This article uses ethnographic fieldwork to illustrate how a multi-ethnic group of activists in Brooklyn, New York, formed a coalition for environmental justice in their neighborhood. Until the late 1980s local activists had organized in separate and antagonistic movements, competing over access to housing, schools, and police protection. However, as they increasingly realized that the environment was an urban concern, and was subject to discrimination, activists added it to their organizing agendas. In so doing, activists began to construct an expansive environmental narrative that cast all minorities in the neighborhood as united in the face of disproportionately high pollution rates. Activists thus found that they could enhance their environmental struggles by creating environmental identities that superseded rigidly defined identities based on ethnicity. Through organizing for environmental justice, activists redefined the meaning and significance of ethnic differences. [ethnicity, environmental justice, social movements, urban United States]
In the dimming light of a fall afternoon in 1995 I navigated the crowded sidewalks of Brooklyn, New York's Williamsburg/Greenpoint1 neighborhood on my way to a meeting of the Community Alliance for the Environment (CAFE). As I walked, I passed a typical array of taquerias, Chinese take-aways, and 99-cent stores. Within a few blocks, however, this diversity gave way to exclusively Spanish store signs and grocery stores containing traditional Latin foods. If I had continued walking a few blocks east and then south, I would have again found myself surrounded by monolingual store signs, only this time they would have been in Hebrew. Here, and within a ten-block radius, products from Israel lined grocery store shelves. Packages clearly announced which were milk and which meat. At the register a tzedakah (or charity) box waited to be filled with coins in a tradition dating back to biblical times. The close proximity of Latinos and Hasidim, along with a wide range of other ethnic groups, distinguished Williamsburg/Greenpoint from other New York neighborhoods and made it one of the most diverse (Greider 1993).
Continuing my walk, I crossed under the Williamsburg Bridge and arrived at the El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice, headquartered in an old church in South Williamsburg. El Puente was crowded with teenagers that day, dressed in pressed pants and mini skirts and snacking on Caribbean food in celebration of Dominican Independence Day. Upstairs and away from the noise and bustle of the celebration, I joined approximately fifteen people seated in a circle of chairs. The faces around me represented the array of ethnic groups that I had passed on my way to the meeting. Meeting-goers included Latinos,2 Polish, Irish, and Asian Americans, white artists, a few African Americans, and several Hasidic men traditionally dressed in black hats, long black coats, and temple curls. Halfway through the meeting, an El Puente staff member introduced the only Hasidic woman present, also traditionally clad in a long skirt and wig. The staff member stood and quipped, "Rachel Goldenberg is going to do environmental education. Rabbi Niederman thinks she's the Jewish savior-that might not go along with the religion, I don't know [laughs]."
Although the humor of this remark remained unclear to me, what was clear was the teller's intent to make a joke and to demonstrate both his tolerance of and his familiarity with Hasidic culture. Making light of Jewish beliefs before a mixed audience signified a striking new cooperation between Latinos and Hasidim in Williamsburg/Greenpoint. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s these two groups had fought fierce battles over access to police protection, housing, and schools. How, then, did it come to pass, on that autumn afternoon, that I sat among the members of a political coalition led by Hasidim and Latinos? How was it possible for the two groups, once locked in opposition, to chide one another about their ethnic particularities?
Based on fieldwork conducted with CAFE members between 1995 and 1996, in this article I argue that the cultural practices in which activists engaged as they organized for the environment revealed their re-casting of both the political significance of ethnicity and the meaning of ethnic differences. As activists began to organize for the environment, they developed a collective environmental narrative that was locally salient and motivated organized action. By creating broad-based definitions of the environment that included all aspects of their lives and of their social justice activism, activists constructed an environmental identity that superseded rigid ethnic categories. Using an ambiguously defined environment as a basis for unity, activists eventually expanded their newfound cooperation and worked together on other social justice issues. Thus, this article demonstrates both the political significance and fluidity of ethnicity as it was practiced in the development and maintenance of an environmental justice organization.
The discussion and definition of ethnicity has an extensive history in anthropological literature (see, for example, Fortes 1945; Leach 1960; Nadel 1947). Many of these studies find that ethnic categories are defined contextually and in relation to other groups. For example, Murphy writes "membership in [any group], incorporation within it, is dependant upon a category of the excluded" (1964: 848). If ethnic groups are defined contextually, then the boundaries which delineate them are flexible and can shift according to a group's perceived needs (Leach 1954; Moerman 1965; Nadel 1942). Moreover, as Barth argues, when ethnic groups compete over resources, the articulation of ethnicity is a political act (1969: 19). It is not surprising, then, that when Williamsburg/Greenpoint activists' political interests shifted, so did certain aspects of ethnic or racial definitions.
Recent studies of urban-based political movements reveal a trend towards emphasizing ethnicity in political contexts (Horton 1992, 1995; Kasinitz 1992). For example, in his study of urban politics in Southern California Horton writes, "ethnicity was a salient political force." He goes on to state that, while ethnicity was a powerful political tool, "[it was] unstable in meaning and equally in its situational application" (1995: 230). Following Horton, I trace here the various ways that ethnic and racial identities were applied and perceived by activists in light of their political needs and New York City's political climate. Emphasizing their diverse ethnic backgrounds was, for CAFE activists, both a political strategy and a way to build a collective identity that united them as members of the same community of "minorities."
While the construction of a collective, organizational identity was critical to CAFE's movement strategy, creating a unified identity across difference was complicated and required an on-going process of negotiation (Melucci 1988; see also Escobar and Alvarez 1992; Melucci 1989)3. I found that CAFE activists constructed a collective movement identity on a day-to-day basis through the jokes, metaphors, and symbols that they created as they organized for the environment. Moreover, as other social movement scholars have found, in articulating a collective movement identity, activists both incorporated and resisted state-generated discourses about ethnic diversity (see Escobar 1992; Laclau and Mouffe 1985; Melucci 1988). Anthropologists have further argued that social movements must be understood in terms of the underlying cultural values and understandings that create them (Escobar 1992; Starn 1992). Through detailed "on the ground" analysis I will explore how their specific experiences as minorities acted as a lens through which CAFE activists defined the environment and environmental justice. These experiences led activists to develop expansive environmental narratives and create a broad-based environmental justice identity that enabled them to extend their cooperation to a host of social justice issues (see Harvey 1996).
Combining environmentalism and social justice characterizes most environmental justice groups (Bullard 1993: 15). Begun in the early 1980s, environmental justice can be loosely defined as opposition to racial or ethnic discrimination in environmental policy making and to the targeting of communities of color for toxic waste disposal and the siting of polluting industries (Chavis 1993: 3). Thus, environmental justice introduces a civil rights perspective into environmentalism (Bullard 1990, 1993; Bullard and Wright 1987, 1990; Castells 1997; Gottlieb 1993). Environmental justice activists are reconstructing the environment as an urban minority issue as well as expanding the meaning of the environment to include a host of urban resources (Harvey 1996: 402; see also Ross 1993). For example, Novotnoy writes that urban environmental justice activists publicly defined their environment as "where we live, work and play" (1995: 61). For CAFE, environmental justice meant improving all aspects of their lives, particularly those subject to discrimination. This broad framing of the environment also enabled activists to expand the meaning of ethnic differences. The following section illustrates the historic essentialization and role of ethnicity in Williamsburg/Greenpoint's community politics. Battles under the Bridge: A Tradition of Toxic Tensions in Williamsburg/Greenpoint
Sandwiched between the Williamsburg Bridge, the East River, the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, and the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Williamsburg/Greenpoint, one of Brooklyn's oldest neighborhoods, acts as a gateway to the outer boroughs of New York. Along with its diverse population of Hasidic Jews, Latinos, Asian, Irish, Polish, and African Americans, and white artists Williamsburg/Greenpoint also hosts an extraordinary number of polluting entities. Along its waterfront, heavy-manufacturing facilities including chemical plants, power plants, and foundries line the bank of the river (Camp et al. 1985: 2-4). Moving east, a band of light manufacturing plants is interspersed with residential neighborhoods. Still further east and surrounded by residential neighborhoods is an area zoned for heavy commercial industries including automotive repair and service and commercial laundries or cleaners.
The remaining 66 percent of the neighborhood is almost entirely residential and houses Brooklyn's most diverse mix of ethnic groups (Brooklyn Community Board 1 1995: 9). According to the 1990 Census, approximately 47 percent of Williamsburg and Greenpoint residents are White NonHispanic, 45 percent are Hispanic, 6 percent are African American, and 2 percent are Asian, Pacific Islander NonHispanic (U.S. Census 1990, cited in Brooklyn Community Board 1 1995: 9). Most of the residents are first, second, or third generation immigrants or artists seeking cheap space. Overall income in the community is quite low and the neighborhood's Community Board estimated that, in 1993, 36 percent of Williamsburg/Greenpoint residents lived below official poverty standards, as compared to 23 percent of Brooklyn overall (U.S. Census 1990, cited in Brooklyn Community Board 1 1995:20).
The history of the ethnic composition of this part of Brooklyn is fraught with the inter-ethnic tensions often found in crowded and poor areas where immigrant groups struggle for access to evershrinking municipal resources (Greider 1993; Hevesi 1994; see also Horton 1995). Hasidic immigration began after World War II when the Satmar, a sect of Hasidim who had survived the Holocaust, followed their grand Rebbe from Poland to the United States and settled in Williamsburg. Thereafter, Satmars and other, smaller groups of Hasidim continued to migrate from Eastern Europe to Williamsburg (Greider 1993: 36). Because of their strict religious practices, the Hasidim never assimilated into the social mainstream of New York City. For example, their observances prohibited them from working on Friday afternoons or Saturdays, working in certain occupations, or altering their style of dress. As a result, Hasidic incomes in Williamsburg are no higher than incomes of any other ethnic category (Greider 1993: 36). Further, the average Hasidic family has 7.8 children, which has led to extremely over-crowded housing conditions (United Talmudic Association 1993, cited in Hevesi 1994: 47).
Also in the 1940s and 1950s Puerto Ricans and later Dominicans, Mexicans, and other Spanishspeaking immigrants moved to Williamsburg in large numbers. By 1974 the Latino population was over 50 percent (Susser 1984: 25). The various communities tended to cluster geographically and by ethnic affiliation. The Northside area (technically, Greenpoint) was home to Polish and Irish ethnic groups as well as a relatively large artist community. Historically, Greenpoint residents had higher incomes and fewer female-headed households (p. 29). Latinos concentrated in an area known as Southside Williamsburg, comprised of the land just under and to the north and south of the Williamsburg Bridge. Across the Brooklyn Queens Expressway's link to the Williamsburg Bridge and adjacent to the Navy Yard, South Williamsburg housed the Hasidic community. Completed in 1952, the Expressway link, along with a small commercial triangle, physically divided South Williamsburg and Southside Williamsburg.
Williamsburg/Greenpoint was not different from other cities across the United States in that local politics were fundamentally about a struggle for control over land use and opportunities for economic growth (Horton 1995). Because Williamsburg/Greenpoint was a particularly poor neighborhood, struggles focused on housing and employment opportunity. These battles contributed to a pervasive conception that, in order to get their slice of a very small pie, ethnic groups had to engage in fierce competition with one another. As in many urban areas, ethnicity formed the basis for local political organizing and resource battles were narrowly defined along ethnic lines (Horton 1995).
Due to the over-crowded conditions in Williamsburg/Greenpoint, housing was a major issue in Williamsburg in the latter half of the twentieth century. Unsurprisingly, inter-ethnic resentments flared over this issue in particular. Latino community groups historically argued that the Hasidim received preferential treatment in the allocation of affordable housing and publicly funded schools; that the Hasidim had literally been "taking over the neighborhood" (Greider 1993: 37). Latino groups twice occupied housing projects on the eve of their opening for occupancy. The first time was in 1974 when 150 Hispanics occupied the Roberto Clemente Houses housing project because its future residents would be mainly Hasidim.4 This occupation turned into a small riot when the occupiers resisted police action (Gonzalez 1990: 25). Nineteen years later, in 1993, 200 Latinos occupied a housing project on the eve of its opening. Again, this project was to be lived in primarily by Hasidim (Hevesi 1994: 47; Schlieffer 1994: 2A).
In 1983 the Koch administration announced a plan to construct a large number of private and public housing in a 40-acre area that they deemed the Williamsburg Renewal Area. The area set aside for accelerated development also happened to be located almost entirely within the Hasidic section of Williamsburg. After protests by the Latino community in 1985, an additional renewal area was designated and located mainly within the Latino section of Williamsburg/Greenpoint (Camp, Dresser, and McKee 1985: 12). Protests about unfair housing distribution persisted, however, and in 1989 the Southside Fair Housing Commission, a Latino based community group sued the city of New York to set aside housing units for Latinos and African Americans.
On the other hand, Hasidim felt frustrated by a perceived lack of municipal and neighborhood tolerance for their need to adhere to religious traditions. For example, one of the focal points of the Hasidic side of the affordable housing issue was that, due to their strict religious observances, they needed to live within walking distance of their synagogues. Therefore, they required (and historically received) special housing privileges from the City. Hasidim also claimed they were excluded from low-income housing projects because of Affirmative Action programs. One Hasidic activist explained,
There are just no apartments, people are just taking anything on the fifth floor up and they're living there with 10 or 12 children . . . . They can't get into a project because of affirmative action and um, Latino or other people. The Jews want to live near their synagogues, near their schools, near their parents and they tell them, "well you can go up to Harlem, I can give you an apartment in Chinatown."
These kinds of inter-ethnic tensions led to approximately five riots and/or demonstrations in twelve years. In one example, in October 1990 a Hasidic man was arrested on sexual assault charges. A large protest ensued and led to aggressive clashes between protesting Hasidim and local police. Fortyfive police officers were injured in the skirmishes (Schlieffer 1994: 2A). Commenting on the protest later, a Latino police officer complained about a general "preferential treatment" that was afforded to Hasidim over other ethnic groups (Gonzalez 1990: 25). In another instance, in July 1992 a Hasidic man beat a 13-year-old Latino boy who had accused him of shoplifting. Latinos angrily demonstrated following the incident (Greider 1993: 35; Hevesi 1994: 47). In the meantime Hasidim formed their own local police patrol and named it the Shomrim (Hebrew for "guardian"). By the end of 1992 tensions between Hasidim and Latinos in Williamsburg/Greenpoint seemed to be reaching a boiling point, and some journalists who reported on the area forecasted a Crown-Heights-type of explosion (Greider 1993: 35; Hevesi 1994: 47).
An environmental justice coalition spearheaded by Latinos and Hasidim, therefore, was a significant event that cut through the intense competition that had previously characterized relations between these groups. The creation of CAFE was also significant in that historically, minority communities have not considered the environment to be an urban issue (see Darnovsky 1996; Gottlieb 1993; Ross 1993; Taylor 1984, 1992). Forming CAFE thus required shifts in the relationship of activists to the environment, itself as well as shifts in inter-ethnic relationships. In the following section I briefly describe how activists in Williamsburg/Greenpoint recognized the environment as an urban issue and one that affected minority groups.
Encountering Environmental Injustice
If you want to build incinerators, how's the yard at Gracie?
The Mayor would have choice words, including, you're crazy.
Victor Torres, a Williamsburg resident who identified himself as both Dominican and Puerto Rican, wrote the poem from which I excerpted this quote. Torres' poem re-works Dr. Seuss' "The Lorax."5 The poem's likening of the Lorax's plight to the incinerator issue reflected the Williamsburg/ Greenpoint community's growing awareness that, although the cutting down of forests and other kinds of wildlife preservation were not applicable to them as urban inhabitants, environmental degradation did include urban air and water. Further, residents were becoming increasingly aware that, in New York City, environmental quality was distributed unevenly and according to class and race (Collin and Harris 1993: 105). Hence, Mr. Torres' implication that an incinerator would never be installed at Gracie Mansion.
Throughout the 1980s toxic tragedies at Love Canal triggered a growing public awareness among Americans of the potential dangers of toxic waste (Szasz 1994). However, Williamsburg/Greenpoint activists were slow to add the environment to their already full list of social injustices. One African American activist in Williamsburg described her community's reluctance to join the CAFE movement:
They are just so tired of being beaten up with all the problems they had, with violence, with guns, with drugs, they really did not care about an incinerator. They would not take notice of it. We had to bring it to their attention.
For this activist, more traditional urban issues took priority over protesting the building of an incinerator. For example, many community activists in Williamsburg/Greenpoint initially welcomed the incinerator plan as an opportunity to increase local employment. CAFE leader Luis Garden Acosta explained:
I remember when it was thought of that the Brooklyn Navy Yard would be the site of a giant incinerator, anywhere from 44 to 55 stories, I remember our City Councilperson saying to us, some time back, "this will mean jobs for communities." And many of us said -great." Well, my father was an ex-hard hat in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and I said, "fantastic." We just didn't know. We didn't know what the PCB would do, the extra lead, to an already compromised air quality . . . we just didn't understand that the pollution in the Williamsburg/ Greenpoint area is some 20 times the national average.
Acosta's statement illustrates how job creation and the alleviation of poverty took priority on community leaders' agendas and how local politicians strategically emphasized those aspects of the incinerator proposal. The promise of job creation is another reason that many minority organizations were late in challenging environmental imbalances. Environmental reform proposals that closed industrial plants often had the effect of eroding economic gains in minority communities and creating job loss (Bullard 1990: 105). Concerned about community income levels, minority activists often opposed environmental reforms and sought the installation of industrial facilities.
It was not until they became alarmed by a rise in certain health problems that Williamsburg/Greenpoint residents instigated their investigation into possible sources of poor health in the community. For example, a Hasidic activist remembered:
About three years ago my son was diagnosed with leukemia and . . . [the doctor] told me and others confirmed it, that the type of leukemia he had is caused by . . . exposure to radiation. And I researched it along with my neighbors. Unfortunately, on the block where I lived, there were at least ten cancer patients in the last ten years and it has increased since the last three years . . . . We got together as volunteers, we wrote down as many cancer patients as we knew in the neighborhood, it was close to 200 over the last ten years.
Residents began to look to the Brooklyn Navy Yard as one source of poor health. Shrouded in mystery, operations at the Navy Yard had been a source of neighborhood suspicion for some time. One African American activist remembered:
[We started) questioning because a lot of times you would drive around that area and you never quite knew what was going on in the Navy Yard. It's still an enigma. Even though the incinerator is not there, there's just so much activity going on in there. You go to bed at night, you wake up the next morning and there are smokestacks. And now, well we know that they have been doing a lot of toxic dumping there. I don't know if it's illegal, I believe they have permission to do it. But all of these things are being done in the backyard of our community. You know, our children are being raised here. We have high rates now of AIDS, drug addiction, children with respiratory problems. You know, we don't need that in this area, We have the BQE, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Manhattan Bridge, you know it's just like coming on us and nobody is fighting for the people.
This activist's description of the Navy Yard illustrates how local activists began to realize that they suffered from disproportionate sources of pollution as well as high rates of illness.
At the same time, drawing on their experiences with institutional discrimination, activists linked poor neighborhood health and environmental quality to their status as minorities. For example, one Hasidic activist remembered a meeting with the City Health Department to discuss high cancer rates in Williamsburg:
The health department was not very concerned. I remember one woman, she came to a meeting and she was rude, she was saying, "Oh these people don't go to a doctor on time." I couldn't believe it. We have so many cases where people got diagnosed in the early stages where it was caught and it was still benign. But that couldn't go in as part of the health statistics. Only those cases that were already malignant. All those cases that were caught early, those could not be included.
Here, the health department official's stereotyping of Hasidic Jews prevented her from validating their complaints of high cancer rates. These presuppositions also influenced the Health Department's inadmission of certain kinds of cancer cases in their report, weakening the evidence of high local cancer rates that the Hasidic community was compiling.
Discovering that such institutional discrimination also influenced the distribution of environmental quality in New York City came as no shock to Williamsburg/Greenpoint residents. For example, one African American activist told me that uncovering environmental discrimination did not really surprise him because he "always felt it was like that." Another activist viewed the proposed incinerator plan as just another instance of the City's lack of "respect" for the residents of her neighborhood. She told me, "It really hurts me to see the way there is no respect for Williamsburg, because I don't see people building incinerators in the suburbs or their own neighborhoods."
By attributing incidents of toxic waste siting in the neighborhood to its number of minorities, activists linked the urban environment to other social justice issues such as housing, jobs, and education. This linkage is the main thrust of grassroots environmental movements in minority neighborhoods. Bullard writes,
Concern about equity appears to be the key to black community resistance to the industrial siting. There is always an imbalance between costs and benefits. Costs are more localized while benefits are more dispersed. (1990: 88; see also Anglin 1998).
A focus on environmental equity differentiates grassroots environmental justice movements from older, mainstream environmental movements, which tended to have a white, middle-class constituency and to concentrate on preservation and conservation (Bullard 1993; Taylor 1984, 1990). Thus, as they connected local health problems to the high number of toxic facilities in their neighborhood, residents came to view the environment as an urban resource that was subject to discrimination. In so doing, they added a clean environment to the list of resources for which they needed to struggle for access. The next section describes how environmental organizing differed from traditional social justice organizing in Williamsburg/Greenpoint in that it stimulated multiethnic cooperation. It also illustrates how CAFE activists employed their multiculturalism as an effective political strategy.
Creating a Coalition for the Environment
What brings us together is that we have the same interests, we're living in the same place, the air is polluted just as well and we're afraid of the same environmental pollutants.
Initially, Latinos and Hasidim followed the usual patterns of local organizing and formed separate environmental action groups. In the 1980s members of the Latino community formed the El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice. Shortly thereafter El Puente joined the environmental justice movement by starting the Toxic Avengers. The Toxic Avengers (who disbanded in 1992) was a group of mainly Latino teenagers who organized local environmental protests. They disseminated information about local environmental hazards such as the dangers of lead paint and pollution around the Navy Yard and the bridges.6 The Avengers joined the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) to protest the designation of a radioactive waste storage site at the Radiac Research Corporation 7 located one block from a neighborhood elementary school. Several years earlier NYPIRG had also worked with the United Jewish Organizations (UJO) to promote the Recycle First legislation, which would require the City to find recycling alternatives to waste management.
In January 1991 Luis Garden Acosta, executive director of El Puente, invited Rabbi David Niederman, executive director of the UJO to join him in planning a rally against Radiac.8 The rally went smoothly. Then, when NYPIRG launched its anti-incinerator campaign in the spring of 1992, it invited both leaders to participate. The new campaign led to a community environmental summit that drew 1,200 people and provided the basis for CAFE, a coalition of neighborhood groups, led by the triad of Acosta, Niederman, and Martin Brennan of NYPIRG. According to Garden Acosta, the 1992 summit was no small feat, and he often commented that it "was like Nixon coming to China." Garden Acosta also often said that he met with Niederman when he realized that "we all breathe the same air" and "the government is laughing at both of us." For Williamsburg/Greenpoint residents, the recognition that they shared an unhealthy environment became their basis for unity. Further, their polluted air became a metaphor for describing their common vulnerability to institutional discrimination.
To organize effectively and to maintain their new coalition, CAFE activists found that they had to develop non-exclusive language to describe their commonalties. Posters, press releases, and flyers were multi-lingual, and activists began referring to themselves as "minorities" and victims of "discrimination" rather than using terms that applied only to specific groups, such as "racism" or "antiSemitism." In private, activists also found generalized words to describe their situation. For instance, an African American activist described how if Williamsburg/Greenpoint had greater "voting power," its dwellers would not be the target of toxic siting practices. Imagining the thought processes of the politicians, he said:
It's an area where the votes are no threat to us, maybe we should put it there-what can we lose? But if we go to an area where maybe we're expecting a lot of votes and people come out and they keep us in office, we better be more careful about tampering with those areas.
In another interview a white, Anglo activist first cited class as a reason for his neighborhood's being singled out for the incinerator and then added ethnicity to his explanation. This activist told me:
This is a working-class neighborhood, working people and often politicians or those people that want to put a garbage dump or an incinerator or what-not go to neighborhoods like this because they think-mistakenly on their partpeople don't have the resources to fight back . . . [They think that] people are not organized enough, they speak Spanish, they speak Polish and they speak Yiddish, you know.
The speaker's train of thought implies that the ethnic makeup of Williamsburg/Greenpoint (many of whose residents still spoke as their primary language a language other than English) was intertwined with the economic composition of the neighborhood. For this activist, both class and minority status led to his neighborhood being chosen to house the incinerator.
By finding ambiguous terms such as "working people" and people whose "votes are no threat" to categorize a mutual lack of power, activists produced a multi-dimensional identity. The meaning of ethnic identity, therefore, was left open to include all disempowered people in Williamsburg/Greenpoint. Given the number of minorities living in the area and its overall low income, most residents of Williamsburg/Greenpoint counted themselves among the disempowered. Latinos, African Americans, Hasidim, Polish Americans all fell into a common category which combined their ethnic identities with their relatively low economic and political clout. With the force of nearly all community members behind them, CAFE activists were empowered to oppose the City's siting practices.
The formation of CAFE also coincided with an upswing in political trends towards celebrating diversity (around that time, Dinkins issued a nowfamous quote that referred to New York City as a "gorgeous mosaic"). As a diverse coalition, CAFE activists quickly found that they attracted greater political attention. For example, Garden Acosta recalled a story about how the coalition initially made itself known to city politicians:
We sat down with Mayor Dinkins. And I can tell you it was the first time Latinos, Hasidim, African American, Polish people all came together before him. He'd never seen anything like that before.
That group made little headway during the meeting in convincing Dinkins to dump the incinerator plan. But, for the mayor, the publicity surrounding his meeting with a multi-ethnic coalition such as CAFE positioned him as a leader open to the needs of all of his constituents.
Activists, thus, strategically emphasized their diversity, knowing that it had potential to be a powerful political tool (see also Takaki 1987: 4). At public events CAFE presented unmistakable physical signs of how their coalition brought together distinct communities. Niederman, in his long dark coat, brimmed hat, beard, and temple curls, stood next to olive-skinned Garden Acosta who sported a moustache and often wore pinstripes. Surrounding these two men, a crowd of Hasidic, Latino, African American, and Anglo American men, women, and children held signs of protest. For instance, a 1995 public hearing against the incinerator culminated with the testimony of Rabbi Niederman. Niederman ended his testimony by holding up a poster and saying, "And I can say one thing. This is in three languages here. Young and old, Spanish, Yiddish, English, saying one thing. No incineration." Niederman's finale stressed that, in their diversity, CAFE also had established a large constituency. This constituency proved powerful enough to sway City Council members. A few months after the hearing mentioned above, the Council voted to require a new Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) before they would consent to building an incinerator. Because they were certain that a new EIS would show the unmistakable and irreversible danger of building an incinerator, CAFE counted this decision as a victory.
Balibar (1991) and others have pointed out the dangers of multicultural rhetoric as it often wrongly suggests that inter-group antagonisms result from cultural misunderstandings, or "problem[s] of individual awareness" (Gregory 1994: 149; see also Gregory 1998; Harrison 1995). State-generated celebrations of diversity tend to use a superficial discourse to gloss over the larger social and economic processes that lead to differential and discriminatory distributions of resources (Harrison 1998). In Williamsburg/Greenpoint antagonism between groups stemmed not just from intolerance of each other's cultural practices, but from their competition over resources made scarce by inequitable distribution. An overly celebratory display of their diversity, then, risked local politicians' shifting the burden of overcoming antagonism onto community members' shoulders.
Horton (1995) addresses superficial celebrations of multiculturalism by distinguishing between "establishment" and "connective" diversity. According to Horton, establishment diversity is managed by the state and de-emphasizes conflict and power. For example, he argues that public festivals in diverse neighborhoods present obligatory displays of ethnic food. This expression of diversity is mandated by municipal entities and is a hollow symbol of ethnic integration. Connective diversity, on the other hand, "is associated with the formation of inter-ethnic alliances favoring the empowerment and inclusion of under-represented populations." Connective diversity, according to Horton, allows power and class differences to cut across ethnic divisions (p. 233). While Horton's distinctions are useful in delineating types of diversity, I would also argue that one type of connection can lead to the other. In CAFE, organizing across ethnic diversity eventually went beyond a superficial valorization of multiculturalism and established a basis for collective mobilizations against city policies. The next section illustrates how activists arrived at a connective form of diversity organizing.
We're [Hasidim] still very different from them [Latinos] and I don't see in certain ways how we do click with them, but certain things that we do click on, it's a benefit to both communities.
By framing their struggle for environmental justice as one to be fought on behalf of all minorities and by recognizing that they were all-together discriminated against, CAFE members set aside some of the issues that had previously factionalized them. This enabled them to work together to improve the shared problem of pollution in their neighborhood. To build connective diversity, CAFE activists began by learning about one another's cultural particularities. On a day-to-day level CAFE activists didneed to alter their perceptions of other cultures to advance group cohesion. For example, one African American activist explained the importance of blurring common stereotypes in the process of building a coalition:
You'll have Farragut, not Farragut, Farrakhan, make a statement and everybody gets bunched in and that's not how it is. Now [laughs] and I hate to say this, I have many friends who are Jewish.
This activist went on to describe how through everyday interactions CAFE members gained intercultural understandings:
And through the CAFE meetings we do talk. You just have to be mindful of the social differences like don't get offended when the Rabbi shakes the man's hand but not yours. You just have to realize that this is not what they do and then certain people will have to be taught, don't get offended, it's not a racial thing because they don't shake our hand, they don't shake any woman's hand. It's just knowledge. You have to get the people knowledge. But that's one of my goals is to bridge us together.
Within an atmosphere of inter-ethnic cooperation, members eventually felt free to make jokes (such as the one described at the beginning of this article) about other ethnicities' cultural particularities. For example, at one meeting, as Rabbi Neiderman walked in an hour late, Garden Acosta chided, "I see you're on Hasidic time again." Neiderman jovially responded, "I see you finally got kosher milk and coffee."
Early on, CAFE leaders codified their commitment to multiethnic cooperation by creating a document entitled the "Principles of Unity." This credo set forth CAFE's purposes as being two-fold:
To save our children from the threat of all environmental and social poisons [that is, discrimination] and most especially [to] build bridges of unity through the diversity of cultures, ethnicities, races, and religions of North Brooklyn.
The purpose presented here exemplifies two important points. First, the Principles of Unity explicitly linked environmentalism to social justice. Second, building "bridges of unity through diversity" signaled activists' desire to empower themselves through the creation of a united front that could more effectively oppose municipal institutions.
The Principles of Unity also laid out organizational rules geared to facilitating unity. One of these rules stated, "All CAFE meetings/negotiations, proposals for resources and development that will have an impact on North Brooklyn as a whole may only be promoted on the basis of consensus." Establishing a rule of consensual action allowed each movement member to feel that he or she had equal input into group decisions. In this way, movement members carved out a social space where they could reverse their experiences of disempowerment in the larger society. "[The] construction of an egalitarian community . . . create[sJ a feeling of equality," explains social movement theorist, Ruth Cardoso (1983: 22, emphasis hers).
It would be misleading, however, to characterize CAFE as a frictionless, unitary entity (Escobar and Alvarez 1992). Rather, CAFE members found that differences between them continued to exist, but were set aside in the interests of group cohesion.9 One activist explained:
People have agreed to work on issues of common agreement and have agreed to disagree on other issues. Which is the way you construct a united front. Looking for areas of common agreement rather than disagreement. Outside the areas of common agreement, people still have disagreements and still raise them and there's still tensions and friction, but people certainly to my experience have been supportive and that has not been impinged on.
As this activist pointed out, differences and disagreements were not ignored, but were brought up in other more specific contexts when the work of CAFE would not be compromised. By laying aside their differences, CAFE members constructed a collective identity that emphasized their commonalties and enabled them effectively to challenge the incinerator.
To sustain their newfound cooperation and collective identity, activists consistently described themselves as collective victims of environmental discrimination. At one CAFE meeting Garden Acosta told assembled movement participants:
We trust each other now. We've sustained all kinds of problems. If we have that kind of faith and trust in each other, it's because this is cancer country now. Because studies coming up are showing we're cancer country.
Referring to Williamsburg/Greenpoint as "cancer country" emphasizes a common experience as well as calls attention to the immediate dangers that environmental problems posed to the community.
This discourse of the environment as a threat acted as an agent of cohesion for the group. In other words, activists cooperated in response to their need to protect themselves from city policies that would jeopardize their health and safety. Simmel (1955) argues that movements that presuppose a high degree of abstraction uniting them over and above individual particularities are able to overcome concrete differences. Often, this unifying, abstract concept represents an on-going threat to movement members (see also Conquergood 1992). Simmel states, "unification by a more chronic than acute danger, an always latent but exposing conflict, will be most effective where the problem is lasting unification of somehow divergent elements" (1955: 106). The idea of a shared, poisoned environment which hovered unjustly over the Williamsburg/Greenpoint community served as the abstract and chronic danger which united CAFE members. In this way, CAFE activists constructed an environmental narrative that sustained their political cooperation.
Recognizing the feasibility and power of coalition politics inspired activists to attempt to work together to improve other spheres of community life. For instance, the Los Sures Housing Development Corporation, a Latino-based community development corporation, and UJO put together a proposal to the City to fund a joint affordable housing development.10 In addition, Latino and Hasidic leaders decided to rename the Shomrim as the Williamsburg Patrol and to include Asian Americans, Latinos, and African Americans as well as Hasidim (Greider 1993: 38). Finally, UJO and El Puente leaders began working with other community non-profits to establish the Williamsburg Neighborhood Based Alliance, a project specifically designed to study such community needs as health care, day care, and housing. The proposed Alliance would also develop a plan for how the city could assist the community in meeting those needs (p. 38).
The built environment historically divided activists into competitive groups that were considered mutually exclusive. The intangible environment, however, in its unhealthy state, provided an initial basis upon which activists could find common ground. By consistently invoking a narrative that cast the environment as equally shared by all Williamsburg/Greenpoint residents, CAFE members found that they had similar needs and could put aside differences in the interests of accomplishing an array of mutual goals. As one activist said, summing up the environment's general applicability, "It's in the air . . . . You know, I think the environment effects everyone; no one could turn a blind eye to it."
Discovering that all ethnic groups in Williamsburg/ Greenpoint had the same needs for a healthy environment changed the significance and meaning of ethnic differences. In other words, rather than competing over urban resources, activists co-operated in their efforts to secure them. This shift in political interests and newfound basis for alliances led activists to frame themselves as one discriminated-against group. Horton states that ethnic identities "[are] constructed on the basis of situationally defined political and class interests" (1992: 244). I would add that identifies are also re-constructed as those interests shift and change. In CAFE's case, the lines that had once sharply defined ethnic identities were expanded in response to activists' recognition of the need to safeguard their urban environment.
Thus, this article has showed how organizing for the environment catalyzed the formation of a multiethnic social movement. Once they realized that the environment was an urban resource that was distributed unevenly according to ethnicity, race, and class, activists added it to their agendas for social change. As they expanded their definition of the environment from a white, middle-class issue to a minority concern, activists also cast it as a basis for inter-ethnic cooperation. Exploiting the ambiguity of "the environment" as an organizing narrative, CAFE activists found a way to set aside differences and form an inclusive environmental coalition. To construct a collective movement identity, CAFE members described their ethnicity in neutral terms. Whereas ethnic categories had once been based on language or national origins, they were now based on a mutual lack of power. This re-categorization of ethnicity illustrates the fluidity of ethnic boundaries and, perhaps more importantly, how they shift according to the needs of a given situation. The installation of a giant incinerator posed an immediate threat to Williamsburg/Greenpoint residents' health and stimulated recognition that resource battles might be more effectively fought by a pluralistic coalition. The creation of a multiethnic movement also coincided with political trends towards celebrating diversity. While emphasizing their multicultural identity became a critical political strategy, it also led CAFE activists to develop the connections necessary for a truly inclusive and powerful grassroots coalition.
These findings suggest the complexity and importance of the political management of ethnicity in urban settings. While local power structures promote superficial versions of diversity, the unequal distribution of urban resources continues to pit ethnic groups against one another. At the same time, competition over urban resources can be transformed into cooperation through the shifting of ethnic boundaries. As my research revealed, this shift occurred in response to a real, but latent, threat. However, I hesitate to forecast a frictionless and overwhelmingly successful future for CAFE. The continued scarcity and unequal distribution of urban resources may return activists to a tradition of intergroup competition that will overcome environmentally based pluralism. At the same time I do wish to conclude that the case of CAFE reveals some of the day-to-day processes by which multiethnic coalitions can develop and be managed as well as the possibilities for their power.
Acknowledgments I would like to thank Drs. Owen Lynch and Steven Gregory, who encouraged my embarking on this research to fulfill requirements for my M.A. degree. I would also like to thank the many CAFE activists who allowed me to participate in
and observe their organization and who willingly and enthusiastically allowed me to interview them. Finally, this article was immeasurably enhanced by the comments of Uriel Grezemkovsky and anonymous reviewers for Anthropological Quarterly. Some
of the material presented here is also included in my paper, "`It's in the Air': Redefining the Environment as a New Metaphor for Old Social Justice Struggles," a comparative analysis of environmental justice organizing.
1Both the Williamsburg and Greenpoint neighborhoods make up Brooklyn Community Board District 1. Local activists commonly referred to the two neighborhoods as one community called Williamsburg/Greenpoint.
2To describe different ethnic categories I use the terms that activists themselves employed (see Horton 1995). In Williamsburg/Greenpoint the Spanish-speaking community members had emigrated mainly from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean and referred to themselves as Latino.
3The strategic construction of collective identities among contemporary social movement actors is a key point in defining the "new social movement" approach to social movement study. Over the past decade scholars have created lively debates over the category "new." Because these debates are tangential to the central arguments of this article, I will not address them directly. However, effective treatments of new social movement theory can be found in Buechler 1995; Cohen 1992; Escobar and Alva
rez 1992; and Melucci 1994.
4 It is interesting to note the discrepancy between the Spanish name of this project and the fact of its placement in a Hasidic section of the neighborhood.
5"The Lorax" is a children's book in which an imaginary creature stages a lone protest against the eradication of the forest where he lived by a large clothing manufacturer.
6More information on the Toxic Avengers, such as the reasons they disbanded, was not available.
7Interview with Martin Brennan, NYPIRG staff member, October 1995.
8The details of this invitation were unclear. Some NYPIRG sources attributed the meeting's instigation to themselves (per interview with Martin Brennan, 1995). Garden Acosta has been quoted in the press as saying he was encouraged by members of the Toxic Avengers to join forces with the UJO (Hevesi 1994: 47).
9 I was unable to persuade any CAFE members to describe in detail the specific areas of tension within the group. 10Unfortunately this project never came to fruition.
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