Here, on a slow summer Saturday afternoon, in the middle of a presidential campaign that is slower yet, sitting in the middle of Madison Avenue, was a political idea as solid as they come.
It was a house.
It sat on a trailer hitch, wrapped in white plastic insulation, complete with doors and windows. Inside was a finished kitchen, living room, and dining nook. There was space for stairs that, when added, would lead to three bedrooms on a second floor.
The house took up most of two traffic lanes, having been hauled there early that morning from the Brooklyn factory where it was assembled—a dramatic trip that required police to briefly close the Manhattan Bridge.
Motorists slowed in their cars to stare. Passersby stopped to gawk. Look, honey, there’s a house in the street.
Getting people to look was part of the plan of the Industrial Areas Foundation, the nationwide activist organization that brought the house to Madison Avenue on June 24.
The house is the centerpiece in IAF’s bid to insert practical progressive ideas into a campaign that has been criticized for having little substance.
The IAF, which counts 250,000 members in its church-based network of groups, began asking Al Gore and George Bush last October for individual, 30-minute meetings.
There would be only two items on the agenda, IAF promised. One would be discussion of a proposal to create hundreds of thousands of homes affordable to lower-income working Americans. The other would be a plan to generate the incomes needed to afford those homes by mandating a “living wage” of $25,000 a year for all of those employed by firms receiving government subsidies, ranging from companies that get tax breaks to developers receiving inexpensive mortgages.
But despite national publicity for the proposals, neither candidate has so far found time to meet with IAF. Gore’s people offered to dispatch a surrogate instead; the offer was politely rejected.
IAF was founded by the radical activist Saul Alinsky, who preached that tactics were often as important as ideology. IAF’s organizational style is to challenge power when necessary, often in ways that grate on politicians’ sensibilities.
In New York in the late 1970s, IAF’s Queens Citizens Organization infuriated then-mayor Ed Koch by limiting his remarks at a meeting attended by hundreds of citizens to just a few minutes. A couple of years later, organizers from a sister group, East Brooklyn Congregations, stunned the Brooklyn borough president when they insisted on meeting not with him but with the man they said was the borough’s real power, Brooklyn’s late Democratic political boss Meade Esposito.
Along the same lines, the IAF organizers decided to bring a tangible exhibit of their presidential campaign proposal to the Madison Avenue offices of the New York State Democratic Committee, Gore’s headquarters in the city.
Houses was trucked there by the workers from an all-union company called Capsys based in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where it manages to do what government has long been incapable of: creating homes that families who earn about $25,000 a year can afford to own and maintain.
The houses are constructed in a vast warehouse and factory. When they are done, they are loaded onto a trailer and hauled through the Brooklyn streets to East New York.
There they are planted in the ground on streets called Hinsdale, Sheffield, Williams, Hegeman, and Malta, places ravaged by arson, crime, neglect, and joblessness and all but abandoned by government and business decades ago.
When they began in 1983, IAF’s East Brooklyn Congregations dubbed the project Nehemiah, after the Old Testament leader who rebuilt Jerusalem from ashes. So far, about 2900 homes have been built in Brooklyn. Another 700 have been built in the Bronx, 600 in Baltimore, and others in Philadelphia and Prince Georges County, Maryland. The idea is to grow new neighborhoods.
“That’s what it is, a whole new neighborhood,” said Vida Griffith last week as she stood on Alabama Avenue in front of the sparkling new home she bought in February. The first floor is brick; the second is gray siding. A picture window in the main upstairs bedroom overlooks two bright patches of green lawn in front. A new black wrought-iron fence, topped by a statue of a pair of doves, separates the house from the street. Her home is one of a row of two dozen like it that line both sides of the block.
“Before, you wouldn’t want to walk down the street here, you’d be so afraid,” said Griffith. It wasn’t until she saw how many homes were rising on the once blasted earth that she decided to apply to buy one. It is the first home she and her husband, Leroy, have owned. They previously lived with their daughter in an apartment in Crown Heights.
“This is a dream come true for minority people like us, who can’t afford those mansions out on Long Island,” said Griffith.
IAF’s proposal is to replicate the new neighborhoods of East New York around the country. To underscore their seriousness, some 700 members of IAF groups in Boston, Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York traveled to the June 24 rally on Madison Avenue. A mix of different races and ages, they stood in a hot noontime sun that spilled down onto the street. Over and over they chanted a single phrase: “Where is Al Gore?”
They listened as Reverend Johnny Ray Youngblood of Brooklyn, cochairman of East Brooklyn Congregations, mounted a wooden platform built under the house’s front door and explained why they were there.
“We’re here because that once great party and its candidate and the other party and its candidate can’t seem to bring themselves to talk about the kinds of concerns that make or break our lives,” said Youngblood.
“We’re here because this booming economy, this marvel of production and wealth creation, did not solve [our] problems. . . . We’re here because the solutions that used to be considered far from radical—decent, affordable homes, living-wage work for hardworking Americans—are now not on the radar screen,” said Youngblood.
Despite advance publicity by the organizers that tapped into all the usual outlets, no TV or radio covered the rally. Only a column in the next day’s Daily News by Jim Dwyer acknowledged the event. Asked about the IAF’s efforts to meet with the candidate, a spokesman at Gore’s Nashville headquarters insisted that they knew nothing about it. “We don’t have a letter request on file,” said spokesman Alejandro Cabrera. “Once we have a full-time campaign staff there in New York, we would be more than happy to have a representative of their organization meet with the campaign. But with all due respect to this organization, I think they’ve got the wrong guy. Unlike George W. Bush, Al Gore supports making housing more affordable and has shown a real commitment to the issue,” he said.
An equal-opportunity organization, IAF will hold its next rally outside the Republican convention in Philadelphia on July 31, its leaders said.