By now the story of Bushwick’s transformation from ‘hood to hipster haven has been told more than enough times. But what caused it to go up in flames in the first place?
A City Journal article, “The Death and Life of Bushwick,” explains that it was a combination of race relations and bad policy.
The problems began in the mid-1960s, when race riots were hitting urban centers across America, and white residents were getting jittery. Homeowners would find messages in their mailbox — “Don’t wait until it’s too late!” — a reference not just to possible violence but to the imminent arrival of minorities moving up north. Sure enough…
…speculators bought homes from Bushwick residents for an average of $8,000 apiece, and then, using fraudulent appraisals and a Great Society federal mortgage program that insured home loans to low-income buyers, sold them to poor blacks and Puerto Ricans at prices that they couldn’t afford— on average, about $20,000 per home.
Many of those new homeowners defaulted, abandoning their homes and prompting property values to further plummet. By the early 70s, hundreds of buildings in the neighborhood were empty, and owners started setting fire to their own empty buildings in order to collect on fire insurance.
Gangs set fire to abandoned buildings, too, and then waited for the fire department to do the hard work of knocking down walls and floors, making valuable fixtures and copper wiring easier to steal. By the early seventies, infernos blazed nightly. The neighborhood’s wooden row houses, tightly packed together and often sharing attics, proved particularly vulnerable; a fire would erupt in one building and swiftly spread, sometimes consuming half a block.
Higher crime followed. In 1990, there were 77 murders in the 83rd precinct. Last year, there were just 7.
Bushwick, Brooklyn 1980