Yonkers Race Trap

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Ever since a federal judge convicted Yonkers of deliberate segregation in 1985, its citizens have been polled, interviewed, judged and analyzed. Locals, small businessmen and minor politicians have earned quotations in the New York Times. Public housing tenants wound up on the Joan Rivers show.

By now, most people in Yonkers are sick of talking about race. But the rest of America isn’t done with them yet.

If desegregation has seemed like a dead issue since Boston’s busing ordeal of the mid-1970s, it is very much alive in this industrial city perched on the edge of metropolitan New York. Yonkers, known for its signature racetrack, is also home to one of the most important race-mixing experiments of the 1990s.

More than ten years ago, the federal courts ordered the city to build 1,000 low- and middle-income apartments in largely white neighborhoods across the city. Under the plan, public housing tenants were moved from large projects into smaller, scattered low-rises. The idea was to sprinkle–not dump–minorities into suburban neighborhoods and, hopefully, avoid the backlash that crippled integration plans in other cities.

But Yonkers wanted nothing to do with it. White residents fought the plan with all they had in a struggle that fascinated the nation and exposed the city’s racial divides.

Five years have passed since the first 200 low-income units were finished, and now a team of sociologists has begun to take stock of the program. What they have found is that the Yonkers plan is at once a stunning success and a depressing testament to the persistence of segregation in the Northeast.

Families who moved from the projects have better, safer lives–while housing prices have remained relatively stable.

But house prices and green lawns do not make for racial harmony. The public housing tenants are still alien, cordoned off into tidy new micro-ghettoes. And the middle-income phase of the project is only just beginning. For all the trouble, less than one percent of Yonkers has been officially desegregated so far.

“It’s resentment more than anything that’s kept people apart, on both parts,” says Elenor Bourque, a white homeowner who lives near one of the developments. “We put rules on them, and they resent us. And homeowners, at least in the beginning, resented that they took something away from us.”

Bourque and her neighbors talk about the new public housing with muted bitterness and resignation. They are not openly bigoted. But it’s just as clear that they are still not comfortable with the tenants down the street.

“We’re living with it,” she says. “They’re a separate entity, though, they are not part of our neighborhood. There is no interchange. There’s no coming to my house for tea, or me going to your little abode for a cup of coffee. They’re on their own.”

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The northeastern part of Yonkers may look like a more middle-class version of Scarsdale, but most of the rest of the city feels like the white outer edges of Brooklyn or the Bronx. It’s got industrial decay, an abandoned waterfront and a stagnant population. It has immigrants and a relatively large nonwhite population–24 percent of Yonkers’ 188,000 residents.

And unlike the rest of Westchester County, downtown Yonkers has lots of housing projects–brick high-rises that loom above the two- and three-story houses of the southwest part of the city. That sector has 97 percent of the city’s 6,800 units of subsidized housing, much of it concentrated in 12-story towers that over the years have been as dangerous as any in the Bronx.

For much of this century, Yonkers was not only a refuge from the five boroughs but a thriving riverfront city in its own right, employing thousands of European immigrants in its elevator works and carpet factories.

But by mid-century, the factories were closing down and the city’s northeastern regions were being developed into enclaves of tract homes.

In the 1990 census, the suburban north was only 3 percent black; the southeast less than 1 percent black. By contrast, southwest Yonkers, near the industrial downtown, was 76 percent minority.

Crestwood, Bourque’s neighborhood, is a bedroom community built in 1958 as a tract development, laid out on narrow curving streets and cul-de-sacs. The houses, one- and two-story buildings on quarter-acre lots, sell for between $175,000 to $225,000.

Housing prices are why Crestwood resisted public housing, says Bourque, who organized her neighbors in a lawsuit to fight one housing development several blocks away. Housing prices did decline–and Bourque thinks the prices have never recovered. “We had to go out and earn the money to buy our houses,” she explains. “They [the public housing tenants] were given these houses. All they had to do is pay rent.”

Still, Bourque has little daily reminder of their presence. Crestwood’s scattered-site public housing, 44 two-story brick apartment buildings, isn’t easy to find. It’s tucked behind a 1,082-unit apartment complex with no direct access to Bourque’s neighborhood. At the Crestwood residents’ request, there’s a big wooden fence blocking the way.

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In 1975, only a year after forced busing began in Boston, Westchester County legislator Herman Keith started leaning on Yonkers to desegregate the city school system. But the Board of Education resisted, and in 1980 Keith, the NAACP and the U.S. Justice Department sued Yonkers and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development in a class action desegregation suit. It took U.S. District Court Judge Leonard Sand until 1985 to concur, in a landmark 400-page decision that explicitly linked school segregation to segregated housing.

The next year, the Yonkers Board of Ed agreed to a desegregation plan that would close six schools, build two new ones and bus half the city’s 18,000 kids. But coming up with a housing integration plan was a far more controversial matter, and the city government stalled for two years. So in the spring of 1987, Sand assigned the job to architect Oscar Newman, the nationally renowned guru of low-income, low-density housing.

When it comes to housing poor people, Newman believes that bigger is badder. “I found that the single factor that most predicted crime, vandalism and vacancy rates was the number of residents that shared a common entry,” says Newman. “The second physical factor was the size of the development.”

Newman’s first solution for public housing construction in Yonkers was to disperse a dozen developments of small townhouses across the city. But HUD and Yonkers resisted, and the ultimate proposal instead featured seven larger developments–five in the Italian and Irish southeast.

The first 200 families were to be chosen by lottery–100 from existing projects and 100 from the public housing waiting list. The poorest of Yonkers’ poor were given preference.

Once those were done, the city was supposed to build 800 middle-income apartments. But the current mayor, John Spencer, struck a deal with the judge: The city would only build 140 new units and would subsidize 600 loans, 100 per year, for middle-class people to buy existing private homes.

But even if the scale of the low-income housing was very modest, selling the plan proved to be nearly impossible.

The governor at that time was Mario Cuomo, who began his career brokering a compromise to place low-income residents in white, affluent Forest Hills in the 1960s. “In trying to persuade a community that they should entertain low-income housing when all their prejudices, biases and even some of their intelligent conclusions argue against proximity to the poor, you can’t do it anymore by simply appealing to their sense of morality, fairness or compassion,” he says. “People don’t think that way now. You have to argue from self interest.”

Newman knew his plan would never be popular, but he thought he had a built-in political advantage. Placing small clusters of low-income blacks and Latinos in seven white neighborhood was a lot more palatable than trying to sell a scared community on one or two huge towers dropped in their midst.

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The fall of 1987 wasn’t a great time for racial harmony in the lower Hudson valley. In November, Tawana Brawley was found in a plastic bag in Wappingers Falls, claiming she had been kidnapped and raped by a gang of whites. That month, forty miles to the south, Yonkers’ voters booted out three councilmembers who had voted for the desegregation plan and replaced them with three politicians who vowed they would fight the order all the way to the Supreme Court.

“[I]f the bulldozers come, there’s probably going to be violence,” Councilman Nicholas Longo warned Newsday. If the housing went up, he added, “[Y]ou can just take out an eraser and cross out the line between Yonkers and the Bronx.”

As the Brawley case devolved into chaos, Yonkers followed a parallel track.

That year, the mayor got bullets in the mail because he refused to oppose the plan completely. Witnesses who testified in favor of the proposal before the City Council were jeered down.

When the City Council approved the first part of the plan in January 1988, the vote drew hundreds of people, screaming insults and threats. And although a lot of residents looked down on the few aggressive bigots who dominated press coverage, a poll that year found that two-thirds of the city’s residents opposed the desegregation plan.

On August 2, 1988, the council rejected the second part of the plan. Councilmembers emerged from their vote to a crowd chanting Al Sharpton’s refrain, “No justice! No peace!”

Judge Sand retaliated the next day, fining the city at a rate that began at $100 and doubled each day–a schedule that would bankrupt the city within 22 days. Moody’s suspended the city’s bond rating, and the city’s emergency financial control board took over the books. Sand fined the defiant city councilmen $500 a day and threatened to toss them in jail.

By the fall, the councilmembers had backed down, but they didn’t capitulate willingly: Newman says his work was constantly stymied by the city, who refused to give him detailed maps or issue the zoning variances he needed. “The federal judge has very little power, until the city or state refuses to implement the remedy,” says Newman. “But when it does, the judge’s power increases proportionally.”

Once, a group of Japanese investors interested in starting a factory in Yonkers invited the mayor and City Council to Tokyo “for a week of high living, without their mates,” remembers Newman. “The city had simply refused to pass something I needed passed. So I went to the judge and we put them under house arrest: they couldn’t leave town until they passed it. They passed it the next day.”

By 1993, the houses were done, and by 1994 the families were in.

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Just across the highway from Yonkers’ famous old harness horse racing track, between Lorring and Clark streets, stand 24 two-story houses in lines of twelve. The houses are Identikit: brick, with cream-colored wooden facades on the second floor.

The Fiorillo scattered-site public housing development, one of the smaller Newman creations, hardly looks like Longo’s vision of Bronx doom. Each of the small apartments built has its own miniature lawn and stoop; many have rosebushes and flower gardens.

Since 1992, when the houses went up, Yvonne Dixon, a daycare worker, has lived here with her husband and three children. “I’d been living in School Street [projects] for three years,” Dixon says. “You couldn’t send the kids out. Round here, everything is fenced in.”

The researchers, based at Columbia University, found that most tenants agree with the Dixons. In their study, they visited each of the tenants within a year of moving into the new projects, asking them questions about neighborhood drug use and gang problems, mental health and stress, family dynamics and social circles. Researchers compared those responses to those from a group of 160 tenants that stayed in the old public housing.

The tenants in the new housing weren’t different from the project dwellers–they had similar work experience, history with welfare and education. But they were better off.

Another tenant, a wheelchair-restricted 32-year-old named Martha Buxo, says that in the projects she lived in southeast Yonkers “there was a lot of vandalism, fires every week. The kids were indoors all the time.”

Now, instead of living three flights up, Buxo’s family lives on the ground floor. In the garden is a large tent for the children, and a Fisher Price basketball net. “Here, they go outside,” says Buxo. “They’re happier. They fight less.”

The research team found that only a fifth of the scattered-site tenants still worry about safety, compared with 75 percent of the public housing tenants. There were other benefits: Women in the new housing were twice as likely to find employment, and fewer families had problems with abuse or violence. Compared to the projects, nearly twice as many adolescents in the scattered sites could name adults that they could lean on for advice and help.

“The old-fashioned traditional public housing is gone,” says Joe Darden, dean of urban affairs at Michigan State and one of the Yonkers researchers. Darden, who also testified as an expert witness in Chicago’s landmark Gautreaux case, says that “scattered-site is the model for the future at this point. It’s the best remedy that we know of.”

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But that future may not look anything like the “beloved community” that Martin Luther King hoped for when he spoke of an integrated America. When the Dixons first moved in, says Yvonne, it was like there was a line down the street separating their development from the rest of the neighborhood. “It was a racial thing,” she says. “We were black, and they had the old ways. They weren’t hostile, but they weren’t used to the idea of a housing project.”

In fact, her husband Erwin ended up on the Joan Rivers show, talking about Yonkers race relations with his recalcitrant white neighbors. On camera, Rivers, a Scarsdale native, offered to pay for an expensive dinner for the two families. They went, says Yvonne, but never really became friends, and eventually, that family moved away. “Everybody’s fine now,” she says. “They just had to get used to the idea.”

Buxo, who moved into her two-bedroom apartment in southeast Yonkers less than a year ago, says she’s had no problems with her neighbors. “I mind my business, you don’t step in my way, I don’t step in yours, and if you do step in my way, I don’t argue with you,” she says. But she agrees that there isn’t much of a community in this suburban neighborhood. “I feel like, where I live, a lot of people are prejudiced. You sit in the park, there could be blacks and whites, and the white people, they don’t even laugh with you. In the beginning, I felt uncomfortable with that situation. But even with that, I’m still happy. I got my own backyard, and I can send my kids to the park, or watch them in the backyard. I can keep an eye on them.”

And many Crestwood residents still resent the development, cursing Judge Sand and describing the public housing tenants with suspicion and distrust. Kids from the development used to come up and rake leaves or shovel snow for a few bucks, but Crestwood homeowners say they don’t do it anymore.

Elon Ebanks has lived in Crestwood for 26 years. Neither Ebanks nor any of his neighbors could think of a single serious incident–burglary, fight or confrontation–caused by the public housing tenants. But that doesn’t mean that Ebanks, a Honduran of Scottish ancestry who worked as a super in the Bronx for 13 years, is happy about the development in his neighborhood.

He says race is not the issue: “It’s not the people, it’s the welfare.” Standing on his driveway, Ebanks points up and down the street: among his neighbors, he says, are Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Trinidadians and Indians. He likes them, he says–they are homeowners, and they work.

“We didn’t want welfare going into the neighborhood,” he says. “It was going to run the damn neighborhood down. If they buy [a home] for $225,000, they’ll take care of it, but if it’s given to them they won’t take care of it. I’ve seen what was done in the Bronx. I lived on Sheridan Avenue [in Morrisania]. I saw the neighborhood just go blam. They refurbished the buildings, and gutted them, but within five years it was back to the way it was to begin with. If somebody had bought the building, they’d take care of it.”

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The sociologists say that full integration–the kind that makes communities–isn’t the purpose of scattered-site housing in any case.

“That is something that we think, if it should occur, it would take longer,” says Darden. “We don’t know whether or not it will happen. It is quite uncommon for this kind of social interaction to take place across racial lines, especially when you add class on top of it.”

The problem with any desegregation plan is that racial justice also relies on economics. Phase two of desegregation, open to families making up to $74,000 a year, won’t do much for people who are both poor and minorities.

“The judge’s original decision may have been questionable,” admits Newman, who worked with Sand in Yonkers for eight years. “It wasn’t a race issue, but an income issue, and a welfare issue.”

“The people of Yonkers are not racist,” he adds. “But they lived in the Bronx, and in Brooklyn, when public housing high rises began to be built. They saw what happened to their neighborhoods. Some of them had escaped that kind of environment two or three times in their life, from Brooklyn to Queens, and from Queens to Yonkers, where they finally bought a house. They weren’t going to see it happen again.”

Mary Dorman, herself a Bronx refugee, was one of those neighborhood guardians. She went to rallies, she pressured politicians, and even traveled to Washington, D.C. to protest desegregation.

“What I was opposed to was the judge coming in and telling people that they had to have low-income housing on their side of town,” says Dorman, a secretary at St. Joseph’s Seminary who owns a house in Eastern Yonkers. “I don’t think the judge had a right to do that.”

But she also made sure to get to know her new neighbors. Dorman was part of the screening committee that interviewed the new tenants. At first, she also acted like the neighborhood diplomat, helping the new tenants with day-to-day problems. “I felt sorry for the people who were moving in,” she says now. “I never felt hostility toward them. They were like pawns, they were like hockey pucks in the game.”

Even though south Yonkers had some of the fiercest public housing opponents, Dorman says nobody in her Lincoln Park neighborhood minds the development or the new tenants anymore. “The terrible things that were supposed to happen didn’t happen,” she explains.

Still, after the first six months or so, Dorman stopped visiting the newcomers, and she says she doesn’t know any of them well. But Dorman says that’s normal.

And that problem, in the long run, may not be racism, but suburbia.

“It’s just not that kind of community, it’s not the kind of place where people are hanging out, having coffee,” Dorman says. “People don’t connect in this neighborhood.”