Ebinger Girls, Blackout Cake, and Boycotts: A NYC Guidebook Gives the People’s Story
With "A People’s Guide to New York City," Professor Carolina Bank Muñoz and two fellow CUNY professors not only take urban explorers off the beaten path but challenge the very idea of what makes a site important.
On a recent fall day, Carolina Bank Muñoz, a professor of Sociology at the Graduate Center and Brooklyn College, visited one of her favorite sites in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood: a CubeSmart self-storage facility. The building, a two-story brick structure painted salmon pink, occupies nearly half of a block of Albemarle Road between Flatbush and Bedford Avenues. Muñoz loves the building — which once served as the truck depot for the Ebinger Bakery company, whose name is still visible in the brick — because it evokes an iconic moment in New York City’s history, one that involves race, labor relations, and changing neighborhoods.
“Ebinger’s was an old-time bakery that had a huge distribution on the East Coast, and was known for its famous Brooklyn blackout cake — chocolate cake,” Muñoz says. “The women who worked at the bakery were called Ebinger girls, and they were all white. During the 1960s, in the midst of lots of civil rights struggles, and struggles around unemployment, Operation Unemployment and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) joined efforts to try to get Ebinger Bakery to agree to hire Black and Puerto Rican women to be Ebinger girls. Needless to say, the company didn’t just roll over, so there was a fight around it. There was a boycott of Ebinger products, and those boycotts took place every Saturday, mostly at the bakery stores. And here, at this truck depot, was one of the biggest actions, where activists sat down on the ground and blocked trucks.” Although Ebinger’s negotiated, Muñoz explains, it never integrated its workforce to a significant degree. Within a few years of the protests, the pressures of the 70s drove it to bankruptcy: “At the end of the day, the company, given the changing times and the economy and also just the changes in the population — it shut down.”
Muñoz recounts that story in A People’s Guide to New York City, which she co-authored with Professor Penny Lewis of the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies and Professor Emily Tumpson Molina of Brooklyn College. Muñoz got the idea to do the book after going to an event for A People’s Guide to Los Angeles, the first in the series from the University of California Press. “It was the first time I had really thought about a guidebook as an academic project,” Muñoz says. She approached the publisher to see if there were plans for a book on New York. “They said, It’s funny you should ask, because we’ve been trying to get people to do New York City, but everybody just wants to do their borough. They either want to do Manhattan or they want to do Brooklyn, but nobody wants to take the city on. And I was like, Well, how hard could that be?”
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She soon learned. The book wound up taking 10 years of work by Muñoz, her co-authors, and dozens of students and colleagues they enlisted to help. Graduate Center faculty including Distinguished Professor Joshua B. Freeman (History) and professors across CUNY served on the book’s advisory committee, along with members of local communities. The co-authors also relied heavily on the CUNY Digital History Archive, an open platform based at the Graduate Center, for historical photos and records.
The former Ebinger’s Bakery building was one of Muñoz’s picks, and not just because of its own history, she explains as she walks around the site: This part of Flatbush, the neighborhood where she’s lived for more than a decade, is particularly rich in New York history. One block north is Flatbush Town Hall, built in the late 19th century, built before Flatbush was part of the City of Brooklyn. Around the corner on Flatbush Avenue is Erasmus Hall High School, which A People’s Guide describes as “emblematic of the shifting fortunes of New York City’s schools.” One of the oldest secondary schools in New York, it was founded as a private all-men’s school in 1786 with contributions from prominent New Yorkers including Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, and was built on land donated by the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church of Flatbush (now known as the Flatbush Reformed Church). The coming decades brought profound change: Erasmus admitted women (1801), got turned over to the public school system (1896), and eventually became an overcrowded, struggling school, with its newer buildings dwarfing the original schoolhouse (now fallen into disrepair, but still viewable through the front gates). In the 1990s it was split into five separate schools that reflect the segregation in the school system. “When the high school wasn’t performing well, they were threatening to shut it down,” Muñoz says. “But the actual charter of the land that it sits on says it can’t be anything but a place of higher learning. So they never they can never tear it down.”
Muñoz has been using the book in her current sociology course at Brooklyn College to teach students about places like Flatbush. Her students are often shocked to learn the histories of their own neighborhoods, which tend to get less attention than places in Manhattan and other parts of Brooklyn. Which is exactly the point of the book, Muñoz says. A People’s Guide is “an attempt to disrupt the narrative of traditional guidebooks that focus on glitz and glamour and consumption, and tell the story of the people of New York and their struggles to make this a livable city. To make it a city that we can claim rights to. That we can think of in terms of housing and labor and social justice.” Even more than a guide for tourists, the book awakens New Yorkers’ appreciation for their own city. Walking back to the Ebinger’s building, Muñoz says the site never spoke to her before she learned about its history, even though she walked or biked past it almost every day. Now her students tell her, “‘Oh, I walked past that church every day, or I went to that high school. I had no idea that there were stories you could tell about my neighborhood.”
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