Different Days on Park Avenue with Citibank

 New York City: Today I attended the latest in what has been a long series of meetings and negotiations seeking to conclude a multi-year agreement between ACORN and a host of subsidiaries and businesses that compose Citcorp Group, the worldwide banking behemoth. 

 In this meeting a staff centered negotiating team head by Mike Shea for ACORN, director of our housing enterprises, and Kevin Thurm for Citgroup, the chief of staff for the President and Chief Operating Officer, were trying to wrangle disparate details into real banking products. For ACORN this could mean the difference in whether thousands of lower income families might actually become homeowners in our neighborhoods and for Citi it could mean acquiring significant share of this market and making millions in profits from a customer base that they now wanted, but had not traditionally had. 

 Almost thirty years ago with the passage of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) intended to stop the redlining practices of banks that starved our communities of lending dollars, there were few who would have imagined that two such polar opposites might be hammering out in hard, but amiable, bargaining details on such vital partnerships.  Banks — to their surprise — have found our members to be as good — if not better — customers than any others they have.  We — in an equally shocking historical surprise — have found banks one of the few reliable sources of capital to drive development for affordable housing or resources for home ownership for lower income families in a period where the government and others have largely left the field.

 It was hard not to think about the fact that I had last been in the building a dozen years ago with 1200 ACORN members when we marched at the apex of our convention in New York City in 1992 to the building on Park Avenue to protest our inability to get Citibank to do right in any way.  We had split the column on both sides of Park marching down form Grand Central where I had the busses unload in order to confuse the police and others about our full intentions.  I had a contingent from New York ACORN coming the back way across Lexington designed to hit the building simultaneously.  Somehow in one of those exquisite tactical miracles of planning, execution, and a hundred tales of discipline and courage everything came together and we managed to breakthrough security and police and get everyone into the downstairs of the building as well as a fair contingent upstairs to negotiate for a much denied meeting with Citibank officials. 

 It was wild — an avalanche of sound — as we marched in a circle around the first floor at times and were glommed up to the reception areas at others.  At the end of the day we won enough of a commitment to meet, and it was the beginning of that relationship running in a line of ups and downs over a dozen years that now was being played out again today.  Of the dozen folks on both sides of the table probably only Mike and myself even knew the history here.

 The security of those days was massive, but by today’s standards almost seems quaint.  To get to the second floor executive suites we had to first have our bags scanned.  Then at the front desk we were confirmed and ticketed.  We then went through metallic turnstiles that security controlled and were personally escorted up the elevator to the office reception.  One could not crash a dozen folks through now, where we had moved over a thousand.

 The 2nd floor was a world unknown to me and was tastefully encapsulated in a light colored wood with big art and small, tasteful displays of toys of another generation.  While waiting we watched Sandy Weil, the legendary chair of Citicorp walk down the stairs without comment. 

 We all behaved well as we worked across the huge divides that define America in our times, and I was probably not the only one who wondered where this all might end.


Suburban Discrimination

New York City: Wake up and it’s another day, voice or no voice, in the madness and mayhem of the city.  In a cruel scheduling irony though I had committed to speaking to a class at Sarah Lawrence College and being interviewed on the train going up and back to Bronxville from Grand Central.  This was laughable!  Whispering my way through the morning, I had just enough voice to be understood somewhat hoarsely in the auditorium where we talked about politics and the role that community organizations like ACORN and unions are playing these days.  The students were kind and generous, so no permanent harm was done.

 Professor Ray Seidelman drove us back to the train station from the college, and we inquired about housing prices.  The sky seems to no longer set the ceiling on prices in the suburbs.  Modest frame homes were pushing a million.  Brick with more appointments soared past that mark and farther than the mind could grasp.  Ray shared that the demographics of Bronxville thanks to the quick 25 minute odd train ride from there to Grand Central still make this area a rare suburban enclave that was still mostly white, still staunchly Republican even compared to the rest of Westchester County, and still almost as anti-Semitic in fact as its reputation had made it for many decades.  Who says rapid transit doe not matter to the upper middle class?  It was a casual, but profound, lesson in how the more things change, the more they seem the same.

 I was reminded that for all of the issues in our cities, suburbs are still dangerous and frightening places on some very basic social and human justice issues.   Recently, ACORN’s Long Island office, based in Hempstead, released a report that on housing discrimination by race and ethnicity in Nassau County for example.  ACORN has used “testers” in dealing with real estate rental agencies in order to see if African-Americans or Hispanics would be dealt with in any different fashion in securing apartments in Nassau that whites.

 Here is what Long Island ACORN found.  White testers sent into real estate agencies were told there were apartments available 93% of the time, while black and Hispanic testers were told the same thing only 53% of the time.  Furthermore, nearly a third of the minority testers were steered to different, usually less affluent areas, while only 2% of the white testers were steered elsewhere.

 Tragically for our communities and society, we all know that this problem is not isolated in Nassau, but is ubiquitous in suburban — and even urban — America.  So common that many African-Americans and Hispanics simply can not have the time to devote to filing complaints about each occurrence of discrimination.  Eventually, people become hardened, if not inured, to this problem.  They try to get on with their lives, scars and all, or their lives would be nothing but waiting in one line after another, at one agency after another, watching their lives leak out while filing another complaint about discrimination which is obvious, systemic, and increasingly trivial when measured against enforcement.

 Meanwhile Westchester home values soar, Nassau tries to maintain some level of exclusivity, the national housing crises goes unabated, overcrowding in cities accelerates, generations of Americans are scarred and diminished permanently, and the train runs like clockwork into Grand Central Station.