The Young Lords Learn Organizing Basics

New Orleans        First, the disclaimers.  When a story about an event and a political and activist organization fifty years earlier makes a full page in the New York Times, we must all realize that this is not real news, but heavily processed information through the perspective of the present.  The message is one intended for us now for reasons of theirs, not necessarily ours.  Additionally, when we are talking about the drive for social change and struggles for power in the face of institutional and political opposition, time is erosion, blunting some of the sharpness of action in the fog of nostalgia and the clouds of memory.

Nonetheless, I was heartened to hear that there was a full-page story on the Young Lords, who were well-known in the late 60’s, as I was first beginning my career as an organizer, for the work they were doing in the largely Puerto Rican communities in New York City.  My friend and comrade, Charles Koppelman, sent me a link to the story, assuming that I had already read it, but I was sick as a dog in San Pedro Sula, and didn’t see it until I made it back home and began reading my stack of missed papers.  The story was a great one, “Puerto Rican Activists and the 1969 Garbage Offensive.”

Let me share some of this story:

…it was another radical group of Puerto Ricans who finally gave them a sense of how to organize themselves. In Chicago, a former street gang called the Young Lords had recast itself in the mold of the Panthers, with tactics both militant and community-based. The Lords set up a dental clinic and a day care center; their outlook was both global and local. They demanded independence for Puerto Rico and an end to the Vietnam War, and fought for equity in resource allocation, demonstrating at urban renewal meetings.

Outside Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx, members of the Young Lords protesting the neglect of the health care needs of the Latino and African-American communities. Sept. 3, 1970.Credit…John Sotomayor/The New York Times

When they heard of what the Lords were up to in Chicago, [Hiram] Maristany and a few others got in the car, drove to the Midwest, secured permission to start a New York chapter and turned immediately back around to begin organizing.

The first thing they did was hit the streets to ask their neighbors what was needed. Expecting lofty talk of revolution and systemic change, the Lords instead found that the community’s needs were very straightforward. “This place is filthy, man. It stinks. There’s garbage all over,” was the complaint Maristany heard. Sanitation pickups were irregular, and piles of trash accumulated on street corners, fouling the air and presenting a significant health risk. Waste bins were nowhere to be found.

A small contingent of Young Lords went to the local Department of Sanitation office to ask for better service. “We were naïve,” Maristany says. “It’s not a mistake, the way they operate. They provide service to the powerful, the people with political clout, not to us!” They asked for brooms and trash bags so they could do the cleanup themselves. “They threw us out!”

In a 1995 article in The Village Voice, Pablo Guzmán, a founding member of the New York Young Lords, recalled the tenor of the situation. “All we had been trying to do after sweeping up the streets on previous Sundays was talk with Sanitation about once-a-week pickups and nonexistent trash cans, and about how to decently treat people asking for help instead of blowing them off,” he wrote.

As Maristany tells it, the group eventually returned to the sanitation depot and took the cleanup equipment.

“We thought Sanitation would come take the trash away once we’d bagged it all up for them,” he says. “We had bags and bags and bags of trash. We said, ‘You going to come clean this trash up now or what?’ They refused.”

The Young Lords and a handful of community members began dragging rusted refrigerators, old cars, mattresses and busted furniture off the corners and strewing them across Third Avenue near 110th Street. The Garbage Offensive had begun.

It’s worth adding that they beat then Mayor John Lindsey and won regular garbage pickups.  It’s worth reading the story.  It’s not a great organizing story, but it’s a great story of a small, committed group of activists who were, importantly, willing to listen, and because of that could select an issue that mattered to the entire community and gave them real support and a platform for change.

A side note on my original disclaimer that even so we need to take some of this with a grain of salt, even though it is former participants doing the talking.  The subhead on the print addition was: “Hoping for a revolution, the Young Lords found that the needs of their community were more immediate.”  The subhead in the on-line version was “Fifty years ago, the Young Lords evolved from a street gang to a political force.”   History is written by the big winners, so that their message remains, even when it has to do with us winning a battle here and there.


Strong Towns:  Investing in Old, Lower-Value Neighborhoods, not More Infrastructure

New Orleans       On the sometimes lonely march to try to advance and rebuild low-and-moderate income communities, it’s always a welcome relief to stumble on fellow travelers moving on much the same pathway.  At least that’s how I felt preparing to interview Chuck Marohn for Wade’s World, the author of Strong Towns:  Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity and the president and co-founder of the nonprofit also called Strong Towns.

Marohn argues against the grain of the pro-development at any price crowd as well as the infrastructure ideologues both of which to his engineer’s mind, just don’t add up.  It resonated with me when he offered an example of the added value on every bottom line of investing that is achieved putting money into lower income neighborhoods where fixing streets, sidewalks, and simple maintenance could increase the value of a family’s home and citizen wealth from $50,000 to $55,000, a ten percent jump.  He compared this to a municipality supporting a suburban or new development of $250,000 and above homes where they had to build all of the streets and infrastructure, lay the water and sewer lines, and everything else, which would never pay back, and in thirty years would need to be replaced again.  Similarly, he knocked the fake urban incentive plans and gave an example from his town in Minnesota where they essentially gave a 25-year tax break to move a fast food operation three block, getting nothing from the move and creating abandonment and less value in the former area.  Amen and hallelujah!

When it comes to roads and other big infrastructure projects, he states flatly that we could not build or expand another highway for decades and still have more road capacity than we need.  I thought of ACORN’s fight against the intercity expressway in Little Rock, then the Wilbur Mills and now the I-630, and a number of similar highway projects, including recent proposals in New Orleans 9th ward, and wished we had had him with us when we needed him then.  Our endless fights against the expansion of the Industrial Canal in New Orleans are another example, but they are endless.

Part of Marohn’s argument is that the so-called cost-benefit claims of many of these projects are fake-math as I called it, and that he called almost too kind.  The way bond markets, Wall Street, and the feds have hornswoggled cities and towns is their successful lobbying of accounting standards that makes water lines and miles of roads “assets,” as if they were producing income and revenue for a city, rather than depreciating liabilities that require constant maintenance and replacement without an income stream that supports the cost. An investment in a block of residential houses that produces more tax revenues on the other hand is usually recorded as a liability, despite the change in value.  Similarly, Marhon made a devastating argument that the math behind loss work time because of traffic and job creation through construction which are used to support highway development are totally specious, because there is no relationship to the saved minute on a commute necessarily creating addition income at all, much less for the various levels of government paying the bill.

You get the message, Strong Towns, organization and book, are worth a good luck, forcing these arguments into the public policy and budgetary debates around the country.  Recently, a real estate developer was elected as the new mayor of Nashville on campaign promises to end business incentives and to slow down or manage growth better for existing citizens.   Maybe change is coming?  If we can redirect this energy and dollars from the shiny new things to rehab and restoration of our existing neighborhoods and facilities, we will have a win for all of us.