Up from the Rubble

ABDALLA F. HASSAN | Third Force | January–February 1998 | pp. 23–26

Using Saul Alinsky’s model of direct-action organizing and building power through the local churches, East Brooklyn Congregations is forcing the city of New York to invest in East New York.

On a Wednesday morning last October, an array of politicians and clergy gathered on a makeshift stage on Hinsdale Street in East New York, Brooklyn to announce the second phase of a housing initiative known as Nehemiah. The groundbreaking ceremony was for the construction of 645 attached single-family homes. East Brooklyn Congregations (EBC), a coalition of church and community groups, initiated the plan and has built thousands of single-family homes in the East New York and Brownsville communities through it.

The city of New York is now a willing partner in rebuilding this section of Brooklyn. For each new home that will be built, the city will provide a $20 thousand subsidy, reducing the purchase price to about $73 thousand. But support has not come without struggle. 

A Neglected and Disrespected Community

“When we started Nehemiah our opponents were everybody,” says Johnny Ray Youngblood, pastor of St. Paul Community Baptist Church and co-chair of EBC. Elected officials “were opposed to it mainly because it didn’t come from them. It wasn’t their idea and it wasn’t business usual,” he adds. Then-mayor Ed Koch initially thought the plan wouldn’t work and accused EBC of having eyes bigger than its stomach. Members of the City Council claimed that Nehemiah would construct “straw houses” that would fall down in 10 years. 

 

Why did the organizers of EBC face such hostile opposition? “Because in many ways they do not pay homage to political figures,” current mayor Rudolph Giuliani says. “They require you to answer their questions and they remind you that you are a public servant.” Eventually, Nehemiah would turn many of its adversaries into supporters.

The communities of East Brooklyn, where EBC organizes, have experienced more than their share of violence and crime, schools that don’t work, and environmental neglect.

Urban Rebellions Reshape New York

In the 1950s, mammoth housing projects replaced small dwellings in Brooklyn’s East New York neighborhoods. Up until the late 1960s, those housing projects were predominately white (Jewish, German and Italian) and lower middle class with about 10 percent minority population.

 

The urban rebellions of 1966 and 1968 fundamentally altered the landscape of East New York. In 1968, major riots erupted after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. In the aftermath, a large portion of the community burned down. Virtually overnight the neighborhood changed color. During the next decade East New York suffered a sharp population decline, becoming one of New York’s most notorious neighborhoods.

 

Along with the exodus of the mostly white middle class, many large department stores, supermarkets and banks vanished. Alongside the tall housing projects, vacant lots and burned-down cores of former buildings and schools were taken over by squatters, drug addicts and rats.

 

Four years ago the 75th police precinct logged an astounding 129 homicides for East New York. That number was higher than the homicide figures of Harlem and the South Bronx combined. It also earned East Brooklyn the infamous titles Crime Capital of the World and Killing Fields. Playgrounds were the site of gun battles, drug dealing and prostitution. Residents sought safety with locks, gates, home guards and distrust of their neighbors. 

 

Residents have no difficulty explaining the decline. “I think we were written off by the powers that be,” Youngblood says. In the 1970s the community suffered from widespread redlining, with banks refusing mortgages and insurance companies refusing policies to homeowners and businesspeople. They also fell victim to a political strategy some sociologists call “planned shrinkage.”

 

Youngblood explains planned shrinkage as follows: “The powers that be in our city sat together in their ivory tower to say, ‘We are gradually going to withdraw services from certain communities.’” The theory behind it was that in one area there were too many people who were not contributing to the tax base but instead were living off it. Planned shrinkage left devastation in its wake: absentee landlords, mom-and-pop stores selling goods at inflated prices because of the high costs of insurance, theft and arson. The withdrawal of services eventually translated into joblessness, abandoned housing and an inadequate school system.

Rising from the Ashes

As in many inner-city neighborhoods, churches — from storefront houses of worships to large cathedrals — proliferate in East New York. They serve as a counterpoint to the numerous liquor stores and drug centers and as an island of stability and sanity amid the chaos and despair. Churches, thus, became the core for a new community organization. 

 

EBC was founded in 1980. It became one of the member organizations of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), a network established in Chicago in the 1930s by activist Saul Alinsky. Some say Alinsky pioneered democratic, class-based, multiracial organizing.

 

Edna Peralta was involved with the organizing committee that would become EBC as far back as 1978. Her pastor at St. Malachy’s Church began to speak about forming a new organization that would change the power structure in the community and city. She says, “EBC raised their own money, trained their own people and decided to become confrontational when necessary with elected officials.”

Power in the Community

“The only way you can make civic life work is to get people involved,” says Sister Kathy Maire, lead organizer at EBC. “Without the type of structures we provide, people really do feel powerless. By coming together we balance out the power so it doesn’t reside simply in the hands of the politicians. Through organizing we prove that the power really resides in the community.”

 

EBC began organizing small — by getting the city to install street signs. It then evaluated the service at local markets, exposing those that sold overpriced or spoiled foods. Next it registered voters and began to work on welfare and immigration issues. With these victories, EBC built up its membership and credibility in the community as a group that got things done. Then it took a giant step. Starting in 1983, EBC created 2,200 single-family dwellings in inner-city Brooklyn. (South Brooklyn Churches organized a similar project in the Bronx.) The project was named after the biblical prophet Nehemiah, who rebuilt Jerusalem in 420 B.C. after the Babylonians razed the city, killing and imprisoning the Jews. This construction reversed the flight of residents by replacing vacant lots and abandoned buildings with low-cost, affordable housing. The plan also attracted a stable middle-income dimension to the community. 

According to Youngblood, the letter contained nothing Mayor Dinkins had not said before. “The memo was not signed because we drafted it,” Youngblood says. “Nor were any homes built for the people, our people. That’s the bottom line on that history.” Dinkins was a one-term mayor, loosing to Rudolph Giuliani by the narrowest of margins (less than 5,000 votes).

 

EBC has grown to include 24 churches, two homeowner associations and two service providers. A strategy team that functions somewhat like a board of directors plots out the direction for the organization. A minister’s caucus, which keeps the heads of all churches aware and involved, meets once a month. Regular 10-day training sessions bring new leaders into the organization. Once every six weeks there is an action team meeting that brings together more than 100 key EBC leaders to report on what is happening in the member organizations and to ratify plans. And twice a year EBC organizes a major assembly, with attendance approaching 2,000 or more people. “Our gatherings are meant to keep elected officials accountable to our agreements and their promises,” Youngblood says. “These meetings are important to maintain public political relationships with and in full view of the entire community.”

Planting Deep Roots

Like all organizations, EBC has gone through tremendous growing pains in its nearly two-decade-long existence. There have been many stumbling blocks along the way. Mistakes have been made. “Sometimes we have underestimated the amount of power that we would need to get very simple things done,” Sister Maire says. “However, that’s a part of gaining collective leadership experience in the organizing process.”

 

Major differences have arisen in the leadership over how to carry out the work. That has resulted in some leaders leaving the effort. Entire church groups have also dropped out of EBC. “Some organizations thought it was too political, too messy,” Maire says. “Ours is a different way of doing [public] business. We don’t go asking favors. And sometimes you have to subordinate your individual interests to that of the larger group. Not everyone wants to do that.”

 

One of the criticisms was that the singly-family Nehemiah project was “wasting land” and that EBC should build with greater density in order to house more people. Another argument is that Nehemiah should build higher-priced housing in order to attract people with more money to the area. Still others fault the group for not providing homes for the homeless.

 

“What we say is we know we can’t solve all the housing problems in the world,” Youngblood says. “It’s absolutely true that Nehemiah won’t solve the problem of homelessness. What we have developed is a housing program for people who now live in public housing. They cannot purchase a home that goes for a quarter of a million dollars. So we believe we are taking a small interim step.”

 

Along with the new housing construction, EBC has branched out to address other areas of concern to its members and communities. Many of the churches have developed spiritually based programs that address the special needs of its congregation: youth, seniors, women, immigrants, substance abusers, the unemployed and so forth. The Maura Clarke and Ita Ford Center — named after two nuns who were killed in El Salvador — has been set up in Bushwick and offers organizing training. The center lives by the IAF ground rule: “Never do for anyone what they can do for themselves.”

 

New businesses are starting to emerge, spurred on by the needs of Nehemiah residents. EBC has established a primary health care center. It has helped pass a living wage bill in the City Council, over the veto of Mayor Giuliani. That bill insured that businesses that contracted with the city paid their workers a guaranteed living wage of $12.10 an hour. “The term ‘working poor’ is apt,” Youngblood says. “Historically, you could work yourself out of poverty. Now you have to work just to stay poor.”

 

Educational reform has been another area in which EBC leaders have been active. Together with the Public Education Association, EBC carried out a joint study that identified school districts it termed “educational dead zones.” Many of them were located in East New York, Brownsville and Bushwick. Father John Powis, pastor at St. Barbara Roman Catholic Church and former co-chair of EBC, has been involved in education issues for more than three decades. Education advocacy for him began in 1963 in the effort to integrate schools in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, a school district that suffered from severe overcrowding. What ensued five years later was a devastating months-long teachers’ strike, the effects of which are still felt. The legislators who drafted the subsequent decentralization laws, Powis charged, had political patronage in mind: “All appointments of principals, teachers, paraprofessionals, parent jobs — all must go through the local politician who controls the local school board.”

 

EBC continues its work of educational reform by involving parents in working for change in their schools and in local politics. They have developed college scholarship, employment and mentoring strategies to encourage young people to excel despite school conditions. EBC has also established two alternative high schools for local youth.

 

The years of work have brought forward a remarkable transformation of power in the East New York communities, once given up on by city officials. EBC is now one of the most respected organizations in not only New York City but the United States. There are important lessons for all of us here, the key one being that we are weak by ourselves, but we have unlimited potential when we put aside our narrow agendas and come together for the common good of our communities. 

 

When EBC broke ground for its new homes in the 1980s, Rev. Johnny Youngblood is said to have told the gathering, “Contrary to common opinion, we are not a grassroots organization.” On this October day in 1997, he was repeating the same theme: “Grassroots grow in smooth soil. Grassroots are shallow, tender and fragile roots.”

Abdalla Hassan is a New York-based writer.