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Saturday, February 28, 2009

Little Bangledesh

Had dinner with a friend in the Bangladeshi area of Kensington today, where I used to live. The old Italian restaurant just got turned into a South Asian place. They were having some trouble with the equipment, so we ate across the street.

I hadn't been there in about 5 years, but it's one of my favorite areas of the city, and its commercial drag, Church Avenue, is my favorite street in New York. I wrote a project for grad school about four census tracts in the neighborhood a few years ago. Even though I've taken a lot of the raw data out of this, you might not want to read more than 4 or 5 paragraphs unless you're as big a demographics nerd as I am. The 2000 census is hopelessly out of date in an ever-changing city like New York, but the general patterns that emerge from the combination of data and on-the-ground observation still pretty much hold.

When learning about a neighborhood, hard data and personal observation are partners. If you only use one of these tools, it's like trying to watch a movie with only sound, or only picture. And unless you know how to use the two well together you'll never have a very accurate picture of a neighborhood.

A couple weeks after September 11th, I was walking around the town, as is my hobby. While walking through a section of Brooklyn that seemed to be a regular old Joey Bagadonuts kind of neighborhood, I came across a weird street. There were two blocks of Dahill Road where every single house had an American flag flying or in the window, and every car parked on the block had a flag flying from the antenna or a flag decal in the window. This wasn’t your average borough block at the time, where maybe 2/3 of the houses had a flag flying. I’m talking every house, every car, with sometimes even more than one flag.

I headed east over to the next street, McDonald Avenue, and figured it out. Half the block was a commercial strip, and the preponderance of business were Bangladeshi. I headed back over to the two blocks of Dahill Road and was able to figure out pretty convincingly that this was an almost 100% Bangladeshi residential strip (and later I found out that this little area was indeed sometimes called “Little Bangladesh.)” The community had obviously decided to overcompensate in their patriotism out of fear of being targeted in the aftermath of the destruction of the World Trade Center. I was reminded of the Israelites in Egypt who painted lambs blood on their door to mark them as Jews, in order to have the Angel of Death “Pass Over” them when the firstborn of Egypt were being killed. It was almost like the American Flags were meant as a signal to mark the residents as Americans in order to have others “Pass Over” their houses if people started getting violent.

I ended up moving to that area, and as I got to know the neighborhood more, I noticed that it had an incredible variety of ethnic businesses and residents. And it seemed like, for the most part, everyone got along great. But did they really? That walk through the neighborhood after September 11th haunted me. If everyone really got along, why was there a need for such a blatant overdisplay of patriotism on the part of one specific immigrant group? That’s when the question of “how diverse or integrated are these seemingly great communities really?” first came up for me. And even if these types of neighborhoods were truly integrated, how long could they last, especially when in times of uncertainty and stress?

Kensington faces enormous population pressures from different areas. In addition to having a somewhat younger population than the rest of Brooklyn, it’s at the crossroads of several growing communities. There’s a growing Hassidic population West of the area. There’s a growing Caribbean (mainly Haitian) population East of the area. There’s a growing Yuppie population North of the area. There are several growing immigrants communities already in the neighborhood. And the older white ethnic population does not seem to be moving out in the same kind of numbers as in other communities.

There’s several ways Kensington could go – it could become a de facto part of Hassidic Borough Park. It could become a de facto part of Caribbean Flatbush. It could become the latest neighborhood to be “discovered” by the young professional crowd. One of the immigrant communities in the area could start to dominate and crowd out the others. Or, it could conceivably go on like it is now – one of the great, multiethnic communities of New York.

Kensington was originally settled by Dutch farmers, and development started in 1851. One of the oldest bars in New York City is at the corner of Church and McDonald, but other than that there’s not much in the way of historical significance. In the 1920s mass homebuilding began and attracted upwardly mobile immigrants, as it still does today. It was considered part of Flatbush for much of the 20th century (back when half of Brooklyn was considered Flatbush), and you will still occasionally see signs on neighborhoods businesses that refer to the area as “Flatbush,” such as the Flatbush Dental Center on Church Avenue. In the 1980s various waves of new immigrants began to displace some of the older white ethnics, and today Kensington is one of the “Melting Pot” neighborhoods of Brooklyn.

Almost the entire area is part of the Ocean Parkway special zoning district. Most of the area is zoned R-5, with some special zoning, such as an R-7A district along Ocean Parkway, a wide, residential boulevard on the eastern end of the neighborhood. There’s a small M-1 district in the southeast corner of the neighborhood. The character of the neighborhood is much like other borough neighborhoods I like to call “one car” neighborhoods - i.e., neighborhoods where an average family will own one car (although in actuality the slight majority of occupied housing units do not own a car). It’s mainly two-and three family homes and small apartment buildings. Ocean Parkway, Beverly Road, and a couple other small areas have larger apartment buildings. The area is somewhat underbuilt, with many large houses where small apartment buildings could be, and if population pressures continue, downzoning may become an issue in the future. Church Avenue on the north is the main commercial district, with small commercial drags scattered throughout.

The neighborhood is really two distinct areas in terms of housing and housing stock. Unfortunately they aren’t easily divided up by census tracts. In many borough neighborhoods throughout the history of New York, a certain demographic has lived in the apartment buildings along the avenues (almost always renting), and another demographic has lived on the side street in smaller 2- and 3- family homes (usually owned by one member of an extended family). The best example of this that I know of is Bensonhurst, where in the 1950s and 60s the Jews lived in the apartments along Bay Parkway, and the Italians lived in the houses on the side streets. The question comes up as to if this can truly be called an integrated neighborhood. Even though you have both populations living in the same census tracts, they are vastly segregated by type of housing. And indeed, people tell me that in general, the Jews and Italians each kept to themselves in that neighborhood. Kensington is divided the same way. Is it similarly ethnically segregated? That’s a more difficult question to answer with the demographic data available to us, but does go to the heart of my question earlier – is this a truly integrated neighborhood?

Along Ocean Parkway there are large rental apartment buildings, usually built pre-war and containing more than 20, and sometimes more than 50 units. The tract with the greatest percentage of it occupied by Ocean Parkway, tract 494, has 83.9% of its units occupied as rental housing. Most startling is its whopping 0% rental housing vacancy rate. This indicates pretty good, and perhaps underpriced, rental housing. Indeed, the fact that all but 58 units of housing in this district were built before 1979, and therefore probably subject to rent regulations, also indicates that the supply of rental housing along Ocean Parkway probably rents for under market value. As we all know, this kind of situation can lead to great upheaval and change in a neighborhood as landlords try and push out existing tenants in order to try and raise rents to market rates and maximize profits.

Contast this tract with tract 486 on the east, none of which borders Ocean Parkway. Here only 6.7% of units are in buildings of 20 or more units, and there are no buildings of 50 or more units. It is also only 73.9% renter-occupied, and has a 3.1% rental vacancy – both numbers are about on par with the rest of Brooklyn. However, note another significant percentage – the 0% homeowner vacancy rate.

This best illustrates the two different types of housing stock in Kensington – older, pre-war, large apartment buildings mainly on Ocean Parkway which seem to be very desirable, and older two- and three-family homes on the other streets – equally desirable. Caught somewhere in the middle are the small apartments buildings, or perhaps secondary units in the houses, that seem to be par for the course for Brooklyn.

One thing that seems to be consistent is the turnover. Almost half (46.7%) of residents in 2000 moved in 1995 or later. High turnover, low vacancy rates, not a lot of new housing being built – the housing squeeze is on. Add to that an increase of 2,171 people from 1990 to 2000. That’s a 12.3% increase in one decade. And only 100 housing units were built during the same time.

The 12.3% increase is mainly a result of the 57.6% of the population that is foreign-born – including 6,576 people, or just over 1/3 of the total population, that arrived between 1990 and 2000. Who’s been coming? Well, everybody. There are 18 different countries that more than 100 people in Kensington call their place of birth. And there are at least 24 different languages spoken in the neighborhood. In terms of numbers, the most significant immigrant groups are Russian (1,664), Bangladeshi (1,051), Mexican (877), Pakistani (858), Ukrainian (798), Haitian (624), and Polish (569). As an aside, there is a large Hassidic community as well, as is evidenced by the fact that 582 people in Kensington speak Yiddish (although that could also be the elderly Jewish population) – and in fact, the ATM machines at the bank on Church Avenue operate in 8 languages, including Yiddish. The Jewish Community Survey, as well as on-the-ground observation, indicates that a large portion of the Russian and Ukrainian population is Jewish.

Look at this – it seems to be the ideal diverse neighborhood. You have a large Jewish population, large Muslim population (the Pakistanis and Bangladeshis), and large Christian population living alongside each other. You have significant immigration from 4 continents. You also have a fairly racially diverse neighborhood – 48% white, 12% black, 13% Asian, 17% Hispanic, with 10% being other or multiracial. And Kensington takes pride in its internationalism – for example, the elementary school on Avenue C is nicknamed “The International School.” However, in an indicator of segregation, 1322 people were born in sub-Saharan Africa or the non-Hispanic Caribbean. Subtracting these people from the black population at large leaves Kensington less than 5% African-American. And if you also discount the children of these immigrants, the African-American population would fall even further. Since black/white segregation – and particularly native white and native black segregation – remains the stubbornmost barrier to true integration here in New York, we must acknowledge that Kensington hasn’t truly conquered the problem of racial and ethnic segregation here in New York City.

Kensington is a working neighborhood – at least for the men. There’s a lower percentage of females in the work force than the rest of Brooklyn and New York, but the male population in the workforce is about average for the borough and city. This might be explained by a couple of things – the lack of African-Americans, who tend to have higher proportions of females in the workforce, the high levels of immigrant men in the workforce, and perhaps even cultural differences among the religious Jewish or other populations. Kensington is fairly educated, with only 24.5% of its residents over 25 holding a College Degree, compared to 21.8% of Brooklyn residents, and 27.4% of New York City residents. When you look at Masters, Professional, and Doctorates the same pattern emerges – Kensington has 10.4% of its population holding these degrees, as compared to 8.8% of Brooklyn and 11.6% of New York. High School Graduates and above keeps to the pattern – 71.5%, as opposed to 68.8% for Brooklyn, and 72.2% for New York City. This has to be looked at in context however – this is a heavily immigrant neighborhood, and three out of the four census tracts have median household and family incomes at least $2000 lower than the rest of Brooklyn ($32,561 household, $36,295 family) and $8000 lower than the rest of New York City ($38,519 household, $42,235 family). The percentage of people living in poverty is 26% - more than the 25.1% for Brooklyn (although it’s not statistically significant) and more than the 21.2% for New York City (which is statistically significant). As a result, the education statistics are pretty noteworthy. Either you have an educated immigrant population not earning up to their level of education, as often happens, or you might have some of the Park Slope spillover – educated young people not yet in their prime earning years.

In terms of occupations, Education and Health services are the largest industry group, with sales and office workers being the largest occupational group. There are a larger percentage of people occupied in the private sector than Brooklyn as a whole, a smaller amount in the public sector, and about the same amount of self-employed people. The lack of public-sector employees is again explained by the heavy immigrant nature of the neighborhood.

Kensington is the best example of why Demographic studies of neighborhoods – especially in New York City – cannot be done without a direct, ground-level knowledge of the areas. It would be close to impossible for even the most skilled demographer to make heads or tails of the kinds of data that encompasses the four census tracts I picked. However, when combining the data with a survey of the neighborhood, patterns start to emerge. You can see the internationalism and diversity of the area (as reflected in languages, immigrant population, and countries of origin), however you can also see its “average Brooklyn” kind of character (as reflected in its economic and labor data). Despite the population and housing pressures it is under, Kensington still remains a multiethnic neighborhood accessible to people of average means, as I believe it will in the future. There are some barriers to true integration – the lack of African-American residents, the tendency of the various immigrant groups to cluster in one type of housing or along one or two blocks (which is difficult to gather from the census data but obvious while you’re there), and of course, the telling need for a specific immigrant group to be identified as “American” were tensions were high. However, even with these things to heed, it’s as close to being an ideal “melting-pot” neighborhood as any I’ve been to in New York.

Neighborhoods: Kensington, Little Bangladesh. Tacts Walked: B486, B488, B490, B494


  1. Hmmm. For those of us non-zoning nerds, what's R-5 and R-7A and whatever that other one is?

  2. "R" is "Residential." "C" is "Commercial" and "M" is "Manufacturing." The higher the number the bigger buildings you can build, and also different ways you can use the buildings. Any Zoning with a letter after it is "Contextual Zoning" which basically means high lot-coverage and height limits. It creates bulky, low buildings as opposed to towers.

    R-5 is essentially attached townhouses or very small apartment buildings. R-7A is medium sized (5-6 story) apartment buildings. "M1" is light manufacturing with no noxious uses.

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  5. I'm brand new to Brooklyn/East Coast having moved here from out West.

    Firstly, love this site and your epic effort.

    Secondly, I had nothing to do today so I jumped on the train and randomly departed on Church. Like you I found it fascinating. There was a Bengal street fair going on today, and I loved the mix of markets. I'm into cooking and will definitely be returning to stock the pantry with Asian, Middle Eastern, Mexican, and other fare. Had a nice Thai meal to end the visit.

    Bravo for your efforts.