentionally excluded from the post war boom. As my elderly relatives used to say, the old neighborhood got very dark.
By the early 1970s Boerum Hill had hit bottom and it stayed there until the late 1990s. The underclass was largely ignored by the authorities, the schools and public parks were left to fester, and landlords had no incentive to do much of anything with their properties except extract rents from whoever might pay.
Today Boerum Hill is the most expensive neighborhood in New York City outside of Manhattan. It was rediscovered by the kinds of people who can afford to spend several million dollars on a charming old brick row house, gut renovate it, and bring it back to its 1800s charm, give or take some mod cons. Local shops and restaurants now cater to an upscale crowd in the same buildings that once stood boarded up. The neighborhood has come full circle, complete with private Montessori schools and artisanal craft beers. My great grandparents would be mystified – and completely priced out.
This isn’t a story about the Triumph of the City. New York is New York. It’s its own special weird kind of place that doesn’t necessarily translate to downtown Peoria, Fresno, or Harrisburg. But the ups and downs of Boerum Hill provides a kind of natural experiment. Over time… things change. And the change comes for reasons and in ways no one can ever entirely predict. The exclusive gated communities of North Dallas may persevere, or they might not. The semi abandoned slums of Detroit may fester forever. But it ain’t necessarily so…