Category Archives: New York

Guess what? Brooklyn is gentrifying!

By Elise Goldin

This post originally appeared on The SurRealEstate here.

This might come as a shock to you but Brooklyn is gentrifying. There. I said it. Can I bring you a glass of water, or maybe a local organic lemonade-ice tea from the corner “petit gourmand?” Cool your face with one of Brooklyn’s top 10 frozen desserts? Relax with a copy of Brooklyn Magazine, filled with beautiful white hipsters.  Where are all the people of color you ask?  Not in Brooklyn, apparently.

A recent study based on race by zip code revealed that Brooklyn has the largest increase of white people in the country.  Neighborhoods in Brooklyn that have seen the greatest influx have been (in order) Clinton Hill, E. Williamsburg, Prospect Heights, and Bushwick.  Surprised? Didn’t think so.  This study determined 25 zip codes nationwide with the greatest influx of white people, and no other place has more than one zip code in the same state.  Four zip codes are in in the city of Brooklyn, NY.

Gentrification is about access to affordable housing, how resources are distributed in a neighborhood, and levels of safety and comfort for all residents. My work at the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board around predatory equity directly plays into gentrification– when a neighborhood is seen as lucrative on the real-estate market, predatory equity (and consequently gentrification) occurs with greater frequency, displacing residents. This process is gentrification at its worse.

For many young, white transplants (like myself), there is a lot of guilt associated with living in Brooklyn.  As I prepare to leave the AVODAH bayit (house) and embark on that dreaded journey apartment hunting, I have a lot of questions.  How can I be committed to housing justice while simultaneously needing to live somewhere with cheap rents?  What determines gentrification– Is it simply racial?  Is it measured by income level?  How can it be avoided, and how can we move beyond guilt and anger?

An exciting new documentary called “My Brooklyn” addresses these complex questions through interviews of residents, city government, development companies, and community activists.  The documentary is told through the eyes of a white gentrifier, Kelly Anderson, who follows the the politics behind  luxury condo development in her neighborhood and the controversial redevelopment of Downtown Brooklyn, particularly Fulton Mall.

Filmmakers Kelly Anderson and Allison Lirish Dean wrote about My Brooklyn for the NYTimes’ Fort Greene/ Clinton Hill Local.  Here is an insightful exert:

Our interviews with locals from Fort Greene to Bedford-Stuyvesant brought out similarly polarized responses, but we also found that many newcomers felt bad about being gentrifiers and felt powerless to do anything about it. Could people stop gentrification just by not moving somewhere? The conversation seemed stuck, unable to get at real solutions.

Missing from these debates was a larger sense of how gentrification really happens, and what’s truly behind it. We made “My Brooklyn” to move beyond the tired focus on individual choice and blame that we kept running into, and to help steer the conversation in a more productive direction. We also wanted to offer people a concrete sense of what they can do to make development more equitable…

All of this new development might have been okay if the rezoning had also, for example, fulfilled the public need for truly affordable housing. A more sensitive approach would have also preserved the mall’s thriving small business community and its unique, homegrown culture. Instead, it is being slowly killed off.

Interested in learning more about gentrification in Brooklyn? Connect with the great work of Families United for Racial and Economic Justice (FUREE).  FUREE is a women of color led organization fighting gentrification and for racial justice in Brooklyn!  Stay informed and continue the conversation!

Elise GoldinElise Goldin is from Evanston, IL and attended Macalester College. As a New York AVODAH Corps member, she is a Tenant Organizer at the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, which supports self-help housing and community building in low-income neighborhoods by training, organizing, developing, and assisting resident-controlled limited-equity housing co-operatives.

A Call to Action: Young Jews Building Justice-Focused Jewish Communities

By: Rachie Lewis

This is adapted from a call to action Rachie gave at the JOIN Jewish Organizing Summit in NYC on April 30th conveying that young Jews have an important role to play in reinvigorating Jewish community and making justice and organizing work central pieces of it.

AVODAH Alumni at JOIN

AVODAH alumni along with Marilyn Sneiderman and Cantor/Rabbi Angela Buchdahl at the JOIN for Justice Summit.

Over the past few years, I have had the privilege of participating in AVODAH in New Orleans and in the Jewish Organizing Fellowship in Boston. Both of these experiences have allowed me to synthesize my commitment to Jewish tradition and justice work, connect to a community of like-minded people and be taken seriously by the surrounding mainstream Jewish communities.

The JOIN Jewish Organizing Summit, that occurred April 29th-30th in NYC, offered an opportunity to weave together these worlds and think together about what young Jews committed to these things might be able to accomplish together. Together, we participated in a young adults workshop where we created an advisory council to help create more residential social-justice-focused, young, Jewish collectives. Sound familiar AVODAH alumni? This is a great opportunity to think about how to let the AVODAH experience live on beyond the year!

We also decided to continue a conversation about how to welcome various groups of young Jews who have traditionally felt alienated from the mainstream community. I have found that  this is an issue near and dear to many AVODAhniks hearts, due to the experience of feeling alienated by the established Jewish community in the past on the grounds of patrilinial descent, Israel/Palestine politics, queer identity etc. Yet many of us have been lucky enough to experience Jewish community that, in some way, has affirmed these aspects of ourselves and lives, thanks to AVODAH.

My AVODAH/JOI(N) experiences have taught me that in order for this vision of justice-focused Jewish communities to be lived out, a vision that most attendees of the summit came to flesh out, we all need to work together – young adults, rabbis and members of the mainstream Jewish community.

We young adults need the established Jewish community’s resources and built up power. The established Jewish community needs the creative thinking, critical eyes and enthusiastic energy of young Jews. And we young Jews need each other to build power and develop a stronger voice within the mainstream.

And as AVODAH alumni, it seems that we have a crucial role to play within this process. As young Jews committed to justice and connected to larger Jewish institutions, we have the potential to create meaningful bridges between different generations, politics and mentalities; we have the potential to help clarify a new shared language and objective within the community about our own power and the injustices that plague our communities, our cities and our world.

We, and I believe we are one we, make up a diverse community that does not exist within a vacuum, but reflects the evolution of time that forces new faces and new strategies to emerge while remembering and sustaining those of old. We are pulling a millennia old thread and must include the voices of every Jew in thinking about the broader community we are building and the shared language of justice we are trying to insert within it.

Do you think that seemingly disparate Jewish groups can create a shared language of justice and harness collective power? And if so, what role can AVODAH alumni play in this process?

Rachie Lewis participated in AVODAH’s year-long program in New Orleans in 2009-2010. She then spent a year studying Jewish traditional text at Yeshivat Hadar in New York City. She is currently living in Boston, MA, after having participated in the Jewish Organizing Initiative and working as a community organizer for the Massachusetts Senior Action Council.

Predatory Equity

By: Elise Goldin

Working as a tenant organizer with the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB) has taught me an enormous amount about topics I had only barely understood from college- affordable housing, mortgages, lending practices, organizing strategies. UHAB has focused the past few years on its campaign around Predatory Equity, or what happens when buildings are bought for a price that building owners cannot sustain. When this takes place, conditions in buildings worsen and they often go into foreclosure, and all the while it is the tenants who suffer from the consequences of their irresponsible landlords.

As an AVODAH Corps member working at UHAB, the focus of my work has been to organize tenants once their buildings fall into foreclosure, and ideally work with them to have a voice in the future of their building. Rather than cycle into another round of Predatory Equity, we guide tenants through determining the way they want the building to function in the future through “tenant choice.” To help explain more about the nature of the multi-family foreclosure crisis in New York, we have developed a report, which can be found on our blog, The Surreal Estate. I hope you enjoy.

Elise GoldinElise Goldin is from Evaston, IL and attended Macalester College. As a New York AVODAH Corps member, she is a Tenant Organizer at the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, which supports self-help housing and community building in low-income neighborhoods by training, organizing, developing, and assisting resident-controlled limited-equity housing co-operatives.

Theatre of the Oppressed: Imagination as Social Change

By: Alexandra Stein

This piece originally appeared at PursueAction.org here.

I came to Pursue’s Theatre of the Oppressed workshop with limited theater background (oh hey, high school Acting 1!), limited knowledge of Theatre of the Oppressed, and a lot of curiosity. This year in AVODAH, Sarra, our program director, has repeatedly emphasized that social change work requires a lot of creativity: creativity to imagine a world more just than this one, and also creativity to begin to build that other, better world. As a lover of art and occasional writer of stories, I’m a huge fan of this point – and always eager for opportunities to practice social justice creatively. Pursue’s Theatre of the Oppressed workshop seemed like a great chance to do just that.

Theatre of the Oppressed involves creating scenes depicting real-world injustice, and then inviting the audience to interrupt and change these scenes. After spending the morning leading some games and exercises meant to help us “get confused! We’re trying to shake up the social order and imagine new possibilities here!” Concrete Justice, the collective leading our workshop, performed a scene from their newest show, which is about injustice in the NYC shelter system. In the scene, several characters are denied a place to spend the night: one because he is trans and his identity documents do not match his gender; another because by the time he gets to the front of the line, he is four minutes past the check-in deadline, even though he arrived to check in with ample time.

Then, our leaders challenged us to make our own scene, framed around a time we had been denied access, or been allies to someone denied access. My group built a scene about the eviction of Occupy Wall Street protesters from Zuccotti Park, complete with an evasive speech by Mayor Bloomberg, and police violence against a protester attempting to point out that a court had actually ruled in favor of continued occupation. The other three groups performed scenes about an unresponsive landlord, police who let a rich man break the law but harassed a young woman and arrested two homeless people, and a landlady who would only give housing applications to people who met her very narrow definition of “acceptable” tenants (people who didn’t make the cut included an interracial couple, a formerly homeless individual, and a single mother).

As I watched the scenes unfold, my anger grew. How could it be that we lived in a world, a state, a city where these things were allowed to happen? What could be done?

And this is where things got awesome – because the goal of Theatre of the Oppressed isn’t just to get you angry; it’s to get you creative, in every sense of the word. After we performed our scenes, our workshop leaders informed us that we would now have the opportunity to revisit the scene of our choice and, this time, instead of just watching, we could swap in for any character experiencing injustice. The only rule was “no magic:” sexist, racist, classist, homophobic characters could not suddenly decide they loved all people equally, someone without money couldn’t spontaneously find a thousand dollars, and so on. But within the confines of the real world, we could do whatever we wanted.

We voted to revisit the scene in which a landlady was denying housing applications to everyone left, right, and center. The landlady was not telling tenants that they were unfit for her building outright (in New York City, this is super illegal, as is more covert discrimination - it’s just harder to catch someone) – instead, she was telling all of the tenants she didn’t like that the vacancy had been filled or was out of their price range. How to get around her conniving? The audience took a variety of approaches. One person, playing a white woman in an interracial relationship, attempted to catch the landlady on tape quoting different prices for the apartment before and after meeting the white woman’s black partner (presumably, this tape could be used in litigation). Another person attempted to seek out other applicants who had been illegally denied housing applications, and organize them to work together. A third person, playing an unwed pregnant woman, attempted to trick the landlord into giving her an application by being evasive about whether or not she had a husband.

In the end, the woman with the tape recorder was foiled (the landlord wasn’t fool enough to quote a price until she had both members of the couple in front of her), but both the organizer and the evasive pregnant woman were successful. The success of the pregnant woman in particular lead us into in an interesting discussion about what kinds of actions we as social change agents wish to pursue – after all, the woman had not deposed the unjust landlord or even challenged her prejudices – she had just acquired an application and her own housing. But, as our group leader put it, sometimes you just need to live to fight another day.

After we had run, and interrupted, the scene to its fullest, we settled down to learn about Theatre of the Oppressed more broadly. Our group leaders told us about their work: as Concrete Justice, they have successfully performed at homeless shelters and at wealthy venues on the Upper East Side alike. The key to the mobility of their show is that it asks all viewers (soon to be performers) to ask themselves “What would I do in this situation?” and then to actually do it. Theatre of the Oppressed doesn’t just stop at consciousness-raising (which, though important, can leave people with nowhere to go with their anger or sadness) – it takes the next step and asks us to do something, something concrete. As one of our group leaders told us, the kinds of actions we take are often only limited by our imagination.

Alexandra Stein is from Washington, DC and attended Yale College. As a New York AVODAH Corps member, she works as a Case Assistant at the Break Free Program at the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services, The Kaplan Center.

Was Vashti an Organizer?

By: Elise Goldin

This post originally appeared on The SurRealEstate here.

As unnatural as it might sound, as Purim descends upon us, I can’t help but to pull out social justice themes within the holiday and compare it to our work in tenant organizing. I am working at Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB) for the year through AVODAH: the Jewish Service Corps, a program that works to explore the connection between Judaism and social justice. A major theme that I see embedded in the story of Purim is the importance of owning your own voice and using it to call out injustice. The most obvious point in the story is Vashti’s act of feminism. (At least, in the way I’ve always heard it in my admittedly lefty Jewish upbringing.) Vashti, the Queen of Shushan, refuses King Achashverosh’s demand for her to dance naked at his party. Fed up with his abuse, Vashti packs her things and leaves Shushan forever.

This deceivingly complicated act of not putting up with crap and learning how to say “no” is something that tenants confront as well. When is enough enough?  Last night, I met with a group of tenants whose building is in foreclosure and is in atrocious condition. One woman has lived with no refrigerator for over a year, while another complains of not being able to drink the water that comes out of the faucets because it makes her sick. Tenants gathered and came to a few agreements: It is unacceptable that they experience harassment and intimidation from their landlord. They cannot continue living without basic services or repairs. Like Vashti, tenants are taking a stand and saying that they will not put up with mistreatment any more.

Another aspect of Purim is the actual celebration. For the most part this means reading the megillah, or the story of Purim. The story includes three important characters: Haman, the meanest guy in town who is plotting the kill the Jews, and Esther and Mordechai, our heroes. Whenever Haman is mentioned, the crowd is supposed to boo, beat drums, and twist graggers. When Esther or Mordechai enter the story, the crowd cheers! Calling out “boo” and “yay” during the megillah reading empowers folks to join in community and name what is right and wrong. While certainly we cannot claim that the story of Purim fully adheres to ideals of social justice, this communal acknowledgment of good and bad, as well as the sheer act of community participation, are important first steps to creating change. Like tenants in foreclosed buildings, the crowd at the reading of megillah sees themselves as important parts of the story, actors that cannot be ignored.

When we organize tenant meetings in distressed, foreclosure buildings, tenants come together to name what is acceptable or not acceptable within their home. It is only after collectively establishing that a problem exists in a building are tenants able to work collectively to improve it. Last night, tenants agreed that security has become a building-wide problem. The front door is always jammed with papers or rugs to keep it open, and strangers come in and out of the building regularly. Now that this issue has been called out collectively, tenants can brainstorm together about how they want to address it.

So, after Purim, when you wake up with a hangover and your face paint still on from the night before, think about how your hoarse voice was a tool in joining as a community to name what is right and wrong in the world.

Elise GoldinElise Goldin is from Evaston, IL and attended Macalester College. As a New York AVODAH Corps member, she is a Tenant Organizer at the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, which supports self-help housing and community building in low-income neighborhoods by training, organizing, developing, and assisting resident-controlled limited-equity housing co-operatives.

Theatre of the Oppressed: Bodies, Garbage and Assumptions

By: Elise Goldin

This piece originally appeared at PursueAction.org here.

As someone who is both involved with theater and in the middle of my year as an AVODAH Corps member in Brooklyn, Pursue’s event hosting the Theatre of the Oppressed workshop was a perfect combination. Theatre of the Oppressed combines a mix of improv games that focus on creatively rethinking our assumptions and social structures. The workshop’s dynamic facilitator led a series of games and activities that forced the group of 20- and 30-somethings to act silly and be creative in a way that is often hard to achieve in young adults. 

While we did several theater exercises and games, one in particular stood out for me. We were each asked to bring five pieces of “clean garbage” from home, and when we entered the workshop room in downtown Brooklyn, we placed our items on two long tables. There was anything from sketches to tea bags to plastic wrappers to empty liquor bottles on the table. When it came time, we were split into two groups and asked to make a person out of the pieces of “clean garbage.” We sat in a circle on the floor and each placed a piece of garbage down, hoping that the end result would resemble some sort of body. Throughout the process, I noticed myself feeling tense, getting angry when people were placing pieces in a spot I arbitrarily didn’t agree with. “Fine,” I resolved, “do what you like.” As we reflected on the experience later, I realized that I wanted to control the situation and was not comfortable with letting the group come to a shape on its own.  

What we created was something more beautiful and interesting than I certainly would have come up with on my own. We discussed where did this person come from, what its gender was, how old the person was. We named it a “trans pregnant man” who had a sparkle trail/leash with an animal/tail/extended leg. It was loony and silly, but we also discussed our issues with making quick judgments and assumptions, and what it’s like to read a body without having any real knowledge of the person.  

Thinking about this exercise in the context of my year in AVODAH and involvement with Pursue around Jewish social justice, calling out my assumptions about people is a really useful tool. While living in my house with 17 other Jewish people (16 of whom are women), it is easy to pre-judge people and imagine I know how each one will respond. Taking the time to actively rethink our assumptions and play with ways responses to those assumptions helped me to reimagine the ways that I interact with my housemates, my co-workers, and tenants I organize with in the Bronx.

Elise GoldinElise Goldin is from Evaston, IL and attended Macalester College. She is a Tenant Organizer at the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, which supports self-help housing and community building in low-income neighborhoods by training, organizing, developing, and assisting resident-controlled limited-equity housing co-operatives.

Sh*t New York Slumlords Say

By: Elise Goldin

Working as an AVODAH Corp Member as a tenant organizer with the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board has been an enlightening experience. I’ve learned about things I never thought I’d learn like bank practices, mortgages, and foreclosure processes.  UHAB organizers work in distressed buildings in foreclosure where tenants face everything from rat infestations, to no heat or hot water for extended periods of time, to a landlord harassment.  While these situations are anything but funny, we wanted to illustrate the ridiculousness in landlord behavior and, through the “Sh*t ___ Say” format, shed light on real issues tenants face.

This video originally appeared on TheSurRealEstate blog here.

Elise GoldinElise Goldin is from Evaston, IL and attended Macalester College. She is a Tenant Organizer at the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, which supports self-help housing and community building in low-income neighborhoods by training, organizing, developing, and assisting resident-controlled limited-equity housing co-operatives.