In 1986, I was working as a community organizer in a working-class racially transitional neighborhood in Southwest Chicago. One day, while rummaging in a used bookstore, I came across the original edition of the ethnography Norman Street, by Ida Susser (first published in 1982). The cover was kind of a burnt orange color and featured a photo of white folks with picket signs reading, “Save Our Homes.” Because of the work I was doing at the time, and because at that point in my life I had a B.A. and an M.A. in anthropology and was contemplating whether or not to return to graduate school to complete a Ph.D., I grabbed the book, took it home, and devoured it. Set in Greenpoint-Williamsburg in Brooklyn, Susser addressed many of the same issues we were grappling with in Chicago: the rapid slide of black, white, and Latino working-class families into poverty as manufacturing jobs fled the urban north, cutbacks in governmental aid programs, and the spread of arson-for-profit as neighborhoods that were then marginal appeared to absentee landlords to be more valuable for the insurance claims they could file than for the tenants they might hope to find.
Most disturbingly, events in Southwest Chicago, as in Brooklyn, were set against the steady background thrum of racial tension. In Southwest Chicago, Western Avenue, a street that had functioned for about a decade at that time as the porous borderline between the mostly white working-class Catholic parishes to the west and the almost all black Englewood neighborhood to the east, began to soften. Black families, seeking better housing opportunities, were moving across Western Avenue into areas that were already somewhat mixed and joining an uneasy mélange of older whites and younger Latino and Palestinian families. The changes in the neighborhood's racial composition were accelerated by the persistence of racially discriminatory measures in the real estate, banking, and insurance industries. Redlining — the practice of refusing mortgages to people buying homes in racially mixed areas and of increasing insurance rates in such neighborhoods — created a fearful brew of anxiety among the longer term homeowners and made it more difficult for new residents to buy properties, allowing absentee landlordism to flourish.
So, imagine my delight all those years ago when I first came across Norman Street, which dealt with so many of the same issues I was confronting. Furthermore, Susser demonstrated how an anthropological analysis could usefully illuminate the complexities and contradictions of life in such settings. She showed how events on Norman Street were shaped by actors and their decisions made in precincts far removed from the immediate neighborhood. She also devoted special attention to the critical roles that women played in sustaining community-based activism intended to improve conditions in their beleaguered communities, work that often necessitated collaborations among racial and ethnic boundaries. A couple of years later, in 1988, PBS screened the (1985) film “Metropolitan Avenue” as part of their series POV. “Metropolitan Avenue,” a film by Hofstra faculty member Christine Noschese, is set in the same neighborhood in Brooklyn as Norman Street, and it covers many of the same events described in the book; Susser is listed in the credits as a consultant to the film. Taken together, Norman Street and “Metropolitan Avenue” were significant testimonials for me, speaking to the value of understanding and representing what was happening in these struggling working-class neighborhoods, and celebrating in particular the critical roles played by women. Shortly thereafter, I returned to graduate school to complete a Ph.D. in anthropology, for which I wrote my dissertation on the impact of grassroots activism on the lives of working-class women (but set in England, not in the United States).
In 2012, Oxford University Press made the excellent decision to issue a second edition of Norman Street, now featuring a new 50-page introduction in which Susser updates the original ethnography. What is extraordinary about rereading this book, however, is that even without the superb new introduction, Susser's original account of what was happening in Brooklyn in the mid-1970s remains relevant, prescient as it was about the direction in which urban neighborhoods were rapidly moving. Key to her account — and to what is happening in many American cities today — was the catastrophic event of the fiscal collapse of New York City in the mid-1970s, epitomized by the (perhaps apocryphal) headline on the front of the October 30, 1975 issue of the Daily News, which read “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” Although journalists and historians have contested the accuracy of that exact quotation, it clearly represents the national disposition toward New York City and other older metropolises in an era when the federal government and elected officials began to turn away from the Democratically inclined deindustrializing and racially changing urban centers of the Midwest and Northeast, casting their political fortunes with those of the growing predominantly white and middle-class Republican-leaning suburbs and exurbs.
In the original ethnography, Susser recounts how New York's near bankruptcy created the opportunity for the establishment of the Municipal Assistance Corporation (MAC), which was controlled by banking interests (led most memorably by investment banker Felix Rohatyn). Susser discloses the consequences of the critical decisions that the MAC was empowered to make about New York City's future. And she shows how those decisions “trickled down” into neighborhoods like Greenpoint-Williamsburg. As she writes,
Decisions about a 43-percent rise in the New York City transit fare, the abolition of a century of free tuition at City University, and the drastic reduction in municipal services were imposed upon the elected representatives of New York City by powerful banking interests and the refusal of the federal government to grant aid (p. 239).
Read against the backdrop of contemporary events, one could almost take this original chapter published in 1982 (“The Sources of Political Control”) and substitute “Detroit” (along with “Stockton” or “San Bernardino” and a handful of other municipalities) for New York to see similar patterns continuing to emerge: that is, decisions about the future of these cities dangling on the precipice of economic disaster are being made behind closed doors, primarily by investment bankers in cahoots with Republican politicians, with little or no political accountability. As Jamiel (2013) writes,
Detroit's bankruptcy was a cure looking for a patient, a cure preordained by conservative forces that saw bankruptcy as potentially the only legal mechanism powerful enough– or so they hoped– to dislodge the constitutional protection surrounding the collective bargaining contracts of their nemesis, the public sector unions.
Now, go back and read chapter 11 of the original Norman Street (or read it for the first time if you haven't done so already) in order to understand how even relatively progressive local politicians in mid-1970s Brooklyn felt forced to cave in and concede to policies favored by banking and real estate interests. Think about how that pattern has been inscribed on urban landscapes over and over again during the past 40 years, and the current situation facing Detroit and other cities becomes somewhat easier to understand — and even more infuriating.
The introduction to the new edition picks up the story where the original edition ends. When we leave Norman Street at the end of the 1970s, the coming wave of gentrification is already looming on the horizon. As Susser wrote in the original edition,
As banks and major insurance companies fund the proliferation of middle-income housing and expensive office blocks, New York City is being transformed into a purely corporate center. The workers of Greenpoint-Williamsburg and other poor areas are being squeezed out of the city (p. 260).
In the new introduction, Susser continues this thread:
As we shall see, neither home ownership nor homelessness was common in the city until the 1980s. As discussed in the original conclusion, major changes in housing policies were implemented in the city following the 1975 fiscal crisis. The provision of new tax advantages for apartment renovation and the deregulation of rents for renovated apartments allowed dramatic increases in the cost of rental housing (p. 4).
In the new introduction, Susser documents the ways in which grassroots activists continue to play an important role in fighting the forces that continue to displace the working-class residents of Greenpoint-Williamsburg. She recounts several recent campaigns for affordable housing fought by current residents, some of whom are the same dramatis personae who had appeared in the original edition of the book (and in “Metropolitan Avenue”). Through her careful examination of the changing demographics of Greenpoint and Williamsburg, whose fates have diverged somewhat since the 1970s, Susser makes the extremely important point that although the presence of artists and other “bohemians” in these neighborhoods (as in others) is often regarded as a harbinger of gentrification, (can a Starbucks be far behind?) in fact, many of these artists arrived in Williamsburg having themselves been priced out of other neighborhoods in Manhattan, particularly the Lower East Side (pp. 16–17, 23). Susser shows how many of these young people actually joined the older residents in their battles to demand new affordable housing alongside the glittering luxury condo buildings now blocking residents' views of and access to the waterfront. As she notes (p. 17), as prices went up in Brooklyn, “they [artists] often survived in the neighborhood by sharing apartments with many roommates.” In other words, artists and others choosing to live “alternative” lifestyles were, like older populations in Brooklyn, similarly victimized by the same policies promulgated most recently by Mayor Bloomberg, and aimed at creating the city deluxe and squeezing out the poor, the working and middle classes, and the artists alike. (Julian Brash, a former student of Susser's, picks up and expands on many of these themes in his excellent 2011 book, Bloomberg's New York: Class and Governance in the Luxury City).
With the updated edition of Norman Street, Susser delivers the goods necessary to challenge one of the most sacrosanct beliefs about the nature of economic development in the contemporary successful metropolis: Richard Florida's “creative cities” formulation. Although she does not make specific reference to Florida's widely embraced recipe for fostering urban growth and development, in which he recommends that cities adopt measures intended to attract what he calls “the creative classes,” Susser shows how “the creatives” are ultimately also damaged by policies that support luxury gentrification. Bike lanes, art galleries, coffee shops, an underground music scene, and reclaimed industrial buildings might appeal to the aesthetics of millennials now seeking a return to urban authenticity, but these amenities do not necessarily create economic growth, and more than not they serve to intensify economic polarization. Among the many critiques of Florida's prescriptions for urban economic development, Zimmerman (2008:241), for example, shows how Milwaukee's slavish attempts to adhere to Florida's recommendations “did support a celebrated resurgence in the comparatively tiny downtown area but it did nothing to forestall the economic disintegration of the remainder of the city. It therefore ultimately brought into even sharper relief what was already one of the most economically and racially polarized large cities in the United States.”
Susser documents a very similar situation in Brooklyn, but unlike Zimmerman and other critics of Florida she shows how the “creatives,” themselves, recognized that their fates were bound up with those of the other rather modest community residents. As she writes, “[i]t seems misguided to hold such artists accountable for the onslaught of development” (p. 53). In the shadows of the 2008 global financial collapse, when half-finished sumptuous blocks of condos stood vacant while the need for affordable housing escalated, residents of Greenpoint-Williamsburg, including the artists, joined together to campaign to see these plush quarters used to house middle- and working-class people. “The economic crisis combined with the ever-present activist mobilization may have saved Greenpoint-Williamsburg from the colossal makeover planned by the city and allowed the people who have built the city over the last century to remain on its streets” (p. 57).
I have used the original Norman Street in conjunction with the film “Metropolitan Avenue” for many years in my urban anthropology classes. In the new introduction, Susser makes explicit the connections between the ethnography and the film, describing the events and individuals that appeared in both productions and filling in details regarding subsequent developments. In recent years, the AAA has hosted several occasions in which Susser and filmmaker Noschese have led discussions and answered questions about the book and the film, extending their initial insights into the present. At the 2009 meetings in Philadelphia, Susser and Noschese spoke at a panel entitled, “Grassroots Activism and Fiscal Crisis: A Celebration of ‘Metropolitan Avenue’ and Norman Street.” In 2012, in San Francisco, there was an offsite special event, “Occupy Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow: Community Organizing and the Privatized City — A Dialogue with Anthropologist Ida Susser and Filmmaker Christine Noschese.” And this past year in Chicago, Society for the Anthropology of North America (SANA) member Molly Doane organized very well-attended special event at the famed Hull House entitled, “Austerity, Inequality, and Resistance in the Urban Midwest: A Community/Activist Dialogue.”
All of these events have continued to demonstrate the enduring relevance of these works for understanding not only our present-day urban maladies but also for honoring the persistence of those practices of community-based activism that remain critical for incubating alternative visions for democratic practice and neighborhood solidarity. In the new introduction to Norman Street, Susser updates the story of activism in Brooklyn and New York by addressing the emergence of the Occupy and Right to the City movements. Rereading Norman Street, along with the new introduction, clearly makes the point that there is nothing “natural” about the emergence of our contemporary urban landscapes, with their new flashy glass-and-steel skyscrapers, upscale shopping districts, and “starchitectural” new landmarks. Government policies, at the national, state, and city levels, have worked increasingly feverishly to favor corporate interests over those of workers, real estate developers over residents, and elites over the middle and working classes.
As long as and wherever grassroots activists persist in working against these practices, however, there is the hope that the future is not a fait accompli but something of an open question. Norman Street reminds us of the important and often overlooked role of those activists who continue to challenge the “common sense” assumptions of the present era. It also reminds us that our cities did not get themselves into their current predicaments overnight. Postwar and neoliberal policies, including disrupting stable working-class neighborhoods through interstate construction, encouraging manufacturing interests to move offshore to increase corporate profitability, and using racial tactics to obscure the elite takeover of modest spaces, continue to cast long shadows.
As I write this review, New York stands on the precipice of what may presage a shift in urban priorities with the election of Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio, who promises to address urban inequality. It remains to be seen whether the modest, longtime residents of Greenpoint-Williamsburg and their many analogues all over the city will find a place in de Blasio's New York. If they do, it will be as a consequence of their own enduring dedication to bringing about policies that favor social justice. Norman Street is a timely reminder of the fact that, more often than not, the backstory is the real story.
For information about how to buy a copy of the film, “Metropolitan Avenue,” please contact Christine Noschese at firstname.lastname@example.org.