Issue 13.2 | Spring 2016 / Guest edited by Soniya Munshi and Craig Willse

From Forgotten to Fought Over: Neoliberal Restructuring, Public Schools, and Urban Space

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Disjuncture: Brandeis High and the Production of the Upper West Side

In this section, we examine—and problematize—the location of Brandeis within a shifting urban landscape. We follow the urban renewal programs that moved through Brandeis and the Upper West Side to demonstrate how Brandeis High School (1965–2012) went from being an institution whose student population reflected the racial and economic demographics of its surrounding neighborhood to an institution that came to represent a disjuncture of space and race, as those inside the school and those outside the school grew increasingly dissimilar.

Before Brandeis, there was the High School of Commerce. Opened in 1901, Commerce was located on West 65th Street between West End Avenue and Broadway in Lincoln Square, which is the southernmost section of the Upper West Side. Established when attendance at high school was still a luxury, Commerce reflected a larger ideological and philosophical struggle over the purposes, designs, and leadership of school and school reform. In the early twentieth century, the task of education reform was led by a cadre of college professors and educational professionals. Described historically as the “administrative progressives,” this class of men were seen as education experts. They would focus on reorganizing schooling to reflect a Taylor-ist factory model, focused on efficiency as the optimal framework for aligning education with the ever expanding industrial economy of the time, and reaching the rapidly growing population of new Americans who were landing at the boat docks everyday.[30] Multimillionaire Andrew Carnegie was invited to speak at the laying of the cornerstone of Commerce, where he noted that the school would be a place where “the son of the laborer enters upon exactly the same terms as the son of the millionaire,” and that the school was representative of the United States’ path to ultimately becoming “the great manufacturer and explorer of articles in the world ….”[31] Commerce was thus an early example of high schools designed for the masses, and of education that would map onto and sustain the economic trajectories of the nation and its growing cities.

By the 1950s, the school primarily drew students from Lincoln Square, San Juan Hill, and areas north of the neighborhood, which were comprised of primarily working-class African American, Haitian, Latino (majority Puerto Rican), and White residents.[32] By the early 1960s, Commerce was one of two Manhattan high schools to which Black and Latino students were generally assigned if they did not attend school in the zone where they lived.[33]

Commerce had gained an image as a “troubled” school, and news accounts implied that increasing incidents of violence were attributable to “incorrigible” youth from “underprivileged backgrounds, gangs, and broken families.”[34] These descriptions of Commerce and its students were indicative of a larger discourse that was embedded within the Slum Clearance and Community Development and Redevelopment program, an urban renewal project that reshaped the area between the 1950s and 1970s. The program was part of the Housing Act of 1949, which called for the “elimination of slums by using public capital to acquire, demolish, and clear blighted areas.”[35]

Moreover, the program promoted reinvestment from the private sector through subsidized incentives by granting eminent domain to local governments, along with critical funding and tax incentives that covered two-thirds to three-quarters of the costs of land acquisition. While funds were made available to both state and local governments, the majority of federal dollars in New York State were allocated to the redevelopment of New York City, where Robert Moses headed Mayor William O’Dwyer’s Committee on Slum Clearance.[36] According to the New York City Urban Renewal Authority (a federal agency), sites would be targeted for redevelopment in order to “eradicate rampant deterioration and to stimulate private investment.” Under Moses’ leadership, by 1956 ten sites had been designated for clearance.[37] Among these sites was Lincoln Square.

The Lincoln Square Urban Renewal Area initially began with eighteen square blocks between 60th and 66th Streets. To ensure the project’s success, the authority acquired additional adjoining properties to the north and west to serve as a buffer of “stable land.”[38] Moses’ vision, of a “reborn west side, marching north from Columbus circle, and eventually spreading over the entire dismal and decayed west side,” was thus realized through the support of the federal government, and resulted in the creation of two different renewal projects across the 2.4-plus square miles of the West Side.[39]

Commerce High was located within the “stable land” area that was to serve as a buffer for the Lincoln Square Urban Renewal Area, and like the residents of Lincoln Square, the students of Commerce were displaced.[40] In the spring of 1965, Commerce was designated for demolition, and the majority of the students were sent to Brandeis High School, a new comprehensive high school that was opening on 84th Street.[41] Thus, although it was “new,” Brandeis inherited many of the students that Commerce formerly served, and many of the descriptors that had qualified Commerce followed its students to Brandeis. In the years that followed, the neighborhood, along with the city, continued to undergo processes of major racial and economic transformation, particularly accentuated by the financial crisis of the 1970s and 1980s, when Brandeis, along with other comprehensive high schools, became symbolic of an increasing moral panic.[42] Within this context, popular media portrayed Brandeis as a place of violence, decay, non-learning, and undesirable populations. As a graduate of one of the city’s elite high schools (who lived in the Brandeis High School area) recollects, by 1971 Brandeis was already being referred to as “the Drugstore” or “the Gauntlet” that was increasingly avoided by many students and families.[43]

The racialized moral panic produced a response of white flight from the school system. Indeed, during the 1970s and 1980s, the percentage of White families who sent their children to Brandeis shrunk considerably. On the Upper West Side, as Jonathan Kozol has noted, this phenomenon was particularly ironic given the pronounced liberalism that characterized the area.[44] Brandeis became known for its concentration of low-income students of color, many of whom were also English language learners. Yet, despite the fact that Brandeis was increasingly portrayed (by popular media as well as by city officials) as emblematic of urban blight, the neighborhood demographics were not completely incongruent with that of Brandeis’s student population. The pre-1970s migration of Puerto Ricans, Haitians, and African Americans to the area was accompanied by the beginning of an out-migration of older residents from the neighborhood, and during the 1970s and 1980s the Upper West Side became “associated with the indigent, poor, and bohemian elements of Manhattan.”[45]

Between the 1970s and the 1990s, however, the city increasingly supported the growth of retail and infrastructure of services that would attract a wealthier population; and property values on the Upper West Side grew, as did the median family income.[46] Beginning in the 1990s, the Upper West Side went through what real estate investors and historians have described as a “renaissance” that was characterized by the development of a number of luxury buildings and a steady increase in upper-income residents.[47] By 2006, the Upper West Side accounted for the largest increase in home ownership throughout Manhattan, and 46 percent of surveyed households registered within the top quintile of New York City incomes ($100,552+). Low-income households were either increasingly contained in rent-regulated apartment buildings, public housing projects, or homesteaded buildings. Many poor and working-class families also migrated out of the neighborhood or outside of the city.[48] Amidst a changing urban landscape, Brandeis High School had continued to accept the same students it always had, along with students coming off of suspensions at other schools, released from incarceration, and other vulnerable or “at-risk” populations. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, a number of high schools, including Brandeis, had been deemed dangerous to the point that they required an increase in school safety agents (SSAs) and metal detectors.[49] Yet as the area around 84th Street grew wealthier, there grew to be an increasingly visible racial and economic disjuncture between the students inside of Brandeis and the community surrounding the school. In the next section, we explore how this disjuncture was negotiated during the postmortem period of the school’s phase out, as new claims were made to this once-abandoned place.

Postmortem Brandeis and the Cultural Logic of Academic Imaginaries

In 2009, following the rhetoric of NCLB reform, NYCDOE asserted that closing Brandeis was an act in service to the very communities who had historically attended the school. Yet, as the number of students slowly diminished each year that the phase out was in effect, missing from the proposals that circulated about what would replace the so-called failing school was any consideration of the low-income students of color whom the school had served.

Brandeis is part of New York City’s Community School District 3, which spans 59th Street to 122nd Street along the West Side of Manhattan. Despite the gentrification and displacement that has impacted the area, and largely due to a significant public housing stock, the majority of public school students in the district continue to be low-income students of color.[50] Indeed, public housing and public schools like Brandeis are the few remaining institutions that serve the low-income communities of color in the area. Yet, as the neighborhood that surrounds these institutions changes, these low-income residents and students of color are increasingly out-of-place in the very places and spaces that they have historically called home. In this section we examine how this disjuncture was negotiated through the contestation that emerged over who would have the right to learn and grow in the Brandeis building as the city, a charter management corporation, and middle-class families laid claim to a once-forgotten and long-abandoned place.

Maia Cucchiara builds upon Miriam Greenberg’s concept of the urban imaginary (which refers to the ways that cultural representations of cities are intentionally produced to work in tandem with global capital and labor needs) to chart the production of a parallel academic imaginary in gentrifying downtown Philadelphia. As she finds, the re-branding of particular public schools was made possible by public–private partnerships between municipal governments and business associations that marketed certain schools as neighborhood schools. These efforts, she argues, were meant to appeal to middle-class families by positioning the re-branded schools as representative of a specific type of urban life that relies upon an assumption of “families of similar status” who have come together to create an “idealized urban space dominated by a middle-class ethos, an ‘urban village’ of sorts where families of similar status who share key norms and values experience the best of city life.”[51]

The alignment between the NYCDOE and a charter management company that propelled the academic imaginary of Upper West Success is well illustrated by the comments below, made by NYCDOE Deputy Chancellor of Portfolio Planning Marc Sternberg:

If the presence of a charter school in a community will keep a family in the New York City public school system, a family that might have been able to afford private school or that might have considered moving to the suburbs because of the schools there, then we’ve done our job.[52]

However, these moments of disclosure (of who is prioritized within the structuring of public services) are rare. In the paragraphs that follow, we examine the cultural logic that propelled the academic imaginary of Upper West Success that—characterized by themes of neighborhood and community and a rhetoric of rights and choice—was grounded upon the implicit exclusion of low-income communities of color. Although they were written out of the future of who would grow and learn in the Brandeis building, the Black and Brown students representative of Brandeis past were critical to the construction of the academic imaginary of Upper West Success. They were, after all, the figures against which an imagined community was constructed.

One of the first indicators of Upper West Success’s academic imaginary was a pronounced shift in clientele targeted by the marketing campaign for the 84th Street iteration of the charter network. At the time, SCN already operated a number of schools further uptown (including a significant number of schools in the same district), where it had pitched its schools to low-income Black and Latino families as a necessary alternative to public schools that, like Brandeis, were historically under-funded, ignored, and long-abandoned.[53] However, the aggressive marketing campaign undertaken by SCN began even before October 2010, when the State University of New York (SUNY) Charter Institute officially approved the creation of Upper West Success.

New York City charter schools are not required to adhere to the same regulations and requirements that govern public schools. Unlike most public schools, then, charters do not have to solely serve the students of a particular residential area: they usually agree to accept a certain percentage of local students, and outline this in their contractual agreements with the city and state, or literally, in their charters. Utilizing this freedom, SCN aggressively marketed itself in particular areas north and south of 84th Street—while ignoring other areas of the district that had been slower to gentrify.[54] The aggressive marketing campaign undertaken by SCN began even before October 2010, when the State University of New York (SUNY) Charter Institute officially approved the creation of Upper West Success.

As part of its marketing strategies, SCN held open houses to recruit potential families. These open houses were held regularly at the Jewish Community Center as well as in private apartments along Central Park West and included wine and expensive hors d’oeuvres. In addition to the open houses, Upper West Success created glossy brochures, and advertisements were purchased on Strikingly missing from early versions of the brochures were the faces of any children who were identifiably of color, and for the first months of SCN’s advertising campaign, no applications were available in Spanish, even though the district continues to have a large Latino and Spanish-speaking student population.[55] SCN’s recruitment messaging, conveyed through its fliers and brochures, declared Upper West Success Academy the “public-school solution to private-school tuition.” At community meetings where the charter school was discussed, appeals made by advocates for the charter school were unified by an argument that SCN was a response to the needs of an increasingly diverse population that resulted from gentrification.[56]

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  1. Herbert M. Kliebard, The Struggle for the American Curriculum, 1893-1958, 3rd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2004); David B. Tyack, The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974). [Return to text]
  2. “Commerce High School Cornerstone Laid,” The New York Times, December 5, 1901: 6. [Return to text]
  3. William J. Wilson, The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1980); Marcy S. Sacks, Before Harlem: The Black Experience in New York City before World War I (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006). In the 1910s, San Juan Hill, located between Sixtieth and Sixty-fourth Streets and Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, was the place of residence for approximately 80 percent of the entire Black population of the island of Manhattan. [Return to text]
  4. City Pupil Wins Fight to Attend ‘Better Integrated’ High School,” The New York Times, February 9, 1962: 14. [Return to text]
  5. Kaplan, Morris. “One Schools Finds Police Aid Useful.” The New York Times, February 4, 1958. The New York Times (1923-Current file). [Return to text]
  6. Ian S. Tattenbaum, “Renewal for the 1990s: An Analysis of New York City Redevelopment Programs in Light of Title I of the Housing Act of 1949,” New York University Environmental Law Journal 6.220 (1997): 221. [Return to text]
  7. Tattenbaum, “Renewal for the 1990s.” [Return to text]
  8. Wilson, Declining Significance, 38. How Moses ran the Slum Clearance and Community Redevelopment program was also important. According to Tattenbaum, “In other cities, slum areas were condemned, residents were relocated, buildings were demolished, and vacant lands were turned over to developers. Moses, however, claimed that he could not obtain firm commitments from builders unless the slums were turned over to the developers with the buildings still standing and residents still living there. As a result, Moses allowed the developers to collect rent on occupied buildings, thus undermining incentives to demolish and reconstruct sites quickly,” 232. [Return to text]
  9. Wilson, Declining Significance, 38. [Return to text]
  10. Peter Salwen, Upper West Side Story: A History and Guide (New York: Abbeville Press, 1989), 274. [Return to text]
  11. Despite organizing efforts that included a lawsuit that eventually reached the Supreme Court, by 1958 the West Side Lincoln Square Urban Renewal Project had displaced 16,000 residents of Lincoln Square, many of whom had lived there for decades (Wilson, Declining Significance). [Return to text]
  12. Brandeis High, along with a new elementary school a block away, were built as part of the West Side Renewal Project to respond to shortages in school buildings across the city, as well as part of the strategy to “clean-up” the neighborhood, which had become known for high levels of drug trafficking and drug use (Wilson, Declining Significance). [Return to text]
  13. Stuart Hall, Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order (London: Macmillan, 1978). [Return to text]
  14. Heather MacDonald, “How Gotham’s Elite High Schools Escaped the Leveller’s Ax,” City Journal, September 20, 2011. [Return to text]
  15. Jonathan Kozol, Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation (New York: Crown, 1995). [Return to text]
  16. Wilson, Declining Significance, 36. [Return to text]
  17. For example, as Wilson notes in Declining Significance, by 1980, the median family income in the neighborhood rose by nearly $8,000 annually.
    [Return to text]
  18. Citi Habitats. “The Upper West Side.” NRT LLC. 2007. [Return to text]
  19. With the ongoing renewal processes and the rising cost in real estate in Manhattan, most working families and families of color would go down two paths. First, many were forced to search for more affordable situations in the neighborhood or outside of the neighborhood (and further away from the center of the city). Second, long-time residents organized to motivate investment in long-time communities as the foundation of renewal. Although some success was attained, by the end of the 1980s, the city had started rolling back its financial support of these groups, leaving many unable to sustain their efforts to counter gentrification (Wilson, Declining Significance). [Return to text]
  20. Rakmil, Elise, Interview by Edwin Mayorga. Personal Interview. New York City, November 30, 2011. The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) reported that by the start of the 2008–2009 school year there were 5,055 school safety agent (SSAs), and 191 armed police officers in New York City public schools. 99,000 students passed through metal detectors each day (New York Civil Liberties Union, “A Look At School Safety” [2015]). In a 2007 report, the NYCLU also found that the SSAs were hostile and aggressive, and made derogatory statements toward students. A Brandeis student reported that SSAs would make comments like “this girl has no ass” to students (Elora Mukherjee, “Criminalizing the Classroom,” New York Civil Liberties Union, 2007). [Return to text]
  21. In 2010, 29 percent of the district’s public school students were Black; 36 percent were Latino; 27 percent were White; and 7 percent were Asian (with 53 percent of students receiving free/reduced lunch). This data does not include charter schools and is based on New York State District Profile Accountability and Overview Reports for 2010–2011. [Return to text]
  22. Maia Cucchiara, “Re-Branding Urban Schools: Urban Revitalization, Social Status, and Marketing Public Schools to the Upper Middle Class,” Journal of Education Policy 23.2 (2008): 165–179, 172. [Return to text]
  23. Fernanda Santos, “On Upper West Side, Hurdles for Charter School,” The New York Times, January 22, 2011: A1. [Return to text]
  24. SCN as well as other charter management companies have since replicated similar strategies in other gentrifying neighborhoods of New York City. These neighborhoods include, for example, Cobble Hill and Williamsburg. [Return to text]
  25. The intentionality of SCN’s focused marketing was particularly apparent in its outreach efforts north of 84th and south of 122nd street, where there are still clusters of blocks (some larger than others) that are comprised of low-income families, as well as a number of public housing projects. [Return to text]
  26. According to Jennifer Friedman (co-founder of La Escuelita, a bilingual preschool in the district), “I live on the West Side and have received 100 fliers [from West Side Success Charter] and I have never seen anything in Spanish” (as quoted in the West Side Spirit’s January 20, 2011 article “Hype Fuels Charter Fight” by Josh Rogers). The organizing efforts by public school parents and teachers to block Upper West Success Academy from opening resulted in significant media coverage, which included critiques of the way the school had deliberately marketed itself almost exclusively to white and middle-class families. In response, SCN produced different versions of the brochure, later versions of which included greater “diversity” in the students photographed as well as an eventual Spanish-language version. According to informal interviews and participant observation conducted over a five-month period, low-income and public school parents attributed this change to the media attention that their organizing efforts had gained. However, “diversity” or representation in marketing was not necessarily their goal (which was, rather, to block the school from opening). [Return to text]
  27. Santos, “On Upper West Side.” [Return to text]