A Tree Grows in the Northwest Bronx

by Edward J. Buckley

When members of The Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition (NWBCCC) decided last spring to celebrate their organization’s 10th anniversary, they didn’t have to search very far to find an ideal location for the party. The spot they chose was Fordham’s Bronx campus, and the site was appropriate for more than one reason.

Rose Hill is, after all, where the NWBCCC was founded by Paul Brant, S.J. (GAS ’72), a young philosophy instructor; where an honorary degree was conferred on Anne Devenney, the Coalition’s president; where the University’s Office of Bronx Redevelopment Affairs is headed by former Coalition member Brian Byrne (GAS ’72); and where the copper branch tree has symbolized the Coalition’s steady growth since 1975, the year it was dedicated to the NWBCCC by the Bronx Chamber of Commerce.

The event, held in the McGinley Center last May during “Bronx Week,” brought together more than 400 people for what looked like a giant block party but felt like an intimate family reunion. After exchanging handshakes, hugs and kisses for over an hour, the group of priests, politicians and neighborhood residents sat down to dinner and reminisced about old times. And nearly everyone admitted to being amazed at the growth and progress recorded by the NWBCCC during the past decade.

In scale, scope and score, the NWBCCC is impressive. It is the largest grassroots community preservation network in New York City, with 10 neighborhood associations, 1200 tenant associations and a $1 million budget. Its territory (more than one-quarter of the Bronx) is occupied by 375,000 people who live in the area bordered by Van Cortlandt Park to the north, The Bronx Zoo to the east, the Cross Bronx Expressway to the south, and the Harlem and Hudson Rivers to the west. It is also one of the most successful operations of its kind in the country, responsible for attracting $37 million to upgrade 7,000 apartment units, and for bringing about the correction of over 40,000 building violations.

Members of the NWBCCC wish their organization did not have to be so large and effective. In fact, they wish it did not have to exist in the first place. Their presence is a painful reminder that the Bronx is no longer a quaint, carefree place where stickball games and old-fashioned egg creams can be found in great abundance. That era, of course, will never return, but thanks to the NWBCCC, the Northwest Bronx is at least back on its feet. “Considering things from a broad point of view,” says Bronx Borough President Stanley Simon, “we feel the area has been stabilized.

The neighborhood surrounding the Rose Hill Campus is showing perhaps the most signs of recovery. Rev. James C. Finlay, S.J., Fordham’s former president, recently announced that the University had agreed to become a special limited partner in a $2.9 million housing rehabilitation project sponsored by the NWBCCC. Meanwhile, constructing of the Rose Hill Apartments, an earlier commitment made by Fordham to upgrade housing in the Northwest Bronx, is closer to realization. After a 15-month delay, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recently granted a conditional commitment of $6.9 million to build a 119-unit project for elderly and handicapped residents. The complex will occupy a 2.9-acre parcel of abandoned City owned property adjacent to the Rose Hill campus.

Today, the Northwest Bronx is enjoying a long-awaited renaissance, but only ten years ago the area seemed to be a lost cause. As the urban blight that consumed the South Bronx crept northward at a rate of 10 blocks per year, increasing crime, arson and drug traffic began to disrupt the once stable Northwest territory. Widespread housing abandonment and deterioration signaled the beginning of a mass exodus. Long-time residents of the area fled in large numbers, and were replaced by poor minority tenants, many of whom became victimized by opportunistic landlords.

The decline of the Bronx had actually been underway for some time, but the situation became critical in the early 1970s. In 1972 the number of welfare recipients in need of housing in New York City reached its peak, and the government was willing to pay premium rents for available space, as well as “finder fees” to enterprising landlords. Since rent-controlled apartments became de-controlled after tenants moved out, landlords were given a big incentive to displace tenants. In attempts to drive away as many rent-controlled tenants as possible, landlords welcomed large numbers of welfare recipients, who paid higher rents with government checks. To make matters worse, over 8,000 Bronx apartments were vacated during a two-year period when Co-op City opened for business. A final blow came in 1974 when NYU closed its Bronx campus on Burnside Avenue.

Wary about investing in neighborhoods with shaky futures, many banks began refusing to lend money to landlords. As these sources of capital were cut off, many landlords sold their buildings to “slum lords,” who often refused to pay taxes on their property. Eventually these owners would be forced to turn over their buildings to the City, but by that time these structures were either severely neglected or burned down by landlords scheming to collect a final payoff from insurance benefits.

Despite the predictable cycle of deterioration, abandonment and further deterioration, little organized effort was made by anyone to save the area. Then, in 1970, Paul Brant, S.J., a soft spoken but dynamic Jesuit scholastic from Raleigh, North Carolina, became Fordham’s community liaison officer. Brant had arrived at Fordham two years earlier from the Jesuit seminary in Milford, Illinois. When a shortage of space in Rose Hill’s Murray-Weigel Hall forced him to move out, he received permission form his provincial to move into a neighborhood apartment on 187th Street and Marion Avenue. It was there, away form the beauty, safety and serenity of the Rose Hill campus, that Brant first realized that the Northwest Bronx was in deep trouble.

“I grew up in a town with 170,000 people,” Brant explains, “so I developed a strong sense of ‘neighborliness,’ a strong belief in people taking care of each other. The apathy I encountered among many Bronx residents was simply unacceptable to me.”

Brant began his crusade against urban decay by taking to the streets one day with a group of friends and attacking debris with rakes and shovels. He also dispatched students from his philosophy course, “Elements of Social Thought,” to work in the Morris Heights neighborhood, chosen as a starting point because of its ailing but salvageable condition. In 1972 he formed the Morris Heights Neighborhood Improvement Association, and enlisted two former classmates from the Jesuit seminary in Illinois, Jim Mitchell and Roger Hayes, to help him with the project. Under Brant’s leadership, the group was instrumental in obtaining better health care and improved housing for the area’s residents.

By this time, Brant’s work in Morris Heights had attracted the attention of the Northwest Bronx Clergy Conference, which invited him to propose a joint venture for preservation efforts. Meanwhile Monsignor John McCarthy of Holy Spirit Parish in Morris Heights convinced Bishop Patrick Ahern, then Episcopal Vicar of the Bronx, to expand his Association’s efforts into the other parishes of the Northwest Bronx. In January, 1974, with the help of a grant from Dollar Savings Bank, the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition was established to tackle the region’s most pressing housing problems. Jim Mitchell became the Coalition’s executive director, and a board consisting of tenant leaders, neighborhood organizers and parish leaders was appointed to oversee the group.

Shortly after the NWBCCC was formed, Paul Brant was called back to Illinois to resume his studies. Although Brant’s absence was deeply felt, the Coalition thrived, largely because it inherited a sound and practical philosophy from its founder. From the start, organizers and residents agreed on two points. The first was that the Coalition could best serve the community by acting as a catalyst, helping residents to help themselves so that they would never grow dependent on any outside agency. The second was that major neighborhood restoration could only be accomplished if all facilities and services were upgraded, which meant that the Coalition’s concern would extend to any issue, no matter how small.

At first, the Coalition used devices such as rent strikes, building takeovers and demonstrations to pressure landlords into making repairs. But it soon became obvious that unless relatively long-term financing was available for the entire region, it would be futile to try to nurse neighborhoods back to health one building at a time.

The need for a broader strategy gave birth to the Coalition’s Reinvestment Committee in 1976. Armed with statistics from Federal mortgage disclosure records, Committee members challenged local lending institutions to explain why housing loans in the Northwest Bronx were declining in both size and quantity. When a rash of sudden, unexplained insurance cancellations broke out within several neighborhoods in 1978, the Committee fought the “redlining” attempts by persuading insurance companies to assign new brokers to those sections.

In January, 1980, after a three-year battle to convince local savings banks no to abandon the area, five major institutions agreed to make firm financial commitments. At a Coalition meeting held that month, Dollar Savings, Eastern Savings, Northside Savings, Manufacturers Hanover Trust and Aetna Life and Casualty all signed “proclamations of cooperation,” pledging to subsidize over 200 building renovation projects in the Northwest Bronx. Moreover, they promised to enforce the standard “good repair” clause, which makes basic maintenance a loan prerequisite, in their existing mortgage agreements. Later that year, Travelers Insurance also agreed to pitch in.

While the victories won by the Reinvestment Committee were certainly cause for celebration, they were only round one. The next challenge was to package affordable rehabilitation loans during a period of high mortgage interest rates. To accomplish this, the Coalition blended conventional, market rate financing with low-interest government loans. The result was acceptable interest rate of 7 to 8 percent.

Encouraged by its success with the insurance companies, the NWBCCC decided to investigate other sources of private funding. Since the Coalition knew that savings banks would need more time to recuperate from soaring interest rates, this time it honored in on commercial banks instead. Before long, Chase Manhattan Bank announced that it would make available $10 million for rehabilitation loans in conjunction with the City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development. In exchange, the City agreed to deposit one-third of that loan money in a Chase account. Using Chase as leverage, the Coalition then approached Citibank, which also approved a substantial loan package.

When weatherization became a desperate need for many of the Northwest Bronx’s aging, pre-war apartment buildings, the Coalition went right to the top of the Fortune 500 list and selected Exxon’s boastful support of energy conservation obliged the company to put its money where its mouth was.

During Exxon’s 100th anniversary, the Coalition congratulated the company on its milestone but used the birthday greeting to remind officials that the total $12 million request represented no more than one hour of the company’s revenue. Some less subtle messages followed in rapid succession, including a letter of support signed by several members of Congress, a visit to Exxon’s annual shareholder’s meeting, a demonstration inside the lobby of Exxon’s mid-Manhattan headquarters, and picketing outside one Exxon executive’s home. No success has been reported so far, but Exxon is still under pressure.

The Exxon situation called for drastic measures because the stakes were high, but the Coalition admits that it favors a bold approach even for milder problems. As Coalition President Anne Devenney explains, “You have to be seen and heard in City Hall, in Albany and in Washington in order to get things done.” The same is true with insurance companies, banks and corporations. They all owe something to the people who give them profits. We’re just giving them a chance to prove that corporate America has a heart.”

Robert Esnard, New York City’s deputy mayor for Policy and Physical Development, feels that there are two things that distinguish the Coalition from other less successful community groups. “The first,” he says, “is that they have maintained a continuous presence in the area. The second is that they are technically sophisticated in the art of community organizing. Most groups of this sort have one quality or the other, or perhaps both for a short time. The Coalition, however, has had both throughout its history.”

The Coalition acquired much of its inspiration and expertise from the late Saul Alinsky, Chicago’s pioneer community activist. Alinsky’s feisty but effective style of organizing convinced the Coalition that his aggressive tactics were worth adopting. When Alinsky failed to organize in the Chelsea district of Manhattan during the 1960s, however, he concluded that New York City was not suited to any style of community organizing. Ironically, the Coalition has spent the last ten years proving its mentor wrong.

Father Brant, who is now pastor of St. Ignatius Church of Chicago, praises Fordham’s former president, Father Finlay, for the key role he played during the Coalition’s early development. “Fordham threw it’s weight behind us when others tried to cut us off from funding,” he recalls. “Jim Finlay worked mostly behind the scenes, but when we needed him up front he was there. He has probably concerned himself more with community work than any other university president in the country.”

A large share of the credit also belongs to the small but spirited group of community organizers who have devoted themselves to the task of saving the Northwest Bronx. (Some twenty Fordham alumni have been recruited as Coalition employees since 1974.) For the most part, they are young men and women who grew up in solid, middle-class communities, but settled in the Northwest Bronx after getting hooked on neighborhood preservation work. Some of them admit to feeling frustrated when friends and family members question the logic of their personal and professional sacrifices. All of them, however, echo the sentiment expressed by Joan Gasser (FCO ’81), who says simply, “I do this kind of work because I get a good feeling whenever I teach people to assume responsibility for themselves and their community.”

Jim Buckley (FCO ’76), who has been an NWBCCC staff member since graduation and recently served as the group’s executive director, believes that the Coalition has survived because it has held fast to its original goals and ideals. “The NWBCCC is still dealing with the same basic problems of housing, crime, arson and unemployment that it did ten years ago,” he says. “Some people may not see that as progress, but that’s what community organizing is all about. If our funds dried up tomorrow, the Coalition could endure with its volunteer leadership. It would be rough, but that’s how strong the NWBCCC has become.”

Branches of the NWBCCC Tree

Tenant Organizing Program Over 40,000 building violations have been corrected as a result of the Coalition’s efforts.

Employment and Training Program The Coalition recently secured one of seven Testing Assessment and Placement (TAP) centers from New York City, enabling it to hire 22 employment agents. It is estimated that 1100 unemployment area residents will be placed in jobs through these centers during the next year and a half.

Fire and Arson Prevention Program In response to the Coalition’s pleas for help, the New York City Fire Department recently agreed to place one of its two Red Cap Arson Units in an arson-prone area of the Northwest Bronx. The Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation has praised the Coalition for its model arson prevention program.

Youth Organizing Program Despite sever budget cutbacks by the Reagan Administration in New York City’s youth employment program, the Coalition provides an in-school job training program for sixty teenagers, and has placed more than 300 area youths from low-income families into jobs funded by the U.S. Department of Labor this past summer. As a result of its high success rate in finding jobs for young people, the program has become a model for the National Commission on Resources for Youth.

Neighborhood Reinvestment Program During the past three years, the Coalition has helped launch 195 moderate rehabilitation projects totaling $37 million. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has cited the Coalition for its outstanding accomplishments in this area.

Anne Devenney: Mother Courage of the NWBCCC

If the “father” of the NWBCCC is Paul Brant, S.J., then the undisputed “mother” of the organization is Anne Devenney, president of the Coalition for the past five years. Devenney, 64, is a mother of four and grandmother of 13, but that isn’t what makes her the Coalition’s matriarch. It is her decade of unstinting devotion to the NWBCCC that really qualifies her for that distinction.

Devenney is described by those who work with her as a true inspiration. “She doesn’t get technical about issues,” says Gerald Mooney, a former Coalition organizer and now president of the Fordham-Bedford Association, “but she speaks from the heart.” Indeed, Devenney’s simple, down-to-earth style has proven to be her most effective weapon against bureaucracy. Her sweet, grandmotherly image is so disarming to politicians and business executives that she succeeds where many younger, more abrasive activists fail.

Both friends and foes alike can confirm, however, that Devenney’s cherubic exterior belies her inner strength. When assertiveness is called for, she can be a scrappy adversary capable of matching wits with any opponent. Just one example is her clever approach to dealing with insurance companies. “We’ve become street smart,” she says, referring to the Coalition’s increasing emphasis on neighborhood reinvestment. “We went to the insurance companies and told them to stop redlining our neighborhoods. ‘You used to knock on our doors selling nickel policies to the poor,’ we told them. ‘Now we’re knocking on your doors…’”

Devenney first became involved in community organizing more than 25 years ago when she and her family were evicted from their Washington Heights apartment building, which was demolished to make room for a ramp to the George Washington Bridge. “We weren’t organized,” she says of her fellow tenants in the 50-unit building, “so it was easy for the government to come in and do something like that.”

In the late 1960s, Devenney’s new building changed ownership and services rapidly declined. Determined not to make the same mistake twice, she became an active member of her building’s tenant association. Over the years, her interest in community affairs grew deeper. By the mid-1970s she was named president of the Morris Heights Neighborhood Association, and in 1979 became president of the NWBCC.

The Bronx? No thonx! — Ogden Nash

We’re not movin’. We’re improvin’. — Anne Devenney

The Devenney family still lives in that same building, a five-story tenement on the corner of 205th street and Perry Ave. Their apartment is a five-room, fifth floor walk-up, but Anne Devenney insists she wouldn’t give it up for the best or biggest home in the suburbs. “I’m a city person,” she declares. “I share my father’s love for New York, I grew up in Hell’s Kitchen and Harlem, but there isn’t a corner of New York that my father didn’t take me to.”

Like most Depression kids, Devenney never had the opportunity to attend college. “I earned all I needed to know from my father,” she says, “and from the school of hard knocks.” Last year, Fordham decided that is was about time Anne Devenney got a college degree, and awarded her an honorary doctorate “for being in the forefront of every major effort to save the borough that has been her home, and for leavening her passionate advocacy with gentle good humor, a shrewd sense of the possible, and a healthy dose of Irish blarney.”

If you ask Anne Devenney how many hours a week she volunteers to the Coalition, the mother of NWBCCC will politely evade the question. “Working to save your neighborhood is like raising a child,” she explains. “You don’t count the number of hours it takes to care for it. You just fight to keep it safe, strong and healthy.