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. One response would be to stay cloistered in your job and your 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, Community: Journal of Power Politics and Democracy in Hell’s Kitchen, 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.

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. One strategy is to place the most important demand/request (wish) in the third spot on the list. The first “wish” should be pie-in-the-sky. It will be turned down. The second one you would really like, and can live with, but if it’s turned down, that’s all right too. Then, to make it look like you’ve compromised, the third wish comes into view. Oh, if we must, you say. Sigh. You get it. And celebrate!

Of course, you mix this up differently each time.

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.

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.

“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.

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

For many years, I worked in the Hell's Kitchen community of midtown Manhattan's west side. Among my books are Tally: An Intuitive Life, and Children of Light.