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Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against Liberalism, by Jonathan Rieder

The Politics of Place

Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against Liberalism.
by Jonathan Rieder.
Harvard. 290 pp. $22.50.

Canarsie sits along Brooklyn’s southern edge, a narrow haven for the white middle classes, between the ghettos of Brownsville and East New York to the north and the marshes of Jamaica Bay. From these bare and brutal facts of urban geography, Jonathan Rieder, a Yale sociologist, has constructed an intriguing ethnography that empathically—albeit ambivalently—conveys the anguish of urban ethnics over the “politics of place.” In addition to giving us an impressive portrait of the people of Canarsie, however, Rieder is after bigger and ultimately more elusive game. He is seeking to explain the disaffection of Canarsians with the liberal descendants of the New Deal and, by extension, to understand America’s recent right-ward shift.

The realities of geography have always been important to the people of Canarsie. Its remoteness from Manhattan—the threat, “I’ll knock you all the way to Canarsie,” is still occasionally heard on the streets of New York—and its insulation from the teeming chaos of more accessible Brooklyn neighborhoods lent Canarsie the ambience of a small village until well after World War II. Only in the early 1960′s did large developments of one and two-family homes spring up, squeezing out the small farms that were dotted through the area. Then as urbanization overtook New York City’s last wilderness, the neighborhood underwent a demographic change. To the pre-1960 residents of “Old Canarsie” (to use Rieder’s term), who were overwhelmingly Italian, there were now added lower-middle-class Italians and even larger numbers of lower-middle-class Jews.

In Rieder’s view, this change is the key to understanding the unrest and partial political reorientation the area was to experience during the decade of the 70′s. Unlike the migration of wealthier Brooklynites to suburban Long Island, the 60′s influx to Canarsie was not entirely voluntary. As the neighborhoods bordering Canarsie—Brownsville, East New York, and later East Flatbush—became increasingly black and Puerto Rican, lower-middle-class Jews and Italians who had lived there for a generation felt compelled to flee. Beneath the panic that attended this flight to the perceived security of white Canarsie was a sense of profound loss that engendered a determination not to run again. In Canarsie, many decided, they would make a stand.

The voices of the Jews and Italians of Canarsie are faithfully transcribed by Rieder. “Canarsie people don’t have a lot of money,” notes one Jewish woman. “We got a little house and it’s a big achievement. We don’t want to lose what it took our entire life to build.” The fear of having to run again that permeates Canarsie’s consciousness is often expressed as a nervous bravado: “I am not a racist. I just want to keep my community pure. I sunk every dime into my house and I don’t want to be chased. I won’t be chased.”

The occasion for these sentiments was the realization which overtook the community in the early 1970′s that Canarsie was unlikely to stay lily-white. There were orders from New York City’s Board of Education to integrate Canarsie’s schools. Black families were pressing at the margins of the neighborhood, looking for the same sanctuary from the ghetto that the earlier white migrants had sought. Canarsie’s response was angry: demonstrators outside a neighborhood junior high school jeering black children, boycotts of classes, fire-bombing of black homes, beatings on the streets. The 1970′s were tumultuous times in Canarsie.

All this Rieder accounts for persuasively in his exegesis of geopolitics on a microcosmic scale. Even groups like the Jews and Italians who were not historically racist could be expected to respond sharply to the threats white Canarsians associated with the immigration of blacks: increased crime, deterioration of the housing stock, and a way of life which, they believed, was a rejection of their own values of family loyalty, hard work, and independence. By the end of Rieder’s account one is hardly surprised that a lower-middle-class community with its back to the ocean should respond as Canarsie did.

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When Rieder comes to explain what happened in Canarsie in terms of a shift away from liberal principles, however, he is less convincing. One problem is that the “liberalism” of his title is never defined, leaving the reader little choice but to follow the author’s lead in conflating it with adherence to the Democratic party. But considered in those terms it is doubtful that Canarsie could be said to have “rejected” liberalism. The Italians of old Canarsie constituted a naturally conservative community, in the sense that they sought to preserve traditional values. In 1968, the Italians gave a third of their votes to Hubert Humphrey and nearly 60 percent to Richard Nixon; this was well before racial unrest hit the area. The Nixon landslide of 1972 and the Reagan victory in 1980 added only marginally to that figure. Little needs to be explained here.

True, the Jews of Canarsie demonstrated more striking changes. From nearly 80-percent support for Humphrey in 1968 they slid to approximately 45 percent for Mc-Govern in 1972. They then rebounded in 1976 to support Carter with 80 percent of their vote, and split roughly evenly between Carter and Reagan in 1980. But the link that Rieder seeks to draw between the “politics of place” and Jewish Canarsie’s presidential concerns is in fact hard to discern. An important role in swinging Jewish votes was played by the relative degree of support for Israel expressed by the candidates in 1972 and 1980. None of the contenders spoke directly to the fears white Canarsians had of losing their homes and neighborhood.

On the local level, where one might expect concerns over neighborhood security to be played out, politics changed even less. Backlash organizations flourished for a time, attracting publicity and support, and there were protest votes for Republican and Conservative party candidates through the 1970′s. But these could not obscure the continuing dominance of the local—and, by any definition, liberal—Democratic machine. Not a single anti-machine candidate reached office in those years, despite overt attempts to play directly to the neighborhood’s fear of blacks. Furthermore, by the 1980′s the backlash organizations had disappeared and Canarsians appeared resigned to some integration of their enclave.

If attitudes to ethnic change cannot account for political fluctuations in Canarsie, neither do they account for “the precarious state of liberalism in the mid-80′s,” as the book’s jacket puts it. The embrace of the Republican party by Midwestern farmers and urban residents of the Sunbelt will not be explained by looking north across Brooklyn toward the pulsating and ever-threatening ghetto.

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Still, though Rieder’s study of Canarsie is less enlightening about politics than it might be, it does provide a sensitive look at the psychology of urban ethnic groups and, not incidentally, of the liberal sociologists who study them. As Rieder narrates the Canarsians’ self-conscious struggles with their feelings about blacks, he himself grapples with the dilemma of the participant-observer who finds his empathy for his subjects conflicting with his own political and ideological views, and who thus has to find means of distancing himself from them (as by relying on the often repeated formula that their understandable fear of crime and decay does not justify racism).

This book undertakes two difficult tasks, ethnography and political analysis. It succeeds marvelously at the first. As the people of Canarsie well know, these days one often has to settle for less.

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