It is always a surprise–and no surprise–that New York constantly reinvents its political and economic vision. Ted Hamm’s Bernie’s Brooklyn: How Growing Up in the New Deal City Shaped Bernie Sanders’ Politics (OR Books June 2020) explores the thirty years of progressive politics that shaped Brooklyn and New York, decades that made Bernie Sanders the politician he is today.
One of the remarkable features of New York City in the middle three decades of the twentieth century was the plethora of political parties that wielded influence. There were the Democrats, still controlled by Tammany Hall in Manhattan along with similarly Irish-led machines in the Bronx and Brooklyn. The Republicans of the era had a vocal Progressive wing, of which La Guardia was the most prominent figure. Vito Marcantonio, who eventually took over La Guardia’s East Harlem congressional seat, became a leading figure in the American Labor Party, which had been formed by FDR’s allies in the garment unions in 1936 in order to minimize the influence of the Norman Thomas-led Socialist Party. The Communist Party worked closely with the ALP, which caused the split within the latter party in 1944 that gave rise to the Liberal Party. The mix produced very strange bedfellows, with the ALP joining Governor Tom Dewey’s Republicans in supporting the campaign of Woody Guthrie’s Communist pal Jimmy Longhi for a Congressional seat representing the Brooklyn waterfront. The ALP also helped Dewey, a pro-big business Republican, enact New York’s statewide system of rent control in 1950. La Guardia’s successor, Brooklyn Democrat William O’Dwyer, left amid scandal that same year. For the next four years, City Hall was controlled by a candidate who had won on the ballot line of the newly cre- ated Experience Party. The numerous parties and unex- pected alliances placed the period in sharp contrast to the staid two-party politics that have dominated both New York City and the nation for the last several decades.
What follows is a journey into the complex politics and lively culture of the Brooklyn that produced Bernie Sanders. It is meant to be a popular history, aimed at conveying key moments as they were experienced by Bernie, Larry, and their peers. There are both major events affecting every- one in the city and smaller details documenting Bernie’s youth. What happened behind the scenes in the city and borough’s corridors of power is not a primary concern. For example, most of Robert Moses’s backroom dealings during the period only came to light upon publication of Robert Caro’s landmark work The Power Broker in 1975. Throughout the 1950s Moses certainly made many enemies in the Bronx and Greenwich Village, but his direct impact on Bernie’s neighborhood was minimal. While they certainly help shed light on the important events of the era, neither the New York Times nor the Brooklyn Daily Eagle were read in the Sanders family’s home. Instead, the paper of choice was the then-liberal New York Post, which dur- ing Bernie’s high school years featured an all-star lineup of political columnists (Max Lerner, Murray Kempton, and Eleanor Roosevelt) and sportswriters (led by Milton Gross and Jimmy Cannon). Under publisher Dorothy Schiff and editor James Wechsler, the paper’s Cold War liberalism helped shape the sensibility of Bernie’s generation. In addition to the recollections provided by Larry and those published elsewhere from Bernie, the following chapters include insights from a number of friends of Bernie and a variety of peers. Brooklyn was a quite remarkable place in the mid-twentieth century. Onward into its past we go.
Though not a union household, the Sanders family knew the influence of the labor movement well. Born in 1912, Dorothy (or Dora) Sanders was the daughter of Benjamin and Bessie Glassberg, both of whom had immigrated from Russia in the first few years of the twentieth century. Dora attended high school in the Bronx. As Larry Sanders explains, Benjamin was a cloak presser in the city’s large garment industry—a skilled trade dominated by men because it involved very heavy machinery. Glassberg, a socialist, was active in Local 35 of the New York Cloak Pressers Union; his son Willie (b. 1902, aka Phillip) was 18 also a cloak presser. According to historian Daniel Katz, writing during the 2016 presidential campaign, Bernie’s version of socialism is best understood as the “Yiddish Socialism” that migrated from Czarist Russia and found its home in the garment industry unions that led the New York City labor movement from the period just before the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 through World War II. The “dominant political and cultural current among the work- ing-class Jews of Brooklyn” during the period, Yiddish Socialism called for multicultural solidarity via unions and political parties, and it placed a high value on the arts, culture, and education.19 Larry Sanders agrees that these were values the family shared with their Brooklyn peers, recalling that his grandfather was known to hold forth at family gatherings about the benefits of socialism. Although Benjamin Glassberg died in 1940, one year before Bernie was born, it’s hardly a stretch to say that Yiddish Socialism is in Bernie’s DNA.
The FDR-La Guardia-Moses alliance continued apace during the president and mayor’s respective second terms, with La Guardia famously serving as the intermediary between FDR and the master builder (who hated one another because Moses was closely connected to Al Smith, FDR’s nemesis). La Guardia made a point of flying back and forth from the city to DC—where he’d tell the president a sad story about the hardship of city residents, then return home with an additional $50 million in New Deal funding—in order to build public support for the city’s first airport, which was named for the mayor and opened in October 1939. The new airport was just one of many projects built during the Little Flower’s second term. In August 1939, the New York office of the WPA issued a press release listing a dizzying array of accomplishments since the preceding summer. Renovations were taking place at 18 public school and 27 hospitals, over 150 handball courts and 8 skating rinks had been constructed, and more than fifty miles of new sewers and more than thirty-three miles of new power lines were put in place. Literally and figuratively, the WPA was laying a new foundation for New York City.
Since the spring of that same year, the city of the future had also been on display near LaGuardia Airport. Over the preceding four years Moses had steered the creation and promotion of the 1939 World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows. FDR and La Guardia each spoke at the opening ceremony, which was the first event broadcast on live television in New York. Millions of city residents and tourists flocked to see exhibits including GM’s car-based city (which Moses helped design) and featuring technological marvels such as FM radio, fax machines, and a seven-foot-tall robot that smoked cigarettes. WPA laborers built the fairgrounds, and they were also responsible for the opening that year of Randall’s Island Stadium, Orchard Beach in the Bronx, and Jacob Riis Beach in Queens. Given the dark clouds encircling Europe, 1939 was an oddly sunny moment in the city’s history.
Published by Random House that same year, the WPA Guide to New York City conveyed the atmosphere of neighborhoods across the city, including the Flatbush/Midwood area where the Sanders family lived. The committee overseeing the Federal Writers Project featured several leading figures in New York City publishing, including Brooklyn native Clifton Fadiman; and among the authors of the local guide was the rising literary star Richard Wright, who at the time lived in Fort Greene and soon married a Communist organizer from Brooklyn named Ellen Poplar (née Poplowitz). Wright penned the Guide’s Harlem section, and well over half of the work’s 625 pages cover Manhattan. The Brooklyn section provides a brief but telling description of the Sanders family’s neck of the woods. “Flatbush is one of Brooklyn’s most desirable residential neighborhoods,” the entry began. “[M]ost of the tree-bowered streets,” observed the Guide, “have a tranquil, late-19th century air.” Many streets featured “roomy homes” with “spacious front porches,” although there were “numerous modern apartment houses.” The book presented Midwood as a section of Flatbush. There the Sanders family lived in one of the newer, more modest dwellings. Completed in 1932, 1525 E. 26th Street is a large six-story building with eighty-eight units, and the Sanders family rented a small three-and-a half room apartment on the second floor (2C). In general, the Midwood area saw significant growth after the Brighton Beach subway line (now the B/Q train) began traveling directly to Manhattan in 1920. Although the Guide depicted the area as tranquil, the hostilities in Europe would soon disturb the peace in Flatbush. But the suburban values of the area nonetheless endured.
July Fourth of that year brought the usual fireworks display at Coney Island, and it also saw the opening ceremony for the Red Hook Houses near Brooklyn’s thriving docks. The project was built by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), which had been created by La Guardia in 1934 and was the first public housing agency in the nation. The $13-million Red Hook project was the second complex built in Brooklyn (the first, in Williamsburg, had opened in 1938) and fourth in the city. A crowd of 1,500 people turned out on Independence Day to see the mayor speak. Public housing was “quite in line with our form of government,” the Little Flower declared. Then, previewing FDR’s wartime Second Bill of Rights speech, he stated:
I do not believe it was contemplated by the framers of our Constitution that certain individual rights—freedom of assembly, free speech, free press, and freedom of religion— should be guaranteed and that the people should be aban- doned and that people should be permitted to suffer in an emergency [i.e., lack of affordable housing]. It is my belief that in addition to the maintenance of these rights it is the respon- sibility of government to provide economic security for all.
FDR, added La Guardia, shared that position, as illus- trated by his request to Congress that year to increase funding for public housing. Construction of the Red Hook project had begun only one year earlier, and although only 114 families were moving in on July 4, the entire 2,500- unit complex would be completed by Thanksgiving.
Like the other NYCHA projects of the era, the Red Hook Houses were nevertheless anything but hastily built, cheap construction. Instead, the blueprint illustrated the harmo- nious vision of modernist architectural design. Drawn up by noted architect Alfred Easton Poor, who would later serve as president of the National Academy of Design, the Red Hook buildings were six stories and contained spacious units with ample sunlight. The complex also featured courtyards with playgrounds, as well as nursery centers and community meeting spaces. A year after the project’s completion, residents entering the project’s main building encountered A Blueprint for Living, a large mural created by WPA-sponsored artist Marion Greenwood, a Brooklyn native who studied in Mexico with Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco. The work, which won praise from Eleanor Roosevelt during her visit to the Red Hook Houses in June 1940, depicted what Greenwood described as “a community plan.” As described by the Brooklyn Eagle, the first panel of the 325-square-foot triptych “suggests the healthful environment of the planned community, with its facilities for rest, recreation, study, and cultural activities,” with the latter two panels emphasizing the labor that constructed such a project and the families that would benefit from it. Together, NYCHA and the WPA were trying to build a secure future for the city’s working class.
Theodore Hamm is chair of journalism and new media studies at St. Joseph’s College in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.
Excerpted from Theodore Hamm, Bernie’s Brooklyn: How Growing Up In the New Deal City Shaped Bernie Sanders’ Politics (New York: OR Books, 2020)