Protecting Property, Not People


On the morning of July 24th, 2021, dozens of NYPD officers set up rows of barricades and began trying to pry open the door of 1083 Broadway, a commercial building on the south side of Bushwick, Brooklyn. The bottom floor of this building, the former site of a gym, was being occupied by mutual aid organizers, who had spent months during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic using the space to distribute masks, baby products, and fresh produce to Bushwick residents in need, with the permission of the gym’s owners. The police quickly made it clear that they wanted the organizers out of the space. The organizers of the mutual aid collective, known as The Gym, had come into conflict with the building’s landlord. As a result, the police were called to evict the group from the property, despite The Gym’s important role as a community center and respite for locals. As morning turned to afternoon, the police’s ranks began to grow, as over 3 dozen additional cops from the 83rd Precinct were brought in to ensure that any resistance to this forced eviction would be futile. Eventually, riot cops joined the growing throng of police, and within a few hours, the police managed to break open the doors with bolt cutters. As soon as the door opened, the police immediately resorted to violence, dragging members of the Gym out of the building, bodyslamming a community member onto the sidewalk, and arresting several members of the Gym. In a clear display of police brutality, one community member even suffered severe injuries and had to be taken to the hospital.

And yet, the incident at the Gym during the summer of 2021 is simply the most recent instance of police brutality that officers at the 83rd Precinct, the NYPD division covering all of Bushwick, have carried out against members of the community. In the 1990s, hundreds of Bushwick residents marched down Knickerbocker Avenue to protest the murders of Jose Luis Lebron and Louis Lirasano, two teenagers whom members of the 83rd Precinct brutally murdered within a week of one another. And this brutality has persisted – in more recent years, hundreds of Bushwick residents have filed complaints with the Civilian Complaint Review Board, New York City’s police oversight body, detailing harassment, excessive use of force, and even violence at the hands of 83rd Precinct officers.

In New York City, it has become beyond clear that the police have far too many resources. In the fiscal year 2023, the city’s police budget grew to over $11 billion, reaching over one-tenth of the city’s budget, while education services greatly diminished. However, in the years following the brutal murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota, scholars, activists, and organizers have begun to reimagine the role that police play in society. Black abolitionist scholars like Mariame Kaba, have noted that the only way to truly reduce the immense violence, trauma, and harm that policing causes in communities of color, especially in Black communities, is to reduce and eventually abolish, the structure of policing. This process, of course, needs to be gradual – Kaba herself has noted that the institution of policing cannot be abolished overnight without creating new structures to foster safety for all people. Instead, we must gradually pull resources away from abusive police departments, like funding and personnel, and begin redistributing these resources toward the communities that have been the most harmed by the violence of policing. As Kaba has argued, when we defund the police, we can ensure that all people in working class communities of color have their basic needs met by instead directing investment towards healthcare, education, housing, and good jobs, reducing the perceived need for police in these communities.

From Neoliberalism to the Police State

It was already one hundred degrees Fahrenheit on July 19th, 1977, but at around 1:30pm, Bushwick residents living near Knickerbocker Avenue and Bleecker Street began to sense that something was making their neighborhood even hotter.  Residents started to smell smoke coming from the basement of an abandoned knitting factory, and after only ten minutes, the entire building was in flames.1 Before long, the fire had spread to seven blocks, and over 250 residents had to be evacuated.2 Brick facades began to tumble off buildings, and the fire spread quickly through the numerous wood frame row houses that made up most of the neighborhood’s housing stock, eventually spreading to twenty three nearby buildings.3 Nearly 300 firefighters were called to the scene from over fifty five fire units, and it took these firefighters over three hours to control the flames. Many firefighters claimed that if another large fire began in Brooklyn at the same time, the city would be unable to put it out. But this fire was emblematic of a larger crisis spreading throughout North Brooklyn; the city was pulling services from working class communities of color at a rapid pace, leaving neighborhoods like Bushwick to burn.

During the mid-20th century, a major fiscal crisis in New York City and apathy from politicians began to shift policies at the city, state, and federal levels away from protecting the social safety net and instead began to prioritize the profits of major white-collar industries, including finance and real estate. Municipal budgets were slashed, and major social services, like fire, sanitation, and education, were sharply reduced. As David Harvey notes, this shift towards neoliberal economic policies turned American cities into a playground for the wealthy, as cities provided benefits to large corporations to “keep the rich and powerful in town.” To preserve the city’s role as a global center for finance, real estate, capital, and innovation, government officials continued investing in the Manhattan business core despite the city’s dire financial situation, largely preserving services like sanitation and infrastructure maintenance below 96th Street.

At the same time, the needs of poor and working-class communities across cities like New York were being actively ignored by local governments and the private sector, resulting in deeply inequitable patterns of urban investment, something both David Harvey and Ruth Wilson Gilmore have referred to as “organized abandonment.” Instead, key city officials openly advocated to disinvest almost completely from working class communities of color. Roger Starr, who was the city’s Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) commissioner in 1976, began to push for “planned shrinkage,” or near total divestment from neighborhoods he thought were “deteriorating,” and instead pushed the city to invest in “areas that remain alive.” This rhetoric was both racialized and violently racist, as nearly all of the neighborhoods Starr deemed “sick,” including Bushwick, the South Bronx, and the Lower East Side, were primarily populated by poor Black and Latino New Yorkers.4 By claiming that entire neighborhoods are “deteriorating,” Starr argued that the people living in those environments were disposable, so the city could cut costs by refusing to provide them with life-saving services. And thanks to cuts in social services, thousands of North Brooklynites in areas like Bushwick were left to die as their homes burned to the ground, due to negligent landlords and inadequate fire services.

Entire city blocks were lost to massive fires, and Bushwick’s housing stock was devastated. Burned out lots abandoned by landlords or homeowners were turned over to the city, which then frequently passed these lots over to various agencies, like the New York City Police Department, in massive deed transfers throughout the 1970s and 1980s, with little regard for the people who had lost their homes. The New York City Police Department acquired dozens of lots through deed transfers, including massive NYPD parking lots on Cedar Street in the heart of Bushwick.

Police Parking in Bushwick

If you walk along Cedar Street in Bushwick from its origin at Bushwick Avenue, you will quickly come across 15 Cedar Street, a strange new luxury building that replaced a three-story wood frame townhouse in 2019. It is hard to walk past this building without rolling your eyes — an odd string of random words, like “social,” “housing,” “modern,” and “future,” are painted over the first floor of the building, an almost ominous aesthetic sign of the rapid gentrification that has been taking over Bushwick since the early 2000s. If you keep walking past the intersection of Evergreen Avenue and Cedar Street, you see a sea of NYPD cars, both personal ,and patrol cars, parked in a sprawling parking lot spanning half a city block. You see a rock-climbing wall, which the NYPD owns for some reason, wedged between a handful of patrol cars spread out along this long, thin lot. Dozens of parking spaces are typically left empty, but the NYPD has refused to give up any of this parking space.

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Cedar Street NYPD Lots (Photo taken by Katelin Penner, June 2021)

But suppose you keep walking towards Myrtle Avenue, a major throughway in Bushwick. In that case, you see something beautiful: a large, Black, and brown-run community garden called Know Waste Lands that hosts events and is a sorely needed respite in an area with little greenspace. The garden, which is covered in bright, charmingly preserved murals, spans approximately 8,000 square feet and uses about half of its space to host a composting business called BK Rot that employs dozens of Black, brown, and queer local teens. Know Waste Lands was also a vital place for the Bushwick community during the pandemic, as the garden hosted a community fridge where locals could access fresh food free of cost. But just across the street from this vital community institution, on the other side of Central Avenue, you see another huge NYPD parking lot. This lot is also strange and underutilized; several patrol cars with figures of superheroes like Spiderman are spread out along with officers’ personal vehicles through the massive, gated lot.

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Know Waste Lands, Myrtle Avenue, Bushwick (Photo taken by Katelin Penner, June 2021)

These sprawling parking lots, separated by just a thin, metal fence from Know Waste Lands, belong to the 83rd precinct, the same police precinct responsible for the violent crackdown at The Gym and the bone-chilling murders of Jose Luis Lebron and Louis Lirasano. And for many residents of Bushwick, these sprawling parking lots are a reminder of the violent abandonment the community faced when landlords burned down buildings to collect insurance checks and when social services so many community members had relied on retreated from North Brooklyn.

But this problem is not unique to Bushwick – the New York City Police Department owns an immense amount of land in NYC. The NYPD owns nearly a quarter of all publicly owned parking lots in the city, and the department is the thirty-first largest landowner in the five boroughs. Cops own more land than the United Nations, more land than large universities like Saint John’s and Fordham, and they even own more land than the Port Authority, the agency responsible for our bridges and tunnels. But, unsurprisingly, this police-owned land is not spread evenly across the city– it is concentrated heavily in low-income communities of color that have been burdened by police brutality. Bushwick alone is home to 21% of NYPD parking lots not located within a police precinct, and a disproportionate number of parking lots are located in other working class communities of color, like Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville, East Harlem, and East New York. And as organizers continue to fight to distribute resources away from police and towards the community, it is past time to redistribute the 445,505 square feet of parking space the police own in this city back to communities. Bringing police land under community control in Bushwick is the best way the city can begin to right the wrongs of both police brutality and urban abandonment, finally giving long-term residents power to decide what the community most deeply needs, whether it be social housing, a community center, expanded green space, or a childcare facility.

NYPD Lot on DeKalb Avenue in Bushwick (Photo taken by Katelin Penner, June 2021)

Examples from East New York

Organizing to wrest nearly two dozen parking lots out of the hands of one of New York’s most powerful agencies is a monumental undertaking for any community. Still, it is possible – community members organizing East New York Community Land Trust (ENYCLT), a Black and Brown led social housing organization with membership in both Cypress Hills and East New York, have mounted a public campaign to win community control of several police parking lots in Northeast Brooklyn. The organization has undertaken a multi-year survey process to learn from community members about what they would want to see developed on a number of publicly owned vacant lots, distributing surveys and hosting visioning sessions to lead a community-centered planning process that incorporates the input of a wide range of East New York residents.

Based on their two-year-long community survey, the ENYCLT proposed that some NYPD lots, located within the East Brooklyn Industrial Business Zone (IBZ), be utilized to develop new, community-led manufacturing sites. The CLT posits that the organization could partner with a local non-profit to build affordable space for local manufacturers to utilize for various industrial purposes, such as carpentry or steelwork. As the CLT argues, the development of this space could help create new, family-sustaining jobs in manufacturing, a well-paying industry that has been in decline throughout the city. The CLT has also advocated that at least one of the NYPD-owned sites be converted into a mutual aid distribution center for East Brooklyn Mutual Aid, a local organization that worked to support families throughout the pandemic. Members of the ENYCLT are more than ready to steward this publicly owned land and convert it into something that brings value to residents.

NYPD Lot on Sutter Avenue in East New York (Photo taken by Katelin Penner, August 2021)

In a community like Bushwick, which has faced intense gentrification in the past two decades, long term residents must be deeply involved in any planning process to ensure that their needs are being centered. The extensive community planning process that East New York residents are engaging with alongside the East New York CLT could be successfully replicated in Bushwick, especially if there is buy-in from grassroots organizations with strong bases in the area, like Make the Road, Churches United for Fair Housing, North Brooklyn Democratic Socialists of America, and Latinos Unidos Americanos. This community-centered envisioning process can and should be replicated here in Bushwick, so that police parking can be returned to public hands.

Additionally, forming a community land trust in Bushwick, like the community land trust that already exists in East New York, could be a decisive step towards ensuring that publicly owned underutilized land is placed into community stewardship. A CLT in Bushwick could also have a broader impact on the community – since community land trusts limit resale values of properties to limit real estate speculation and maintain permanent affordability of housing stock, a community land trust in Bushwick could help fight back against the rapid gentrification the community is facing. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, a community land trust could allow Bushwick residents to steward publicly owned land and utilize it for their own needs, instead of simply allowing dozens of NYPD vehicles to idle there for weeks. While this process will certainly be long, hard, and challenging due to the immense power the NYPD has in both New York City at large and the day to day lives of New Yorkers, it has the potential to bring sorely needed resources to Bushwick, something that is long overdue.


  1. Jonathan Mahler, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City (New York, NY: Picador, 2006), 215.
  2. Mahler, Ladies and Gentlemen, 216.
  3. Nicole P. Marwell, Bargaining for Brooklyn: Community Organizations in the Entrepreneurial City (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 99.
  4. Forrest Hylton, “You Think the Highland Clearances Were Bad? Why the Avant Garde Moved to Brooklyn,” CounterPunch 14, no. 1 (January 2007): pp. 1-6, 5.

Katelin Penner (she/they) is a vacant lot researcher and first year Masters in Urban Planning student at Hunter College. Her work concerns the ways cities respond to austerity, community resilience, social housing, and the role capital has played in shaping our homes and neighborhoods, especially in the late 20th Century. You can reach them at with any questions or quandries you may have!

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