The Village Voice | November 24, 2009
By Tom Robbins
This is a story about the other New York. Week in and week out, the city is dominated by spectacles of celebrity and scandal, of politicians and moguls squandering vast fortunes on self-promotion. The other New York—the one inhabited by ordinary citizens who plug away day after day doing small good deeds, by those who fight the good fight regardless of the odds—forever gets short shrift. Even if the spotlight found these unheralded heroes, they wouldn’t stand a chance in a cyber-media world where the language of snark and smirk has become the prevailing idiom.
This deters these folks not in the least. Fame and applause is not their goal. But it is their hard work that keeps this city from becoming nothing more than a harbor for the elite. They provide daily injections of decency into a society often running on empty.
This is a Thanksgiving tribute to some of those whose work makes a difference. The idea comes from Jack Newfield, the late Voice writer who was beloved of lists: “Worst Judges” and “Worst Landlords” were two of his creations. He even offered an end-of-year rundown dubbed “Remember the Greediest.” But he started publishing what he called his “Honor Roll” on Thanksgiving week back in 1976. He said it was his favorite task and it’s not hard to see why. As much as our chief duty may be to smoke out wrongdoing, the bigger reward is always found in hailing those who do right. Here are just a few of those who richly deserve a Thanksgiving toast:
Ellen Baxter creates housing for those with no home and less future. It has been her vocation ever since 1980, when she combined with another New York treasure, medical anthropologist Kim Hopper, to expose the scandal of how the state had emptied its mental wards onto city streets. Her organization, Broadway Housing, based in West Harlem and Washington Heights, has created 300 new homes for the city’s most impoverished women and children. Her most recent project is a 70-unit building on West 135th Street and Riverside Drive, called Dorothy Day Apartments. In an appropriate tribute to the revered radical Catholic who championed the city’s poor, the building has become a gathering place where neighborhood issues are hammered out. On the drawing boards is a new venture to be built on West 155th Street, perched on Coogan’s Bluff overlooking the Harlem River. Called “The Sugar Hill Project,” it seeks to link residents to the rich legacy of a neighborhood whose residents included Duke Ellington, W.E.B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, and Langston Hughes. Plans call for a children’s museum named after Harlem’s great folk artist, Faith Ringgold, who regularly shares her stories and art with children in Baxter’s projects. “A place to live is a fundamental human right,” says Baxter. “But so is cultural equity.”
Liz Krueger is proof that you can be an elected official and still not check your common sense at the door when entering the State Capitol. After the misdemeanor conviction of Queens senator Hiram Monserrate for stabbing his girlfriend sent Senate leaders into a dizzying spin about how to respond, Krueger, the senator from Manhattan’s Upper East Side, offered a clear and simple response: Anyone convicted of such a charge has no business making laws for the rest of us. “Domestic violence is a scourge on our society,” she said. “For me, the length of the sentence does not matter—domestic violence is domestic violence, guilt is guilt. I believe Hiram Monserrate should not remain in the Senate.” She was speaking plainly long before her 2002 election: A leading expert on hunger, she started the New York City Food Bank, which now serves some 5 million meals a year. Together with the magnificent Kathy Goldman, she helped run the Community Food Resource Center, which put hunger issues front and center on political agendas and prodded often-feeble government efforts. It’s the kind of training that should be mandatory for elected officials.
Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter was a successful cosmetics sales manager when anger at her daughter’s overcrowded Bronx high school made her focus on blemishes closer to home. She hooked up with the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, which has led local rebuilding efforts for decades, and soon emerged as the eloquent spokeswoman for a drive to ensure that the city-subsidized renovation of the cavernous old armory on Kingsbridge Road benefits not just developers, but also residents, by providing jobs at living wages. Mayor Bloomberg and his designated builder, the Related Companies, say that such a stipulation spells economic doom. But last week, Pilgrim-Hunter joined several hundred Bronx residents from KARA (Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance) at City Hall to make their case. She pointed out the cynical disparity between Related’s politically savvy agreement to use union labor on the project and its refusal to offer retail workers more than minimum wage. “I’m a little angry that it’s OK to have a living wage for the trades, but not for the folks who have lived in the Bronx all their lives,” she told a City Council hearing. Pilgrim-Hunter and KARA have received strong backing from Stuart Appelbaum, leader of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, and Fred LeMoine of the Lathers Union and head of the Bronx Board of Business Agents for the construction trades. “Economic development must be fair to everyone,” says LeMoine.
Pamela Green uses local history as liberation strategy. Since 2001, she has been running the Weeksville Heritage Center, a wondrous but little-known historical enclave just off Bergen Street in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant. It was here in 1838 that free blacks proudly purchased their own land just 11 years after slavery was ended in New York, and where blacks fleeing the Civil War draft riots found safe refuge. Weeksville’s 500 families had their own schools, businesses, churches, physicians, and even a newspaper, Freedman’s Torchlight. “It is American history hidden in plain sight,” says Green. The society’s three restored buildings reflect Weeksville’s 19th-century origins, the era of the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Depression. Says Green: “Our message is this: These weren’t extraordinary people, but they were able to do extraordinary things. You should be able to do it, too.”
Rob Solano was born and raised in a working-class family in Williamsburg and his goal is to try to make sure that others get the same chance. A union electrician who is active in his local parish, he was inspired by a sermon on the need for the poor to have a place to live that he heard in the summer of 2003 at St. Peter and Paul Church on South 3rd Street by Father James O’Shea. The words resonated with Solano, who had seen friends and neighbors forced out by rising rents. “I saw this two-edged sword. The neighborhood was getting safer and better in lots of ways. But my friends and their families can’t live here anymore.” He put O’Shea’s words to work this year as the sparkplug behind a local coalition called Churches United for Fair Housing, aimed at winning the maximum number of affordable homes on a large swath of property known as the Broadway Triangle—the last big undeveloped city-owned site in north Brooklyn. They face sizable odds: Local powerbroker Vito Lopez, the domineering assemblyman who rules Brooklyn’s Democratic Party, wants the site for his own purposes. Brooklyn bishop Nicholas DiMarzio lined up with Lopez after the assemblyman backed a bill limiting church exposure to sex-abuse lawsuits. But this fall, Solano and the low-cost housing proponents shocked Lopez by twice beating his hand-picked City Council candidate. “We want a neighborhood for everyone,” says Solano.
Marty Needelman has been the thin legal line between hope and despair in north Brooklyn for 40 years. If TV producers had any imagination, they’d fashion their next Law & Order series around his Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A on Broadway in Williamsburg, where he is director and where real human dramas play out daily. Needelman, an Orthodox Jew, has steadily astonished his low-income black and Hispanic clients by agreeing to take on any foes, whether they wore a yarmulke like his own or not. He started in 1969 as a Vista volunteer and never left, entranced by what he saw. He is modest about his role: “We give legal representation to those who need it and can’t afford it,” he says.
Barbara Schliff, tenant organizer extraordinaire, also arrived in Williamsburg as a Vista volunteer in 1974 and stuck around. She was assigned to a new organization called Los Sures—the Southside—which blossomed into a creative group that saw opportunity where bureaucrats saw only squalor. Today, she is director of Housing Resources, but her duties still include climbing tenement stairs and attending late-night meetings. She has watched what was a low-income, minority neighborhood become the stomping ground of a new, better-heeled generation. In the past year, she has been working alongside Solano in the battle over the Broadway Triangle. “It’s the last available space for affordable housing,” she says.
Bobbie Sackman is the key reason that New York’s senior citizens can still walk to a center in their neighborhood. A year ago, the Bloomberg technocrats launched an initiative to close dozens of city senior centers, consolidating them into a few locations. “People were terrified,” says Sackman, who has been director for 20 years of the Council of Senior Centers and Services of NYC—a coalition of 200 service organizations. “Not just the staff at the centers, but the seniors themselves.” Sackman launched a year-long campaign to try to persuade the mayor of the error of his ways, gaining support from City Council Speaker Chris Quinn and state legislators. In a final push, she and her organizers sent 20,000 letters—written in English, Spanish, and Chinese—to City Hall. In a rare retreat, Team Bloomberg backed down. “It was exhaustive advocacy that worked,” says Sackman.
Amardeep Singh remembers an argument he had with his mother right after 9/11, when Sikhs like himself were being called “Bin Laden” in the streets. “She was begging for me to take off my turban and put my bandanna on, the one I use to play basketball. I said, ‘I am not taking it off.’ It was one of the worst days of my life, when your mother pleads with you to hide who you are from the world.” A friend was chased down the streets of Lower Manhattan. Many Sikhs coped by staying behind closed doors. Singh, a lawyer, had already put in stints as a researcher at Human Rights Watch and a few years as a corporate litigator. “We figured it was time to start engaging the American community, to let Sikhs be Sikhs,” he says. The result was the Sikh Coalition, where Singh has been legal director since 2003. The coalition has persuaded the city’s education department to create a task force on the harassment of Sikh students and won the right of Sikh soldiers to keep wearing their turbans while serving in the Army. “We’re at the tip of the civil rights spear,” says Singh.
Sandy Pope is not your average Teamsters leader. A woman heading a blue-collar union local, she also holds a martial arts black belt. But her most important trait is a dedication to union democracy and organizing. A former truck driver from Cleveland, Pope became the head of Local 805 in Queens in 1999, one of many Teamsters locals that had long been little more than playthings for the mob and its favored employers. She ended lingering corrupt practices and had the 1,200 members—mostly warehouse, supply, and cafeteria workers—elect their own stewards. She won better contracts and also did what most union leaders are too fearful or too sluggish to attempt: She organized, winning elections at several vending shops. She also targeted Fresh Direct, the big gourmet food company that boasts of community dedication but has resisted demands for higher pay for its workforce. The first Teamsters push was derailed when immigration agents raided the company’s food-prep plant. Pope says a new drive will begin next month: “Workers there keep asking us when we’re coming back. Well, we’re coming back.”
Adam Friedman is an economic development expert who goes against the grain. A veteran who earned his stripes advising some of the city’s most progressive officials, Friedman has spent 20 years trying to help manufacturing jobs stay in the city. As the first head of the Garment Industry Development Corporation and founder of the New York Industrial Retention Network, Friedman has long advocated for manufacturing to shift from smokestacks to clean-green enterprises offering high-quality products and high-quality jobs at a living wage. This year, he found a new platform as director of the Pratt Center for Community Development, the organization founded by New York’s great urban planner Ron Shiffman and most recently piloted by Brad Lander, newly elected to the City Council. “We’re about creating sustainable neighborhoods, block by block,” says Friedman.
Nancy Biberman was a tenacious lawyer defending tenants being booted around in Manhattan’s old single-room-occupancy hotels when she decided she could do more by building housing herself. With the help of a Revson fellowship to study at Columbia in 1985, she mastered the intricacies of housing finance (I know because I watched her do it). She put the knowledge to good use, first by conceiving and building a project on Manhattan’s West Side that housed both homeless adults and young families. She followed up by rehabilitating 23 abandoned buildings in the High Bridge section of the Bronx. In 1992, she founded the Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation, which turned the old Morrisania hospital into 132 affordable homes, plus a Head Start program and a job-creating commercial kitchen. Working together with Davon Russell, a youth leader, this year, she opened her latest venture, a 128-unit building on Intervale Avenue. “It’s the largest ‘green’ affordable housing project in the country,” she says with pride.
Lorie Slutsky, Joyce Bove, and Pat Swann are a trio of grantmakers at the New York Community Trust who refused to let the economic crisis become an excuse to dial down efforts for those in need. While other givers, concerned about declining resources, cut aid, the Trust extended even larger than usual “no-hassle” awards to nonprofit groups on the front lines offering help to needy New Yorkers with food, housing, and legal services. It’s another reason why the Trust—which pools funds from scores of individual donors who want to be sure their money goes where it does the most good—remains the backbone of New York’s safety net.
Al Doyle grew up in Stuyvesant Town–Peter Cooper Village, the sprawling middle-class development on the East Side. A construction estimator by trade, he was head of the tenants association when Tishman-Speyer, a grasping company with big clout at City Hall, bought the complex in 2006 premised on mass evictions and sky-high rent hikes. Together with fellow leaders Susan Steinberg and John Marsh, Doyle started organizing. Rallying tenants is always a tough task, but when you’ve got 25,000 residents unused to such battles, it’s even harder. Crucial help came from City Council member Dan Garodnick, another Stuy Town product, and attorneys Leonard Grunstein, Stuart Saft, and Alexander Schmidt, who shaped and argued the landmark lawsuit that upended the landlord’s market-rate rent hikes. “I just think it should stay affordable to cops and firefighters, the kind of people who have lived here for generations,” says Doyle.
Mike Gecan likes to stay in the background as he helps turn everyday people into leaders discovering the power of their own voice. But I’m outing him here because he is one of those rare marvels, an organizer who never quits and who finds his own inspiration among the ordinary people he helps to enable. Gecan initiated East Brooklyn Congregations and its much-lauded Nehemiah affordable-homes program in the ’80s, along with a dozen other citizen groups along the Eastern Seaboard as a lead organizer for the Industrial Areas Foundation, the Saul Alinsky–inspired group. A native of Chicago’s working class and fiercely ethnic West Side, he met the enemy in the form of the massively corrupt old Daley machine. Gecan has traced that history and the lessons learned in two artfully written books, the most recent a slim volume called After America’s Midlife Crisis, which poses questions and warnings to a fellow community organizer from the Windy City, Barack Obama. “The devil is not in the details,” he writes. “He’s in the large space between policy and patronage—in the muck and mire of implementation, in the netherworld where neither the media nor federal prosecutors tread.” It’s no wonder that the late great novelist Robert Penn Warren, who taught Gecan at Yale, which he attended on scholarship, considered the kid from Chicago his most talented pupil.