Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Communalism and Cooperation in Park Slope in the 1970's and 1980's

Communalism and Cooperation in Park Slope in the 70’s and 80’s: Lessons from a Forgotten Era in the City’s History

Mark Naison
Fordham University

The year Liz and I moved to Park Slope, 1976, was a tough time in New York City. The city had just been saved from bankruptcy by an Emergency Financial Control Board that just mandated draconian cuts in all city services, especially parks, education, fire and sanitation, a policy, which, coupled with the wave of arson and abandonment that had swept through the city’s poorer neighborhoods, created the atmosphere of a city under siege. Buildings and neighborhoods which could afford it hired their own security forces, others, like ours on West 99th Street created volunteer security patrols to protect residents during evening hours

The Park Slope we moved to was hardly immune from these ills. Portions of the neighborhood, which contained a few wealthy people , but was still mostly middle class and working class had been hit hard by the arson and abandonment cycle. Abandoned buildings lined the neighborhoods main commercial strip, 7th Avenue, from 9th Street to 15th Street, and on the North side of Garfield place between 7th and 6th Avenue; 2nd street between 5th and 4th Avenue was virtually uninhabited. Drug activity dominated large stretches of 5th Avenue, exacerbated by racial tensions between Italians, Blacks and Puerto Ricans in the blocks adjoining Union Street.

Liz and I took note of these problems, which were no different from what we experienced on the Upper West Side, but we also saw opportunity in the neighborhood because of the large group of 60’s activists who had moved to Park Slope and were creating new institutions and new living arrangements based on communal ideals that had emerged from the Sixties Counterculture, given new relevance by the economic hardships that surrounded us and the collapse of basic government services

The cooperation began at home. When we bought half a brownstone ( for around $40,000), we ran it as an informal cooperative with our upstairs neighbors the Menashes. We not only shared all building expenses equally, we ate dinner together two to three nights a week and created joint child care arrangements for our daughter Sara, and their son, David, who were born within three months of one another. Next door was a commune created by two families and a few unattached adults, with whom we shared dinners on a regular basis, and when our son Eric was born, we did the same kind of shared child care with the Archer/ Rosenthal family next door, whose daughter Dana was born around the same time as Eric. These family/house hold based arrangements to share child care and food were reproduced –on a larger scale by two major institutions- the Park Slope Food Cooperative ( which still exists) and the Park Slope Child Care Collective. Many people we knew used these institutions- some as a supplement to private child care and food shopping- others as the organizing principal of their personal and family lives

Those institutions and arrangements, it should be emphasized, largely served those Park Slope residents with Left wing or countercultural politics. But there were many places where ex-Sixties activists made common cause with long time working class residents of the area. One of these was building block associations, the other was in creating recreational opportunities for neighborhood youth.

One of the major activities of the Block associations was security. Street crime, especially muggings, and house break- ins were a huge issue in Park Slope in the late 70’s into the 80’s, and the Block associations dealt with them through cooperative action. On 6th Street, where Liz and I lived, we not only had regularly meetings about security with police and elected officials, we organized our own Block patrols and Block watch arrangements during moments of peak crime activity and on Halloween, when bands of young people roamed the neighborhood with boxes of eggs and shaving cream.

But the Block associations did more than prevent crime. They organized Block parties to get neighborhood residents to know one another better and participated in a wonderful neighborhood softball league in which teams from more than ten different blocks participated. This was an activity bringing together old and new residents, and in which women and children were welcome, although the playoffs and league championships, when things got “serious,” tended to be dominated by those men and women who were ex high school and college athletes.

But the most impressive example of cross class, cross race community building may have come in the area of sports and youth services. Park Slope contained two remarkable organizations, Camp Friendship and Project Reach Youth, which provided education , recreation and counseling to neighborhood youth irrespective of their ability to pay, and which had close working relationships with local public schools and church based neighborhood sports leagues. Two of the latter, St. Saviour’s Youth Council and St Francis Xavier Youth Sports, grew into huge diverse community sports leagues in the early and mid 1980’s, enrolling thousands of young people from diverse religious backgrounds and filling neighborhood parks and gymnasiums with ball games twelve months a year. Both of these organizations depended entirely on volunteer coaches and organizers through the 80’s and thus were able to keep entry fees low, often giving scholarships for young people unable to pay.

The result was a neighborhood transformed. By the middle and late 1980’s, Park Slope was the site of an extraordinary array of activity in public space, from Block parties, to street fairs, to soccer, baseball and basketball games, bringing together people from a wide variety of backgrounds, and in the process, making the neighborhood a much safer place for all its residents

None of the activities I have mentioned came as a result of private investment decisions, or activity done in the pursuit of profit. It was done by people who believed that enlightened self interest, in a difficult economy, required people to act cooperatively, not only to reduce the expense of food and child care and house maintenance, but to improve the quality of life for everyone who lived in a particular area. Not everyone joined these activities out of ideological commitment, but the spirit of cooperation ultimately crossed every line of race and class and religion, creating a neighborhood were young people of all backgrounds had opportunities in sports, recreation, and the arts which matched what was being offered in the wealthiest suburbs.

In the next twenty years, private investors would “discover” Park Slope, restoring abandoned buildings, transforming business districts into sites of upscale restaurants and boutiques, and raising house prices and rents to astronomical levels, ironically driving out many of the neighborhood residents whose hard work had made investments possible.

But for ten or fifteen years, Park Slope was a place where cooperative and communal principles proved their efficacy in creating safe, viable communities for people of a wide variety of backgrounds.

That experience needs to be examined closely as we enter another era of economic hardship and political retrenchment.

Mark Naison
September 14, 2011

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