Several days ago a group of demonstrators carrying placards marched in front of an empty lot. A statement on one of the placards accused the chief executive of the city of being another Hitler. A woman on the picket line told newsmen. “The only reason he’s doing this is because he didn’t think we’d fight back.” A few blocks away, several persons expressed concern for the future of the neighborhood and warned that what was coming would force a dispersion of the residents. “We left other neighborhoods,” said one, “because they became unsafe. Now we are threatened again. How long can we run and how far can we go?”
The scene was in the middle class community of Forest Hills, Queens, and the issue for the demonstrators was the city’s plan to go ahead with the construction of an 840-unit low-income housing project. The Hitler in question was New York City’s Mayor John V. Lindsay, and the dispersion referred to the current residents – predominately Jewish – who had themselves during the past few decades left the festering slum areas in other parts of the city and found respite in the tree-lined streets, hedge-hewn lawns and well-kept single and multiple family dwellings of Forest Hills.
The news media, and even some of the demonstrators and leaders on both sides of the controversy over the project, have tried to depict the situation as just another middle class revolt against the behemoth of public housing threatening to destroy yet another economically and socially stable and unified neighborhood, as an outcry against an insensitive city administration denying area residents community control and participation, and, of course, as the danger of crime in the streets.
This approach has been encouraged by all sides in the dispute in order to provide clean middle America copy to the news media and in the hope that limiting the problem to these issues would aid in gaining support and sympathy from a broad-based front of white ethnic Americans. It would be wrong to deny that these issues are real and not part of the genuine concern of the Forest Hills residents. But it would be equally wrong to see the situation limited to these issues. But the fundamental issue, the one simmering below the surface and which continues to intrude itself throughout is a Jewish issue.
SPLIT IN OUTLOOK OF LEADERSHIP
Before the street demonstrations began two weeks ago, and while the issues were being debated indoors without the benefit of tv cameras and newsmen, opponents of the project contended that what was ultimately at stake was the survival of the Jewish community in Forest Hills. The Queens Jewish Community Council and the Rabbinic Association of Queens, in a joint statement last September, charged that the project “seriously threatened the continued existence of the Forest Hills Jewish community.”
Supporters of the project contended that at stake were Jewish values and ethics. Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser of Forest Hills charged that the QJCC’s position “betrays a singular insensitivity to the true interests of the Jewish community and to the ideals and values of Judaism.”
REAL ISSUES BLURRED
The fact that these issues have been submerged in the rhetoric of middle America by the opposition leaders who emerged into the limelight during the past two weeks cannot hide the central problem: is there really any future at all for Jews in an urban community without their worrying about “how long can we run and how far can we go?” Or is the reality in Forest Hills – as in similar communities throughout the country – to be described by an old southern prison chant: “I ran to the rock to hide my face, but the rock it cried out ‘No hiding place.’”
Instead of focusing on the problem as one of vital concern to Jews, the more vocal opponents during the past two weeks have succeeded in blunting this problem and dissolving into a generalized fear of an influx of “unstable elements” bringing crime and violence in their wake. Too, what many Jewish leaders in New York are worried about is whether focusing on a Jewish issue will be “bad for the Jews” among non-Jews who have programmed Jews to act and think as middle Americans. Jews, so the unspoken assumption goes, should not make a spectacle of themselves demonstrating in their own interests on immediate social and economic issues affecting their own neighborhoods.
SILENCE ON NEED OF JEWISH POOR
This raises another question which has not been aired for candid discussion: should Jews remain silent in the face of real or imagined dangers that go with low-income housing? Or do Jews have the same right as other ethnic groups who have made it into middle class neighborhoods to oppose low-income projects in their communities?
Finally and most tragically, both critics and advocates of the housing project have missed the opportunity to strike a blow on behalf of Jews – poor Jews. There are an estimated 250,000 Jewish poor in the city. The vast majority reside in decaying neighborhoods or on their fringes. Relatively few benefit from low-income housing scheduled for construction in middle class areas under the city’s scatter-site housing program. Most of the Jewish poor who do get into low-income projects are generally relegated to housing in the midst of the city’s blighted areas.
The demand, therefore, that Jewish poor be guaranteed units in projects scheduled for construction in middle class neighborhoods – especially Jewish middle class neighborhoods – could have been the real issue in Forest Hills. This demand would have given a progressive meaning to the cry for community control and community participation instead of the conservative hue of exclusion that it has been given. The Jews of Forest Hills could have demanded that the city administration and the city Housing Authority develop a plan to assure poor Jewish families equal treatment in their quest for decent housing in middle class neighborhoods.
This demand would not only have been realistic but imperative in view of the substantiated charges by groups such as the Jewish Anti-Poverty Workers and the American Jewish Congress that the Lindsay administration is block-busting Jewish communities. This demand would have been understood as a progressive one by the white. Black and Spanish-speaking poor in the city – all of whom, together with poor Jews, are equal in being victims of crime and violence, and all of whom should be equal in their struggle to break the barriers of slum existence.