Brownsville: A Bit of a Broken System

Betsy Head Park looks beautiful. The families sitting in local parks are laughing to the sound of music. At a first glance, you would think Brownsville is faring well. Yet wellness is far from the truth: Brownsville’s rate of “avoidable hospitalizations” (“those that could be prevented if adults had access to quality primary care”) … is more than double the citywide rate” (“Brownsville Including” 12). It has higher than the city’s average poverty rate (“Brownsville Including” 7).

Brownsville’s infrastructure is crumbling even though its people continue to laugh and sing on the streets. Betsy Head Park is beautiful, but it was broken: it was developed and is maintained by the “Brownsville Community Justice Center.” The affect of Brownsville is one of resilience, of continuing to live through continuing disparity.

But the state of the neighborhood speaks to a greater reality of systemic racism, which reminds me of Theresa Brennan’s “The Transmission of Affect.” Brennan describes affects as being “social in origin but biological and physical in effect” (3). This helps tie the issues of Brownsville, rooted in systemic racism, neglect, and poverty to their tangible effects, resulting in the poor quality of Brownsville residents’ health: obesity, diabetes, and hypertension in Brownsville are higher than NYC average (“Brownsville Including” 16).

It becomes very easy to brush off the issues of Brownsville as issues of just another poor neighborhood, particularly if we abide by what Brennan calls “self-containment:” isolating ourselves from the affects of other individuals and environments. Brennan explains: “To be effective, the construction of self-containment also depends on another person (usually the mother, or in later life, a woman, or a pliable man, or a subjugated race) accepting those unwanted affects for us (12).” And this is how the negative affects of Brownsville—a predominantly black neighborhood—become reflective of deep-rooted systemic racism: the disparity between Brownsville and the average New York neighborhood is a disparity of producing negative affects. 

And as I continue to walk down the roads of Brownsville, I see how a lot of the affects of Brownsville can be realized through the objects in it: the broken pipe, the art on its walls—a way that Jane Bennett sees things in her work, “Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things.” Bennett brings forth a theory of “thing-power,” where she associated with things “the ability to produce effects” (5) and looking at things uniquely through this lens, helps us look at the systemic revelations that they hold. An example Bennett provides is of the revelations about New York City’s residents, governance, and society that the  “electrical grid …lit up” “by blacking out.” This approach helps rise above “a politics devoted too exclusively to moral condemnation and not enough to a cultivated discernment of the web of agentic capacities can do little good” (38). And that is what I hope to do with my study of Brownsville—to analyze its crumbling infrastructure for its own “vibran[ce]” and “vitality” (Bennett 23): to understand the story of long-standing racism and the community’s fight against it which the infrastructure tells.

And as I try to read this story, hope to project this story, I keep walking through Brownsville. And Betsy Head Park still looks beautiful.

-Sania Irfan

Works Cited

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: a Political Ecology of Things. Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2010.

Brennan, Teresa. The Transmission of Affect. Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press, 2004.

“Brownsville Including Broadway Junction, Brownsville and Ocean Hill.” Community Health Profiles, NYC Government, 2018.  

“Brownsville Community Justice Centre.” Center For Court Innovation.

~ by Sania Irfan on September 28, 2019.

3 Responses to “Brownsville: A Bit of a Broken System”

  1. I award this post the Affective/Most Engaging.
    I think the contrast between the beauty of the Betsy Head Park and systematic racism, crumbling infrastructure and people singing on the street is very stark and telling. Through your post, even though we are not in Brownsville ourselves, we can feel the visual affect of thing-powers like a broken pipe or wall art.

  2. I was the most affectively engaged with this blog post because of the way you tell the story of Brownsville. I found the juxtaposition of the beauty of the park with the injustices that the community faces to be quite poignant. The concluding observation that beauty still exists among all these issues presents an interesting tension that I think you can examine throughout your project.

  3. Most affective/engaging: “I see how a lot of the affects of Brownsville can be realized through the objects in it: the broken pipe, the art on its walls—a way that Jane Bennett sees things in her work”.When reading this, I felt like I was there; the descriptions were very accurate and represent the ethical relevance of human affect.

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