City Lit: Action and Reaction

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To Stand and Fight: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Postwar New York City
By Martha Biondi
Harvard University Press; 360 pages; $39.95

Remarking on the destruction wrought during the 1943 Harlem riot, James Baldwin commented, “It would have been better to have left the plate glass as it had been and the goods lying in the stores. It would have been better, but it would also have been intolerable, for Harlem needed something to smash.”

This and other contemporary cultural observations–from Richard Wright’s angry Native Son to Ralph Ellison’s eerie Invisible Man–capture the mid-century political zeitgeist of black urban America better than any activist’s tracts or historian’s studies ever could. Simply put, the mood was one of frustration.

The Harlem riot started with an all-too-familiar incident: a white police officer attacking a black soldier. Since World War I, the national civil rights movement had focused on winning economic rights and personal dignity for black servicemembers. These campaigns were driven by the same notion that inspired W.E.B. DuBois’ dream of a “talented tenth”–the belief that if elite blacks proved themselves in fields revered by white America, the prejudices that allowed Jim Crow to thrive would fade away. But as proud black soldiers strutted about in their uniforms, the gatekeepers of America’s racial caste system responded with growing disdain rather than respect, and violent clashes between law enforcement and the residents of northern black neighborhoods multiplied.

In To Stand and Fight, Northwestern University scholar Martha Biondi seeks to remind us that the resulting anger, manifested in Harlem that August night in 1943, fed more than destruction. Popular memory of the civil rights movement relegates it to the Deep South. But as Biondi traces, New York City’s tradition of direct action and litigation in the name of civil rights far predated that of the South–and had a significant, if less profound, impact on national-level race politics as well.

Biondi focuses on the era during and following World War II, and she’s primarily interested in exhaustively chronicling the flurry of protest and politics that erupted then from the city’s anti-racist movements. The result is a book that reads somewhat like a laundry list of every action, large and small, planned by New York City organizers in the 1940s. But what Biondi’s work lacks in context and narrative, it compensates for in breadth.

She marches readers through an impressive series of campaigns. There’s the mid-1940s alliance between Jewish and African-American activists against restrictive admissions policies at private universities like Columbia and Cornell, which also spurred Albany to finally create a statewide system of public higher education. And there’s the grassroots Harlem campaign against price gouging in white-owned stores along 125th Street–an issue that fed anger during the 1943 riot.

Politics is often like physics–for every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction. We’re reminded of this in Biondi’s chapter on the myriad efforts to elect blacks to legislative posts. After African Americans streamed into central Brooklyn to work in wartime plants, the American Labor Party campaigned tirelessly to elect Ada Jackson to an office representing the area. She originally sought to become the first black assembly member from Brooklyn, and then ran to represent Bed-Stuy on the City Council.

Jackson lost both races but offered enough of a challenge to scare the establishment. So in 1947, the state legislature limited the chances of third-party success by barring candidates from entering the primaries of parties they don’t belong to without the permission of their county committees. Conservative activists then passed a ballot referendum changing council elections from a proportional system to a district-based, winner-take-all scheme.

Biondi also astutely links many of the city’s civil rights battles with national developments, such as the persistence of segregation in interstate transportation even after the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional in 1946. The first legal challenges following the high court’s ruling stemmed from incidents involving New York City migrants returning South to visit their families. Pennsylvania Railroad helped southern rail companies flout the law by racially segregating southbound passengers when they booked their trips in New York City. Meanwhile, the American Jewish Congress fought Queens-based American Airlines’ policy of assigning special codes to blacks, which then enabled booking agents to quietly segregate passengers.

But what was arguably the city’s most nationally relevant campaign was driven by a hyper-local concern: racial covenants in housing.

Here, Biondi stretches her legs to give both detail and context to the massive fight against Metropolitan Life Insurance’s Stuyvesant Town housing development. In 1943, infamous city planner Robert Moses orchestrated a stunning transfer of public resources to a private, for-profit project, winning Met Life a 25-year, $53-million tax break to build a gated, whites-only community for former soldiers. The project ate public streets, condemned private property and tossed 10,000 people out of their homes, all in the name of urban redevelopment. The multiyear campaign to integrate Stuyvesant Town spawned the city’s now-legendary fair housing movement and, ultimately, led to passage of the nation’s first fair housing law–a 1951 City Council measure barring discrimination in all publicly assisted private housing developments. This local movement spread throughout urban America over ensuing decades, culminating in the federal Fair Housing Act.

But even this victory was entangled in frustrating defeat: Stuyvesant Town never truly integrated. By 1960, only 47 of its more than 22,000 tenants were black. Indeed, for all of the postwar era’s civil rights action, New York organizers won few large-scale gains. The dramatic political and cultural changes southern rabble-rousing brought about never quite materialized here, or elsewhere in the North for that matter. Victories were piecemeal; backlashes were lasting.

Nevertheless, the sheer volume of this activism is itself an important fact of New York City history. Biondi’s chronicle of these campaigns, and the reactions to them, is a reminder of just how central a role race politics have played in creating the city we live in today. And it’s no coincidence that many of the issues modern progressive organizers take on–lack of access to higher education, ghettoized housing, exploitive commerce in black neighborhoods, inadequate representation in Albany–can be traced to the postwar era (and before). The longevity of these problems reveals just how deeply embedded race remains in city life.

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All in the Family

Nurturing the One, Supporting the Many: The Center for Family Life in Sunset Park, Brooklyn,
By Peg McCartt Hess, Brenda G. McGowan and Michael Botsko
Columbia University Press; $26.50

By Nora McCarthy

When the administration for Children’s Services shifted to a “neighborhood-based” approach a few years ago, it sounded like a matter of making physical changes: clump family services in one place, link them to nearby foster homes and troubled families, and, voilà, you’ve got a far less disruptive system. The Center for Family Life, a relatively low-volume ACS contractor in Sunset Park, is renowned for its success in keeping families strong and kids at home using this localized approach. But as becomes clear in Nurturing the One, Supporting the Many, it is philosophy, not location, that can truly bind family services to the people they are supposed to help.

The authors call the Center “a remarkable example of the power and possibility of neighborhood based services.” A closer truth is that it attests to the power of two women’s vision of how families can seek and receive support. Instead of assuming that they knew what the poor need, the Center’s founders, Sisters Geraldine Tobia and Mary Paul Janchill, began by asking Sunset Park residents what they wanted.

Underpinning every program is the sisters’ philosophy that good social work helps not just families but the community as a whole to identify their strengths and build upon them. So rather than boxing participants into stigmatizing categories (by running a domestic violence support group, for instance, or anger management classes), the Center offers a range of more holistic counseling–leaving the dividing lines simple: Women’s Group, Men’s Group or Teens’ Group. The Center also puts a heavy emphasis on intergenerational contact. In its after-school programs, for instance, adult staff mentor teen counselors while the teens help younger kids.

The Center’s nonjudgmental approach allows mothers to feel comfortable asking for support when their families are in trouble–about a third of parents in the Center’s preventive services programs entered voluntarily. And when kids do end up in foster care, they stay in the neighborhood, continue using Center services and are spared the blur of temporary homes that many foster youth endure. Indeed, only 13 of the 146 youth who have been in the Center’s foster care since 1988 lived in more than one place, and none moved through more than two homes.

At its most helpful and engaging, Nurturing the One shows how these approaches play out. We hear from parents and teens who explain how particular services helped them and their families. Social workers and administrators describe their complex cases (families participate in an average of nine different Center programs) and explain why they are willing to stay on those cases for years. In an industry that struggles with rapid caseworker turnover, the Center succeeds by encouraging flexibility, autonomy, interconnectedness and respect among clients and counselors.

Though burdened with overly clinical language, and held back by a lack of depth about individual families and staff, Nurturing the One is an important blueprint for any kind of work that attempts to strengthen families and support communities. It shows why the Center is not just another collection of programs, but an anchor for Sunset Park–and a model for the sort of philosophy that can enable organizations to truly serve poor communities.