Jul/Aug 2015 Salon

A Tale of Two Houses

by Thomas J. Hubschman

I got to know Roberta Harris (not her real name) through the man who occupied the house next door to hers, two of a row of half-dozen narrow half-lot fake-clapboard two-storey homes across the street from the apartment building where I and my wife live. Half a lot in this case amounts to no more than 15 or 20 feet, barely enough for a small living room and entrance hallway in the front half of the first floor, with a long dining room and kitchen behind. Upstairs, which I never visited, were two long narrow bedrooms and bath. In this limited space Roberta lived with her second husband and at least two, perhaps three, grown children. She had previously owned a substantial brick building on the same block consisting of two full-size apartments in which she had raised a total of six offspring, two of whom had died before I met her. That was when she was still employed as an administrator at a local high-rise residence for senior citizens. At the point we became friends, she was retired and confined to a wheelchair after losing a leg to diabetes, but she still enjoyed a good deal of respect from her days as the "mayor of 17th Street."

Her next-door neighbor, Don Shoon, (not his real name) was a bachelor who had bought his own house back in the early 1970s for $8,000 when a brownstone in nearby Park Slope could still be had for under $50,000 (they sell for as much as $3 million today). He lived in it with his widowed mother until her death in the 1980s. When I met him in the early 1990s, Don was in his mid-50s, a few years younger than Roberta, a short, round, bald, toothless man with a physical appearance totally at odds with his courtly Brooklyn manners (Brooklyn's the only place I've lived where men formally address women as "my dear," though it sometimes takes "foreigners" a while to realize they are not being familiar) and a supreme confidence in his ability to charm the socks off any female he chose. His formal education had ended 40 years earlier when he was expelled from Brooklyn Automotive for gang activities. He then went to work as a stock boy for a Manhattan publishing house and had recently retired on the promise of a lump-sum pension check. He was "white," vehemently so, an open admirer of the Ku Klux Klan. Roberta was decidedly not white, an émigrée from the Deep South where she had lived through the last decades of segregation, a woman for whom racism of the kind Don flirted with (partly for dramatic effect, I came to suspect) was more than something to experience via Hollywood or TV.

Two more unlikely friends would be hard to imagine. Yet, there they were, just he and his dog in his little doll house of a home and Roberta, her house literally attached to his, still responsible for two grown sons, one an unemployed man in his mid-20s who had spent time unsuccessfully in the Marines and his younger half-brother, one of two children by her second husband, who was attending a local two-year college.

Park Slope had been gentrifying for three decades by the time I made their acquaintance. My wife and I had been looking at condos and co-ops in the outlying neighborhoods, having fallen into a small inheritance that would have allowed us to make a down payment on a modest apartment in the five- or low-six-figure range. We had been living a few blocks away on 16th Street between Prospect Park West and 8th Avenue, a block filled with white welfare recipients, single mothers, and more than a few druggies. Our rental there was big and airy but rundown and still outfitted as it had been the day it was built: you didn't dare turn on an air conditioner and a toaster at the same time, and I could see my neighbor's apartment through holes in the bare wood floors of the long hallway that connected a large sunny front room with the smaller three rooms to the rear of the building. When we discovered the lower-middle-income city-subsidized co-op where we currently live, we were suddenly transported into the 20th century—electrical outlets in every room, a modern bathtub (with shower!), intercom, washing machines in the basement.

Even so, our new block, also situated between Prospect Park West and 8th Avenue, had not yet fully "come up." In fact, during our eight-year stay on 16th Street when I took exploratory walks through the surrounding neighborhoods, I instinctively shied away from venturing down 17th Street (which, by no logic I can fathom, is located four blocks south of 16th). I had worked for the NYC welfare department and New York State Narcotic Addiction Control Commission and had walked alone through areas of the city that police only ventured into in pairs. But, one glance down 17th Street convinced me this was one block it would be foolish to step foot on for no other purpose than sight-seeing. After we had moved here, I felt more at ease, though police were still frequent visitors to one or two addresses nearby and I was held up at gunpoint on the front stoop of our building back in the early 1990s when street crime was at epidemic proportions in the city. Even so, the situation, I was assured by residents who had been here during the first days of the co-op's existence, was nothing like what it had been, when they used to find junkies nodding off in their hallways and shareholders had to install welded security gates onto their windows to keep burglars out of their apartments when they were at work or even asleep in their beds.

Windsor Terrace, the fancy name for this neighborhood, was not Park Slope then, nor is it quite Park Slope now. But, as real estate became increasingly dear in that trendy ever-expanding brownstone neighborhood that used to be limited to a mile-long and half-mile-wide area contiguous to the western side of Prospect Park, outlying neighborhoods like ours and those to the west and north became the next choice for yuppies and their more upscale avatars in finance, law, medicine, and the arts (you can hardly swing a thesaurus on 7th Avenue without hitting at least one writer who has been reviewed in the New York Times). Even those narrow shacks in which Roberta and Don lived, more like summer "cottages" you can find on Breezy Point and other originally working-class vacation colonies, increased dramatically in value. And it was during that first dramatic surge in real estate values that Roberta's, and eventually her children's, fates took a turn for the worse.

I was largely ignorant of how mortgages work, never mind the scams which later became so well-known following the financial collapse of 2008. I only realized a decade after Roberta's undoing who those people were who approached her and offered to refinance the debt on her house at rates that must have seemed all but too good to be true. I had heard about red-lining, but that was something that took place in African American neighborhoods, not in up-and-coming bastions of white respectability like Windsor Terrace. So I hadn't a clue to what Roberta was talking about when she happily related to me the deal she had been offered and accepted. To date, I have heard of no one else who fell prey to those variable-rate mortgage scams on this block, and I can't help but wonder if Roberta's being "black" was responsible for her being the sole target of their machinations. She was too smart to fall for anything obviously phony, having been a successful career woman and owner of property before settling down in her modest residence. Those predators must have done a good job of concentrating on vulnerabilities in her that were not obvious to me.

In retrospect I see I give her, if not human nature, too much credit for rationality in the presence of what looks like the chance of a lifetime. Roberta had already lost two adult children and had responsibility for two more still living with her (she had a couple married daughters as well) at a time in her life when she should have been paying more attention to her own needs. A chance to reduce her monthly mortgage payments and use that money to settle other bills must have looked very appealing. We shouldn't forget that variable-rate mortgages—low monthly payments for a while, then sky-high—were being offered by some of America's best-known financial institutions. She wasn't dealing with loan sharks or fly-by-night operations.

Such victimization by predatory lenders may or may not have been unique on my block to Roberta (25% of African American homes went into foreclosure nationally following the 2008 meltdown), but it has been common, indeed endemic in many African American communities across this country for many decades. A recent article ("The dreams deferred by Baltimore's mortgage crises set the stage for unrest"—theconversation.com) following the killing of a young man in police custody in that city documents how entire neighborhoods and many individual lives were destroyed by such vicious lending practices.

Nor were discriminatory practices targeting African Americans seeking to own their own homes limited to private enterprises or to state and municipal agencies. From its inception in the 1930s under the Roosevelt administration, the Federal Housing Administration mandated—not just winked at—written agreements on the part of home developers affirming that they would not sell to African Americans, "Negroes," as they were known then. It's worth emphasizing that the FHA did this openly, during a period in the 1940s when they were responsible for 80% of new mortgages in the US. An account of the federal government's cooperation with local and state authorities in keeping African Americans out of the home-owning class and hence out of the wealth-accruing class—home-ownership being the single most important generator of wealth, especially inheritable wealth, for most Americans—is documented by Richard Rothstein in a study he prepared for the Economic Policy Institute (epi.org) last autumn called The Making of Ferguson: Public Policies at the Root of its Troubles. It makes for shocking reading for anyone who likes to believe that liberals were the champions of African Americans in the glory days of FDR and after.

Roberta's diabetes worsened, then kidney failure set in. After several months of dialysis, she died, leaving her Trinidadian husband, the most soft-spoken, gentle man I've ever known, so grief-stricken that he died himself within the year. The children, probably pooling their resources, managed to keep the house for awhile, but then were forced to put it up for sale.

Don Shoon had meanwhile gotten his lump-sum retirement check and with it bought a one-bedroom apartment in an all-white section of Bay Ridge, selling his own house for 20 times what he had paid for it. I kept in touch for a while, then the latent paranoia that had fueled the racism he spouted for so many years got the better of him and he stopped returning my calls. In less than a year he was dead himself from neglect of an injury he had sustained several years back and from which, ironically, Roberta had nursed him back to health.

The two houses were gutted and renovated at considerable expense and today are occupied by well-to-do professionals with young children. It's hard to recall the dark, tiny rooms Roberta and Don inhabited when I see those spaces lit up brightly at night, one big room extending from the front to the rear of each building. The purchase price for one of those six row houses, I've been told, is close to three-quarters of a million dollars. I doubt Roberta's children netted anything like that figure. There is still one house in the group owned by a Puerto Rican family that moved into it almost 50 years ago. Three generations have lived there, and I see no indication anyone is looking to move. Another is occupied by a West Indian preacher. The new people are white and middle-class. There are still a handful of other African Americans on the block, a few of them home-owners, still a remarkable example of integration, however partial, in a city so thoroughly segregated.

Some day those tiny houses will be razed and their place taken by condos as tall as the zoning regulations allow, cutting off the view of tall greenery visible from my top-floor living room windows. Our co-op recently paid off its 30-year mortgage (at a fixed rate of 1 percent) and voted to increase the purchase price of units by about 500 percent. Some of us objected, arguing that our co-op came into existence as an economic haven for the less affluent school teachers, librarians, civil servants who would be priced out of our co-op, at least at less than the higher salary ranges in those professions. Shareholders eventually arrived at a compromise that would exclude potential buyers without the income or credit worthiness to sustain a mortgage of a few hundred thousand dollars on top of a monthly maintenance charge in the mid-hundreds. Income limits for new buyers were also raised by about 50 percent.

But, the future of this block is not favorable toward a compromise of the sort that allows for teachers, librarians, firefighters, et al, to buy into the co-op, albeit at a point in their careers when they could probably afford something more luxurious with better equity. The most recent sale on the block, a full-size house on a full lot but located very near that row of half-lot houses, was purchased by a couple with two small children and was extensively renovated, right down to tearing off the original under-siding and using the highest quality materials and workmen for every aspect of the rehab. Finished, it looks like a town house in one of the better neighborhoods of New England. The new owners are genial and seem content with their Puerto Rican, black, and lower-middle-income neighbors, though the other new arrivals are, like themselves, much more well off than any of the older residents on the block. The same phenomenon happened in brownstone Park Slope: a single new resident on a block previously occupied by working-class Irish and Italians, then another, until the entire block was made up of new people who quickly drove prices to heights well beyond what current residents had paid decades earlier and thus made it impossible for people who belonged in the income class of that earlier generation to buy those houses at present rates.

What happened to Roberta Harris also happened to millions of other Americans of African descent. And, it continues to this day, as the article about housing in Baltimore documents. Racist manipulation of neighborhoods didn't begin with the Roosevelt FHA exclusionary policy or with modern red-lining, but its becoming part and parcel of federal as well as state, municipal and private policy has guaranteed that the victims have been denied fundamental economic advantages of home ownership—and hence other economic-social opportunities such as a college education for their children. Reversing these hundred-year old policies is a daunting goal, but we don't have to look beyond that century of economic oppression for all the explanation we need for the present racial divide in our nation.

Indeed, Richard Rothstein (his talks are available on YouTube) believes we have to first stop pretending we live in a post-racial society. Even liberal members of the Supreme Court speak of "de facto segregation" as if there have been no intentional, de jure policies by all levels of government responsible for our segregated neighborhoods and the economic/social degradation that segregation inevitably entails. We have to start talking about race again—not class—as the determining factor in the lives of both white and non-white Americans. Otherwise, we're just kidding ourselves.

The other essential, Rothstein insists, is that we educate ourselves about the real history of economic race policies in our nation. Rothstein is primarily a scholar of educational issues. He frequently points out that the most-used high school text for teaching American history devotes all of one sentence to segregation in the North, stating that African Americans living there "found themselves living in segregated" neighborhoods—no causality, no one responsible, indeed no history.

This has to change if we are going to make any progress reversing the devastating effects of 100 years of deprivation that amounts to "ethnic cleansing," a "Crime against Humanity" under International Law (which is constitutionally American law as well since we signed the treaty). Only genocide is a greater crime. There is more than one way of destroying a people than mass murder. Consider what would have been the consequences of a Nazi policy of 100 years of economic, social, and civil deprivation of Jews and Roma in Europe. Social and economic deprivation did in fact begin in the 1930s when Jews—what the Nazis defined as Jews, at least—professors, doctors, and other Germans with high-status jobs lost their employment. Fast-forward a couple generations without assuming the hideous Final Solution, just more decades of discriminatory practices in every aspect of life, from housing to employment to basic civil rights. Only a racist of a kind who believes there is something genetic about Jews that would keep them from sinking to the same level of every other group that has been similarly deprived can believe they would not have become the blacks of Europe.

The Roma, closer to the actual condition of African Americans, would not have had as far to fall and still occupy a place in European societies—those whose own ancestors were not exterminated in the holocaust—that is at the rock bottom of those societies who make little pretense of hiding their contempt for everything Roma and believe those people are inherently criminal and backward.

Thanks partly to the Kerner Commission Report in 1968, most educated Americans knew the history of American apartheid. But, we have forgotten it or, rather, it has been erased from our memories by deliberate neglect in our educational system. That, according to Richard Rothstein, is priority number one: teach our young the real history of the last 100 years.

Priority 1-A was voiced by Sherrilyn Ifill, professor of law at the University of Maryland and past general counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund: use public policy to redress the deprivations African Americans have been subjected to for the past century as we did to raise the social and economic status of European immigrants in the early decades of the 20th century (when racism was no less virulent) through public health, educational, recreational, and other governmental initiatives. We have never made any efforts to redress the wrongs done African Americans because of moral shame, Ifil points out. Shame, like fear, is a paralyzing, not a motivating emotion for most people. We passed all those civil rights laws in the 1960s and 1970s because we dared not let the rest of the world see us behaving in just as oppressive a manner as we claimed the Soviet Union was doing. Many of the remedies to effect racial integration are already on the books in most states. They have simply been ignored.

Finally, I think it's worth pointing out that the administrations of two presidents can be held accountable for the disempowerment and virtual destruction the African American community's economic and social viability in the last 100 years. The first was Woodrow Wilson, who re-segregated the federal civil service, depriving Americans of African descent of any supervisory positions over whites and mandating that any new African American hires be for menial positions only. This policy was quickly adopted by northern and border states throughout the nation, along with a free hand to discriminate generally in ways we have already discussed.

The second administration was Franklin Delano Roosevelt's. It was under his public works program and Federal Housing Authority that restrictive covenants were mandated for builders who wanted FHA backing, without which banks refused to grant loans for the construction of new housing. At the height of that backing, 95% of all new housing in New York had restrictive covenants against reselling property to African Americans.

I have compared what needs to be done to the Marshal Plan, which put Germany back on its feet after the second world war. How many billions of dollars, Ms. Ifill asks, were spent on producing all that whites-only housing, along with the infrastructure to make it viable—the Interstate highway system being a prominent example? How much are we willing to spend to correct that deep injustice? Are we even willing to put its true history into our textbooks? Are we willing to implement those laws that would at least make a start toward reversing the highly segregated society in which we live—more segregated than it's ever been, bizarre as that may seem? Or, will we prefer to go on cataloging the sins of other nations committed on other continents, making us feel good we are not Nazis or Khmer Rouges or Janjaweed militiamen, ignoring our own, original and still ongoing sins?

We spend a lot of time these days complaining about income inequality, and rightly so. No social equality is possible when so few own so much of the nation's wealth. Denying to any group the opportunity to accumulate modest wealth means denying them opportunity to join the middle class with all that implies for them and for the rest of society. Ultimately, inequality is a threat to democracy itself, already an endangered if not moribund institution in our nation. Denying others their fair share of the economic and social benefits our society has to offer also goes against our sense of fair play. It's immoral.

The effort required to right the wrongs done to African Americans requires not just enforcement of integrated housing laws and other legal remedies. It also means, preeminently, making available to each African American child the education afforded a white middle-class child: the best teachers teaching the most challenging curricula in fully equipped, properly managed schools. If that means massive investment in pre-school and remedial personnel and infrastructure, so be it. We have that kind of money to spend on bombers and massive tax write-offs, why not on our children? Without the acquiring of skills that are the tickets to well-paying jobs, social mobility is not possible.

The alternative is more Fergusons, unpleasant for whites to witness but far worse for those condemned to spend their lives in through no fault of their own. More neglect, which means more discrimination, also means widening the income gap throughout our society. If we think the relentless concentration of wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people is any respecter of color, we should think again. If we end up sinking altogether, we will do so all together, as peons, modern-day serfs, in a world ruled by an economic and political elite that makes today's corporate tyrants look like Boy Scouts. Our African American brothers and sisters are not something apart from the rest of us, a matter for Sunday-morning talk about police brutality and the huge population of young African Americans in our prison systems. It's about us, all of us. We can not go on denying the great wrong we continue to perpetrate each day on our fellow Americans without paying the price, any more than South Africa could. Our "black" issue may be unique among all the social issues we have had to deal with over the centuries, but it's a reality very much embedded in all our lives. Ultimately, we are those people we saw on the streets of Ferguson. We or our children and grandchildren will share their fate. To think otherwise is to live in a fantasy, a very dangerous one.


Previous Piece Next Piece