Young immigrant voices shatter stereotypes about Islam at event at Fordham University

image (10)
The young speakers included: Mariam Agbelusi, Maryam Mohammed, Farida Ahmed, Memuna Abdul Rahman, Salwa Mohammed, Mouhamed Kaba, and Tijay Mohammed
By Mark Naison, professor of history and African American history at Fordham University.

Anyone who thinks immigrants from Muslim countries are here to wage war on Christianity, or that Islam is a “terrorist religion,” would have left yesterday’s “Young African Immigrant Voices” panel at Fordham, organized by the Bronx African American History Project, with their belief system shaken to the core.

On the outside, the panel looked like White Conservative America’s worst nightmare. Five of the seven young women on the panel wore hijabs and both of the men–and one of the women–had “Muhammed” in their names.

20160331_NaisonDG1
The writer: Mark Naison, Ph.D.

But once they started speaking, every stereotype started to shatter. One young woman, a recent immigrant from Ghana who attended Kappa International High School across the street from Fordham, wore an Army ROTC sweatshirt along with her hijab, and spoke how much she loved the military and of her plans to pursue a career in the United States Armed Forces.

One of the men on the panel, an artist and teacher whose work promoting peace and gender equality has taken him all over the world, spoke of how his father, an Imam in Ghana, sent him to a Catholic boarding school, allowing him to sing all the same songs as his Christian friends and endowing him with a lifelong commitment to bringing people of different nationalities and faiths together.

A young women recently arrived from from Nigeria, now a student leader at Lehman College in the Bronx, spoke of how her Muslim faith did not separate her from her Christian siblings and spoke proudly of her family as a model of mutual understanding between people of different faiths.

And finally, three of the elders in the group–two Muslim, one Christian, who had worked for groups ranging from the Mayor’s Office to the City Commission on Human Rights to the offices of Bronx City Council members and Congressman Serrano, spoke of how you could not work effectively in the African Immigrant communities of the Bronx by dividing people along religious lines. They said Christians and Muslims faced the same issues and lived and worked in harmony.

On a panel that was diverse in age and experience as well as religion, there was not a single moment where anyone spoke critically of people of other faiths. And when people spoke of their own religious background, they invoked that tradition as something which promoted peace and the building of strong families and communities.

At a time when fear of immigrants, and Muslims, is being promoted in the highest places, the Bronx African American History Project provided an extremely valuable counterweight to misinformation and hysteria.

Special thanks must be given to the organizer of this panel, Jane Edward, Ph.D., a brilliant scholar brought up Christian in South Sudan, who has worked closely with the African Islamic Community of the Bronx since her arrival at Fordham ten years ago, and who has won their respect through her writing, speaking and advocacy.

msk_jane_edward
Jane Edward, Ph.D.

The young people she brought together exemplified, for all who wanted to see it, the promise of an American future where people of all faiths, and nations and values live together in harmony and mutual understanding. 

Happy Black History Month

I know, that the shortest month of the year is devoted to honoring black Americans is a disgrace, but being that it is Black History Month, I wanted to share some of the awesome work by faculty from Fordham’s African American History department:

bronx-homepage-702x336.jpg

The archive, made available through the Department of African and African-American Studies and Fordham Libraries, consists of downloadable audio files and verbatim transcripts of interviews conducted by researchers from 2002 to 2013.

unnamed.jpg

  • It wasn’t enough for Aimee Cox, Ph.D., to volunteer at a homeless shelter in Detroit, where she took notes for her research on how teenage girls there were coping with a broken system.

Cox, an assistant professor African and African American studies, ended up becoming the shelter’s director while she was still working on her doctorate at the University of Michigan.

Her shelter experiences are now documented in Shapeshifters: Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship (2015, Duke University Press).

Watch a clip of Dr. Cox on the Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC here.

Greer prinicpal lady.jpg

  • Christina Greer‘s research and teaching focus on American politics, black ethnic politics, urban politics, immigration, quantitative methods, Congress, city and state politics, campaigns and elections, and public opinion.

Dr. Greer was named to City & State’s Class of 2014 “40 Under 40 Rising Stars” list. Her book, Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream (Oxford, 2013), was awarded the National Conference of Black Political Scientists’ 2014 W.E.B. Du Bois Distinguished Book Award, and her next book will recount the history of African-Americans running for president.

View video of Dr. Greer’s appearance on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry Show talking national politics, race, and voter identification cards.

 

 

Guest post: How #Women’s Empowerment Shaped My Parenting and Helped Change Brooklyn Sports

Photo via Maxpreps.com
Photo via Maxpreps.com

Via the BK Nation Blog
By Mark Naison

Everyone who knows me well knows two things about me. First, I am a passionately committed political activist. Second that I am a sports fanatic. Here is how the two defining characteristics of my life came together for me and shaped the upbringing up my daughter Sara in a feminist household.

When we got married my wife Liz Phillips and I decided that Liz would keep her name and that we would bring up our children in accordance with feminist principles. This entailed totally sharing childcare, cooking and household chores. We engaged in collective household decision making, and the creation of hyphenated last names for our children — Naison-Phillips — that reflected our commitment to gender equality.

Some men would consider this arrangement to be a burden. Commitment to gender equality carried one huge benefit. When our first child Sara was born, I enjoyed the freedom to teach her everything about sports that my father taught me—how to hit throw and to catch, how to get up when knocked down, and how to walk onto a ball field as though you owned it. I started sports training with Sara when she was two years old. By the time when she was five, I walked her into the St. Saviour’s Youth Sports League, signed her up for baseball, and volunteered to coach a team.

Fortunately, the league let her play…even though the league was 95 percent boys. There, her abilities proved to be something of a revelation. Sara hit, threw and caught as well as all but a handful of boys her age and soon became a star. She batted lead-off and played the coveted position of pitcher’s mound — coaches pitched to their own teams — where you normally placed your most reliable fielder. She won complete acceptance in the league, became a pitcher at age eight when the league made the transition to kids pitching, and even earned a spot on the much sought-after St. Saviours’s travelling team when she reached the age of 10.

In basketball, Sara left her most indelible impression. Fast, strong, tough and capable of doing 40 push-ups as a result of her gymnastics training, she played on the highly competitive St. Saviour’s 10-and-under boys’ CYO travelling team at the age of eight. Over time, Sara became a highly visible figure in Brooklyn CYO basketball, whose participating parishes extended from Marine Park to Bay Ridge to Bensonhurst, to Red Hook and to Fort Greene. All over Brooklyn, mothers who were rooting for their own teams cheered for my daughter when she came into the game and the boys on the other teams found themselves caring less than they were being guarded by a girl and more than they were about to get stripped of the ball by that girl if they didn’t protect their dribble.

That lasted until Sara was 10. That year, she started on the boys’ team that won the Brooklyn CYO championship—beating arch-rival St. Thomas Aquinas of Flatbush in the Championship Game. The Aquinas coaches grumbled loudly after the game, claiming that her presence on the team gave St. Saviour’s an unfair advantage because the boys on other teams couldn’t play with as hard with a girl guarding them. Without informing the St Saviour’s coaches, they launched a secret — and ultimately successful — campaign to ban girls from boys’ CYO basketball.

We did not find out about the ban until a year later when St. Saviour’s 11-year-old team lined up to play Aquinas in the first game of the season. The Aquinas coaches loudly proclaimed “the girl can’t play,” at the beginning of the game, quoting the newly approved league rule. Pandemonium broke out in the gym and I had to be held back from physically assaulting the Aquinas coaches. The referee said he thought the rule was “ridiculous.” The real heroes proved to be Sara’s male teammates, who refused to take the floor unless she played. The result: the game was played under protest with Sara on the court, and I was determined to find out what the hell had happened.

My years of political activism quickly jumped into high gear. After calling the league director and finding out that a rule banning girls from boys’ CYO had been passed, I called friends of mine who wrote for Newsday and for The New York Times and told them what had happened. Within hours they assigned the story to reporters. A day later, front page articles on Sara — including pictures — appeared on page three of Newsday and on page one of the Metro Section of The New York Times. By 7 AM, every television station in New York City called the house to ask to film stories about Sara. Television segments were shot at Fordham in which she shot baskets with the Fordham’s women’s basketball coach and in the schoolyard of JHS 51, where they showed her taking shots with her teammates.

The wave of publicity achieved its desired outcome. By 5 PM, Brooklyn CYO leaders released a statement saying that the rule had been rescinded. Sara and other girls were free to play on boys’ teams if their parish didn’t field girl’s teams.

The drama did not end there. Sara’s story touched a chord with people all over the country who viewed the effort to ensure that girls enjoyed the right to participate at the highest levels in sports as a human rights issue—not merely as a question of justice and of fairness. The New York Times and Newsday published editorials supporting her right to play, a Catholic social-justice group developed Continuing Catholic Development lessons based on what she experienced. Sesame Street came to our home to film a three-minute segment about Sara and about her teammates!

For Sara, who became a nationally ranked tennis player and captain of the Yale tennis team, this proved to be a formative experience in a life of athletic and academic success. For our whole family, this odyssey affirmed the importance of fighting for the rights of all people to realize their potential in all aspects of human endeavor.

A revolution begins with many small acts. This is the story of how one family took the lessons of Women’s History Month to heart.

Mark Naison is a professor of history and African American Studies at Fordham. He is the author of “White Boy: A Memoir (2003),” and “Pure Bronx (2013).” 

 

Film on gentrification to be shown at Fordham University

El Barrio
El Barrio

Fordham University will screen “El Barrio Tours (Gentrification in East Harlem),” a documentary about gentrification and blurring of the line between East Harlem (often called ‘El Barrio’) and the Upper East Side, on Tuesday, Feb. 11, at 7:30 p.m. at its Lincoln Center campus. Room location and RSVP here.

The guest speaker will be Mark Naison, Ph.D., professor of history and African American history at Fordham.

The film is the brainchild of East Harlem’s Andrew J. Padilla, who is a Fordham alumnus (2011). Though his roots in “El Barrio” go back to when his grandfather first moved to East Harlem 60 years ago, the filmmaker says it’s getting increasingly difficult to live there due the higher cost of living gentrification brings with it.

Read more about the film and Padilla via DNAInfo.

See a trailer for the documentary below:

‘Pure Bronx,’ new urban lit by Mexican American author

Castillo-Garsow with her mentor and co-author, Mark Naison.
Castillo-Garsow with her mentor and co-author, Mark Naison.

If you’ve ever walked around an urban neighborhood in a major city, you may have noticed them being sold on tables set up on the streets. They are slim novels, and usually depict people in the cover art. They are urban fiction books.

Also found in bodegas, urban fiction (also known as street lit) is one of literature’s fast-growing genres.

I recently got a chance to interview New York’s Melissa Castillo-Garsow, a Mexican-American author and Yale doctoral student. Her first street lit novel, Pure Bronx, which she co-wrote with her mentor, Fordham University professor Mark Naison, is set in the Boogie Down.

Read my interview with Castillo-Garsow, in which she gives her thoughts on the origin of the book, but also about health and fitness (the story appeared on the Latino-centric health and wellness website, Vida Vibrante), here.

But, below, she talks to me about the characters of Pure Bronx, Khalil and Rasheeda, a young couple from the South Bronx, trying to make it out of the ghetto and have a taste of the prosperity middle class Americans take for granted.

—–

Gina Vergel: Dr. Naison mentioned (in an interview with the student newspaper, The Ram) that the story has a social justice aspect. Why did you two include such an aspect in this story?

Melissa Castillo-Garsow: Social justice for me is something that has always been a major part of my life. I originally did not like English or writing classes- the stories and main characters (mostly white male) never resonated with me and neither did classical language like that of Shakespeare. I was a good student, but I struggled a lot and didn’t enjoy reading very much. I first began to write because I proposed a column for the high school newspaper about human rights. I was a member of Amnesty International (one of two or three at my school) and was deeply concerned that people my age did know about what was happening in the world. Since then, everything I do has must have some sort of social justice aspect – I wouldn’t consider it worthy of my time, otherwise. Art for Arts sake is just not how I function. Art, writing, even academia (in the model of someone like Gloria Anzaldua) should invoke thought and emotion.

What many of the Street Lit books lacked, Dr. Naison and I found, was that aspect of social commentary. They often ended very tragically through the trope of the inevitable result of ghetto life, or overly glamorized monetary aspects of “the Life.” We wanted to provide an alternative narrative – that involvement in illegal or unsavory activities does not define you. Other possibilities are available and fulfilling, especially if you commit to social justice and your community.

GV: What can you tell me about Rasheeda’s character? 

MC-G: Rasheeda is definitely a strong female character. Raised in poverty, she is committed to bettering herself through high education, even when every aspect of her life provides her with other models or tells her its not possible. She overcomes many traumatic experiences without the guidance of a father or mother while assuming responsibility for her younger brother. I loved living with Rasheeda for the years we worked on this. She is so determined, strong and confident. But she is also sassy and fun. She is the one the keeps Khalil in check.

GV: Since the story is set in the Bronx, an area teeming with Latinos these days, how much do they come into play in the story? 

MC-G: Latinos are an important part of the story because they are a vital part of the Bronx. Like many African Americans, two of Rasheeda’s closest friends are Puerto Rican and there are also Mexican and Honduran characters. Khalil also understands Spanish from having grown up in projects with Puerto Ricans and other Latinos as well. At the same time we don’t glamorize relations in the Bronx – some of the African American – Latino relationships are friendship, others are antagonistic. But you will definitely find español in Pure Bronx!!

GV: You’re a doctoral student. What will your dissertation be on? What do you hope to do with your Ph.D? Teach? Any plans to continue with Street Lit?

MC-G: My dissertation is going to be on Afro-Latinos in 1920s and 1930s New York City. Afro-descended Latinos in this country are a completely understudied and diverse group in this country, especially in this time period. And yet, it was such a vibrant, artistic and important time in African American history. I want to uncover how Latinos (who because of their appearance and segregation were in very close quarters with African Americans) were relating or not relating to black culture and politics.

I do hope to teach, specifically Latino Literature and History, and perhaps some creative writing.

I also have a deep interest in popular culture – particularly Latino/a and Latin American Hip Hop. Currently, for example, I am working on a project about Mexican Hip Hop in New York. (Ed. That sounds interesting to us!)

Maybe more street lit? I’m not sure. We do have a sequel to Pure Bronx in mind. I guess it just depends on if there’s interest!

Read more about Melissa Castillo-Garsow on her website.

The Syllabus: From Rock & Roll to Hip Hop: Urban Youth Cultures in Post War America

Via New York Daily News
Via New York Daily News

Among the many things I love about my job at Fordham University is that I get to deal with academics on a daily basis. Sometimes, I sit in on their classes. One of the most interesting professors is Mark Naison, professor of history and African American Studies.

For as long as I’ve been here, he’s taught a very popular, hard to get into (due to it filling up very quickly) class called, “From Rock & Roll to Hip Hop: Urban Youth Cultures in Post War America.” It’s a class where music is heard (the rock & roll and soul stuff is GREAT) and special guest musicians give performances and mini-lectures. It all makes me wish I was an undergrad!

You can read some media coverage of Dr. Naison’s class, as well as his alter-ego, “The Notorious Ph.D., below. (Yes, Dr. Naison is known to rap.)

Brooklyn, the Remix: A Hip-Hop Tour (via New York Times)
Morrisania Melody (via New York Times)
Notorious Ph.D., aka Fordham Professor Mark Naison, raps against gentrification in the Bronx (via Daily News)
Meet the Notorious Ph.D.: Mark Naison (via Gothamist)

Check out the syllabus for the Fall 2013 semester here (bold emphasis mine):

AFAM 3134
From Rock and Roll to Hip Hop: Urban Youth Cultures in Post War America
Dr. Mark Naison

Course Description:
Since the late 19th Century African Americans have exerted a powerful influence on the development of American popular music. Forms of musical expression developed in African-American communities have been reinterpreted and marketed to create the modern music industry, shaping the development of Tin Pan Alley, the Broadway musical stage, the record industry, the modern dance band, and music radio.

Until the end of World War II, racism and lack of capital kept African-American artists and entrepreneurs on the margins of this activity, denying them access to commercial venues that would reward them for their creativity and create a national audience base outside the black community. Only a handful of Black artists -Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald, Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson- had large enough followings outside the “race market”- the section of the music industry targeted to blacks- to make them truly national figures In post World War II era, however, the terms of this cultural interchange began to shift. Civil rights victories, north and south, black migration to urban areas, and the opening of new economic opportunities in industry and government employment set the stage for a new relationship between blacks and the music industry. As radio stations in major cities began to tap into the growing African-American market, black music of all types-gospel blues, swing, rhythm and blues- began to hit the airwaves.

The newest of these genres, rhythm and blues, a urban music that fused sweet harmonies and powerful dance beats, sparked a musical and commercial revolution by attracting a huge underground audience among whites. By the early 1950’s, “black” music radio from Memphis to Los Angeles was attracting hundreds of thousands of white listeners, most of them under the age of twenty five, and sparking an unexpected growth of record sales for artists who had only aimed for the “race market.” In several cities, white disc jockeys decided to tap into this new youth audience by incorporating rhythm and blues into their formats and got such a huge response that they made it the centerpiece of their shows.

Calling it “rock and roll,” they marketed it as youth music rather than black music and looked for white artists who could play it to supplement the already established black stars. This marketing strategy was brilliantly successful. By the early sixties, rock and roll had become the musical language of a generation of American youth, crossing racial and cultural barriers that had never previously been bridged by the music industry.

Though white entrepreneurs and artists made the bulk of the profits in this billion dollar business, scores of black artists cracked into national markets that had previously been closed to them and shaped the musical tastes of millions of young whites. Chuck Berry, Little Richard, the Drifters, the Shirelles, the Coasters, Lloyd Price, Fats Domino, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, to name a few, were central to the early success of rock and roll, and their influence would later be built on by Motown artists like the Supremes, the Four Tops and the Temptations, and soul singers like James Brown, Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin. The terms of cultural interchange in this music were shaped by the site of its creation; the post-war metropolis. Rock and roll was the product of a long economic boom that brought blacks into the center of the industrial economy and placed them in close proximity with the descendants of white and latino immigrants. On street corners and in school gymnasiums, in clubs and theaters, in radio stations and recording studious, African-American artists and entrepreneurs mingled with musicians, producers and songwriters of other nationalities.

In the earliest days of rock and roll, the sources of creativity flowed upward from city streets, but as the music became more popular, the recording industry was taken over by media conglomerates, removing its experimental, grass roots atmosphere and separating it from its African-American roots. By the late 1960’s and 1970’s rock and roll had become typecast as “white” music, identified more with its white suburban following than its African-American originators; while African-American artists moved into niches in the music market where a modified urban sensibility still prevailed- funk, disco, soul, and pop. However, African-American and Latino youths, trapped in decaying neighborhoods savaged by disinvestment and government neglect, found themselves disfranchised by these musical developments.

In post-industrial cities where vacant lots, shuttered factories, and decaying schools marked the boundaries of crushed hopes and declining opportunities, young blacks and Latinos, supported by a small number of adventurous whites, invented a new music that fused verbal improvisation, scratching and back beats and fragments of previous musical genres into a jarring, densely rhythmic, compulsively danceable mix. Played in community centers and schoolyards, house parties and small clubs, the music initially attracted little interest from recording companies or commercial radio. But its extraordinary popularity among urban youth soon caught the attention of neighborhood promoters, who began recording the music, and hip audiences in the largely white downtown “punk” scene.

By the early 80’s, hip hop or rap, had started to crack into mass markets and commercial radio, even though most established professionals didn’t regard it as real music. But the music accurately expressed the sensibility of people who had been left out post-industrial social order or who were rebelling against its mores. Hip hop, despite fierce skepticism and opposition, not only survived, but exploded becoming the most commercially successful musical form in the world by the mid-90’s, defining not only the sensibility of urban youth in the United States, but young people of various backgrounds all over the world. Once again African-American cultural creativity, forged in an urban setting, had redefined the musical tastes of a generation.

In the course that follows, we will examine how the sensibility and musical creativity of urban youth, in two very different historical periods , inspired musical revolutions which transformed the tastes of entire generations, crossing boundaries of race, gender, nation and social class. How could this happen twice in fifty years? What does this say about the racial/cultural dynamics of post-war American society? About the connection between African-American culture and American culture? About race and gender dynamics in the culture industry? About the role of women in musical forms which emphasize an insurgent, eroticized masculinity and turn women into objects of desire and/or contempt? About how rebellion can be marketed, coopted and turned into an instrument for material gain?

To get at these questions, the course will use music, film, and literature as well as historical writings on the music industry and contemporary urban life. To add depth to our portrait, we will also explore musical countercultures of international derivation particularly punk, reggae, salsa and reggaeton, and look at how folk music and jazz periodically invade and occasionally shape popular musical forms. We will also explore how these musical forms become internationalized and how they are being brought to life today in new ways in nations around the world.

We have a graduate assistant working with the class, Melissa Castillo Garsow, who will give a few lectures and presentations on the globalization of hip hop. At various points in the class, people involved in the creation of the music we are studying will come to class to perform or talk about their work. There will also be an opportunity for students in the class to perform their music, inside or outside of class. We draw no line between musical creativity and musical analysis. Both are welcome in our classroom.

Required Readings:

Rebee Garafolo and Steve Waksman Rockin Out: Popular Music in the USA
Peter Guralnick Sweet Soul Music
Alice Echols The Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin
Nelson George Hip Hop America
Murray Foreman and Mark Anthony Neal That’s The Joint
Jay Z Decoded

Course Outline:

I. An Overview of Popular Music in the US: Garafalo and Waksman Rockin Out, Introduction
2. Some Antecedents of Rock and Roll: Garafalo and Waksman, Rockin Out, chapters 1 and 2, Rock and Roll, Race, and the invention of the “Teenager:” Garafalo and Waksman, Rockin Out, chapters 3-5 Echols, Scars of Sweet Paradise, chapter 1
3. Soundtrack to Social Revolution, Soul Music, Civil Rights and the Rise of the Counter Culture: Guralnick, Sweet Soul Music, 1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 10, 11 Echols, Scars of Sweet Paradise, 2-7 Garafalo and Waksman, Rockin Out, chapter 6
4. Black Power, White Flight and the Resegregation of Popular Music: Guralnick, Sweet Soul Music, ch. 12 Echols, Scars of Sweet Paradise, 8-9 Garafalo and Waksman, Rockin Out, Chapter 7, Mid-Term Examination
5. The Rise of Hip Hop: Creativity and Destruction in the Post-Industrial City: George, Hip Hop America, chapters 1-2, Foreman and Neal, That’s The Joint, selections Mark Naison “The Morrisania Roots of Hip Hop Culture” (article sent on internet) Mark Naison “From Doo Wop To Hip Hop” (article sent on internet)
6.. Caribbean and Latin Influences in Hip Hop Culture: Foreman and Neal, That’s The Joint, selections, Class Presentations/Lectures by Melissa Castillo-Garsow
7. Images of Rebellion: MTV, Music Videos, and Commercialization of Rap: Garafalo and Waksman, Rockin Out, chapters 8, 10 George, Hip Hop America, chapters 3-4, Foreman and Neal, That’s The Joint, selections
8. The Crack Epidemic and the Rise of Gangsta Rap: George, Hip Hop America, chs. 5-10 Foreman and Neal, That’s The Joint, 11, 17, 26, `44, Jay Z Decoded
9. Hip Hop Wars: Gender, Sexuality and the Politics of Contemporary Rap: George, Hip Hop America, chs. 11-18 Foreman and Neal, That’s The Joint, selections
10. The Globalization of Hip Hop: Foreman and Neal, That’s The Joint, selections, Class Presentations/Lectures by Melissa Castillo Garsow

‘The Land that God and the City Had Forgotten’ -Reflections on an earlier Rockaway tragedy

ANTHONY DELMUNDO FOR NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Far Rockaway residents fall in line as FEMA gives out food and water at Beach 49th and Beach Channel Drive in Far Rockaway, New York on Friday, November 2, 2012.

By Mark Naison
Professor of African American Studies and History at Fordham University

The wave of destruction that that descended upon the Rockaways in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, compounded by government neglect and the absence of official aid organizations, is not the first time that section of the city has been overcome with violence and fear. The wave of arson and disinvestment that swept through the Bronx, Harlem and large portions of Brooklyn during the early and mid 1970’s also took a terrible toll on the Rockaways, though I never saw it mentioned at the time, or for that matter in the historical literature about those difficult years in New York’s History.

I experienced this first hand in 1979 when I drove out to Rockaway to interview a former NYC school teacher and union activist, named Alice Citron, for my book Communists in Harlem During the Depression.  Her address put her in a section of Rockaway, Edgemere, where I had spent many summers as a child staying in the bungalow of my grandfather, who was a garment worker. Although the bungalows were wooden, and  in retrospect, extremely modest, I remember magical days and nights in that area in the early 50’s, running into the surf, playing ski-ball on the boardwalk, eating delicious knishes, and listening to the adults political arguments. The area had been packed with people, almost all of them Jewish, who had survived  the Depression and were enjoying a first taste of prosperity and security. It was a joyous place.

Now, in 1979, it had the atmosphere of a ghost town. Alice Citron’s house stood on a beach block where 90 percent of the land consisted of vacant lots, with only three houses standing. Across the el tracks, near the bay side, stood a large public housing project. When I rang the door bell, Alice and her husband came to the door, accompanied by two huge dogs. Before we started her interview, which focused on the role Communist teachers played in fighting for better schools in Harlem and the teaching of Black history, she told me what the neighborhood was like today.

Rockaway had become the land that God , and the city of New York, had forgotten. In the housing projects across the street, senior citizens, most of them black, were trapped in their apartments by fear of crime. The Citrons with their huge dogs, and their car, sometimes shopped for them, and brought them to the doctor when they were sick. The neighborhood had become a kind of urban concentration camp for  the poor, a place where the beauty of the surroundings was little compensation for fear, neglect, and the absence of basic neighborhood amenities. The Citrons, who had lost their jobs during the McCarthy area didn’t have the money to move out so they stayed and helped their neighbors cope. They were in their 70s then, and  had no where else to go.

For years after, I was haunted by  what I saw that day, and what it told me about class and race in New York City. Ten years later, when I was coaching CYO basketball, I returned with a team from Park Slope to play a game at a Catholic parish not far from the Citron home, St. Rose of Lima, but I didn’t have the time to drive around. I never found out if the neighborhood had been rebuilt, or whether life had gotten better in the projects of the Rockaway Peninsula.

Now, with reports of residents living without power, food, and water, surrounded by piles of debris the storm had scattered, terrified of crime,  the memories of that visit came rushing back and along with it, the rage and frustration I had felt at the time.

Once again, the people of Rockaway were being neglected. Once again, they were reminded because of their color and economic status, they were not really “citizens.” And once again, they were  living in the land that God, and the City of New York had forgotten.

-Mark Naison