Streets weren’t so mean to Howard Schultz’s Brooklyn peers
BROOKLYN — When Howard Schultz tells people why he should be president of the United States, the billionaire often tells a story of a poor kid who escaped from the chaos and cacophony of a Brooklyn housing project to become the architect of a global coffee behemoth.
The man who built the Starbucks empire and now calls himself a likely “centrist independent” candidate for president says his is “a rags-to-riches story” in which he started out on “literally the wrong side of the tracks” in “low-income” housing, where “we were all poor,” where “my best defense was a good offense” and where fights “didn’t typically escalate to deadly violence, but they were tough in their own way.”
But Schultz’s depiction of Bayview as a rough, low-income community is inconsistent with the city’s definition of the project, the requirements for tenants to get into the buildings, and the experience of others who lived there.
“It was a shiny, wonderful world,” said former Bayview resident Elyse Maltz, one of many residents of the development who contend that Schultz, 65, has distorted the reality of the place where they grew up in the 1950s and ’60s. “Everything was brand spanking new. “
Maltz, who got to know Schultz in seventh grade and now lives in New Jersey, said the Bayview that her family and Schultz’s moved into “was middle class, not lower middle. You were interviewed to get in. My family was pretty well off. I know Howard wants to look like he’s rags to riches, but we had a wonderful, plentiful life. I mean, my ma had a cleaning lady. We really didn’t lack for anything.”
She called on Schultz to “please stop referring to us as poor or destitute, because it’s insulting and we didn’t feel that way at all.”
Schultz declined to be interviewed for this report. A spokesman for his nascent campaign, Tucker Warren, said: “The rent at Bayview was less than $100 a month, and some months the Schultz family couldn’t pay the rent. Any insinuation that Howard didn’t grow up in an economically distressed environment is more of a comment on the state of our politics than it is about the economics of his family.”
Residents from Schultz’s era tell stories of children jumping rope and roller-skating, packs of unsupervised preteens going off to the Canarsie Theater to see movies on Saturday afternoons, families going across the street to the kosher deli, the Viennese bakery or the toy store. The local ballet school, Miss Ricky’s Dance School, ran a shuttle bus to Bayview to pick up children for after-school classes.
Even as they question Schultz’s characterization of Bayview, his former neighbors express pride that one of their own has achieved so much – transforming how the world drinks coffee and helping to create a new kind of American gathering place on his way to becoming a billionaire.
In recent TV interviews, Schultz has repeatedly pointed out that “I came from the projects,” calling his escape from Bayview and success at Starbucks a classic example of “the American dream.” But the place Schultz sought to escape from was a community that many residents pushed hard to get into.
“Bayview was for people who were moving up, part of the old tenement trail as people left the tough life in the old walk-ups of Brownsville and East New York to get to a place like Bayview,” said Jonathan Rieder, a sociologist at Barnard College who spent years studying Bayview’s neighborhood, the Canarsie section of Brooklyn. “Bayview was a heavily Jewish, solidly middle-income place. It was an oasis, a sanctuary.”
Rieder said Schultz’s description of Bayview as hard and poor “is a narrative that is impossible for me to understand. Life was good at Bayview. The renters there had this sense of middle-class respectability.”
In 1956, the New York City Housing Authority opened Bayview as a “moderate income” development, built a block away from Jamaica Bay, on a site where the Army had erected 535 metal Quonset huts to serve as emergency barracks for service members recently returned from overseas duty in World War II.
Superficially, Bayview looked much like any city housing development, a collection of brick towers with balky stainless-steel elevators and hallways of green linoleum floors and glazed, aqua-tiled walls. But Bayview, which Schultz’s family moved into in its opening year, was built as a “no cash subsidy” project, according to city records.
That meant that unlike developments subsidized by the federal or state government, Bayview had minimum-income requirements for tenants, charged higher rents intended to cover the entire cost of its mortgage, and was “built to high standards compared to (federal) projects,” according to “Affordable Housing in New York,” a history of public housing in the city.
“There was a massive postwar housing shortage in New York,” said Nicholas Bloom, an urban historian at the New York Institute of Technology and an editor of the “Affordable Housing” history. “A lot of people needed housing, and they were not all poor. The city had a program to build high-quality developments for middle-class tenants, people who could afford to pay enough rent that the rents would cover the operating costs of the buildings and the amortization of the mortgage.”
Unlike low-income developments, Bayview’s buildings included outdoor terrace space on every floor and were spaced well-apart, with playgrounds, grassy areas, ball courts and an elementary school on the grounds.
A city report in 1965 showed that Bayview had four “problem families” – defined by factors such as “unstable family situations” or “disorderly housekeeping” – among its 1,608 families.
Many of Schultz’s neighbors at Bayview have vented their dismay over his portrayal of their home to Shelly Blank, a longtime Bayview resident and retired letter carrier who runs a Facebook group for people who grew up in the development.
“It was the country club of projects,” Blank said, using a phrase several former Bayview residents volunteered. “Howard Schultz makes it sound like a slum, but you couldn’t be poor to live there. Don’t let Howard fool you: It was brand new, a beautiful new place with new kitchens, new plumbing. We’re excited that he’s running, but I yell at the TV when he says this stuff.”
The streets get meaner
Bayview is an essential piece of Schultz’s account of who he is. It’s the first fact in his campaign’s capsule biography of the candidate: “Schultz grew up in Brooklyn public housing, and inherited his mother’s belief that he could create a better life for himself.”
Over the years, Schultz’s version of life at Bayview has grown darker. In his 1997 book, “Pour Your Heart Into It,” he described the complex as “not a frightening place but a friendly, large, leafy campground … all brand new,” a place that “made for a well-balanced value system.”
In recent years, his accounts of his impoverished upbringing have described a rougher and poorer setting.
A 2004 profile in Fortune said that Schultz “grew up on some of Brooklyn’s meaner streets” and that Bayview in Schultz’s youth was “not terrifying, but tough in a West Side Story kind of way.”
“It shaped my character,” Schultz said in that article. “But I always wanted to escape.”
“There was no way out,” he told CNNMoney in 2017. “I don’t think I would have had the motivation, the curiosity and the fear of failure if I didn’t come from the background I have.”
In 2012, in his book “Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul,” he portrayed life in Bayview as “growing up on what was literally the wrong side of the tracks. Few kids would grow up and make it out of Canarsie.”
In fact, hardly any of Schultz’s peers remain in Canarsie. Many are affluent professionals who live in big houses in New Jersey, on Long Island and in Florida, records show. And many are puzzled or distressed by their friend’s version of the place they recall so fondly.
“Howie is already a politician because he is lying about Bayview,” Debra Gherman wrote in the Bayview Facebook group. “You weren’t poor if you lived in Bayview. You were middle income… . Rags to riches. Give me a break, Howie.”
Schultz’s evolving story of his life has also involved a shifting portrayal of the role his parents played in shaping him. His father, Fred, an Army veteran, drove a diaper-service delivery truck until an injury caused him to lose his job. His mother, Elaine, stayed home to raise her children and later worked as a receptionist.
In a 1994 profile in The New York Times, Schultz said his parents “gave me great self-esteem and a sense of what was possible.”
But in his 2019 autobiography, Schultz says he needed to “escape … far away” from a childhood “filled with chaos” and from parents who left him feeling anxious and uncertain: “As I grew up, I never felt confident that they had my back.”
“My father chose to remain uneducated and unskilled,” Schultz wrote in the new book. His father, he said, suffered from a “willingness to cut corners, (a) lack of a work ethic” and “a violent temper” that once led to him beating Howard up in the shower.
“In his family, there was no financial stability, no structure, no predictability,” said Warren, Schultz’s spokesman. “Other families at Bayview may have had more money or better jobs, but the Schultz family was poor, period.”
Bill Block, one of Schultz’s best friends in childhood, lived on the same floor as Schultz and said the family did not seem worse off than others at Bayview.
“As a kid, Howard was really excellent about keeping the family’s problems hidden,” said Block, now a clinical psychologist who lives in Germany. “The Schultzes seemed pretty normal to everyone. But Howard much later told me about his mother’s anxiety and depression and his father’s struggles. His personal situation was more dire than other people’s at Bayview. But Howard didn’t show it – there was just so much shame there.”
A ‘melting pot’ it was not
In the new autobiography, Schultz calls Bayview “an urban melting pot… . There was plenty of diversity around us.” Schultz says that “about a third” of Bayview residents “were African Americans and a smaller percentage were Puerto Rican.” Bayview, he said, “reflected the makeup of Brooklyn’s public housing residents in the 1950s.”
It did not.
In 1956, when the Schultz family moved in, the brand-new development’s population was 93 percent white and 6 percent black, according to Housing Authority reports.
At the time, black people made up a far larger proportion – 38 percent – of the population of New York’s low-income developments. The projects in Brooklyn alone had a similar racial mix, Bloom said.
Henry Bolus, who is black and lived at Bayview for 43 years, including most of the time Schultz was there, said “you could look near or far and maybe you’d see one other black person.”
By the time Schultz moved to Michigan for college, in 1971, Bayview was 81 percent white and 17 percent black.
“This was an all-white, Jewish neighborhood, with some Italians,” Blank said. “Even the rabbi and the toy-store owner lived in the development.”
Warren, Schultz’s spokesman, said “Howard’s neighborhood was diverse – Jewish kids, Italian kids, Irish kids, Puerto Rican kids and black kids. Like many public housing projects in America, Bayview has become poorer and more dangerous than it was when it was in the mid-’50s.”
In the 1970s, Canarsie was the site of conflicts over school busing. White parents in the neighborhood staged a school boycott to protest the city’s decision to bus several dozen black children from Brooklyn’s Brownsville section to Canarsie Junior High School. But the neighborhood around Bayview was still 90 percent white in 1980, long after Schultz had moved away, according to census records.
Sheryl Boyce has lived at Bayview since it opened and runs its residents association, as her mother did before her. Boyce, who is black, said the population of the complex was anything but diverse.
“You had maybe two black families in every building,” she said. “Everyone was middle income – you had to fill out an annual income form to prove it. Everyone got along. My family had only one incident, when some kids wrote on our apartment door, ‘This house stinks because n——-s live here.’ But that was it. I even went to synagogue with the Jewish kids. We had two kosher delis that everybody shopped in, whether you were Jewish or not.”
Bayview residents from Schultz’s era described an atmosphere that was a relief from the cramped and unsafe neighborhoods they had fled.
Although the physical plant at Bayview has deteriorated and a poorer population has moved in over the past three decades, back in the ’50s and ’60s “there was a utopian feel to these developments – they had fields, kids playing outside, playgrounds,” Bloom said. “Schultz benefited from public housing for middle-class families that was high-quality, housing that was better than you could find in the private sector.”
Bolus said: “We called it ‘the Fortress’ because we had a sense of unity. This was the jewel of housing developments.”
For many years, Schultz said his escape from Bayview came in the form of a football scholarship. But he never received a football scholarship.
Block, Schultz’s childhood friend, said that “as far I understood it, his scholarship got him out of Bayview.”
Schultz’s escape from Brooklyn to Northern Michigan University came by virtue of “a football scholarship,” Charlie Rose said in a 2007 interview.
“That’s right,” Schultz replied.
As far back as 2001, Schultz told New York Post columnist Vic Ziegel that his football scholarship was the key that opened the door to college: “Financially, it would have been impossible without sports.”
In 2011, The New York Times said Schultz “grew up poor in the Bay View housing projects” and “received a football scholarship.”
In his 2012 book, Schultz stated that when he got a call from a recruiter from NMU’s football team, “I whooped and hollered… . Northern Michigan essentially offered me a football scholarship, the only offer I got. Without it, I don’t know how I could have realized my mother’s dream of going to college.”
But in his new autobiography, Schultz provides a different account: There was no scholarship, just a misunderstanding on his part.
“I convinced myself that this was it, I had a football scholarship,” he wrote. “What I actually had was the makings of one.”
In this version, Schultz was told that if he made the team, he would get financial aid.
But the first few days of practice made clear that “I was not good enough to be a quarterback for Northern Michigan,” he wrote.
So he took jobs, student loans, even sold his blood to afford the $1,410 annual cost of attending Northern Michigan, Schultz said.
In a statement, Warren, Schultz’s spokesman, said “he left for Northern Michigan believing he was going to play football on scholarship but quickly realized he wasn’t good enough for a scholarship to materialize.”
Years ago, Schultz explained that he stopped playing football because of an injury. “A broken jaw freshman year ended his playing days,” The Times reported in 2002.
A university spokesman, Derek Hall, said scholarship offers and visits by recruited athletes “are not records the university keeps.”
After past invites, Schultz pays a visit
Although many disagree with Schultz’s characterization of Bayview, current residents say they are proud that a billionaire emerged from their midst, and they have sought his help in marking that connection.
In 2012, Boyce, the residents-association president, wrote to Schultz, asking whether he might provide $5 Starbucks gift cards for tenants attending their annual Mother’s Day/Father’s Day celebration.
A Starbucks executive turned down the request, saying in a letter to Boyce that the national attention the company had won “has forced us to set limits on our commitments” and advising the group to “discuss your request with a local store manager.”
There is no Starbucks in Canarsie or surrounding neighborhoods.
“All we have is Dunkin’ Donuts,” Boyce said. “I called Starbucks after that letter and I had an unpleasant conversation. They didn’t budge.”
Two years later, the group tried again, asking only for permission to add Schultz’s name and a message for “our young people” to a list of prominent people who lived at Bayview.
That request was also denied. Starbucks’ reply said the company “is not seeking opportunities for national or local sponsorships” and is not accepting “in-kind requests.”
“We just wanted to include his name to show that just because you grow up in a Housing Authority development does not mean you can’t be successful,” Boyce said. “They said no. I don’t know why he hates this place. I’ve lived here 63 years and I love it.”
A Schultz spokesman did not respond to questions about how Boyce’s requests were handled.
Last year, when Schultz was gearing up for a possible campaign, he visited Bayview, went inside his old elementary school, asked the principal what she needed and promised to pay to renovate the gym and other facilities.
The janitor at the school, Al Watson, said Schultz “never did anything for the school before, but this time, he came and did the teachers’ room, the doors, the gym — did a good job, too.”