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The Mystery of PS 125

Jan 16, 2015 11:31 AM | 0 comments

Looking at Google Maps, it is plain to see that PS 125 in Brownsville has been abandoned for quite some time. When did the oldest school in the neighborhood close, and why? This researcher started this blog assuming that these would be easy questions to answer. It turns out there is no clear answer to either one.

From its creation in 1900, PS 125 was ill-equipped to handle the influx of Jewish, mostly Russian and Polish, immigrants streaming over the newly opened Williamsburg Bridge from the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Four new schools opened in Brownsville between 1905 and 1912, yet this did little to alleviate overcrowding. According to a Brooklyn Daily Eagle article, PS 125 was renovated in 1917 to include 38 classrooms, 13 of which were "activities" rooms dedicated to classes in drama, workshop, science, cooking, drawing, and other special skills.

PS 125 in 1908, seven years after it opened

A booming population combined with the politics of racial segregation paralyzed progress at the school. PS 125 emerged as a predominantly Black school between 1933 and 1940, when Black children went from being one-third to two-thirds of the student population. From 1940 to 1950 the Black population in Brownsville doubled due to a flood of migrants, mostly from the South. In response, the heavy-handed City Planner of New York, Robert Moses, initiated construction of the Brownsville Housing Projects, which increased the population density of the area. To this day, Brownsville has the highest density of NYCHA-owned buildings in New York City.

Schools in Brownsville were so jam-packed that many students never had access to a full day of schooling. By the 1950s, PS 125 had an enrollment of 767 students (30% over capacity). Around this time, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that the waitlists for schools in the area were so long that some parents stopped signing their kids up for school entirely. PS 125, like other overburdened schools, operated in shifts. This made life hectic for parents with more than one school-age child trying to coordinate childcare and meals.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1950

While Black schools were utterly congested, the white schools in the borough were nowhere near capacity. According to Brownsville, Brooklyn: Blacks, Jews, and the Changing Face of the Ghetto, a "1955 government report found that almost all elementary schools in predominantly Black neighborhoods were full or exceeding capacity, while 80,000 seats were vacant in predominantly white schools. The school board refused to enroll Black students in schools located in white neighborhoods, choosing instead to move students amongst overcrowded schools."

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1950

The reality of racial segregation in Brooklyn appears most starkly in the New York City Planning Commission's Plan for New York City. It shows the "Utilization and Enrollment" at Brownsville schools from 1967-68. At PS 125, there were zero "White" students, 83 "Puerto Rican" students and 375 "Negro" students enrolled. Overall, students of color made up 97.6% of all students in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville district at that time.

New York City Planning Commission's Play for New York City (3) Brooklyn, 1969
PS 125's statistics are displayed in the second row from the top

Racial tensions began to heat up further in the 1960s, as Black parents lead protests for more community control over school policies and practices. By 1968, the school had likely started the decentralization pilot program with a cluster of other schools in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district, as mentioned in the New York Times. This new program was designed to give predominantly Black neighborhoods more control and influence over how their schools were run.

These are the last bits of evidence regarding PS 125 and its existence. This researcher has checked public databases and called people at the Department of Education, Department of Buildings, Brownsville Heritage House, Brownsville Community Board, a real estate company that works with the building's current owners, the President of the Brownsville Business Improvement District, and a friend who works at an architecture company, but have yet to find an official closing date for PS 125. (I'm thinking we should post a reward for such information, as it seems absolutely crazy that there is no known record of a public school's closing.) This researcher even took to Twitter to ask Brownsville born-and-raised artist Elaine Del Valle (@brownsvillebred) about the school, where her father worked as a janitor, but she wasn't sure. She thought maybe 1981, but didn't know the reason behind the closure.

"Brooklyn Tomorrow," 1964

Notice on the above map from 1964 that PS 125 is not even listed as an "existing" building where it would be located in the northwest corner of "Brownsville Housing." Perhaps it was already abandoned by this point, rendered structurally deficient, regardless of teachers' strikes or overcrowded classrooms. One can see that the residents of Brownsville had hopes of creating an "Educational Park" between Watkins Street and Rockaway Ave at Livonia Ave, surrounded by middle-income housing, though this dream never came to fruition.

Whatever the story of PS 125's closing, it remains a mystery! One thing is for sure, the journey to that non-answer provides an intriguing history of Brownsville's intense political past.

If you're interested in reading more about Brooklyn's schools and the fascinating stories behind them, check out these other Brooklynology blogs: The Mermen of Brownsville, Borough Park's P.S. 131, a trove of school historyBrooklyn Schools: A Look at Ephemera and More, We Don't Need No Education and stay tuned for our third blog this month on school history to be posted next week.

Also, don't be a stranger! Come visit the Brooklyn Collection and check out our current exhibition on "The Education of Kings" which will be up through February 13, 2015.

Come visit us at the Central Library in Grand Army Plaza!