Religion has always played critical part in bringing together a community in Yonkers, especially in helping new immigrant groups assimilate to their new surroundings. Naturally, when the community of Yonkers was torn apart during the city’s 1980s desegregation case, many churches and religious figures got involved. Though the religious community in Yonkers claimed to focus only on bringing people together, it was both a negative and a positive player in the public housing case.
In March of 1988, the Yonkers desegregation case became even more confusing once Cardinal John O’Connor, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, got involved after supporting, then opposing the case’s proposed housing developments. Cardinal O’Connor originally offered some of the land belonging to St. Joseph’s seminary to be used to build new public housing in the Dunwoodie area of Northeast Yonkers.
Cardinal John O’Connor
However, his offer angered many Catholic residents in the area, who claimed that inhabitants of the new public housing would “spoil the neighborhood with graffiti. They don't care because they don't own the housing.” After much backlash from the community, and the claim that collections at St. John’s were declining, the Cardinal rescinded his offer and stated that he had never really willingly given the land to the project. In a letter to a newspaper, he wrote, “I was informed authoritatively that if I did not agree to sell, it would be condemned by the court.” Cardinal O’Connor claimed that “the church in New York is totally opposed to racism and will do anything to obliterate it… and I am totally committed to improving housing for the poor,” but he fiercely criticized the housing plan. He believed that the housing units were too close together to actually break up segregation – four of the proposed seven building sites were located in the Dunwoodie area of Yonkers – and that it would actually create a ghetto. He also backed his decision by stating that the housing plan discriminated against parents who sent their children to parochial schools. Families who sent their children to private Catholic schools would be unable to live in the new housing. The Cardinal claimed that this was based on the “serious misunderstanding” that families who could afford private school could not qualify for public housing, when in fact many poor families were awarded free tuition at the parochial schools. Cardinal O’Connor’s renegotiation of the housing land deal risked government condemnation of the church. However, after months of legal battles, Judge Sand, the Federal judge in the desegregation case, removed St. Joseph’s seminary from the list of building sites and replaced it with a site on Gramercy Avenue in northeastern Yonkers.
While Cardinal John O’Connor fought the courts and continued to confuse Yonkers residents with details on the housing project, another group, comprised of various faiths and ethnicities across Yonkers, sought to calm the storm. Yonkers Interfaith Education & Leadership Development, or YIELD, was “a coalition of Yonkers residents that began with a simple goal - to provide information to people confused by the turmoil.” YIELD started out in the Catholic churches in Yonkers simply as training sessions for clergy on “how to respond to parishioners who were trying to stabilize their neighborhoods.” It quickly expanded outside the Catholic Church and held housing workshops meant to educate the community on the housing crisis and bring people together to work on a solution. YIELD had over 150 members from 33 different churches and synagogues throughout the city. Mayor Wasicsko praised the group, stating that they were “’more of a constructive force in the way they approach problems’ than the pro- and anti-public-housing coalitions of neighborhood associations that have often dominated the political debate swirling around the housing issue.” During the crisis, YIELD presented the city with a housing plan to manage 200 of the proposed 1,000 subsidized housing units. The housing plan called for “increased homeowner access to credit, public education, and a ‘stability pact’ from 5,000 Yonkers homeowners to discourage abandonment of neighborhoods and blockbusting by realtors.” However, their biggest contribution to the case was starting round-the-clock police patrols of the housing projects to cut down on crime. Residents had originally been told that there wasn’t enough funding to bring on extra offices for more patrols. YIELD members studied the city’s budget and housing regulations and were able to put enough pressure on City Council to get them to approve the surveillance plan. In a meeting to discuss the Pierpointe building site of the housing projects, YIELD’s president, Paul Robinson, made an important point in reference to the Yonkers east side residents’ opposition to placing low-income housing in their neighborhoods: “It's ironic that we're here when people on the east side are putting up a fight for their homes. If they lose, they will still have their homes, but if west side people are displaced, they will have nothing.”
The religious community in Yonkers had mixed reactions to the housing desegregation case. Many supported Cardinal O’Connor’s convoluted case on the use of St. Joseph’s land for the housing projects, even his standing was never fully established. While some chose to follow Cardinal’s case against the housing plan, other groups, such as YIELD, came together and attempted to actively solve the problems the desegregation case was bringing up. These cases show that even small religious groups banding together can have a large impact on the community.
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