Occupy Wall Street ushered in a new phase of its movement yesterday when about 400 people participated in a collaborative takeover to re-occupy a vacant foreclosed home in East New York for a homeless family.
The afternoon’s event, part of a collaborative National Day of Action effort taking place in over 20 cities, was accompanied by a real estate tour of five foreclosed buildings in the area, a block party, and even some intermittent rain that posed no real threat to the day’s planned activities.
The neighborhood was one that most of the day’s participants would rarely venture into, with its high crime rates, vacant buildings, and bodegas. Once an enclave for working class Italian, Jewish, and other European immigrants, East New York is now a predominately Black and Latino area affected by extremely high unemployment.
During the event, Minister Patricia Malcolm, a Brooklyn-based activist, said the rate of foreclosure in the neighborhood was three times higher than the rest of the borough and fives times that of the state. Data from New York City’s comptroller’s officer found that the area led the city in the number of foreclosures with about 16.8 per 1,000 households receiving court filings for the legal process in 2010.
The pivotal part of the afternoon took place during the second half of the event, when organizers led an occupation on Vermont Street and revealed the homeless family that would occupy the home after Bank of America took over the residence three years ago.They were Tasha Glasgow, and their 9-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son. Alfredo Carrasquillo, the father of the children, spoke.
“This moment is very special,” Carrasquillo said before pausing and saying “Wow” as he stood against the backdrop of multicolored balloons, enlarged black and white photographs of his family, and other décor, including a bright yellow sign stating “Foreclose On Banks Not People.” Before he could go on, he choked up, unable to finish the rest of his speech to the crowd gathered in front of him.
The family, the first to take part of the new OWS effort, has been staying in shelters for weeks. They once received a housing voucher through the city’s Advantage NY housing program, but it was later withdrawn due to city-wide budget cuts.
Marchers shouted an array of chants during a tour of foreclosed homes, including “Our homes are under attack. We’ve come to take them back” and “All day, all week. Occupy East New York”
Several local community groups were present, including VOCAL-NY, formerly the NYC AIDS Housing Network-NYCAHN and the host of the dislocated family; Organizing for Occupation; Picture the Homeless; and Take Back The Land. City Council members Charles Barron and Ydanis Rodriquez also spoke.
The march began shortly after 1 p.m. right outside of the Pennsylvania Avenue train station. The group eventually turned onto New Jersey Avenue, the location of the foreclosure tour’s first home. From there, the group eventually returned to Pennsylvania Street. Although the event’s facilitators and guides carried neon orange directional signs, the group was not without navigation problems.
Near the corner of Blake and Pennsylvania, one of the event’s speakers stood atop the steps of a boarded up home and proceeded to lead part of the crowd in a series of a chants, only to have a facilitator approach him, wildly motioning with his hands for the man to stop speaking and follow the march’s leaders a few houses away. (A bright yellow sign on the building read: “First Time Home Buyers. $1000 Down.”)
Once the crowd reunited at a residence further down the block, Councilman Barron spoke and then asked the crowd to turn around and look at all of the students at Thomas Jefferson High School hanging out the windows. Up until that point, it seemed that very few participants noticed the pupils watching, but it proved to be a highlight of the afternoon as people eagerly waved at the students and cheered. The crowd shouted, “You are the 99 percent” before eventually heading south several blocks to New Lots Avenue to stop at a foreclosed home on Sheffield Avenue.
At the residence on Sheffield, Bertha Lewis, former president of ACORN, addressed the crowd, explaining why the local groups chose targeted the area to launch its Occupy Your Homes initiative.
“It is no mistake that we are here in East New York today,” Lewis said. “East New York has become Ground Zero for predatory lending.”
Dane Isaac, a long-time resident of the neighborhood, watched the group march down New Lots Avenue from his porch.
“It’s about time that they pay attention to the homes around here,” he told the Village Voice, referring to the general public and politicians. Isaac said many of his friends had been affected by foreclosure in other parts of the borough. When we asked him why he thought the foreclosure rate was so high in his neighborhood, he said predatory lending is commonplace.
“Most people here are not working. They are easy targets,” he said.
One neighborhood resident, standing in front of a bodega on New Lots Avenue, took pictures of the participants with his cell phone telling a colleague nearby, “Brooklyn ain’t seen something like this in a long time.”
After visiting the home on Sheffield Avenue, the group stopped at a home in the 700 block of Alabama Avenue, where a woman gave an impromptu speech on her struggle to keep her home.
Before addressing the crowd, Jocelyne Voltaire, a homeowner in Queens who came to show her support, could be heard shouting, “I cannot take it anymore. Enough is enough!” “I need to speak!”
The crowd became silent as volunteers led her up to the steps of the home. She spoke about her inability to sleep and eat because she said her lender, Deutsche Bank, wanted to take away her home. Voltaire shared the loss of her son after fighting in Kuwait and Iraq, her new illness, and said she had put down $80,000 on her home after living there for more than two decades.
The group finally settled at Vermont Street and proceeded to renovate the once-abandoned residence, offering “housewarming” gifts like green plants and holiday décor. An erected sign on the roof of the home read, “You cannot evict an idea whose time has come.”
The family entered the home shortly before 4 p.m. Participants erected tents symbolizing occupied homes on the block, which also served as stations for food, teach-ins, and other activities. Later, people broke out in song and danced to the live band that accompanied the entire march.
Michael, a cashier at Jiggy Duz Unisex Beauty & Barber Salon on New Lots Avenue, said he was shocked to see the crowd and that he had been concerned about all of the vacant buildings in the area.
Currently, there is an effort to pass Intro 48 in the City Council, proposed legislation that would require the city to conduct an annual count of vacant buildings and lots in all of the city’s boroughs. Introduced by Council member Melissa Mark Viverito, some activists see it as a solution to homelessness because it would identify empty buildings that could ultimately be converted into low-income housing for those in need. The proposed bill is similar to Intro 248, which was passed by the Council in August.
NYPD presence increased throughout the afternoon, with police cars following the crowd and with some officers even getting on top of a building on the corner of Vermont and New Lots Avenue to monitor the block party below.