A Thanksgiving Honor Roll for 2010

A Thanksgiving Honor Roll for 2010
Cover illustration by Joe McKendry

We're supposed to be two bitterly divided camps right now: the Tea Party's ferocious rage on one side; disheartened Democrats on the other. But for a special breed of New Yorkers, this current tough slog is just business as usual. They have no time for malaise or unfocused anger. They go to work every day in the city's streets and neighborhoods where victories are rare, and where the kind of violations that put so many of us in such a lather—government abuse, private greed, public indifference—simply come with the territory. They don't bother with rants on the Internet or the radio. They're too busy putting their shoulders to their tasks, moving the stone up the hill one step at a time.

Much of that hard work is hidden from public view, which is why the late Voice writer Jack Newfield made it his business to give a yearly shout-out to those who labor behind the scenes to bring dignity and fairness to this city. He called his Thanksgiving-week story his "Honor Roll," and we're honored to continue the tradition. This is just a handful of the many New Yorkers deserving of a holiday tribute.

Creating Victories
Valery Jean is fighting to even the odds between low-income residents and the tsunami of new, high-end development that has swamped downtown Brooklyn in the Bloomberg era. Her group is called FUREE—Families United for Racial & Economic Equality—and its focus is those who lived in the area long before the glittering new high-rise condos with their meaningless, market-tested names like Toren and Forté.

Valery Jean: Bringing low-income families to the bargaining table
Caleb Ferguson
Valery Jean: Bringing low-income families to the bargaining table
Gustavo Rivera: Taking down the state’s most embarrassing politician
Caleb Ferguson
Gustavo Rivera: Taking down the state’s most embarrassing politician

Jean is the face of that other New York: She is 33, the soft-spoken daughter of Haitian immigrants, raised in Brooklyn, and the mother of two young children. Her Willoughby Avenue offices, bustling with a steady stream of dues-paying members, are across the street from her old high school, St. Joseph. She attended Hunter College and joined FUREE four years ago. She's helped public-housing residents of Ingersoll, Whitman, and Farragut houses press the city's Housing Authority for adequate repairs and a role in renovation. When city officials decided to level the nearby Albee Square Mall for a massive new high-rise, FUREE was the sole advocate for those pushed aside, the scores of merchants forced to relocate, and tenement tenants left in limbo. Last week, federal Housing and Urban Development officials paid the group the ultimate compliment, visiting FUREE's headquarters to answer questions from the group's board, composed of leaders recruited from the ranks. "New York City is an increasingly segregated place, based on how much you earn," Jean says. "We're creating victories by bringing low-income families to the bargaining table."

'You Can't Stop'
Father James Kelly has been booming a message of social justice for the past 50 years from the pulpit of St. Brigid's in Brooklyn. He delivers it in the same Irish brogue he brought from his native Limerick. Last spring, he marked a half-century of celebrating Mass there, a golden jubilee marked by a brass band and mariachis, echoes of the mostly Latino parishioners who fill the pews these days. When Kelly arrived at the red-brick church on the border of Bushwick and Ridgewood in the spring of 1960, it was mostly German and Italian families with their own problems. On nearby Troutman Street, factions of Joe Bonanno's crime family shot it out. Kelly was in court so often for local kids—"juvenile delinquents," they were politely called then—that he decided to get a law degree from St. John's. "I was going to court with these kids getting in trouble, and I got fed up with being told, 'You can't say anything. You're not a lawyer.' Now I'm a lawyer, but I am no smarter than I was before," he says. Then, as now, the issue was immigration. "Immigration is the overwhelming problem. I did it with the Italians, now I do it with the Mexicans, the Dominicans. They're going after people on deportations, people who got duped by phony labor certificates. They break up the families. It's wrenching for everyone." Kelly's snowy white head is a regular sight amid the ranks of marchers protesting these policies. "You can't stop," he says. "If you stop, you'll fall apart."

Taking Down Espada
Gustavo Rivera provided one of the few hopeful notes in a gloomy political season, thanks to his gutsy decision to take on a statewide embarrassment, Bronx State Senator Pedro Espada. The race was no slam dunk, and Rivera's win is no small victory. Even incumbents like Espada, who used his office as a personal fiefdom, regularly coast to re-election. Until Rivera stepped forward, it wasn't clear whether voters in the north Bronx district would buy Espada's claim that outsiders were invading. But Rivera, 34, a professor of political science at Hunter College and an Obama campaign veteran, was no outsider. Born in Puerto Rico, he has lived in the district for 10 years in a rent-regulated apartment. Espada lives miles away in the suburbs. Rivera's backers were unions, housing advocates, and Senate progressives like Liz Krueger. Espada drew his campaign support from the real estate titans he championed as chair of the Senate housing committee.

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