When Paul Veneski broke into a Brooklyn firehouse and chained himself to a fire truck in May, he was following in his father’s footsteps. Almost 30 years ago, Adam Veneski led the takeover of the same firehouse after New York City threatened to close it during the city’s fiscal crisis of the 1970s. The firehouse not only stayed open but also spawned a community development corporation, the People’s Firehouse, which over the years has renovated nine buildings into limited equity co-ops and built new units in the community, including senior housing. When the elder Veneski died three years ago, Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez (D-NY) paid tribute to the grocer as “a man of courage and conviction” who organized residents in his Northside neighborhood and, as executive director of the People’s Firehouse, fought for tenants and the elderly and their right to safe, affordable housing.
So it comes as no surprise that Paul Veneski, who was 11 during the earlier crisis, knew what he had to do when the city’s budget woes once again threatened Engine 212, the Brooklyn engine company that serves the Northside. He, his mother and dozens of other residents broke into the firehouse and were later arrested and charged with criminal trespass. Undaunted, they returned, setting up a big tent outside the firehouse where residents are taking turns on a 24-hour vigil to ensure that the fire engine is not removed. “It’s the People’s Firehouse, part two,” says Veneski.
But the Northside is no longer the same neighborhood it was 30 years ago when it was largely Polish and working class. In those days the biggest fear was the city’s policy of planned shrinkage, in which a community would be starved of its vital services, such as fire, police and sanitation, in a never-ending round of budget cuts. Today there’s no doubt the Northside will survive, with or without Engine 212; the question is for whom. “Now it’s like SoHo,” says Veneski, an unemployed truck driver whose family once owned two grocery stores in the neighborhood. One is now an alehouse. “Yuppieville,” he says. “There are restaurants all over.” Most of the people who responded to the current crisis are the longtime residents, including senior citizens, who remembered the 1975 takeover, he says. “We’re trying to get newcomers educated about the community.”
Kurt Hill, director of community outreach and arson prevention for the People’s Firehouse, said some of the newcomers – among them struggling artists who wait tables during the evening – are seeking help in dealing with unscrupulous landlords who triple the rent of ostensibly rent-stabilized apartments. The current confrontation with the city has also raised the organization’s visibility. Young people are stopping by the People’s Firehouse to purchase T-shirts, hats and headbands to show their solidarity. It’s clear as Veneski describes the re-occupation of Engine 212 that he’s happy to see the community – and the People’s Firehouse – return to its roots. “We’re fighting the fight again, which may be a positive thing,” says Veneski.
Sink or Swim
A changing community is just one factor that may prompt a CDC to reexamine its tactics and mission. Sometimes it might make sense to collaborate with another CDC, the better to pool resources and personnel in pursuit of a shared goal. In another instance, merging with another CDC might be the only answer when two groups are locked in competition for dollars from the same shrinking pool of funding sources. In extreme cases of economic mismanagement, poor planning or loss of funder and community confidence, shutting the doors forever may be the only option.
We open this issue of Shelterforce with an examination of those CDCs that flamed out or have been forced to operate in a diminished capacity. Bill Rohe, Rachel Bratt and Protip Biswas cull the lessons from their study of four CDCs that can help others avoid downsizing and extinction.
Merging two organizations, especially those that had been in direct competition with each other, can mean months of sensitive negotiations. John E. Davis takes us behind the scenes and describes how two CDCs in New Hampshire merged to form the Neighborhood Housing Services of Greater Nashua.
In an age of diminishing resources, many of you have probably considered collaboration as a way to accomplish your goals. But how can you be certain that collaboration is right for you? Paul Mattessich guides us through the signposts that point the way to success or trouble.
Still Fighting After All These Years
It’s clearly galling to the conservative Manhattan Institute that a bunch of poor people can successfully fight for such luxuries as a living wage, affordable housing and safety from financial predators. So upsetting, they’ve decided to attack one of the most effective advocates for the poor, ACORN, in the pages of City Journal, their glossy house organ. John Atlas and Peter Dreier deconstruct that attack and offer their appraisal of ACORN’s accomplishments, and why it has succeeded where others have failed.
Cowboys and Cappuccinos
In Paul Veneski’s Brooklyn neighborhood it’s Yuppieville; for rural residents, it’s the conflict between “cowboys and cappuccinos.” Gentrification by any other name still means the “haves” moving in on the “have-nots.” Flag Wars is a documentary about the racial and economic tensions that simmer in Columbus, OH when affluent gays start purchasing homes in a low-income, historically black community. PBS, which is airing Flag Wars as part of its P.O.V. series this summer, invited Shelterforce to host a web-based roundtable on gentrification.
Nicole Brown has joined Shelterforce as a summer intern and will be helping us with editorial production, research and writing before returning to classes at the State University of New York at Albany.