Five “Kitchen” Secrets of Civic Organizing

In Hell’s Kitchen, a gritty neighborhood on Manhattan’s West Side, the view of Times Square, Broadway and Fifth Avenue is over-sized and profoundly personal.

You can stay cloistered in your job and close circle of family and friends. Keep your head down, shoulder to the wheel. The other reaction is to save and improve the little bit of urban space you inhabit.

From the outside, the city is a mess, a mass of congestion, which makes no sense. It is, in fact, a collection of communities. Each one distinct, each one proud of its name, location, demographics, and heritage, and yet also of its place in the overall scheme, its being inherently New York, the complex center of the universe. And nothing can happen in that universe without the approval of those most affected, at least that’s what the inhabitants believe. New York pugilism can know no bounds, as in Donald Trump’s mind, but for the other 99.99+ percent it has (on the far side) limits and rules. The slightest threat, the most ethereal wishes, can spark an outpouring of a neighborhood’s residents into a common purpose.

They will find themselves up against some of the city’s — and the country’s — most powerful individuals and institutions.

In my book, I describe how a small neighborhood of working and middle-class people of diverse ethnic backgrounds went up against this powerful elite. How did we do it?

In the late 1970s the city’s fortunes took a turn for the worse. Hell’s Kitchen residents responded by forming block associations, a local planning council that specialized in zoning, and new programs for seniors, children, and lower income tenants. One group hired urban consultants and produced a plan that resulted in a special preservation district with a perimeter area and several excluded areas where greater development could take place. The balance of housing for people with different incomes was a key component, and the lower-rise buildings also ensured space for small businesses. With this model, the community had a fighting chance to survive while allowing for new development and growth in population.

The city’s proposals in this decade were wild, including decking over the whole area from Eighth Avenue to the Hudson River in the West 40s and building another city on top of it. Seriously. I’m not making this up.

The 1980s was the decade of mega-developments. Everything was large, gaudy, over-the-top. The city and state proposed building four skyscraper office towers in Times Square, knocking down the piddling Times Tower in the process. The spear of this development was aimed at the little neighborhood to the west. Hell’s Kitchen. What could we do? A medley of block associations used to monitoring street trees, having lighting installed, and advocating for playgrounds would not be enough to get the attention of the powers-that-be, the top-down urban planners, and the elected officials.

One of the secrets of successful community organizing is throwing a wide enough net to bring in a diversity of views and skills without too many to keep any decision from being made. Who decides this? Usually, self-appointed people or local community boards, but anyone can play. Step up and get involved. You will rise to the top, probably be resisted by a few, but accepted by the others; simply persist. Remember to have your focus on what the neighborhood needs and not your ego. In the wide net try to bring in people who have connections beyond the community. It’s the old “power in numbers” theme.

In some cases, the goal is to defeat the proposal or plan. A direct approach is best. Bring as much of the plan into the light as you can. Organize at the grassroots level.

When Hell’s Kitchen was faced with the redevelopment of Times Square in 1984, we convened a massive “negotiating group,” drawing from local churches whose ministers and priests had the ear of the city’s highest religious leaders, along with business owners, community activists, and heads of non-profits based in the area. We flooded the media, wrote letters, petitioned, and spoke at public hearings and meetings of the agencies behind the proposal.

At the negotiating group we recognized that the current governor, Mario Cuomo, promoted morality and social justice in politics. The current mayor, Ed Koch, was pragmatic and could be convinced to make a deal. We tailored our pitches accordingly.

Because of our location, the New York Times was particularly interested. The Times was in the Times Square area, near Eighth Avenue, cheek by jowl with the neighborhood. News articles can shake things up.

It was an all-out blitz. We rolled into this with passion.

Secret two: Making it possible to sustain this passion was a timetable, a deadline for city and state approval, and the negotiating group’s ability to agree on a mitigation package. Focus on what you really want to achieve.

Secret three: use what comes your way to your advantage. Respect the other people’s efforts (if non-violent) even if you don’t agree with their tactics. They may complement what you’re doing.

Another group formed to stage protests and file lawsuits. This suited our purposes well. We could say to the city and state: see those protestors? Well, you can talk to us, we’re so much more reasonable.

After the successful end to the Times Square negotiations, the massive group disbanded. The other group, however, looked around for another issue.

Secret four: What is known as “power organizing” aims to be long-lasting. It is not founded on a single issue and does not jump from one single issue to another. The result of not focusing on the underlying strengths, but instead on the issues — a form of victimhood — leads to groups losing steam.

This may seem obvious, but it is the way communities are eventually lost. The developers are working full-time on their plans. Staff people at city, county, and state agencies are working full-time on their plans. You, and your neighbors, however, are working full-time at your wage-earning jobs. You will not have the time and energy to respond to everything coming your way, or to keep doing it year after year.

Once people have benefitted from the successes, they may lose interest, or worse, treat the benefits as their own fiefdoms. Founding a long-term group to keep watch, and/or enlisting another group to do it for your neighborhood, even if focused on only one aspect, can be enormously helpful. Network. And keep your organizations vital by bringing in new people.

In the book, I detail another negotiation with a major developer. Housing with services for people with AIDS, formerly homeless, and the mentally ill are among the subjects. A flood of illegal drugs into the neighborhood was another threat. Long-term residents began to leave. Making these drugs illegal created a lucrative business for the underworld. That underworld began to make its home on our streets.

Into all this was the whirl of politics, spinning policies, making deals, asserting pressure, and wielding power.

Secret five: community politics is the same as city, state, and national politics. The 1980s and ’90s saw the rise of Donald Trump and Rudolph Giuliani. This is the world they came from. In Community, I give examples of a neighborhood coming together to win victories small and large — for a few decades. What is happening to the city now comes from the breakdown of these communities.

There is hope. Civic organizing can happen again, and it will work. Take the lessons from those who went before and do it better this time.

Community: Journal of Power Politics and Democracy in Hell’s Kitchen, by Mary Clark, a memoir of fifteen years of community activism on midtown Manhattan’s west side, available in ebook and print formats on Amazon, and ebook and other formats on Smashwords.


Common Sense 2017

Now is the time for us… to think of and discuss common sense proposals. Much of this is about finding a fair balance between options, removing them from the weeds of ideology.  So here’s my list:

Champion equal opportunities for working people, and promote safe working conditions, viewing this as essential to individual freedom and responsibility by assisting economic independence

Support public education, viewing this as essential to a non-elitist, informed participation in civic affairs

Promote universal health care, viewing this as basic to human dignity and essential to national security

Show our ideals by living them, respecting individual and minority rights

Practice and support freedom of worship, freedom of the press, and the right to peacefully assemble to petition the government

Practice and support free speech, within the reasonable constraints of concern for others’ safety, to insure the flow of ideas and critical thinking so necessary for a free society

Support government policies and programs that aid people most in need, viewing these as essential to alleviating marginalization, isolation, and suffering, and to promoting a cohesive society in which everyone can equally participate

Promote a fair tax system that relieves the burden on the working poor and middle class and asks more (but not to the point of being punitive) of those who have prospered because of our healthy economy and sound government

Support far-sighted, science-based regulation to protect and enrich the environment, and working to bring together all stakeholders in this process

Support sensible gun safety rules and education, and community policing, in order to advance the spirit and principles of a civil society

Support businesses, especially small businesses, in order to strengthen communities

Support entrepreneurship in order to keep America at the forefront of technology, manufacturing, and distribution/trade

Promote community-based organizations, public libraries, a mix of public/private transportation, and community spaces, such as parks, playgrounds, and meeting place

– Mary Clark

Resistance & Respect

November 10, 2016

We’ve elected a man who has made racist and sexist statements, and has also shown fascistic attitudes toward people who disagree with him or hold different views of individual rights, common decency, and the world at large. You may think my words here are alarmist, but the actions of human beings in relation to one another over centuries past shows a range of what can happen, and that includes the best and the worst. We need to stay vigilant at this time in order to protect our freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and freedom to assemble peacefully in order to petition the government.

Do not let yourself be silenced. At this time it would be a good idea to form networks of people with the same concerns, keeping it local, and of those online you feel confident you can trust, in the eventuality one, or more, of you is harassed by people in your town, or online, or by local, state or federal law enforcement. Don’t think for a moment that fascism can’t happen in America. Many people in Germany believed the same thing about their country. They went about their everyday lives, after Hitler came into power, as if nothing had changed. The reality came to some too late.

Oh, some of the readers of this post are thinking, she is a socialist, or insensitive to our needs and dismissive of our point of view. The opposite is true. There were legitimate grievances that led people to vote as they did. I’ve written about some of those issues in a previous post on my literary blog. I believe socialism is a form of government that stifles creativity and individual as well as minority rights and opportunities. It’s a paradigm that wouldn’t work well in a society as diverse as ours. But now we’ve gone too far to the right, and vigilance and resistance is required to ensure that equality and liberty are preserved.

I don’t know if I’m related genetically to Abraham Clark, but I am related philosophically. He believed in the middle class and equal opportunities. His concerns were that the wealthy and privileged would form a ruling class. This concern was shared by Americans in the last election, when they repudiated the Clintons – who rose from the working class and middle class but have been part of the ruling elite for the last 30 years. I’m afraid we’ve simply put a new face on this. And Donald Trump has shown us clearly that he is an authoritarian who can’t take criticism. He may well respond to dissent with a heavy hand.

Above all, we need to respect one another, and remember those values we hold as inalienable.

Economic Vision of Abraham Clark

Emancipation from the “yoke of British oppression,” although a cause for rejoicing, therefore represented to Abraham Clark only a stage in the securing of independence. “Let us not stop here,” he wrote, “or . . . we may awake in fetters, more grievous than the yoke we have shaken off.” 1 The state was in danger of falling into the “power of the merciless.” He summoned the “inhabitants of New Jersey” to face up to their new “crisis.” “Beware,” he addressed them, “lest although we have knocked off the shackles of British tyranny we should suffer ourselves to be duped into as bad a situation by artful interested designing men.” 1

The concept of tyranny had wider dimensions for Clark than for most of his contemporaries. Political oppression . . . could be countered by a judicious balancing of governmental power. Clark espoused the notion of constitutional safeguards for republican government, but he held that tyranny could also rise from economic power. His zeal for rescuing the indebted farmers stemmed from this belief. Impoverishment, he feared, would destroy the independence of the citizenry.  .  . . 1

“His social-political point of view, through life, resembled that of a seventeenth century English ‘Leveller.’” 2 He worried that “individual citizens would lose political freedom to wealthier ones who controlled their economic destiny.” 1

He believed that people cannot be free unless they are economically independent, and he saw participation in government as essential to ensuring that freedom.

1. Abraham Clark and The Quest for Equality in the Revolutionary Era 1774-1794, , by Ruth Bogin, Fairleigh-Dickinson University, 1982

2. Dictionary of American Biography, Vol. 1-2, Brearly-Cushing, Charles Scribner’s Sons, NY, 1929