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.