It is a cold February night in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick. The streetlights overhead are burned out, so one must make one’s way carefully in the dark over potholes, buckled pavement, blowing garbage, and piles of broken safety glass from smashed windshields. Through the gloom one can pick out abandoned buildings with bricked-up windows and overgrown yards full of tangled barbed wire and discarded junk, such as empty Clorox bottles and old baby carriages.
But a few blocks away is a cheerful beacon. Light spills out onto the street from the heavy door of St. Barbara’s Roman Catholic Church. A convoy of yellow school buses is lined up out front, dispatching groups of people who hurry inside and clatter down the stone stairs to the basement auditorium. Here about four hundred people are gathered, sitting on rows of metal folding chairs or around card tables at the edge of the room; some roost on window ledges.
It’s not the most modern place: The aging fluorescent lights hum and flicker, and the walls are a depressing industrial yellow. It’s so drafty many people keep their coats on. Still, on entering you feel you’ve found a place that is safe and dry and warm and happy and . . . happening. Here, just below that cold Bushwick street, there is a cheerful town-meeting feel, a buzz, an excited hum: Friends jump up to greet friends, Young Turks in three-piece suits bustle around, people crane their heads to see who will come in next.
This is a meeting of East Brooklyn Congregations, a 14-year-old organization of 55 churches of all denominations, as well as two synagogues and two parents’ associations. Each congregation pays annual dues of $12 per family, giving EBC a "backbone" of $90,000 to work with. The organization uses this money, plus funds other churches contribute or lend, to provide scholarships for promising local students and to maintain a full-time staff of organizers who tackle a variety of community problems. EBC has involved itself with projects as mundane as moving a bus stop so that women are safer when walking home at night, and as elaborate as turning a huge swath of empty, rubble-strewn land into a 2,300-home suburb. The Nehemiah homes, named after Nehemiah of the Old Testament who rebuilt Jerusalem, are strangely reminiscent of parts of irrigated Los Angeles or Israel’s kibbutzim: The desert has been made to bloom. Where there were once blocks of empty lots overgrown with weeds, full of rubble, and patrolled by packs of wild dogs, there are now rows of red brick houses with trim lawns, rose bushes, garden gates, and new RVs in the driveways. The homes are occupied by nurses, school teachers, Transit Authority employees, and other working-class New Yorkers.
EBC’s best-known leader is its cochairman, the Reverend Johnny Ray Youngblood of St. Paul Community Baptist Church. The charismatic 44-year-old African-American pastor was celebrated in Samuel Freedman’s recent book Upon This Rock: The Miracles of a Black Church. Though EBC is mainly black, it has been described as "doggedly multiracial," and a look around the meeting at St. Barbara’s basement confirms this: A young black woman with a "natural" hairdo, little makeup, and elegant wool slacks sits next to a Hispanic man in a blue uniform who could be a Con Ed inspector. Nearby is a young white man in jeans and a leather motorcycle jacket.
For all their diversity, these East Brooklyn residents have much in common: They send their children to the same schools, walk the same streets, ride the same elevated trains, and endure the same excuses from bureaucrats. In a city that often seems balkanized by high-profile ethnic conflicts, people of all races have joined together in the kind of plodding, unglamorous work necessary to address the quality-of-life concerns so crucial to New Yorkers.
East Brooklyn—a huge swath that includes Bushwick, Flatbush, Brownsville, and East New York—was "a very violent community" when EBC was born, according to Dave Nelson, the Lutheran minister who is currently the group’s lead organizer. "There was devastation everywhere. The neighborhoods—both Brownsville and East New York—were largely in ruins." Nelson motions around his office, which stands among the Nehemiah homes. "This whole area in here was basically just rubble. The congregations were feeling almost helpless in the face of these kinds of forces."
In 1978, John Heinemeier, a Lutheran minister from Brownsville, organized a meeting of 15 ministers and church members to discuss the possibility of joining forces with a national organization called the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), founded in 1940 by Saul Alinksy, an idiosyncratic left-wing radical who had studied at the University of Chicago, IAF had several decades of experience organizing communities and had developed an arsenal of confrontational tactics for getting unresponsive politicians and bureaucracies to respond to its demands. In the Seventies, the organization shed its radicalism and began working almost exclusively with churches and synagogues on basic community concerns such as good schools, housing, and safe, clean streets.
Inspired by IAF’s methods of community organizing, the Brooklyn group set about recruiting leaders from among its congregations. One of the first was Elda Peralta, a slim, 22-year-old data supervisor from East New York. In 1978, she had just graduated from Polytechnic College and was feeling pretty bad about her neighborhood. There had been a fire across the street from her church and she was thinking of persuading her family to leave. But she reconsidered when her pastor at St. Malachy’s Roman Catholic Church gave a homily in which he said, "We should be able to take charge of our lives." He told them about East Brooklyn Churches, the new organization started by five other local churches, and explained how "all of those networks within the church would give the group power." (The organization’s name was later changed to East Brooklyn Congregations when two synagogues joined.) Soon, Peralta was working nights and weekends for EBC. Like all EBC leaders, she attended a ten-day IAF training session in Alinsky’s philosophy and tactics.
After EBC had reached a certain "critical mass" of leadership, it was ready for what Nelson calls "entry-level organizing." Alinsky preached "organizing around the genuine institutions of a neighborhood," finding "specific, immediate and realizable goals," and winning battles through "constructive use of power." Many hours of house-to-house canvassing flushed out a specific, immediate, and realizable issue: the lack of street signs. East New York literally didn’t have any. A resident who called for an ambulance would have to direct it with landmarks, and drivers often couldn’t find their destinations. The lack of signs helped create the impression that the area was a vast no man’s land which had been abandoned by the forces of law and order. EBC brought a large contingent of its members to the office of the city official in charge of street signs, and soon three thousand signs had been posted in the area.
The group, adding more churches every year, moved on to other projects: reforming the neighborhood grocery stores, where short-weighting, overpricing, and selling spoiled goods were common; getting unused swimming pools and parkland rehabilitated; evicting "smoke shops" (businesses that fronted for marijuana dealers); filling potholes; registering voters; and pressuring local officials to bulldoze some three hundred abandoned buildings that were used by drug dealers and rapists.
In the early Eighties, EBC embarked on a far more ambitious project: the Nehemiah homes. EBC leaders had been conducting what they call "house meetings," in which congregation members host small meetings for EBC leaders and local residents. Such meetings are a way to create a relaxed setting so that people will speak their minds about community problems. The number one issue that emerged was crime; the second was the dearth of decent housing.
The idea of rebuilding Brownsville thrilled Mike Gecan, one of EBC’s top organizers, from the moment it was suggested at a strategy meeting. IAF director Ed Chambers had given Gecan a folder of newspaper articles by I.D. Robbins, a retired builder who had been writing for the Daily News since 1971 about how to build affordable housing in New York. One article, from the newspaper’s Sunday magazine, bore the headline: "For the $12,000-a-Year Income: Blueprint for a One-Family House." For years, Robbins had offered to demonstrate that he could construct low-income housing by building a brick row house for $36,000 with his own money. All he asked was that the city give him an abandoned plot of land, but successive mayors declined his offer.
Gecan arranged a meeting with Robbins and asked him to build houses for EBC; Robbins agreed. They didn’t begin the tortuous process of finding loans until they hashed out what Samuel Freedman describes as "five inviolable rules" for the Nehemiah project. First, it was essential to build single-family houses as a way of encouraging a stable population and ensuring clear accountability for upkeep. Second, the homes had to be occupied by their owners rather than rented, because people take better care of things they own. Third, the homes had to be attached—row houses—to keep costs for things like sewage down. Fourth, the project had to be of a scale big enough to create a "critical mass of stable families" that could resist the culture of failure in the streets nearby; the project would not work without at least a thousand homes. Fifth, to keep the project self-reliant, it would accept no government funds. "All EBC sought from the city or state," Freedman writes, "were the rights to land that was virtually vacant; low-interest mortgages under an existing program; a ten-year deferral of property tax on land that was yielding few taxes anyway; and a $10,000 interest-free loan on each home which would be repaid when it was sold."
EBC financed the construction of the homes with a revolving loan fund of $7 million in interest-free loans from churches, including the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, which contributed $5 million; the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church; the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island; and Reverend Youngblood’s St. Paul Community Baptist Church. The fund advanced the money for the construction of the homes; as each home was sold, the money was repaid. In this way, 2,300 row houses were eventually constructed, and EBC repaid all the loans-with interest. On June 14, 1984, Herbert and Leolin Schleifer became the first couple to move into one of the brick row houses.
Nehemiah homes were designed to be affordable for people of modest means. In 1984, they sold for $49,000; inflation has brought the price up to $63,000. Mortgage payments for these two- and three-bedroom houses run under $400 a month. Prospective Nehemiah homebuyers must have an income of at least $20,000 but not more than $50,000; the average is about $25,000. According to Nelson, some six in ten Nehemiah buyers move from public housing.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that the Nehemiah tract has improved the neighborhood around it as planned: According to Newsday, the value of nearby homes has risen sharply. "You have a community coming alive again as opposed to before, which was nothing—a lot of vacant buildings," Patrick Carroll, commander of East New York’s 75th Precinct, told the New York Times. Carroll credits the stability created by the Nehemiah homes with bringing the local crime rate down.
EBC plans to replicate the Nehemiah project in other parts of East Brooklyn. After long delays, it has recently received the land and the approval from the city to build 1,300 more homes on Pennsylvania Avenue and in Spring Creek. Another church group plans to build some 600 Nehemiah homes in the South Bronx.
Having achieved a notable success with housing, EBC has turned its attention to another concern: education. For years, East Brooklyn parents have been dismayed by the violence, overcrowding, and poor academic performance at their local public schools, particularly the high schools. At Thomas Jefferson High, two students were shot to death in March 1992; Bushwick High is operating at about 180 percent of capacity, forcing the school to hold classes in the auditorium and cafeteria. When Bushwick graduates took the Scholastic Aptitude Test in 1991, the average math score was 285. (You get 200 automatically, just for signing your name.)
In 1986, EBC conceived of a project it called Nehemiah II, which aimed at challenging both the students and the schools to improve their performance. Several large banks and other institutions promised entry-level jobs to graduates who had good attendance records and participated in an EBC program to teach them work habits and social skills. But the problem was deeper than anyone realized: In 1990, 75 graduating seniors who had attended school regularly for four years were tested by Manufacturers Hanover for math and reading skills at the eighth-grade level. Only two were able to pass the test.
It was then that EBC’s leaders began to think about starting their own schools. As in the Nehemiah homes project, they decided they needed to start from scratch in order to create a critical mass of "good schools culture." In 1990, EBC’s leaders began negotiating with Schools Chancellor Joseph Fernandez for permission to manage or start their own public schools. The negotiations proceeded slowly until March 1992. Under the intense political pressure that followed the shootings at Jefferson High that month, the chancellor finally granted EBC the go-ahead for two new high schools, one in Bushwick and one in East New York. Each school will have a governing board consisting of four members appointed by the central Board of Education and four appointed by EBC. This board will choose the principal, design the curriculum, and allocate the budget. For the first time, a community organization will be directly involved in managing a public school in New York City.
Wall Street philanthropist Richard Gilder and the J.M. Kaplan Fund provided "planning money," which enabled EBC to head off objections based on funding. If bureaucrats at 110 Livingston said there was no money for the next step in the process, EBC could say, "We’ll fund it." The money was used to produce a plan for the schools’ organization, curriculum, and governing board; to find buildings for the new schools; and to advertise for school principals.
The new schools will open in September 1993 in renovated warehouses. Following the example of East Harlem’s District 4, which has had success in breaking dysfunctional schools into smaller units, the new schools will be limited to six hundred students each. They will have a "public service" focus: Students will serve internships in hospitals, local schools, and other community facilities.
With its schools project underway, EBC has begun to think about how to bring good jobs to East Brooklyn. Such efforts are still in the early planning stages.
Why is EBC succeeding where so many others have failed? Cops on patrol used to wear T-shirts that said "East New York: The Killing Fields," and the area has been an elephant burial ground for countless social programs. According to EBC cochairman Youngblood, the marriage of EBC and Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation worked because IAF brought "the know-how to deal with the political climate and culture" while EBC supplied stable members who come with the moral values of "the Judeo-Christian ethic."
One of EBC’s greatest strengths, which it learned from IAF, is its appreciation of the importance of good leaders. EBC identifies people with leadership potential and then goes after them. Youngblood, for example, was wooed for months before he would come on board. "Either they’re a leader or they’re not," says Peralta, who was made an associate organizer in 1980. "You begin to be able to spot leadership qualities. Leaders have anger and ambition, and we can channel that anger and work towards a vision. It comes from within. You can’t give it to someone; it’s either there or it isn’t there." EBC’s leaders are tough, unsentimental, obsessed with self-reliance, and shamed by dependence. They adopted Alinsky’s "iron rule": "Never do for others what they can do for themselves."
EBC works through the system, sending letters and distributing petitions, backing up these efforts with confrontational actions like bringing large contingents to Board of Education meetings. Such tactics are borrowed from Alinsky, who deposited uncollected garbage on the doorsteps of Chicago’s ward bosses and picketed slumlords in front of their suburban homes. EBC has never gone this far, but, as Peralta puts it, the organization has clout because it can tell the commissioner of garbage cans, or whomever: "If you don’t deal with this problem, we’ll come down here with 500 people to sit in your office and talk to you. You either deal with a group of 10 or 15, or you deal with 500 or 5,000. "
EBC’s leaders learned other important principles from Alinsky’s organization. One of them is always to deal directly with someone who actually has the power to make decisions. Another is to deal face to face, setting the terms and style of the discussion. Mayor Edward Koch once left a meeting of another IAF group in a huff because he wasn’t allowed to deliver his complete opening statement, which was too long for the agenda the organization had planned.
At EBC-run meetings, speeches are short. Prayers and hymns, sung by the groups or soloists, add variety to the committee reports. The meetings are designed for people who have put in a long day at work and are going to do so again tomorrow. Rules are enforced with a cheerful authoritarianism: Participants are told how long they have to speak and if someone exceeds the limit, even by a few seconds, a timekeeper comes and stands directly behind him to let him know his time is up.
EBC members hold each other to tough standards. At their meetings, delegates are expected to troop past the stage and announce, in a ringing voice, the name of the church they represent and how many people they’ve brought. It’s a way of celebrating and plugging themselves, but it’s also a way, Peralta explains, of being accountable to each other. If a congregation doesn’t show up one month, its absence is obvious.
EBC may revel in its numbers, but the city has learned to quail. Politicians now know that EBC represents a large, motivated voting bloc willing to make vivid demonstrations of strength. Mayor Dinkins, for instance, was loathe at first to give EBC a site in Spring Creek for its new Nehemiah homes. The mayor relented after attending a demonstration at which Youngblood thundered, "I want the mayor to know that we don’t want Spring Creek to be his Desert Storm. We don’t want Spring Creek to be his Grenada." After hinting of a political war over the issue, Youngblood led the crowd in chanting "Say yes, Mr. Mayor."
More than anything, EBC owes its success to its leaders’ willingness to do the work necessary to improve the lives of their people. "We’re interested in results," Youngblood tells a parishioner in Upon This Rock. "I’m sure you heard enough talk." Or, as Jesse Jackson said after the groundbreaking of the first Nehemiah homes, EBC makes "things so real, people sleep in them at night."