Half a century after the launch of the War on Poverty, its complex origins remain obscure. Battle for Bed-Stuy reinterprets President Lyndon Johnson’s much-debated crusade from the perspective of its foot soldiers in New York City, showing how 1960s antipoverty programs were rooted in a rich local tradition of grassroots activism and policy experiments.
Bedford-Stuyvesant, a Brooklyn neighborhood housing 400,000 mostly black, mostly poor residents, was often labeled “America’s largest ghetto.” But in its elegant brownstones lived a coterie of home-owning professionals who campaigned to stem disorder and unify the community. Acting as brokers between politicians and the street, Bed-Stuy’s black middle class worked with city officials in the 1950s and 1960s to craft innovative responses to youth crime, physical decay, and capital flight. These partnerships laid the groundwork for the federal Community Action Program, the controversial centerpiece of the War on Poverty. Later, Bed-Stuy activists teamed with Senator Robert Kennedy to create America’s first Community Development Corporation, which pursued housing renewal and business investment.
Bed-Stuy’s antipoverty initiatives brought hope amid dark days, reinforced the social safety net, and democratized urban politics by fostering citizen participation in government. They also empowered women like Elsie Richardson and Shirley Chisholm, who translated their experience as community organizers into leadership positions. Yet, as Michael Woodsworth reveals, these new forms of black political power, though exercised in the name of poor people, often did more to benefit middle-class homeowners. Bed-Stuy today, shaped by gentrification and displacement, reflects the paradoxical legacies of midcentury reform.
In this engaging and powerful book, Michael Woodsworth recasts the War on Poverty as the fruit of a long community-based struggle against urban disinvestment and racism. By showing just how much of 1960s urban reform percolated up from the grassroots, Battle for Bed-Stuy offers fresh insight into the relationship between activism and policy and the promises and perils of place-based politics.
This original and well-written account of postwar community activism makes an excellent and provocative case that Bed-Stuy, long overshadowed by Harlem, is a key site for understanding postwar African American history.
An impressive work that shows how local bureaucracies and energized political activists—in this case innovative African American residents and property owners—made the War on Poverty do what it was intended to do: reflect the interests of local people who knew Bed-Stuy was a community, not a so-called slum.
[This book] will especially interest readers who want to understand the political economy of the war on poverty. Moreover, though Woodsworth’s book focuses on a single American neighborhood, it gives readers a look at the forces that led to failures, and successes, in combating poverty in many American cities during the post-war period. The book is very well written…Battle for Bed-Stuy is an excellent introduction to how the war on poverty played out in the largest ghetto in American's largest city.
- 424 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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