Fighting Fires With Fire

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The Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition would probably have succeeded in saving a chunk of the borough without Anne Devenney. After all, dozens of leaders emerged to drive the influential community organizing group and its 10 neighborhood-based affiliates. But those who worked with the folksy grandmother–turned–rabble-rouser, who died in January at age 79, say it wouldn’t have been as much fun without her.

The coalition also might not have yielded perhaps its finest accomplishment: finding common cause across neighborhood and racial boundaries. That made it practically impossible for politicians and bureaucrats to divide and conquer the Northwest Bronx by appeasing some communities and ignoring others.

In the early 1970s, when tens of thousands of fires a year consumed the South Bronx and crept northward, and when bankers and insurance companies suddenly abandoned entire zip codes, activist Anne Devenney emerged to help the fledgling coalition fight back, with humor and without fear.

“The Irish wit that the good Lord gave me held me many a time when I could have cried,” she said in an interview last year.

Devenney was a heavy woman who looked older than she was. She wore loose-fitting dresses and didn’t get gussied up for the work she did, save maybe the time she received an honorary doctorate from Fordham University.

People were not intimidated by Devenney, except for the city bureaucrats and bank executives who frequently met their match in a likable, plainspeaking senior citizen who didn’t take no for an answer. And her easy, approachable demeanor brought many others into the fold.

John Reilly, who worked closely with Devenney when he was a young organizer in the 1970s, described her appeal this way: “You see someone that you admire and you think, I’d like to be like that person. What was different about admiring Anne was that you had the sense that you were like that person. The qualities she had were things you shared in common with her, and you would just like to come out more in you.” Today, Reilly heads the Fordham Bedford Housing Corporation in the central Bronx.

The Northwest Bronx coalition formed in 1974 after priests at Fordham University and pastors in the local parishes, alarmed by the northward march of arson and abandonment and the city’s unwillingness to step in, passed the collection plates to form an activist group to be staffed by young college graduates and interns. Picking up the organizing lessons of Saul Alinsky and others, the coalition set out to develop locally grown leadership that would turn the tide.

Devenney, then in her mid-fifties, was identified as a leader by her pastor at St. Brendan’s Church in the Norwood section, an Irish and Jewish enclave tucked neatly above Mosholu Parkway and below Woodlawn Cemetery. The task at hand was a far cry from the Altar and Rosary Society, which she headed for 20 years. But Devenney, born in Hell’s Kitchen to an Irish immigrant and his Irish-American wife, knew a little bit about what she was getting into. The youngest of eight children, Devenney would tag along with her father, who tended boilers in Manhattan buildings, as he picketed for labor causes. On the occasions they ended up on the receiving end of a tomato or egg, Devenney’s dad would tell her, “It don’t hurt–we can wash our clothes.”

At a time when the fiscal crisis was an excuse for doing nothing to improve city services, Devenney and her neighbors were surprisingly successful in wringing out their fair share from bureaucrats inclined to write off the Bronx. Devenney looked after her neighborhood, fighting for park improvements and safer streets and helping save the 52nd Precinct, which city budget-cutters wanted to merge with one in Riverdale.

Her neighborhood, known in coalition parlance as Mosholu Woodlawn for its borders to the north and south, was hardly immune from racism, and the tone of community involvement could easily have been parochial. But Devenney would have none of it. Earlier than anyone else, she recognized that the coalition’s neighborhoods would fare better if they formed a united front. The coalition had issue committees that leaders from different affiliates collaborated on, but it was Devenney who literally walked the walk, traveling to neighborhoods to work on issues that sometimes had little to do with Mosholu Woodlawn.

Reilly remembers an early jaunt to Crotona that he believes set the stage for the organization’s later development. The city had cleared four square blocks of apartment buildings in Crotona for a new Fordham Hospital. After the plan was abandoned–another fiscal crisis casualty–the city added insult to injury by using the vacant lots as a dumping ground for street cleaning trucks. Devenney insisted on traveling to Crotona, at the southern end of the coalition’s turf, to support coalition leader Astin Jacobo and his neighbors for a meeting with the Sanitation Department at St. Martin of Tours church.

“I think at that time there was still some concern whether all these neighborhoods were going to work together, that they were going to see their common interest,” Reilly recalls. “They weren’t that sure that [the Northwest Bronx coalition] wasn’t just set up for the neighborhoods that were whiter to keep other people out.” But when Devenney came down, Jacobo told Reilly, it gave him a new outlook on what the coalition could accomplish. Devenney and the Dominican Jacobo called themselves “Salt and Pepper,” and they continued to collaborate over the years.

Reflected Devenney, “Even though I lived up in [Mosholu Woodlawn], it was 10 neighborhoods that I was always fighting for–never one park, never one hospital, never one neighborhood.”

Some of the issues–like disinvestment by banks and insurance companies–were complex. But Devenney, who dropped out of high school to take a job at Woolworth’s, translated it into the understandable language of neighborhood survival. “You didn’t have to feel like you needed to get an MBA in order to be able to follow an insurance or banking agenda,” says Jim Buckley, who was executive director of the coalition during Devenney’s tenure as president of the board from 1979 to 1984. “And I think that had a lot to do with the way Anne ran a meeting, and the way she explained an issue.”

Devenney further popularized tough issues by effortlessly coming up with slogans that became rallying calls. “Don’t move–improve” was her most famous.

The coalition also made waves by going to places where it wasn’t welcome. Devenney and her neighbors were not shy about showing up at a corporate board meeting or the private home of a landlord or city commissioner. Their targets often felt the tactic–known as a “hit”–went over the line.

But Devenney believed they had every right to be there because their own homes were in jeopardy. “No man is so above us, or woman, that we can’t go where they live,” she said. With a joke or a glance, Devenney was able to defuse the tension inherent in such confrontations. “You can’t possibly be mad at us,” was the tone she easily conveyed, says Reilly. “What would you expect us to do? We told you we’d come here if we didn’t get this.”

The issues have changed a little, but the coalition still bridges divides of race and geography, its neighborhoods uniting to organize for school construction and real community policing. Devenney’s legacy also survives in coalition veterans who continue working for community renewal.

A self-described “short, shy Puerto Rican housewife” named Dalma De La Rosa became everything but shy once she got involved with the coalition to save her near-abandoned building. She credits her friend and mentor with sending many people on the path to neighborhood leadership, including herself–like Devenney, she ended up president of the coalition. “There are people that come into your life that kind of point the way you want to go, ” she says. “Anne was that kind of icon.”

Jordan Moss is editor of the Norwood News, a Bronx community paper.