Bless the Houses That Machines Would Not Build

By Sydney H. Schanberg
New York Newsday, February 17, 1987

An important event occurred on Sunday in New York City. Ideally, a journalist should not have to write a sentence announcing that an event was important. Describing the occasion should be enough to establish its status.

But this event took place far from the usual loci of power, and the mayor was not there to entertain, and the governor was not there because he is traveling distantly in search of national audiences, and thus this happening did not receive much of the media’s attention.

It took place in the South Bronx and we know that editors of newspapers and television stations, like most everyone else, are weary of the failure of the South Bronx — it being our failure collectively and therefore embarrassing.

The event was not about failure, however. It was about a throng of more than 2,000 members of 38 different Christian churches in the South Bronx joyously filling old St. Jerome’s Church, pews and balconies both, for the purpose of forming a new political organization.

Such an event would probably not have happened were it not that the existing political hierarchy has demonstrated its leadership bankruptcy to the point where increasing numbers of its moguls are making their headlines not by holding press conferences but by getting indicted for stealing from the people. 

The people who gathered at St. Jerome’s applauded and cheered when Bruce Rivera, a leader at Thessalonia Baptist Church, opening the ceremonies, said: “We are here today to say ‘No Way!’ to being represented by a political regime that has gone grossly corrupt.”

And the huge domed chamber swelled again with the sound of affirmation when Lorraine Lett came forward to tell how she and her husband, because the schools in the South Bronx had been allowed to go rotten, had to send their three children to schools outside the district to get a quality education. “Why is it necessary,” she said, “for people to send their children away from the South Bronx? We want a good education right here.”

And so it went through the afternoon at St. Jerome’s — stories and speeches and exhortations to explain why they were there. They said they were “no longer willing to beg for the crumbs from the master politicians’ table.” And they said, “We want public services, not ruling lords. We already have a Lord.” But they talked mostly of having to do it themselves because for too long they had permitted themselves and their ruins to be used for media visits by presidents and other politicians; and for too long, as one of their ministers put it, “you look to these angels to cure your ailments — all to no avail.”

It was well organized and arranged, with ushers and microphones and printed programs, but the atmosphere was so clearly genuine that no amount of arranging could have robbed it of its spontaneity.

Or of its importance. For it was the founding assembly of an organization named the South Bronx Churches. If this group, in its newness, were alone in the city, it might look isolated and vulnerable, but this is the third such group formed here in the last few years. A fourth is just beginning in Hudson County, N.J. And the movement has organizational underpinning, because it is being trained and guided by the Industrial Areas Foundation, a creation of the late community activist Saul Alinsky.

The first testing ground was an area just as devastated as the South Bronx — the eastern section of Brooklyn. The group that formed there, East Brooklyn Churches, has made inroads on employment and school issues, but its most dramatic achievement had made it a national symbol of what can be done with ruins. With seed money from the Catholic, Episcopal and Lutheran dioceses and with modest subsidies from the city and state governments, this interdenominational, interracial, nonpartisan group of more than 50 congregations has built 700 brick row houses in Brownsville for working families with incomes of $20,000 to $25,000. Another 300 of these attached houses, known as Nehemiah homes, are under construction. And the group hopes to break ground for 1,500 more in the adjoining East New York neighborhood this spring. 

But the machine of Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden has been throwing obstacles in the way of the East New York expansion. These are the lowest-cost homes being built by anyone anywhere in this country, and Golden, if he were enlightened, could be supportive and share in the success, but he is nervous because he sees the East Brooklyn Churches growing as a political force outside his control and manipulation, so he is balking.

The same is true in Queens, where the second Alinsky-sponsored group, the Queens Citizens Organization, is pressing to build 3,000 of the Nehemiah homes on empty city land in the Arvene section. But Mayor Edward Koch and the Queens borough president, Claire Schulman, are saying the land is too valuable for low-income housing. Such clubhouse resistance helps explain why the Alinsky groups keep forming.

Which brings us back to Sunday in St. Jerome’s Church. On the altar sat John Cardinal O’Connor, Episcopal Bishop Paul Moore and Lutheran Bishop James Graefe, for the organizers knew from experience that unless they could persuade the insititutional church bodies to provide not only money but the visible support of their presence, the South Bronx Churches would be dismissed by City Hall and Albany as just another fragmented community group. So this organization now has credentials and church power-brokers and access.

I am not prone to making predictions about future success, but I do know that Sunday at St. Jerome’s was an important event.

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