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Inequality in Brooklyn

Until recently, a “Brooklyn booster” was more than likely a con artist trying to sell you a proverbial piece of the Brooklyn Bridge. These days, however, the Bridge itself is actually up for sale, and large swaths of the borough are awash in developer dollars. And, for the first time in many decades, business in the downtown area “is humming,” as Brooklyn’s number one booster, Borough President Marty Markowitz, declared in his summer newsletter.

Daniel Doctoroff, the Bloomberg administration’s Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, recently painted a similarly rosy portrait of the borough’s future. Addressing a cross-section of planners and engaged local residents at “The Future of Brooklyn,” a June conference at Brooklyn College, Doctoroff spoke glowingly of the borough’s unlimited potential for growth. Downtown, he said, is ready to reap the benefits of the financial sector’s “diversification” away from Lower Manhattan; meanwhile, vast stretches of the waterfront, from Coney Island around to Red Hook and up to Greenpoint, are ripe for stadiums, residential development, and growth of a ferry-based transportation network.

Combine these future trends with the already-existing gentrified residential appeal of many Brooklyn neighborhoods, and the optimism seems justified. For years, what defined success for local residents was being able to leave Brooklyn. But nowadays, real estate prices from Williamsburg through Fort Greene and Dumbo to Red Hook are sky-high, with droves of young media-oriented professionals following the paths first blazed by artists. Across the river and around the country, Brooklyn is definitely “on the map.”

Our intention is not to burst that bubble, nor is it to deny our own social position, as relatively recent migrants working in the city’s media sector. Our goal is rather to assess the relationship between “new” and “old” Brooklyn, or between the borough’s economic and demographic future and its present make-up. At first glance, the new trends—particularly the growth of the financial sector—would appear to benefit primarily the borough’s largely white professional, gentrifying class. Nevertheless, we think that there are ways in which the new growth can improve the position of the borough’s two-thirds majority population of color. In our view, the very fact that the borough is indeed booming provides a rare opportunity to alter the direction of inequality in Brooklyn.

A Brief Demographic Overview

From Greenpoint to Gravesend, and Sunset Park to Cypress Hills, Brooklyn is a borough with incredible diversity among its majority “minority” population. Currently Brooklyn is one of the top 15 counties in the United States in terms of population concentration of minority groups. Recent census data shows that the borough has the third largest African American population of all counties in the country, numbering at nearly 900,000 people. The Latino population here is the second largest in New York City at over 500,000, and it grew by over 50,000 during the 1990s. The Asian population in Brooklyn has increased ever more dramatically, rising by 30,00 to total 145,000 people, the third largest concentration in the city. White non-Hispanics in Brooklyn number approximately the same as the African American population, making up approximately one third of the borough’s population.

In terms of the geographic distribution of household income, though, a few relatively predictable areas dominate. According to federal census numbers, Brooklyn Heights/Fort Greene, Park Slope/Carroll Gardens and Flatlands/Canarsie are on top, while Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, and Ocean Hill/Brownsville are on the bottom. Except for Canarsie, where there is a growing black middle class, the income disparities generally break down along racial lines, not unlike those found in other parts of the United States.

The economy in Brooklyn, similar to other parts of the city, has changed dramatically over the past few decades. Traditionally, Brooklyn’s economy was largely based around manufacturing, but between 1987 and 2000 these jobs were reduced by just over 40 percent, while service sector jobs rose by about the same number, with a significant rise occurring between 1995 and 2000. Financial, insurance and real estate (FIRE) jobs also saw a more than 20 percent increase, but still constitute only 6 percent increase of the workforce. Brooklyn’s economy is clearly driven by its service sector, which employs 43 percent of the borough’s workforce, as compared to retail trade, the next largest sector, which totals 15 percent. By any measure, Brooklyn is now a predominantly white-collar borough.

FIRE Downtown

Post 9/11, as Deputy Mayor Doctoroff explained at the "Future of Brooklyn” conference, it has become imperative for Lower Manhattan’s leading financial sector employers “to diversify” their operations, meaning they need to avoid relying on a single phone or power grid. (As a number of other speakers at the conference later noted, “decentralize” is really a more accurate term to describe this process.) Given its proximity to Lower Manhattan, Downtown Brooklyn, with an extensive office infrastructure already in place and the capacity for further growth, is an obvious target for financial sector decentralization.

Yet as Jesse Jackson, Mary Frances Berry, and others brought to light in the late 1990s, the financial sector has not at all provided a clear avenue of advancement for people of color. According to a study by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), African Americans lost presence in the securities industry during the “boom years” of the mid- to late 1990s, moving down from 9.3 percent to 8.4 percent of the workforce while holding only 5 percent of jobs at the management and professional level. Despite Wall Street’s concerted efforts to hire minorities, Mary Frances Berry, chairwoman of the United States Commission on Civil Rights when it conducted a study in the late mid-1990s, observe that “The numbers show a dismal lack of progress … It is still true that white males dominate the most remunerative jobs and opportunities on Wall Street.”

The highest-paying jobs within the FIRE sector are in securities and commodities broking, but these comprise only one out of every thirteen financial jobs. In general, what Downtown Brooklyn is more likely to receive is Lower Manhattan’s “back-office” financial work. Here the hiring pool does tend to be far more diverse. “The financial sector actually provides a lot of entry level jobs for people of color,” explains Joan Bartolomeo, President of the Brooklyn Economic Development Corporation. Since these jobs pay an average salary of only $25,000 per year, Bartolomeo continues, “The real question is whether these jobs will be promotional.” Wall Street’s track record suggests otherwise.

The financial sector, of course, is not the only area of proposed growth. Markowitz and other business boosters are trying to lure additional corporate employers downtown, and they have already succeeded in convincing Empire Blue Cross to move its headquarters, along with its 1,300 employees, there next year. Elsewhere, BAM is undertaking a large-scale expansion, creating the Fort Greene Cultural District. In East Flatbush, the SUNY Downstate Medical Center is attempting to build a leading biotech research center. And an array of recreational, residential, and retail projects are in place along the Brooklyn waterfront.

The bulk of Brooklyn’s proposed projects tend to cluster either around downtown or along the waterfront. “Where are the jobs for the people who live in the outer parts if Brooklyn—places like Bed-Stuy, Bushwick, East New York, Brownsville, and Crown Heights?” asks Matthew Okebiyi, Executive Director of Brooklyn’s African American Planning Commission. Other than the aforementioned financial sector jobs, most of the proposals generally would provide only more entry-level service employment for people of color. Meanwhile, the highest-paying blue-collar components within the various proposed projects will be in the construction industry, another sector where minorities have made limited inroads at best.

The uncertain long-range prospects within Brooklyn’s growth sectors for people of color are only compounded by the more immediate problems of unemployment present amidst the current downturn. “Especially after 9/11 there’s not enough jobs to go around for low-income people,” Okebiyi says. “It’s been even more difficult than usual for them to find gainful employment.” According to City Controller William Thompson’s office, Brooklyn’s 8.3 percent unemployment rate for the second quarter of 2002 placed it second in the city only to the Bronx, where it stood at 9.1 percent. Amidst the current crisis, Okebiyi says, “we’re still waiting to see if the Mayor will come through on his pledge to create jobs in Brooklyn.”

Old Dilemmas, New Remedies?

Virtually all observers call for more comprehensive programs of education and job training to be put in place in order to help Brooklyn’s lower-income population enter the workforce. As Bartolomeo observes, “There need to be concerted training programs that are inclusive.” Bartolomeo cites SUNY Downstate Medical Center in East Flatbush for what she calls its “ambitious agenda” of working with NYC public schools and public universities to create programs that immerse science teachers and students in latest trends in biotech research. Ideally, students will be prepared to move beyond lab technician work to become research specialists.

On the whole, reliance on the private sector to initiate sustained job training programs has not been viewed as a success, however. Obeyiki maintains that, “There has been a push in general to get the private sector to work with the non-profit sector to bring jobs to minority neighborhoods, but the private employers have typically backed off from hiring workers from low-income communities.” Employers generally cite a lack of both job skills as well as “work-readiness” among applicants from those communities. Bartolomeo further suggests that the job skills taught by private employers are often specific to the particular company, rendering them of limited value to the worker seeking advancement in the job market.

It is difficult to see how the training programs will be improved if simply left in the hands of the private sector. Private employers will always seek to hire either the most-qualified personnel, or those workers whom they deem the most trainable. Expecting those employers to do otherwise would be unrealistic. Thus, in our view, making these same employers contribute directly to public funding for education and job training programs is a much more feasible option, especially if the companies are receiving financial incentives from the city.

A second, no less crucial, remedy is one put forth at the "Future of Brooklyn” conference by Walter Stafford, Professor of Urban Planning and Policy Development at NYU’s Wagner School. In two words, it is this: affirmative action. Left to its own devices, the private sector has proven that it will not open its doors to genuine integration at the executive and middle-class management levels. Nevertheless, there are those who instinctively recoil at the term "affirmative action", seeing in it the pernicious practice of “racial preferences.” We, however, say that the private sector has its own racial preferences, and only strong oversight and corrective action led by the public sector can solve this enduring problem.

Like other cities, or parts thereof, Brooklyn has plenty of ways of enticing employers to move, including favorable policies of taxation, subsidies, and/or zoning. A core part of any future exchange (as well as any existing incentive-based relationship) needs to involve the commitment of those private employers to contributing to programs of education and job training, and to providing real integration in the workplace. These companies, after all, are operating in a city/borough of 2.5 million, and at the very least, as Okebiyi points out, it’s “good business practice” for them to earn the respect of their local community. Meanwhile, for the borough’s leadership and residents alike, it is time to restore Brooklyn to its historic place at the foreground of the struggle for equality in America.


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