BY LYNN EDMONDS
In the 1990s, when it was more fashionable for social scientists to speak about Black life and communities in terms of urban poverty and even a dysfunctional culture, anthropologist Steven Gregory set out to tell the story of one Black community, among many, that did not fit that mold.
In his work “Black Corona,” published in 1998, Gregory, formerly at New York University and now at Columbia, records the legacy of several generations of local activists whose daily work made the neighborhoods of Corona and East Elmhurst what they are today. In part, his book was an effort to challenge stereotypes about African Americans and create a deeper, more complex narrative about African American lives that did their communities justice and answered universal questions about how individuals come together to advocate for their collective well being.
“This book sets out to challenge and put to rest the trope of the Black ghetto that has shaped what we know and do not know about Black urban life and that has strongly influenced, if not defined, the terms of political debates in the United States concerning race, social inequality, and the changing political economy of American cities,” Gregory wrote in the book’s introduction. “My general aim is to restore both history and politics to discussions of contemporary black urban life through an analysis of community activism in Black Corona.”
For his research, Gregory delved back into newspaper archives, the memories of community members, and other sources to extend the range of his narrative all the way back to the 1890s, when Corona was home to a “small but prosperous” black community, through the civil rights movements, when civics and churches organized voter registration drives and fought to integrate schools, up unto the time period when he conducted his field work, from 1987 to 1990.
“I had not planned to do that much historical research, but people would always refer back generations, so it was so clear that people who might have been activists or were on the community board in the late 1980s, when they thought about what their issues are or were, they would always think about them in relation to that longer history; so I realized that to make sense of the present I would have to go back,” Gregory said.
Doing in-depth historical research on Corona and East Elmhurst was not easy, Gregory said, due to incomplete archives. He said that in many ways, Black urban life has been made invisible.
“There was so little, nothing had been written about East Elmhurst. The major newspapers historically had not covered Black communities,” Gregory explained.
But nonetheless, he was able to fill in the gaps and highlight the strong institutions in the community, including the Civic Associations, the churches, and political organizations, that worked alongside each other to help register voters, integrate schools, protect the neighborhood from unwanted development, and make sure that the fair share of resources and public funding were being directed to the community.
One of the many initiatives and individuals that Gregory focused on in his fieldwork was Edna Baskin’s work to make Lefrak City a better place for youth.
Baskin was a Lefrak City resident who moved into the apartment complex in 1979 with her husband and two children. She started a small daycare for other mothers within the apartment complex and soon became a point person for those mothers on everything from the best places to shop and the best schools to where they could register to vote.
At the time Baskin became politically active, Community Board 4 was having meetings in which they discussed kids from Lefrak City in a negative light. Some board members wanted Lefrak City security to keep Lefrak kids out of the public library nearby because they said their parents were using the library as a “baby-sitting” service and the kids were loud and disruptive.
Baskin founded an organization called Concerned Community Adults that helped give youth in the community a voice. She was able to get those same community board members that had complained about Lefrak youth to hear their side of the story at a forum she organized.
Gregory recorded a teenager at the meeting who explained why he was not enchanted by ideas about going on field trips that adults at the meeting had proposed.
“All this time people have been talkin’ about ‘let’s go on this trip and let’s go on that trip.’ Why get away from the community? We should concentrate on having more fun in the community. They run us out – you know, like from the park or whatever. I…I mean they say it’s late at night, but think about it. I recall last week Thursday, they ran us out of the park at 2:30 in the afternoon. You see, now there was only five of us, I mean sittin’ on a bench – [they] said we couldn’t sit on the bench. They run us out of Lefrak altogether. I don’t understand that. Now you talkin’ about ‘oh, let’s go out, do this trip here, and have fun there.’ Why can’t we have fun where we live?”
Gregory wrote how Baskin then highlighted the teenagers’ comment for the rest of the adults so they could understand the importance of the youth’s point of view.
“See, that’s another reason for us getting together – so that we, the other adults here who don’t know what’s going on, can be made aware,” she said.
Gregory explained how this forum, which gave the teenagers a chance to speak and be heard, and Baskin’s speech, which validated his and other young adults’ comments, served a larger purpose.
“This eruption of frustration and criticism over how black youth were stereotyped and harassed by Lefrak City’s security services and the police challenged a central theme in white activist ideology and practice. By inverting the familiar relation between black teenager and security, so central to the ideology of black crime, the testimony (and Edna’s marking of its significance) raised the possibility that black teenagers who were often the targets of police action could play a constructive role in neighborhood stabilization,” Gregory wrote.
Following this meeting, Baskin continued to organize with Lefrak City youth. She got together 12 teenagers from Lefrak to form a cleanup team that would pick up garbage in the neighborhood. Gregory wrote that the cleanup team received a lot of attention from both community leaders and press. He said Baskin knew very well the symbolic significance of people witnessing black youth taking care of their community in this manner.
“The image of black Lefrak City youth removing rubbish from the streets surrounding the housing complex undermined the construction of Lefrak City as a site of danger and urban blight – images tied symbolically to pollution and disorder as well as to “blackness” and poverty,” Gregory wrote. “Baskin and her organization deliberately engaged in a politics of representation that drew on and reworked deeply historical and mass-mediated discourses about the interrelation of race, place and urban blight. The practice of constructing black identity was an integral component of CCA’s strategy and tactics of community mobilization.”
These two components of Baskin and the youth’s activism were just one of many initiatives that Gregory wrote about in depth. He also, in great detail, wrote about how Corona and East Elmhurst activists organized to fight a monorail, proposed by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, that would have run from 59th Street and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan through their neighborhoods and to LaGuardia Airport.
Gregory said writing the book gave him a new respect for unsung heroes of community activism.
“I think the project made me appreciate all the hard work that people do who don’t often make it to the media or to the press,” Gregory said. “They kind of are these silent heroes that every community needs.”
Gregory said that’s why he used people’s real names, even though many anthropologists often do not.
“I just felt that these are people who have made these contributions that are typically overlooked and they should get credit,” he stressed.
Though some of the issues that block associations, civics, community boards and other organization take up might seem minor to an outsider, Gregory said this work lays the foundation for even higher stakes activism.
“It tends to be the people who are involved in that tedious everyday activities, who are showing that kind of concern in these details, whether the Sanitation [Department] should pick up garbage two times a week or three times a week, that kind of everyday activism then creates a platform for what really become these much more important issues. It’s those people who tend to become the same people that fight the civil rights battles or school desegregation,” Gregory said. “In that kind of activism it’s endurance, it’s creating these everyday kinds of structures of activism and community activism that makes it possible for larger problems to be addressed.”