A Thanksgiving Honor Roll: NYC's Unsung Heroes

Lauding the oft-overlooked people in a city of celebrity

Sandy Pope is not your average Teamsters leader. A woman heading a blue-collar union local, she also holds a martial arts black belt. But her most important trait is a dedication to union democracy and organizing. A former truck driver from Cleveland, Pope became the head of Local 805 in Queens in 1999, one of many Teamsters locals that had long been little more than playthings for the mob and its favored employers. She ended lingering corrupt practices and had the 1,200 members—mostly warehouse, supply, and cafeteria workers—elect their own stewards. She won better contracts and also did what most union leaders are too fearful or too sluggish to attempt: She organized, winning elections at several vending shops. She also targeted Fresh Direct, the big gourmet food company that boasts of community dedication but has resisted demands for higher pay for its workforce. The first Teamsters push was derailed when immigration agents raided the company's food-prep plant. Pope says a new drive will begin next month: "Workers there keep asking us when we're coming back. Well, we're coming back."

Adam Friedman is an economic development expert who goes against the grain. A veteran who earned his stripes advising some of the city's most progressive officials, Friedman has spent 20 years trying to help manufacturing jobs stay in the city. As the first head of the Garment Industry Development Corporation and founder of the New York Industrial Retention Network, Friedman has long advocated for manufacturing to shift from smokestacks to clean-green enterprises offering high-quality products and high-quality jobs at a living wage. This year, he found a new platform as director of the Pratt Center for Community Development, the organization founded by New York's great urban planner Ron Shiffman and most recently piloted by Brad Lander, newly elected to the City Council. "We're about creating sustainable neighborhoods, block by block," says Friedman.

Nancy Biberman was a tenacious lawyer defending tenants being booted around in Manhattan's old single-room-occupancy hotels when she decided she could do more by building housing herself. With the help of a Revson fellowship to study at Columbia in 1985, she mastered the intricacies of housing finance (I know because I watched her do it). She put the knowledge to good use, first by conceiving and building a project on Manhattan's West Side that housed both homeless adults and young families. She followed up by rehabilitating 23 abandoned buildings in the High Bridge section of the Bronx. In 1992, she founded the Women's Housing and Economic Development Corporation, which turned the old Morrisania hospital into 132 affordable homes, plus a Head Start program and a job-creating commercial kitchen. Working together with Davon Russell, a youth leader, this year, she opened her latest venture, a 128-unit building on Intervale Avenue. "It's the largest 'green' affordable housing project in the country," she says with pride.

Lorie Slutsky, Joyce Bove, and Pat Swann are a trio of grantmakers at the New York Community Trust who refused to let the economic crisis become an excuse to dial down efforts for those in need. While other givers, concerned about declining resources, cut aid, the Trust extended even larger than usual "no-hassle" awards to nonprofit groups on the front lines offering help to needy New Yorkers with food, housing, and legal services. It's another reason why the Trust—which pools funds from scores of individual donors who want to be sure their money goes where it does the most good—remains the backbone of New York's safety net.

Al Doyle grew up in Stuyvesant TownPeter Cooper Village, the sprawling middle-class development on the East Side. A construction estimator by trade, he was head of the tenants association when Tishman-Speyer, a grasping company with big clout at City Hall, bought the complex in 2006 premised on mass evictions and sky-high rent hikes. Together with fellow leaders Susan Steinberg and John Marsh, Doyle started organizing. Rallying tenants is always a tough task, but when you've got 25,000 residents unused to such battles, it's even harder. Crucial help came from City Council member Dan Garodnick, another Stuy Town product, and attorneys Leonard Grunstein, Stuart Saft, and Alexander Schmidt, who shaped and argued the landmark lawsuit that upended the landlord's market-rate rent hikes. "I just think it should stay affordable to cops and firefighters, the kind of people who have lived here for generations," says Doyle.

Mike Gecan likes to stay in the background as he helps turn everyday people into leaders discovering the power of their own voice. But I'm outing him here because he is one of those rare marvels, an organizer who never quits and who finds his own inspiration among the ordinary people he helps to enable. Gecan initiated East Brooklyn Congregations and its much-lauded Nehemiah affordable-homes program in the '80s, along with a dozen other citizen groups along the Eastern Seaboard as a lead organizer for the Industrial Areas Foundation, the Saul Alinsky–inspired group. A native of Chicago's working class and fiercely ethnic West Side, he met the enemy in the form of the massively corrupt old Daley machine. Gecan has traced that history and the lessons learned in two artfully written books, the most recent a slim volume called After America's Midlife Crisis, which poses questions and warnings to a fellow community organizer from the Windy City, Barack Obama. "The devil is not in the details," he writes. "He's in the large space between policy and patronage—in the muck and mire of implementation, in the netherworld where neither the media nor federal prosecutors tread." It's no wonder that the late great novelist Robert Penn Warren, who taught Gecan at Yale, which he attended on scholarship, considered the kid from Chicago his most talented pupil.

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