A Thanksgiving Honor Roll: NYC's Unsung Heroes

Lauding the oft-overlooked people in a city of celebrity

Pamela Green uses local history as liberation strategy. Since 2001, she has been running the Weeksville Heritage Center, a wondrous but little-known historical enclave just off Bergen Street in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant. It was here in 1838 that free blacks proudly purchased their own land just 11 years after slavery was ended in New York, and where blacks fleeing the Civil War draft riots found safe refuge. Weeksville's 500 families had their own schools, businesses, churches, physicians, and even a newspaper, Freedman's Torchlight. "It is American history hidden in plain sight," says Green. The society's three restored buildings reflect Weeksville's 19th-century origins, the era of the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Depression. Says Green: "Our message is this: These weren't extraordinary people, but they were able to do extraordinary things. You should be able to do it, too."

Rob Solano was born and raised in a working-class family in Williamsburg and his goal is to try to make sure that others get the same chance. A union electrician who is active in his local parish, he was inspired by a sermon on the need for the poor to have a place to live that he heard in the summer of 2003 at St. Peter and Paul Church on South 3rd Street by Father James O'Shea. The words resonated with Solano, who had seen friends and neighbors forced out by rising rents. "I saw this two-edged sword. The neighborhood was getting safer and better in lots of ways. But my friends and their families can't live here anymore." He put O'Shea's words to work this year as the sparkplug behind a local coalition called Churches United for Fair Housing, aimed at winning the maximum number of affordable homes on a large swath of property known as the Broadway Triangle—the last big undeveloped city-owned site in north Brooklyn. They face sizable odds: Local powerbroker Vito Lopez, the domineering assemblyman who rules Brooklyn's Democratic Party, wants the site for his own purposes. Brooklyn bishop Nicholas DiMarzio lined up with Lopez after the assemblyman backed a bill limiting church exposure to sex-abuse lawsuits. But this fall, Solano and the low-cost housing proponents shocked Lopez by twice beating his hand-picked City Council candidate. "We want a neighborhood for everyone," says Solano.

Marty Needelman has been the thin legal line between hope and despair in north Brooklyn for 40 years. If TV producers had any imagination, they'd fashion their next Law & Order series around his Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A on Broadway in Williamsburg, where he is director and where real human dramas play out daily. Needelman, an Orthodox Jew, has steadily astonished his low-income black and Hispanic clients by agreeing to take on any foes, whether they wore a yarmulke like his own or not. He started in 1969 as a Vista volunteer and never left, entranced by what he saw. He is modest about his role: "We give legal representation to those who need it and can't afford it," he says.

Barbara Schliff, tenant organizer extraordinaire, also arrived in Williamsburg as a Vista volunteer in 1974 and stuck around. She was assigned to a new organization called Los Sures—the Southside—which blossomed into a creative group that saw opportunity where bureaucrats saw only squalor. Today, she is director of Housing Resources, but her duties still include climbing tenement stairs and attending late-night meetings. She has watched what was a low-income, minority neighborhood become the stomping ground of a new, better-heeled generation. In the past year, she has been working alongside Solano in the battle over the Broadway Triangle. "It's the last available space for affordable housing," she says.

Bobbie Sackman is the key reason that New York's senior citizens can still walk to a center in their neighborhood. A year ago, the Bloomberg technocrats launched an initiative to close dozens of city senior centers, consolidating them into a few locations. "People were terrified," says Sackman, who has been director for 20 years of the Council of Senior Centers and Services of NYC—a coalition of 200 service organizations. "Not just the staff at the centers, but the seniors themselves." Sackman launched a year-long campaign to try to persuade the mayor of the error of his ways, gaining support from City Council Speaker Chris Quinn and state legislators. In a final push, she and her organizers sent 20,000 letters—written in English, Spanish, and Chinese—to City Hall. In a rare retreat, Team Bloomberg backed down. "It was exhaustive advocacy that worked," says Sackman.

Amardeep Singh remembers an argument he had with his mother right after 9/11, when Sikhs like himself were being called "Bin Laden" in the streets. "She was begging for me to take off my turban and put my bandanna on, the one I use to play basketball. I said, 'I am not taking it off.' It was one of the worst days of my life, when your mother pleads with you to hide who you are from the world." A friend was chased down the streets of Lower Manhattan. Many Sikhs coped by staying behind closed doors. Singh, a lawyer, had already put in stints as a researcher at Human Rights Watch and a few years as a corporate litigator. "We figured it was time to start engaging the American community, to let Sikhs be Sikhs," he says. The result was the Sikh Coalition, where Singh has been legal director since 2003. The coalition has persuaded the city's education department to create a task force on the harassment of Sikh students and won the right of Sikh soldiers to keep wearing their turbans while serving in the Army. "We're at the tip of the civil rights spear," says Singh.

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