“The faith community in New York has never been challenged to deal with economic inequality,” says Rev. David Rommereim of the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Bay Ridge, an active member of Faith in New York. “That’s why we need a moral agenda that is not moralistic and that uses power for the sake of justice.”Faith in New York (FiNY), a multicultural alliance of 53 Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens religious congregations, came together in the summer of 2013 in order to address issues affecting low-income people throughout the five boroughs. As an affiliate of the PICO National Network, a 17-state community organizing effort driven by Christian, Jewish, and Muslim people of faith, issues like economic security, neighborhood revitalization, and access to affordable housing quickly became top priorities.
“The faith community has an important role to play in the shaping of everyday life,” says Joseph McKellar, FiNY’s Executive Director. “Our voice has been missing from the economic debate in New York City for at least 10 years but we don’t see ourselves as separate from the broader social justice movement. We need to build power and lead with others, so we can find our place at the table and reform how economic development happens in the city.”
The issue of economic inequality angers McKellar and as he speaks his passion for social justice rings clear. His stance is grounded in the belief that we can build “the kingdom of God” on earth, and his speech is salted with phrases like faith-filled, table of plenty, and prophetic vision. At the same time, it’s evident that he is a seasoned community organizer—he was trained by PICO and the Jesuit Volunteer Corps—and knows how to listen as well as motivate, skills essential for building a mass movement.
“When we take the initiative to help the most vulnerable, everybody wins,” he says matter-of-factly. But what are the best ways to do this, when there are so many issues vying for FiNY’s attention?
One of FiNY’s first projects has involved scrutinizing plans for the development of Willets Point, a 62-acre peninsula on the Flushing River in Northern Queens, that Mayor Michael Bloomberg has called a “valley of ashes.” Similarly, Kathryn Wylde, President and CEO of the pro-development Partnership for New York City, has referred to the area as “Queens’s biggest eyesore.”
On one hand, FiNY concedes that Willets Point leaves a lot to be desired: Local waterways and soil have been heavily contaminated by toxic petroleum products, paint, cleaning solvents, and automotive fluids, the detritus of more than 225 businesses that operated for 50-plus years with little-to-no oversight by environmental protection agencies. At the same time, now that the redevelopment of the area has become a foregone conclusion, FiNY wants to be sure that plans serve both small business owners and low-income people who have long clamored for affordable housing, decent schools, quality medical care, and a pollution-free environment.
It’s shaping up to be a David versus Goliath struggle. To wit, the New York City Economic Development Corporation has declared that Willets “will become New York’s next great neighborhood with retail and entertainment amenities, a hotel and convention center, mixed-income housing, public open space, and community use.”
Among FiNY’s main objections is that the city acquired approximately 95 percent of the land through eminent domain and other processes and has shelled out $100 million in capital funds to clean 23 acres and demolish what the Real Deal calls “faulty infrastructure” for a joint venture between two privately-owned real estate giants, Related Companies and Sterling Equities.
And what giants they are. Crain’s New York dubs Related the city’s “leading developer.” With 2000 employees and offices in seven U.S. cities and countries including Brazil and the United Arab Emirates, they have a solid track record in upscale construction and are responsible for building both the Time Warner Center and the Hudson Yards on Manhattan’s West Side. Sterling Equities, controlled by New York Mets and Brooklyn Cyclones owners Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz, is estimated by Crain’s to be worth $15 billion; its website boasts that the company manages 23.3 million square feet of commercial property and 57,800 residential units. They also own three major sports complexes scattered across the country.
Predictably, Bloomberg and his allies see the re-creation of Willets Point as another triumph of high-end urban development. But while the soon-to-be-replaced Mayor crows about his business-friendly legacy, groups like FiNY are asking hard questions about who benefits when public dollars are lavished on private companies.
Reform, McKellar insists, is essential especially since promises made to low-income communities are often ignored. For example, one of FiNY’s now-defunct predecessors, Queens Congregations United for Action, attended several meetings about the future of Willets Point in the mid 2000s. “The Economic Development Corporation and City Council came to an agreement in 2008 to build 6000 units of housing, 2000 of them affordable to people at 30 to 60 percent of the area median income. Then, in June 2012, the Mayor amended the plan to gut the affordable housing component and instead build a 1.4 million square foot mall,” McKellar continues.
For its part, Sterling and Related concede that no housing will be constructed until 2025—and then only 2500 units, 875 of them affordable—will be created. Meanwhile, the City is paying approximately $50 million to install sanitary and storm sewers so that the project can proceed.
“It’s essentially the same narrative to how development has happened in New York City for the last 12 years,” McKellar notes. “Major developments get huge taxpayer subsidies and local community residents are given promises about jobs and low-income housing in exchange for their support. In every case, by the time the plan reaches the community it’s a done deal, crafted with little input from the people who will be directly affected.”
As is obvious, developers are the big—and often only—winners.
FiNY has also attempted to bring new immigrants into the struggle for economic justice. It has become a founding member of the Fairness Coalition of Queens, a group formed to protect the city’s second largest green space—Flushing Meadows-Corona Park—from destruction. After a proposal by the Mets, the U.S. Tennis Association, and Major League Soccer to build a 35,000-seat stadium and expand the Tennis Center became public, the community began strategizing to maintain access to this highly valued land. Twenty groups—including ALIGN, Alianza Ligas Latinas de Futbol, Asian Americans for Equality, Desis Rising Up and Moving, Make the Road New York, Occupy Queens, and Queens Pride House—quickly delineated their objections to the proposed construction plan, from the increased noise and traffic pollution to threats to public safety.
Hurricane Sandy provided another chance for FiNY to promote economic parity. “Many of the communities most impacted by Sandy were hurting badly before the storm and can’t just bounce back,” McKellar says. “When we talk about recovery we need to talk about more than sea walls and barriers. We need to address inequality and create opportunities in communities that have long been forgotten. Sandy exposed class disparities. So many immigrants lost both their homes and their jobs. Our faith calls us to serve those who continue to suffer.”
FiNY has adopted a two-tiered strategy vis-à-vis the storm, providing ongoing humanitarian aid to people in need and advocating that the 17 billion federal dollars coming into the City be used to benefit impoverished neighborhoods. “We did our own analysis of who benefits and loses in the current economy,” McKellar reports, “and discovered that economic realities are not like the weather. They’re predictable, the product of concrete, intentional decisions. It’s not an accident that women, the poor, and people of color are on the losing end and we believe that if it was done on purpose it can be undone.”
Likewise immigration, a system that allows undocumented newcomers to be taken advantage of by unscrupulous landlords and employers. Members of FiNY congregations spent a month in front of Senator Charles Schumer’s office, praying for a meeting with him to address their concerns. Although he initially refused the request—sending a staffer in his place—after more than 30 days outside his office, Schumer agreed to speak with the group himself. Their demands: That legislation include a clear path to citizenship and that Schumer use his position to push for the citizenship fee to be affordable to low-income people. “To me, that’s power,” McKellar says. “They knew what they wanted him to do and they asked for it.”
Of course, a lot more pushing—on immigration, on changes to Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, on the development of Willets Point, and on a wide swath of economic inequities—needs to be done, but FiNY is proud to be part of the citywide organizing taking place on these issues. Although the group has only four staff people and a $300,000 annual budget, they view congregations as ready-made launch pads for organizing. “Faith in New York wants to create a radical awakening in the religious community for the sake of justice. We understand that we can’t work in a silo and can’t just talk to people like ourselves,” McKellar says. “We want to win the middle, people who are in our congregations. We want them to tell their stories. It’s our basic premise that when we put people in relationship with each other and they share their experiences, they find their source of power.”
It’s that power—the understanding that each individual can be an agent of change in their own lives and in their own communities—that FiNY hopes to ignite. After all, as McKellar asserts, under our current socio-political system, “we only get as much justice as we have the power to compel.”
ContributorEleanor J. Bader