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The 1977 World Series was between the New York Yankees and LA Dodgers. In game two, a helicopter covering the game accidentally panned too far, and footage of an abandoned public school in the Bronx burning down was broadcast across America.
This image is often used to depict a city in freefall: the destructive decisions New York made up to that point had caused the Bronx literally to burn.
In those years, books such as The Power Broker created a certain narrative about the city: heavy handed urban planners headed by Robert Moses had choked the city with paved expressways that bulldozed neighborhoods. These roads almost single handedly destroyed New York. Only one neighborhood was saved from this wanton destruction: Washington Square Park, where Jane Jacobs, the activist and author of The Life and Death of Great American Cities, rallied the housewives of Greenwich Village to block a highway in their backyard.
But this familiar narrative is as misleading as the image broadcast during the World Series. While American sports fans watched an abandoned school building burn, two miles away, a group called United Bronx Parents had moved into the abandoned school P.S. 130, where 25 students and parents signed up for shifts to guard it. Even after the nation had left the city for dead, the community, under the leadership of Evelina López Antonetty, had not.
Fifty years after its publication, Caro’s book remains an authoritative resource for anyone interested in learning about Moses; and Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities remains similarly authoritative for many of the proponents of what has been called “The New Urbanism.” Neither book mentions Evelina López Antonetty, or even the existence of any activism in the Bronx. When the courageous activism of organizers like Antonetty is ignored, it leaves the misleading impression that New York’s urban landscape was determined by an epic struggle between two people, with Moses arguing for larger projects governed from the top down, and Jacobs arguing for community control.
When the debate is framed in this way, however, much gets lost.
While Jacobs supported community input in her own neighborhood of Greenwich Village, she made no effort to champion these ideals in the city’s other boroughs and neighorhoods. In Death and Life, for example, she dismissed the Bronx,” as “woefully short of urban vitality, diversity and magnetism.”
Jacobs was wrong about the Bronx. As she was writing those words, Antonetty was busy organizing the borough to create better neighborhood conditions.
Evelina López Antonetty was born in Puerto Rico in 1922 and moved to New York City with her siblings in 1933, two years before Jacobs moved into the Village with her sister. Unlike Jacobs, however, she entered her community by moving in with her relatives and going to public school. Her firsthand experience with the school system—both as a student and later as a parent—and her involvement with labor movements set her on the track to start community organizing. After her son entered the public school system, Antonetty saw the system from the vantage point of a parent, and saw how inaccessible teachers were to members of the community: this experience led to her founding United Bronx Parents, an organization dedicated to helping every aspect of the community.
“Our children can become the educators, doctors, and leaders of tomorrow.”– Evelina López Antonetty
Antonetty founded United Bronx Parents (UBP) in 1965. At first it was a grassroots coalition of Puerto Rican activists and parents concerned about the quality of the borough’s schools. From these modest origins, the organization quickly grew into one of the borough’s largest grassroots movements, with the mission of ensuring that the Bronx had the resources it needed so community members could thrive.
In the words of Antonetty, “our children can become the educators, doctors, and leaders of tomorrow,” but only if the city invested the same amount in Bronx schools. In some Bronx public schools, for example, no teachers spoke Spanish creating a language barrier between them and parents. And, even among parents who did speak English, many did not know the best strategies to advocate for their children. UBP would help bridge the gap on both problems, advocating for more bilingual teachers while also teaching parents about strategies to advocate for their children.
After Antonetty had organized United Bronx Parents, one of their first campaigns concerned the lunches local schools were serving. Parents complained about their children’s experiences with sour milk, cold and watery soup, and a total lack of nutritional value in the meals: many students were going hungry instead of eating the lunches. Most of the schools did not have a kitchen, instead relying on a Depression-era centralized kitchen in Queens. By the time the lunches got to the Bronx—often halfway through the lunch period—the food would be inedible. Yet when these parents had tried to raise these problems with the Board of School Lunches, they had been ignored.
Antonetty first had parents visit and evaluate every cafeteria in South Bronx Schools. After they had found health violations in each of them, they zeroed in on Public School 25 as the worst, with 53 infractions. Antonetty and the parents then scheduled a lunch with local politicians along with officials from the Board of School Lunches and the Department of Education.
Instead of meeting them in an office, the members of UBP took them on a trip to the cafeteria of PS 25, where they served them the same school lunches their children were eating. After forcing the officials to eat this sickening food, the group brought in members of the community who, in the words of a newspaper at the time, “cooked its own model lunches” that were “cheaper and better.” Such food would be closer to what the children were used to eating, it would be far more nutritious, and money would stay in the community if local cooks were hired.
Despite this organizing, and despite the clear benefits, the Board of School lunches refused to listen to the concerns of UBP. But this was just the of a series of battles to improve life in the South Bronx.
In 1971, when Congress passed funding for free lunches for children in the summer, United Bronx Parents was awarded the contract for New York City. They were the only nongovernmental organization to receive such funds. Despite Congress dragging its feet on funding, Antonetty ensured that the inaugural year ran smoothly. Every day that summer, the UPB delivered 150,000 meals that were praised as “delicious,” “fresh,” and “of high quality,” a rousing success for this inaugural year.
In the years that followed, UBP made sure that it remained engaged with the community. It told parents what their rights were, and even wrote a handbook that became published nationally to inform parents how to advocate for their children in school. As one UBP pamphlet put it:
“If only one or two children are failing in each class, there is probably something wrong with these children, But if two thirds of the children are failing, THERE IS SOMETHING WRONG WITH THE SCHOOL!”– United Bronx Parents Member
As a result of this advocacy, Atonetty helped create one of the nation’s first bilingual programs in public school.
Whenever Antonetty saw injustice, she organized against it. The locations of these varied, from the offices of slumlords in the Bronx to the offices of the Board of Education in downtown Manhattan to Washington DC. And, she had a sway in New York politics. While she preferred to stay on the front line, she guided the careers of many congressman. Representative Jose Cereno, for example, began his career with the help of Antonetty. He is now the longest serving Latino Congressman of all time. In one photo, she can be seen yelling at a congressman, telling him that he worked for us, and not the other way around.
United Bronx Parents worked tirelessly in the South Bronx for many years, at a time when many in the nation increasingly saw New York as a lost cause. It did this important work regardless of who was in power on a national level.
Antonetty died in 1984, but her legacy endures. UBP still exists, though in 2011 it joined the Acacia Network, and shifted from being an activist group to being a nonprofit service provider. To this day the group highlights its roots as a “community grown organization.”
As a turbulent administration departs and America is faced with countless national crises, the story of Antonetty offers us a powerful example of how we can stay engaged in the effort to create a more just America: even while fires are burning elsewhere, the key is to organize at the level of our communities.
Linus Glenhaber is a student at Columbia University and an editorial fellow at Public Seminar.