Ana’s spark for Apr. 22, 2012.

I found this week’s readings, Sanjek’s chapters 12 and 13 and Gregory’s chapter 7, quite dizzying from all the different civic activists and civic neighborhood or ethnic associations. However, I learned that all these civic associations do more than just pass out flyers or have fundraisers every so often, but actively and passionately fight for the rights of the neighborhood or ethnic group. What surprised me the most was how much power these people could wield if they were able to use and benefit from the powers of networking and communication. It really proves true that there is strength in numbers and with political figures and their pro-business lobbyists banking on keeping the lower classes separated, it is important for the people to unite and fight for their rights as one force. This way, at least, we have a chance to win this class war.

The importance of communication within neighborhoods and ethnic enclaves was underscored immediately when I read about the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s (PANYNJ) plans to build a train system that connected LaGuardia and JFK to Manhattan’s business district and their blatant tactic of trying to “divide and conquer” the opposing, affected neighborhoods of Queens. Of course, it came as no surprise that the Port Authority completely disregarded the concerns of the community and how their Automated Guideway Transit system (AGT) would lower the “quality of life” of Corona and East Elmhurst specifically. Their excuse for the AGT was purely economic: to maintain New York City’s global competitiveness. We’ve heard it all before, but the Port Authority knew that it could exert its power without threatening opposition if it kept the community civic associations and community boards separate and confused by only releasing bits of information to each. However, once the civic associations held a public meeting, later to be referred to as the “La Detente” meeting, residents were becoming educated and formulated complex concerns about the environmental impact, noise pollution, water quality, and most importantly the quality of life for all the affected neighborhoods instead of adopting the “not in my backyard” mindset. This meeting, with more to follow, was the pivotal point of empowering the neighborhoods and articulating a legitimate position to combat the Port Authority. In the end, the civic boards were able to move the PANYNJ into a compromise, but they continued to fight. Barbara Coleman explains that the compromise should not be regarded as a victory or a loss, but as a step in the right direction. “You have to learn to look at a situation and recognize that you’ve pushed about as far as you can, and that this is all you’re gonna get. Then you come back and fight the next day ” (Gregory, 216).

Sanjek’s chapters also displayed the importance of the unification of residents, not only across neighborhood lines, but across ethnic lines as well. He starts with the problem of the disconnect felt by city residents between their community needs and the mayoral power. “We don’t have no political push” (Sanjek, 256). The people of Corona and Elmhurst decided to take matters into their own hands and tried to resolve issues themselves. People would complain to their wardens who contacted authorities about everything from garbage issues to illegally parked cars to even cracking down on prostitution locations. Warden Bob Tilitz even saved his Elmhurst Branch Library from becoming defunct and transforming it into “contemporary version of a turn-of-the-century settlement house” (Sanjek, 261). These are things that the authorities should be taking care of themselves, of course.

Civic associations usually represented a specific neighborhood and worked to better the quality of life in their own communities. However, ethnic integration was important for the people of Corona and Elmhurst if they wanted to flex their political muscles. Carmela George, founder of the 97th Place Block Association, saw the importance of uniting the community across ethnic boundaries. When it came to real estate agents harassing her neighbors when house prices skyrocketed, George collected 192 letters that included white, Latin American, Chinese, and African American homeowners. Lucy Schilero also knew the importance of getting to know her neighbors, “I have new ethnic friends: Hindu, Spanish, Chinese…I like the diversity of the area” (Sanjek, 287). With a vast network, Schilero was able to reach many people in her coalition and tackled many problems such as getting teenagers off the street corners and causing trouble, eradicating drug dealing, and other “quality of life” threats. All coalitions and civic associations start with a neighborhood that feels it is not getting the attention it deserves from their local government and as neighborhood ties become stronger, the coalition becomes empowered and networks to work alongside other boards. Established residents and newcomers are welcomed into the associations because beyond the ethnic and cultural differences, they share the same rung on the economic ladder. In a way, government negligence has only strengthened the voices of the working class (in this case, anyway) by forcing them to unite and attempt to level the battlefield in this class warfare. I can only imagine how our “quality of life” would be without the civic associations.

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