The Bible Belt in the Big Apple: Donning the Fig Leaf in the Naked City

by Philip J. Malebranche

It may be a good time in our national history to make a break with the notion that the American South is especially endowed with spiritual favor.  The tendency of white supremacy to usurp the language, or values, of Biblical history while hosting bastions of racial hatred and violence and striving, still, for domination over the rest of the population is too egregious to be allowed to continue without complaint.  The term “The Sovereign State of Mississippi,” for instance, is likely used to infer that God is not sovereign over all the earth, per the Holy Scriptures.  “The earth is the Lord’s and all that it contains,” writes the Psalmist.  That the South is notorious in the history of national division does not preclude the existence of Southerners who love justice, peace and love.  New York City, with eight million people, is not Paradise either, of course; but such a robust population means that there are many who do good and are praiseworthy citizens.  The City’s enemies denigrate it—even as they infiltrate it--because of the blending population and the interracial relations and sex that are bound to occur at a comparatively significant rate.  The adversaries of integration are also enemies of the poor.  At the end of his life Martin Luther King, Jr had chosen to focus on a poor people’s campaign.  These were, as we are today, made up of whites, blacks, mulattoes, Hispanics, Native Americans and immigrants.  His focus on cross-racial domestic poverty--and international peace, by publicly opposing the Vietnam War in 1967--gave evil men impetus to eliminate him exactly a year later, on the anniversary of his Riverside Church speech on the matter.  The purpose of a Bible Belt is to hold up our moral pants and skirts in the Nation and in the Big City.

  A grand lesson of the Bible is, in fact, the imperative to care for the poor. To de-emphasize this precept would be to shun Divine will. The heated outcries that seek to silence and incapacitate defenders of the poor mean to erase this intention of the God of the Bible.  Using the epithets “Communist” or “socialist” hides the primary objective of effacing the power of the Holy Scriptures.  Those ideologies seem to have been conceived to carry out Biblical values--only, without the religious aspect.  Political extremism uses these to dissemble its greater animus against religion and to divide the ranks of those who seek social justice in the world.  And today, we are witnessing the outlawing of the very acts which Christians are commanded to perform.  The criminalization of homelessness, for example, has some local jurisdictions across the country making it illegal to offer food to others in some public spaces.  Loving one’s neighbor becomes a crime in order to make room for those who do evil.  Anti-Semitism denotes the absolute rejection of the Biblical meaning of Zion.  Zion, as expressed by the prophets--including Jesus of Nazareth--is a Divine vision of a society of social justice, love and beauty.   Jesus spoke in the synagogue about feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, healing the sick, visiting the prisoners, and so forth. (Matt. 25)  To further get an idea of the attitude for the poor, we may also read from the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures.

In Proverbs 22, it is written:  “The rich and the poor have a common bond, the Lord is the maker of them all.”  Further, in the same chapter, we read:  “He who oppresses the poor to make more for himself or who gives to the rich, will only come to poverty.”  Wisdom counsels against inequities.

Unlawful eviction is one means by which some New Yorkers are oppressed.  Usually accompanied by a lawyer to housing court, landlords succeed in winning cases at a higher rate compared to tenants, who often cannot afford a lawyer.  The homelessness that I have experienced over the long-term has been caused by a series of such evictions, not just one.  The last time I was evicted in this manner, I took the case to housing court (in the fall of 2012, during Hurricane Sandy) and a decision was found in my favor.  Yet, the landlord still refused to allow me to return to my room and belongings.  The police did not assist me, as they’re required.  I was on the streets for a few days before going to shelter.  The accumulated injustices against me went unpunished—until it was reported in the Daily News and the New York Times, in February 2015 that the landlord at my old address, 159 Suydam St., in Bushwick, Brooklyn, was arrested for unlawfully trying to expel all the residents in the building.  His plan was in collusion with a City employee at the Department of Buildings, who was also arrested, according to the reports.

Another unfortunate experience occurred in the fall of 2013, at a shelter in Jamaica, Queens, called Bob’s Place, which is run by SCO Family of Services.  A knock on the door of my room at 5:30 a.m. interrupted me as I brushed my teeth.  I had gotten up early to go to work, as a temporary employee at the Department of Parks & Recreation.  The strange hour of the knock immediately telegraphed the identity of the intruder only because of my habit of reading the news and seeking to discern the modus operandi of authoritarian governments for my book project, still in progress.  The knock was a bad sign:  I judged it to be the police, and my self-training kicked-in as I went to the door, brush in hand.  In non-democratic societies they come in the middle of the night to disturb, or abscond with, their targets.  When I opened the door, three uniformed officers—one a female--of the Department of Homeless Services entered and asked me my name.  I gave it, and pronounced it correctly for them, as they had asked.  I was then instructed to rapidly dress and accompany them.  I was to bring no bag or backpack.  I finished brushing my teeth and obeyed.  Once in the hallway, I was asked to turn around, and I used all my power to maintain control of my emotions, for I knew that they were going to put me in handcuffs, where I’d never been before.  Completely innocent and with a clean criminal record, I faced the wall, and it was done.  I was led to a van in this humiliating fashion.  With others rounded-up in a sweep of those with outstanding summonses, I was transported into Manhattan.

The van was filled with the banter of the officers as we headed westward.  Only very good R&B music on the radio joined them.  The temptation to argue my case was strong, but I decided against that, because they might have expected it, and it would only underline my powerlessness.  The van left the main artery, and the driver seemed to have gotten lost.  The detour was a construction site, and I discerned the meaning of the wrong turn.  It was a ruse.  It was an act of intimidation against me, I surmised from long experience with the sometimes surreptitious moves to impede or simply ridicule me.  Some higher-up knew of my proclivity to study the Civil Rights Movement and follow current events and had ordered this treatment.  The divergence was a re-enactment of the mysterious night in Neshoba County, Miss., when civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were murdered in the dark night, off the back roads, in a muddy dam.  Still, I remained calm and silent and gave no hint of fear.  In fact, judging their intentions made them seem to me all the more ridiculous, themselves, and childish.  Evil habitually wears the costume of puerility.  It speaks and acts to take from others.  Children who learn to give outdo the childish adults.  The light of day came only as we arrived at the 30th St. Men’s Shelter, on First Ave., near Bellevue Hospital.  There, we were led to a waiting room, handcuffed to the seats, given a bag lunch, and we waited for the court to open.  The subtle indication at the main Men’s shelter, where I’d been before, was that I’d be forever locked in homelessness.  At the courthouse on Lafayette St., the judge dismissed me near noontime after learning what I’d remembered:  my summons for public urination had already been dismissed years before by one of his colleagues.  The morning’s experience was frivolous.  I was free to go, and no apologies were in order.

Two issues, today, demonstrate the struggle for equity in New York City.  At the Safety Net Activists, an independent group at the Urban Justice Center, some 60 members, I included, have been working to improve customer relations at the City’s Human Resources Administration (HRA), which administers Public Assistance.  A vision of our group is to bring dignity, professionalism and efficiency to HRA.  We find that the trauma of living in poverty is increased with the interactions with the City’s agencies that are charged with helping us move out of poverty.  Basic courtesies are flouted and stereotypes of poor people bedevil City workers—even as they struggle with their own stresses in the workplace.  Consequently, in meetings with high officials at HRA, we seek a number of changes that would bring customer relations more in line with those of the private sector.  Previous mayors who proudly spoke of their achievements in, and ties to, business never seemed to think of evaluating and re-evaluating the managerial efficacy of services to needy New Yorkers.  They held a presumption that harsh treatment would discourage applicants for assistance, which would manipulate statistics for political reasons.  The presumption may have been correct for a few individuals; but a result was the denial of support for suffering fellow-citizens that the agency is charged to help.  Leaders allowed themselves inaccurate attitudes that were redolent of domination and would worsen the hardships of the poor.

The Safety Net Activists are notching a number of successes in easing tense relations with HRA personnel.  With the express support of the commissioner of the Department of Social Services, Steven Banks, we have been meeting with some of his staff to agree on feasible changes. Firstly, accountability is more possible with the simple display of name tags at the work area.  Secondly, some frustration is assuaged with a change in policy that would provide for access to supervisory personnel to help settle a dispute or disagreement before expulsion by a security officer.  We are pleased to have had the benefit of the good offices of Deputy Commissioner Jacqueline Flaum, before she retired at the end of 2015.  Mr. Ramon Flores has kindly agreed to meet with us, henceforth.  Our Safety Net activities are ably coordinated by Helen Strom, of the staff of the Urban Justice Center.

Affordable housing in East Harlem is a second issue of concern.  A petition is being circulated, at this writing, demanding “public land for the public good.”  The Ballfield Site Park (public land) on 111th St., between Park Ave. and Madison Ave. is to be sold for one dollar to builders to create a 20-story building of “affordable” housing and commercial businesses.  Some of the apartments in the planned construction are to go to families making between $38,450 and $62,000.  The rest will go to those earning more.  However, the majority of the families in the neighborhood earn an average of $23,350.  The term “affordable housing” is being applied to a process that will drive most of the local residents from the area.  It is threatening not only the established network of personal relationships of longtime residents, but also the rich cultural legacy—including music history--of what was known as Spanish Harlem.  The proposed housing is exclusionary, aggressive and injurious to the Barrio, whose history as a Latin community is a century old.  The community, with the support of community organizers like Daisy Gonzalez at Community Voices Heard (CVH), of which I’ve become a member, is urging that new housing, and new spaces for small businesses, be made available and accessible to those who already live in the neighborhood.  The people seek a commitment to affordable housing for local residents that lasts far longer than the proposed 30 years.

In recent years, the City’s cherished skyscape has been tarnished with unsightly super-towers for the ultra-rich.  Their aesthetic appeal is dubious.  The sociological wisdom of the phenomenon is debatable--and evokes the work of Jane Jacobs, who thought ill of urban structures that inhibited human interaction in neighborhoods.   New housing for very wealthy residents has far outpaced the construction of residences for those with very low incomes.  This has threatened the fabric of the City and tends to invite social unrest.  The use of land, here, as everywhere in the world, is a tool to allow some to usurp property and divide and disperse populations.  The Big Apple is more handsome with a Bible Belt and a swaying that promotes equilibrium.

 New York City 12 August 2016