Urban Decay or Culture Collapse? Newspaper Chronicles One Community’s Story by Jason Colin
Canarsie, N.Y. is a small neighborhood in the southeast of Brooklyn borough. It is south of Jamaica Bay, west of Sheepshead Bay, and due to its proximity to the Big Apple, it has been affectionately known as the “Small Town in the Big City” (Rogers). Built upon swamps, it was a fishing area first inhabited by a small group of Native Americans who gave Canarsie its name. Eventually the natives sold their land, and a wave of Jewish and Italian immigrants soon settled the area. They built synagogues and kosher restaurants, established a community with a flourishing culture, and it wasn’t long before the people started a newspaper where they could appreciate and showcase their community to the rest of Brooklyn. The Canarsie Courier was created in April 1921 by Walter S. Patrick and holds the record as the oldest continuously published weekly newspaper in Brooklyn history (Madden). For 91 years the paper has been documenting Canarsie and its residents. This newspaper is homage to a tightly knit, family community, and if you combed through the archives, you would find a collage of stories and pictures that paint a tale that would truly immerse you in Canarsie’s rich history.
The Courier is now maintained by Editor-in-Chief, Charlie Rogers. The Courier has been there, documenting the good and the bad sides of Canarsie. However, Canarsie has been suffering from a socio-economic split recently. East of Rockaway Parkway is becoming a decrepit shadow of its former self, while west of the Parkway has maintained its prosperity. How is it that only one area is dying, while another is getting by? What has happened to cause such a rift? The answers to these questions might aid communities all over the country experiencing similar rifts. The Courier, the upholder of news for this neighborhood can shed some light on this problem and possible solutions.
I have lived in Canarsie for more than seven years now. When I first moved to Canarsie, although it was not the best place in the world, it did not have a negative reputation. On the contrary, when I told somebody that I lived in Canarsie, the most common reply was, “Where’s Canarsie?” Today, not only do people know where Canarsie is, they are also aware of the negative connotation connected to the community. It has dawned upon me that Canarsie is beginning to get a reputation for being a bad neighborhood, and this reputation is having further adverse effects on the area. Now, the Courier seems to feature about two murders per issue because that’s what sells (Rogers). Gang members are more inclined to cause havoc because they are aware that rival gang members reside here.
It’s obvious that Canarsie has gone through an economic and social decline recently. Stores have shut down. Buildings have been left to rot. Tagging (hand-style graffiti writing) has become rampant on some blocks. An area east of Rockaway Parkway has deteriorated so much it has been coined “The Block” by residents. The Block, which constitutes an area including Rockaway down to Flatlands, and the streets east of E. 101st St., has become a symbol of social and economic decay; crime is ubiquitous and violence is an ever-present aspect of daily life. Gang initiation has led to crimes sprees, and stores and buildings have been covered with graffiti.
Three Guy’s, a convenience store on Rockaway Parkway, is the crossroads between the east and the west sides of Canarsie. (Photo by Jason Colin.)
The Block has been featured in the Courier for over a decade now. One paper that dates back to the year 2000 features the Commander of the 60th Precinct of police boasting about how crime was going to be handled more harshly in the coming years and how criminals would have to think twice before breaking the law. Obviously this policy hasn’t been effective as any sort of deterrent, since many issues of the paper since 2010 mention murders on the Block. Canarsie is slowly becoming an area where violence and crime is an unresolved issue that is accepted as the norm. The Courier is also dwindling in sales here—what were 10,000 newspaper sales only a decade ago is only a meager 5,000 today (Madden). The paper, which has served as a beacon of a small town, is dying financially and socially. Old patrons have left, the new population is uninterested, and the paper is not getting the money and support it used to. These are signs of a bigger issue. What does Canarsie’s gradual social and economic decline say about urban locales in general? Is it the fate of all urban neighborhoods and locales to eventually crumble under social destruction and a loss of culture?
A retrospective analysis of the Canarsie Courier gives readers a look at Canarsie’s span in time. The paper has black and white photos that display houses that were once bright and cheerful. Those same houses are now vacant or have been replaced with empty lots. The roads that were once bustling and busy are now empty and lonely. I decided to read several issues of the Courier to find out when any major social changes occurred in the area. For around 70 years, Canarsie seemed to be consistent and for the most part generally positive, give or take a murder or accident. The papers from this era are filled with pictures of citizens smiling and children playing in playgrounds. It is not until around the 1990s that a real change becomes noticeable. Throughout New York, a trend known as “white flight” became an epidemic (Madden).
In “white flight”, the white residents in a neighborhood leave and relocate as a result of an influx of immigrants, generally of Afro-Caribbean origin in Canarsie. This movement left Canarsie with a fraction of its former Jewish population, virtually none of its longstanding Italian population, and a large Afro-Caribbean population. What is peculiar and unique about Canarsie’s white flight is that when the Jews and Italians left, they took their culture along with them. They were the ones who developed and built Canarsie. They spent almost a century with Canarsie, raised it from the ground up, and they built a community, a culture that cannot be erased or replaced in the span of a few years. Although the Afro-Caribbean immigrants introduced their own culture, there is a correlation between the period of white flight and Canarsie’s socio-economic slide.
This is Seaview Park, located at the edge of Canarsie. Its geographic division is reminiscent of the divide in the neighborhood: the Jewish minority usually remains on the west side of the park, while the Afro-Caribbean immigrants tend to stay on the east side of the park (pictured here). (Photo by Jason Colin.)
I spoke to one of my colleagues, who explained that culture is what allows a community, a neighborhood, to exist. Without a culture, nobody is willing to care for the area, and it is only a matter of time before an inevitable social decline takes place. Canarsie’s social deterioration can be explained as such: a largely Jewish and Italian congregation built the town, and when those people left out of personal dislike for their new neighbors, they took the heart of Canarsie with them. The new immigrants’ culture could not uphold the century-old values the former citizens had established. Without that original community giving Canarsie its life, Canarsie began to falter, both socially and economically. The Courier is a prime example. A newspaper that was once dedicated to serving the patrons of Canarsie no longer has patrons to sell to.
Synagogues have been closed or replaced with new churches that are frequented by Caribbean and West Indian residents. Kosher restaurants that were once a vibrant stamp of the area are now closed. Some have been renovated and transformed into West Indian restaurants or corner stores (Greenwald 17). An excerpt from a New York Times article collection called “My Neighborhood, Its Fall and Rise” by Vivian Gornick, depicts a similar story. It tells of a little community in the Lower East Side of the Bronx. In the 1950s, it was already on its way to extinction. There were windows broken. Stores were closed. Criminals ran free. The author tells how the place was so depressing that the entire youth migrated to other areas. She says that it was at that point that the area truly became a ghost town. She records how perhaps two decades after the widespread migration, she returned to find her block in an even worse condition that before. She realized that for her community, a sense of hopelessness drove the small zone into grave despair.
It is the same with Canarsie. It is an area where crime is on the rise, tagging, the act of spraying graffiti tags on walls, has increased, and stores are closing. Social constructionism is starting to dictate Canarsie’s end. What I mean is that people are constructing the idea that the neighborhood is decaying, is doomed to become a gang-ridden land, and that idea is becoming a common paradigm at an unprecedented rate. Kids who have only known Canarsie as it has been in the past four or five years are brought up seeing and hearing only about the negatives of Canarsie. The community’s deprived conditions are leading the residents to believe it’s on the decline, and it is this lack of hope that is really causing the neighborhood to crumble.
Canarsie is just like that small neighborhood in the Bronx; its socio-economic split isn’t really a split at all. The only reason the west side has been able to veer away from all the violence and crime is because the Jewish population is faint, but still present on this side, and they are heavily represented in town affairs. The Courier will tell you that many Jewish people in the area still congregate together for special holidays and hold events and socials where they discuss the future of Canarsie (Greenwald). I have taken to the streets and have seen firsthand how the Jewish community in the west side remains strong and continues to be involved in their own culture and community.
The west side’s prosperity is directly affected by the Jewish population’s presence. This is not necessarily a byproduct of their ethnicity, but rather due to their civic engagement and genuine concern for the growth of their area, two characteristics that are apparently lacking in the new community. When the last remnants of Jews decide to leave, it will only be months before there is no distinct border between prosperity and despair in Canarsie. To put it like one of the Rabbis did in a 2004 Courier issue, Canarsie is on its way to becoming another Brownsville, another gang-ridden town laced with crime, lawlessness, and economic and social depravity (Rogers).
This is gradual socio-economic decay and recent events imply that Canarsie is becoming a victim of neglect and reputation. The new Afro-Caribbean residents don’t seem to understand the situation or care enough about Canarsie or its culture to become active. The former residents, the ones who would have been truly passionate about Canarsie’s decline, cut off all ties when they left. The Courier tries its best to keep the residents alert and informed, but that has become difficult. The owner of a corner store by Avenue L is quoted saying that the newspaper is “filled with ads, and only the first few pages have news” (Madden). This is done for finances of course, the paper not receiving the generous donations it used to. The Jewish and Italian populations invested heavily in the paper, making sure to provide donations so that the paper could continue. This has not been the case with the Afro-Caribbean immigrants, who feel as though the paper doesn’t give them the news they want. The editors have tried to remedy this problem by including a “Caribbean Corner,” a section dedicated solely to Caribbeans, but this failed. For example, editors reported with great insight on the earthquake that shattered Haiti, but this focus did not appear to result in newspaper sales. The Courier’s deterioration is just another symbol of a past culture and a past neighborhood’s complete collapse.
Realizing that Canarsie’s socio-economic split is not so much of a split as it is the west side’s delayed reaction to a somewhat gradual social decay is not the only implication that can be made through this analysis. My research shows this phenomenon has occurred multiple times in the past. Canarsie is only the latest victim in a cycle of urban decay. To go back to my thesis, what does Canarsie’s situation indicate about urban communities in general? Do all urban neighborhoods inevitably succumb to social destruction? I believe so.
My research has shown me that with urban cities, unless there is continuous care and a prominent community that creates and upholds a tightly knit culture, decay and extinction are the only outcomes (Gornick). What differs from neighborhood to neighborhood is the time it takes for the decay to take full effect. Areas like Brownsville and East New York have fallen into full-fledged socio-economic ruts due to their unforgiving reputations for being slums, whereas places like Canarsie are only halfway through their collapse—some old community ties keep them from tipping over the cliff. Some neighborhoods have already fallen so low that the only possible direction for them is up—and that’s where my hope is.
When author and former Bronx resident Vivian Gornick returns to her old neighborhood twenty years after leaving it to find a better life in Manhattan, she is appalled by the decrepit status the area has fallen into. However, she documents that in the midst of the urban ruin, old residents of the area had started a revival movement. Gornick’s story tells not only of the town that fell to shambles over years of mistreatment and abuse; it also tells the story of a community that has come together with a singular goal, that goal being the edification of those broken-down blocks and streets. People have come back from wherever they ventured off to support the effort. She cites how reconstruction movements have begun in the most decrepit buildings, and how the youth of her generation have returned to raise families in their old homes. The new residents are cleaning streets, planting trees, and genuinely engaging in the improvement of the neighborhood. Slowly but surely, the Lower East Side of the Bronx is beginning to be re-fueled with the vitality that only revival movements bring. It was through utter dismay that the community was able to unite and build itself back up.
I think that some urban areas go through a cycle of sorts. There is the beginning, usually one that starts with a small group of friends and family, perhaps immigrants, perhaps natives. These people grow up together, have kids together, and establish social norms and values. The people care for their community. They sweep outside their homes and they build parks. They don’t litter, or in any way sully their neighborhood. They are very active in community affairs, and always send representatives to town hall meetings. They create a flourishing community. Then, with time, for reasons that vary from economic failure to social migration, the original inhabitants depart and shift away from the community. Without them, the culture dies with time, and with it goes the neighborhood’s values, norms, and heritage.
This is where Canarsie stands right now. Soon our neighborhood could be just like a Brownsville, an area of disparity and social shame. At this stage, the best that can be done to prevent this is to raise a voice, gain support, and become active in social planning. But without the support or passion of the masses, it’s only a delay of the inevitable. Canarsie will crumble, as long as the reputation worsens and people begin to write it off as a gang- and violence-ridden wasteland. Canarsie won’t be separated between an east and west side—it will be one entire socio-economic rut.
I hope the story won’t end there for Canarsie, however. Just like the Lower East Side of the Bronx, I am confident that Canarsie can rise again in time. The socio-economic slump it is approaching is only a temporary state. The original inhabitants will come back to their neighborhood with a rekindled fire, a desire not only to return but also to improve their old homes. With this burning inspiration will also be a new culture, and a new appreciation of the area. They will bring a new, young generation, one that will be taught to love and cherish the town. Thus, a new culture will be born in Canarsie, one that will not falter as quickly, one where the Courier will be around to document and boast about this old, great Brooklyn neighborhood’s return. This is a future I personally look forward to.
Gornick, Vivian. “My Neighborhood, Its Fall and Rise.” New York Stories: The Best of the City Selection of the New York Times. Ed. Constance Rosenblum. New York City: NYU Press, 2005: 261-68. Print.
Greenwald, Shlomo. “Jewish Community Shrinking, But Surviving.” The Canarsie Courier. 23 December 2004: Religion. Web. 9 November 2012.
Madden, Peter. “Quirky and Beloved, the Canarsie Courier Pushes onto its 90th Year.” The Brooklyn Ink. 9 August 2011. Web. 9 November 2012.
Rogers, Charles. Interview by Peter Madden. Accessed 9 November 2012.
Jason Colin is a Law and Society major at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in the City University of New York. He started college at age 16. Jason attributes part of his success to Professor Marc McBeth’s support and guidance. He hopes to attend law school after graduation.
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