A half-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 tradition of grassroots activism and policy experiments. Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, with 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 intent on stemming disorder and unifying the community. In the 1950s and 1960s, Bed-Stuy's black middle class worked with city officials and, later, Senator Robert Kennedy to tackle youth crime, physical decay, and capital flight. Their policy dialogue inspired several War on Poverty programs, including America's first Community Development Corporation. Such initiatives brought hope amid dark days, reinforced the social safety net, and democratized urban politics. They also empowered women like Elsie Richardson and Shirley Chisholm, community organizers who graduated into leadership positions. Yet, as Michael Woodsworth reveals, these new forms of black political power, though exercised in the name of poor people, often benefited the middle class. Bed-Stuy today, shaped by gentrification and displacement, reflects the paradoxes of midcentury reform.
Michael Woodsworth teaches history at Bard High School Early College, Queens.