How Queens became segregated : Code Switch In the early 1970s, Forest Hills, Queens, became a national symbol of white, middle class resistance to integration. Instead of public schools, this fight was over public housing. A fight that got so intense the press called it "The Battle of Forest Hills." How did a famously liberal neighborhood become a hotbed of reaction and backlash? And how did a small group of angry homeowners change housing policy for the entire country?

School Colors Episode 3: 'The Battle of Forest Hills'

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BLANCA IZAGUIRRE: I needed a place to live, OK?


This is Blanca Izaguirre (ph).

IZAGUIRRE: My husband was a factory worker at the time, and I was working at Macy's. And I was also going to college.

FREEDMAN: It was 1975. They had two teenage kids. When she found out they'd been chosen for an apartment in a brand new building in Forest Hills, Queens, she felt like she won the lottery.

IZAGUIRRE: It was total excitement, total - and I said right in the nick of time because my landlady had passed away and her daughters, who did not live in New York, put the house up for sale. So it happened in the nick of time. We would've had to move into an expensive apartment, and life would have been totally different for us - totally, totally different.


We met Blanca in front of the Forest Hills Houses, three brick towers, 12 stories each. She's one of the first people to move in, and she stayed for almost 50 years. She loved this place from the first time she laid eyes on it.

IZAGUIRRE: I saw it. I said, man, this is nice. This is nice. First of all, even though the apartment was not huge, my kids had their own bedroom. All this was park, playground. The neighborhood is beautiful.

GRIFFITH: And best of all, the rent was charged according to your income.

IZAGUIRRE: Affordable housing in a place like this? There was nothing not to like about the place. Check, check, check, check. Anything you want to check, I checked it off on my list. Having said that, you had to live under a rock to not know the controversy that existed with this being built here.


IZAGUIRRE: It was when I came in, when I moved in, that there was people outside, OK? That there was police cars. I was so excited to move in. I was so excited to live here. And it wasn't that it rolled off my back, it wasn't that. Who likes to move in when there's people outside picketing? But, you know, housing is everything.

GRIFFITH: From NPR's CODE SWITCH and Brooklyn Deep, this is School Colors, a podcast about how race, class and power shape American cities and schools. I'm Mark Winston Griffith.

FREEDMAN: And I'm Max Freedman.

GRIFFITH: Last episode, we took you to the south side of District 28, where decades of push and pull between the forces of integration and segregation shaped the neighborhood of South Jamaica and created the Black enclave it is today. In this episode, we're heading north to Forest Hills.


SADYE CAMPOAMOR: And when you talk to people in general about their kids, you're talking to their amygdalas. And amygdala's the part of your brain. That's the lizard brain that's like threat, threat, threat. That's what happens.

AKINA YOUNGE: The people who paid good money to live in those neighborhoods and are getting into the, quote-unquote, "good schools" felt like there's nothing wrong with this system. There's nothing wrong at all. Why should we do this? And now I'm very angry that you're going to take this away from me.

FREEDMAN: This wasn't the first time this sort of thing had happened in Forest Hills. In the early 1970s, this neighborhood became a national symbol of white, middle class resistance to integration. Instead of public schools, this fight was over public housing, a fight that got so intense the press called it the Battle of Forest Hills.


SIMEON GOLAR: You can't provide segregated housing for Black people in ghettos and different facilities and accommodation for white people elsewhere.

JERRY BIRBACH: We pay all the taxes, and we're never heard. And it's about time that the middle-income people of America are truly heard.

UNIDENTIFIED SCHOOL TEACHER: This instigates hate and fear. The people are fearful. Yeah, you can see it all on their faces. They're in fear.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: We're going to oppose anybody from a remote place dictating how we're going to live, just the same as they did in '76 when we revolted against King George.

FREEDMAN: How did a famously liberal neighborhood become a hotbed of reaction and backlash? And how did a small group of angry homeowners change housing policy for the entire country?

GRIFFITH: As we looked for answers, we found this fight had roots that stretched all the way back to the turn of the century, when one corner of Forest Hills helped inspire cities across the U.S. to design segregated neighborhoods.

Welcome back to School Colors.


GRIFFITH: We are standing on the corner - well, maybe you should say where we're standing. I think you have a better understanding.

ANSLEY ERICKSON: We're in Forest Hills Gardens, which is in Queens.

GRIFFITH: We visited Forest Hills Gardens, an enclave within Forest Hills, with historian Ansley Erickson.

ERICKSON: And we're standing in front of PS 101, which I guess is called the school in the Gardens. And we were just noticing how it's made out of red brick in the same way that much of what we're seeing is made out of red brick. It has a kind of marquisan (ph) - kind of a cathedral-like feeling. And the streets are planned such that lots of them intersect with the sort of circular road that runs around the school, as if it's supposed to feel like it's the center of the neighborhood.

GRIFFITH: If most people were dropped in here, you wouldn't even know you were in New York.

FREEDMAN: It looks like an American's imagination of an English village. Most of the houses are Tudor style. Instead of a grid, the streets are curved. Unlike most of New York City, you need to have a permit to park here. Even the street signs are different.

ERICKSON: But we should notice - right? - that this is one of the quietest places I've ever been in inside the city of New York, which is totally on purpose, right? The big arterial roads are outside, and people don't feel like they can enter, so you have less traffic.

GRIFFITH: Forest Hills Gardens was built in the first decade of the 20th century as an urban oasis to prove that you could live the good life within the city limits, away from the chaos and the riffraff. It was designed by city planners not just for the people who were going to live here, but to serve as an example of a model neighborhood for the rest of the country.

ERICKSON: And certainly, their image of the model neighborhood was a segregated neighborhood.


ERICKSON: The field of city planning is an invention of the early 20th century. People are trying to, like, order and systematize what these elite white social reformer types think of as a disorderly city.

GRIFFITH: Cities across the U.S. were growing incredibly fast. New York was no exception. It was dense and dirty and disorganized.

ERICKSON: And so people who either deemed themselves or have been deemed by somebody else to be an expert get to say this is what a neighborhood should look like - right? - this is what the city should look like.

FREEDMAN: One of these early city planners was a guy named Clarence Perry, who lived in Forest Hills Gardens and was inspired by the Gardens to create something called the neighborhood unit.

ERICKSON: So the neighborhood unit is what one planning historian has called the most influential diagram in American city planning.

FREEDMAN: The neighborhood unit is a little map of what Perry believed was the ideal neighborhood. It certainly looks like Forest Hills Gardens - curved streets, clear boundaries on the outside and a school at the center.

ERICKSON: The idea is that your neighborhood is going to be as big as you need to generate enough kids to fill one elementary school. So the school is actually the thing that sets the geographic parameters for the neighborhood.

FREEDMAN: Just as important as the geographic boundaries were the social boundaries. The Gardens had always been an intentionally exclusive community. You had to go through a background check and an interview to get in, and everyone who got in was white. For Clarence Perry, this sameness was not only ideal but necessary.

NICK SANTA MARIA: (As Clarence Perry) The great foe to community life is heterogeneity. The new method to which I refer produces homogeneity. Put like people together and give them common facilities to care for, and associations among them are bound to spring into existence.

FREEDMAN: He applied this principle to every aspect of life, even children on playgrounds.

SANTA MARIA: (As Clarence Perry) A certain degree of racial and social homogeneity must be assured among playground patrons or healthy play life will not occur.

FREEDMAN: Perry wrote that his ideas about the neighborhood unit were exemplified by Forest Hills Gardens, and those ideas were very popular with other city planners. Over the following decades, hundreds of cities and towns across the U.S. used the neighborhood unit as a template to define neighborhood boundaries in relation to schools, then use those boundaries to preserve racial separation.

GRIFFITH: But that's not even the most profound impact of the neighborhood unit. Starting in the 1930s, federal housing policy made it so that buying a house became the way you're supposed to build wealth in this country. If you want to have some money or some assets to pass on to your children, you buy a house and you hope and you pray that house appreciates in value. That's the middle-class suburban American dream. Most of us take it for granted, but this was a policy decision with huge consequences.

ERICKSON: So this is where Perry comes to have a really clear influence and connection to the entire national housing market. The terms of guaranteeing mortgages for neighborhoods in the 1930s and 1940s and 1950s, they specify the social characteristics of the people who should be in the neighborhood if it's going to be worthy of these mortgages, and they specify parts of infrastructure, including schools. The 1938 underwriting manual for the federal housing authority says not just the neighborhood should have the school for the kids who need to go there, but it says the neighborhood should have a school that doesn't have the presence of inharmonious racial groups. I mean, that's their - that's the language.

FREEDMAN: If the neighborhood has a school that does have inharmonious racial groups, a home in that neighborhood is less likely to qualify for a federally-backed mortgage.

ERICKSON: So if we really think about it, it's, like - it's federal policy to put money towards neighborhoods with segregated schools and federal policy to keep money away from places with integrated or racially mixed schools.

FREEDMAN: But it's not like the government was putting money equally into all segregated communities. More than 98% of mortgage dollars during this period went to white people.

ERICKSON: Black people are largely locked out of this story about mortgage access and therefore equity accumulation.

FREEDMAN: And so white people are profiting from a highly-segregated housing market that is predicated on segregated schools.

ERICKSON: I think this is so important because there is a persistent way of talking about school segregation in the U.S. that goes something like, well, we have a lot of residential segregation, and so schools are segregated because neighborhoods are segregated. And what might come after that is a kind of shrug. So we can't do anything about that. So there's nothing to be done about school segregation.

GRIFFITH: The neighborhood unit forces us to confront a different story.

ERICKSON: Influential people who are helping people make zoning decisions and city planning decisions and school location decisions all over the country definitely from the '30s through the '50s and '60s, when a lot of the landscape of the U.S. city got built, were absolutely thinking about schools and housing in connection with each other. And when they were thinking about the two in connection with each other, they were also conceiving of both of them as deeply-segregated institutions. So it - we can't do this fault separation between schooling and housing. Like, they've been built up together.

GRIFFITH: So next time somebody tells you that cities outside the South were segregated by accident or because of the personal prejudices of individual white people, or because Black people just prefer to live together, bring them to Forest Hills Gardens, and tell them about Clarence Perry.


FREEDMAN: The homogeneity of Forest Hills Gardens was not only about race. For decades, Forest Hills Gardens remained elite, white and Christian. As the original general manager wrote, (reading) the Hebrew and the gentile do not come together in a natural way as social friends and neighbors. But the Gardens was only one part of Forest Hills. And ironically, as the rest of Forest Hills grew up around the Gardens, it became famously Jewish.

GERRY SKOLNIK: Forest Hills was kind of the paradigm of the lily white Ashkenazi upper middle class Jewish neighborhood.

FREEDMAN: Rabbi Gerry Skolnik is the longtime spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center.

SKOLNIK: If you were young and married and wanted to start a family and have your first 1.2 children here, this was considered to be the place to live.

FREEDMAN: Like other groups of so-called ethnic whites, many Jewish New Yorkers saw higher incomes after World War II and started to leave their old neighborhoods in Brooklyn and the Bronx. If you couldn't yet afford the suburbs, you moved to Queens. And for many Jews, including some of my own extended family, that meant Forest Hills.

SKOLNIK: You know, from the E or the F train, that can get you into midtown Manhattan in 25 or 30 minutes. So you could have the best of a more suburban life and still be accessible to the city.

FREEDMAN: Forest Hills as a whole may not have been as stately or exclusive as the Gardens, but it wasn't exactly diverse. By 1970, the neighborhood was estimated to be two-thirds Jewish and 97% white.

GRIFFITH: All of this put Forest Hills on the city's radar when they went looking for places to build new public housing.

FREEDMAN: And how was Forest Hills chosen? Why was Forest Hills chosen?

SID DAVIDOFF: You know, I don't really remember. I guess you couldn't get a much whiter middle class area than Forest Hills, when you looked at it. You know, it was three synagogues in every five blocks.

GRIFFITH: Sid Davidoff (ph) worked at City Hall at the time.

DAVIDOFF: Forest Hills had a - what we consider a liberal Jewish community. You know, Jewish and liberals, in those days, it's the same thing, they were synonymous.

GRIFFITH: Sid's not exaggerating, or not by much. It's not that all Jews were like the anarchists and labor organizers who moved to Rochdale Village. But in the 1968 presidential election, 80% of American Jews voted Democrat.

DAVIDOFF: If you're going to do it, you don't want to be in Staten Island, where everybody is a bigot.

GRIFFITH: Apologies to our friends on Staten Island.

FREEDMAN: But the liberalism of Forest Hills wasn't the only reason to build public housing there. Sid believed the neighborhood would be able to support a few hundred newcomers, socially and logistically, because Forest Hills isn't just single-family homes. There are plenty of apartment buildings, even some high rises.

DAVIDOFF: You go to a place like Forest Hills that has the density that you know you're not going to destroy the community. It has the density to hold a certain amount of change. And you have a community that should be much more acceptable.

GRIFFITH: The man behind this plan? Sid's boss, Mayor John Lindsay.


ETHEL MERMAN: (Singing) We've been down, we've been done. It's a drought, and in more ways than one. City Hall needs some rain. Well, with Lindsay, it's coming up roses.


JOHN LINDSAY: My fellow New Yorkers, I summon you to enlist in the fight for a better New York.

GRIFFITH: Lindsay was one of the last of a dying breed, a liberal Republican.


LINDSAY: The fight to revive the hopes of the downtrodden, the sick and the exploited.

GRIFFITH: He was a tall, charismatic Upper East Side WASP right out of central casting.


LINDSAY: The fight against wretched slums, poisoned air, stifling traffic and congested subways. The fight for excellence and quality and equality in our education.

GRIFFITH: Lindsay came into office in 1966, determined to shake things up, including where and how New York City built public housing.

FREEDMAN: In the last episode, we talked about how public housing started, with a utopian vision, as safe modern housing for the working class. After World War II, the New York City Housing Authority, also called NYCHA, went on a building spree. But they built almost exclusively in neighborhoods that were in the throes of white flight and disinvestment - places like South Jamaica.

NICHOLAS DAGEN BLOOM: And because public housing was by the 1950s - late '50s majority minority, and certainly by the '60s was, they were essentially creating racially-restricted neighborhoods by, essentially, public investment.

GRIFFITH: Nicholas Dagen Bloom is a professor of urban policy and planning at Hunter College, and the author of a history of NYCHA. He says it wasn't just that certain neighborhoods were targeted for public housing. It's also that other neighborhoods, middle class, primarily white neighborhoods, were not.

BLOOM: So anytime they proposed, you know, a public housing project and so forth, there was enormous political resistance. So they didn't build it there.

GRIFFITH: When John Lindsay became the mayor, he wanted to change that. In his first year in office, Lindsay announced his intention to build 11 scatter-site housing projects, one of them in Forest Hills. Now, scatter-site is sort of a weird term, so let me explain it. What scatter-site meant was that instead of continuing to build massive developments in neighborhoods which were already struggling with concentrated poverty, the city would scatter public housing across New York on smaller sites in neighborhoods which didn't yet have any public housing.

BLOOM: The scatter-site program in the Lindsay administration was designated to essentially break the walls down, basically use public housing as a tool of racial and social integration in the city.

DAVIDOFF: None of us on the political side thought it was a brilliant thing.

GRIFFITH: It was Sid Davidoff's job to liaise between Mayor Lindsay and communities like Forest Hills.

DAVIDOFF: It wasn't the most popular thing to say, we're going to come into your neighborhood, and we're going to let people who don't look like you move in. So you knew it was going to be a political football and a real problem for him. But he thought that was his job. He says, this is what I'm going to do. You don't like it? You know what? I'm the mayor.

FREEDMAN: Like most of the rest of Queens, Forest Hills had no public housing. But Forest Hills did have an 8.5-acre vacant lot at the northern edge of the neighborhood.

GRIFFITH: So the initial plan for Forest Hills was this - NYCHA would build 840 apartments with 40% of them reserved for the elderly. And this plan went through the legally required public hearing and approval process in 1966. But it was four more years until the housing authority was actually ready to start construction.

FREEDMAN: It took so long that, when the project was reannounced at the end of 1970 as a foregone conclusion, to some people in Forest Hills, it felt like a sucker punch.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Testing. One, two, three, four. Testing. Testing. Testing. One, two, three, four. Can I just have a voice test on you?

J BIRBACH: Jerry Birbach, president of the Forest Hills Residents Association.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Why don't you say it this way? Say, my name is, and I am...

J BIRBACH: I am Jerry Birbach...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: My name is Jerry Birbach, and I am....

J BIRBACH: My name is Jerry Birbach, and I am president of the Forest Hills Residents Association.

GRIFFITH: Jerry Birbach lived with his wife, Sherrie, and their two kids just four blocks from where this new public housing was supposed to go up.

SHERRIE BIRBACH: How we got started in this - we owned a small house in Forest Hills.

GRIFFITH: Jerry died in 2017, but I got Sherrie Birbach on the phone.

S BIRBACH: And I wanted to do some expansion on it. And I said, well, if they're putting in a low-income housing project, I don't think I'm doing it.

GRIFFITH: Once the word got out that NYCHA was planning to begin construction in Forest Hills, Sherrie and Jerry went to a meeting in a local rec center. It was January 1971.

S BIRBACH: I remember it very well. Oh, it was crowded. It was at least 100 or more.

GRIFFITH: The politician who called this meeting, instead of giving the people a course of action, he was busy patting himself on the back for having opposed the project back in 1966. Finally, Jerry Birbach stood up.

S BIRBACH: And he opened his big mouth, and that was the beginning of the end.

GRIFFITH: From the back of the room, Jerry shouted, look, Mr. Assemblyman, I don't care about 1966. What are you going to do now? Lead us. Mr. Assemblyman said he wanted to deal with the threat of the housing project through political back channels, but Jerry Birbach wanted to fight in public and out loud, and he wasn't alone. If the politicians wouldn't lead the people into the streets, Birbach would.

So if there were a hundred people at that meeting, why was Jerry the one who stepped up to...

S BIRBACH: Why? Because he had a big mouth. I don't know. I don't - that - it just happened.

GRIFFITH: And thus the Forest Hills Residents Association was born.


J BIRBACH: My name is Jerry Birbach, and I am president of the Forest Hills Residents Association.

GRIFFITH: By the end of the year, Jerry Birbach would be a household name.


J BIRBACH: What's really happened here is the fact that it's the first time that a middle-income community is being heard. And normally we people who pay taxes - the bulk of the taxes - because the poor don't pay any and the rich have all the tax gimmicks, so we pay all the taxes and we're never heard. And it's about time that the middle-income people of America are truly heard.

GRIFFITH: Birbach was from Williamsburg, Brooklyn. His grandson told me that Jerry was so poor as a kid, he used to steal paper from the fruit seller downstairs to wipe his ass. His words. But he got into real estate and he made some money. Here's how somebody who interviewed him at the time described his business - quote, "he buys old tenement buildings, evicts the tenants, renovates the buildings and rents them at a higher rate. He says that he is thereby helping to improve the city's housing stock."

FREEDMAN: Sounds like gentrification to me.

GRIFFITH: His enemies called him a slumlord.

Do you remember Jerry Birbach?

DAVIDOFF: Yeah, I remember. I remember. I'm not a big fan.

GRIFFITH: That's Sid Davidoff again, who worked for Mayor Lindsay.

DAVIDOFF: I know him and never liked him, don't care.

GRIFFITH: Can you describe him to me?

DAVIDOFF: If I remember, he's heavy-set. And I'm being nice. Loud mouth. Not an intellectual. Kind of like me.

GRIFFITH: (Laughter).

DAVIDOFF: Maybe that's why I didn't like him.

GRIFFITH: Birbach knew right out the gate that what he needed was publicity, so not a week went by without his association putting on some kind of protest or parade. They would interrupt public meetings, shouting and chanting and marching around. They'd storm the stage and commandeer the microphone.

DAVIDOFF: It was a good picture of the 6:00 news, but I don't remember him having a great organization.

GRIFFITH: Actually, Jerry Birbach claimed the Forest Hills Residents Association had 2,000 members. But whatever the real numbers, he turned out to be exceptionally good at mobilizing his people. And he was good at getting attention for himself, too. He made nice with reporters, and he gave terrific quotes.


FREEDMAN: On one side of this fight, you had Jerry Birbach. On the other was the chairman of the New York City Housing Authority, Simeon Golar.


GOLAR: You know, I'm a lawyer. And I think a pretty good American. I happen to be a Black American.

FREEDMAN: Here he is in a radio interview from 1971.


GOLAR: But I believe the Supreme Court when it says that the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, which says no person shall be denied the equal protection of the laws, really means that, if you're giving a government service - in this instance, you're giving housing for poor people - that you can't provide it unequally. You can't provide segregated housing for Black people in ghettos and different facilities and accommodation for white people elsewhere.

CHARLOTTE GOLAR RICHIE: To meet my father, the first thing that you would notice about him is his height.

FREEDMAN: Golar died in 2013. Here's his daughter, Charlotte Golar Richie.

GOLAR RICHIE: He was a very tall man. He was 6'5 1/2, so he stood above most of the people we would encounter. You know, he had a big booming voice. He had a loud laugh.

FREEDMAN: One thing Jerry and Simeon had in common - they both grew up poor. Simeon Golar was a child of the Jim Crow South.

GOLAR RICHIE: We have driven to South Carolina, so I have seen my roots. I've seen where he came from. I saw the wood frame - the gray wood-framed house.

On at least one occasion, my dad saw the Ku Klux Klan marching down Main Street.

FREEDMAN: When Simeon's father lost his job, his family came to New York, part of the great migration of Black people moving north, looking for opportunity. One of the opportunities they found here was public housing.

GOLAR RICHIE: Which was like a dream, mainly because it had these wonderful amenities in it, including indoor plumbing.

GRIFFITH: Simeon Golar was the first person to ever run the housing authority who had actually lived in public housing. If NYCHA had been its own city, it would have been bigger than Pittsburgh. And Golar was like the mayor. When he took over the agency in 1970, there were 600,000 people living in public housing and 150,000 more trying to get in. Simeon took that responsibility seriously. He was determined to get more housing built.

GOLAR RICHIE: I know that my father's bent was on civil rights. So he saw housing as a right, not a privilege.

GRIFFITH: The scatter site housing program may have started with Mayor Lindsay, but Simeon Golar became its public face. So it was up to Golar to take the heat from the press, counter all the misinformation flying around and try to make some friends in Forest Hills.


GOLAR: Part of the problem in American society is that an overtaxed, overburdened middle class with kids in colleges, with mortgages on their homes, themselves just out of poverty in the ghetto see themselves as carrying on their backs the poor of America - Black poor, white poor - and I sympathize with them.

GRIFFITH: At one point, he even tried to make peace with Jerry Birbach. He sat down with Birbach and his second in command at the Forest Hills Residents Association, a guy by the name of Joseph Walderman. Walderman reportedly spent the meeting dealing out racial insults. When Golar had finally had enough and said something about it, Walderman said, you don't know me, to which Simeon Golar replied, I've known you all my life.


FREEDMAN: As spring turned to summer, turned to fall, the opposition only grew. Here's Eleanor Fischer interviewing Jerry Birbach for WNYC.


ELEANOR FISCHER, BYLINE: Is there any kind of compromise you can see working out exclusive of simply stopping the entire development?

J BIRBACH: Well, I think that has to come from City Hall and it must be dialogue. At this point, I don't know what can be worked at. But I do know one thing, that this business of racism must stop because it has the potential of becoming a tinderbox.

GRIFFITH: In case it's not clear, when Jerry says this business of racism, he means people calling him and his followers racist.

FREEDMAN: But remember, the Forest Hills Project had already gone through the whole required public process and been approved back in 1966. Legally, Birbach and company could make as much noise as they wanted. Forest Hills was a done deal.

GRIFFITH: So on November 18, 1971, the housing authority announced that construction of public housing in Forest Hills would begin. That night, Jerry Birbach rallied his followers and led them in a march through the neighborhood. They blocked traffic in the streets and on the highway. There were hundreds of them armed with picket signs and flaming torches. One of their signs read, Lindsay is trying to destroy Queens. Now Queens will destroy Lindsay. When they got to the project site, they started throwing rocks and bricks and even hurled their torches over the chain-link fence.

FREEDMAN: The next day, Jerry's torchlight parade was on the front page of The New York Times. Mayor Lindsay called the demonstrators deplorable. Forest Hills was now officially a national story.


FISCHER: Forest Hills, Queens County, New York City - it started out as a simple housing development for the poor. Today, it's a national symbol of middle-class opposition to economic integration in suburban and semi-suburban areas.

GRIFFITH: This was a national story because it had national stakes. If New York City gave in to these protests, Forest Hills could become a template for other middle-class communities who wanted to stop any use of government housing for the purpose of integration.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Down with Lindsay...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: We are against any kind of low-income housing unless the people in the immediate community want it. And we are going to oppose anybody from a remote place dictating how we're going to live, just the same as they did in '76 when we revolted against King George.

FREEDMAN: So what were these protests really about? What was Forest Hill so afraid of? After the break.

The Sunday morning after that big torchlight parade, Jerry Birbach and Simeon Golar met face-to-face for a televised debate. It got ugly fast. The name calling continued even after the cameras were off. Jerry and Simeon and their entourages had to be separated by security.


J BIRBACH: I think what's happened here is that Mr. Golar, who is the chairman of the New York City Housing Authority, being very emotionally unstable as witnessed on a TV debate with myself trying to make this an issue of racism. And this is very bad because then people get involved and this sort of leads to polarization. I think that's all wrong, and I'm - it's regrettable.

GRIFFITH: Birbach and his allies swore up and down this had nothing to do with racism. It wasn't Black people they were afraid of. It was poor people.


J BIRBACH: I want to live with decent people, whether they be Black, white, yellow or what have you. But I don't want to live with welfare recipients that are leeches, that live from decent, hardworking people. And I don't want to live here. So I'm moving.


ED KOCH: The Lindsay administration is making every attempt to characterize the opposition as racist and it is not racist.

GRIFFITH: New Yorkers of a certain age might recognize that voice. It's Ed Koch. Eventually, he'd serve three terms as mayor, but in 1972, he was in Congress.


KOCH: The people fear a high incidence of crime in a project which would have a large number of multi-problem families, because every project in the city now has, on an average, 30% families who are receiving welfare assistance. And these are multi-problem families.

GRIFFITH: Koch was one of the first so-called liberal politicians to come out against the public housing project in Forest Hills. He knew which way the wind was blowing.


KOCH: In my judgment, it is not helpful to the city of New York, to the low-income people, to the middle-income people, to have such an adverse impact on a middle-income area as to cause the residents of that area ultimately to move out and to turn it then into a slum.

FREEDMAN: This was a constant theme. People talked about public housing like an infection. So-called welfare people move in. Everybody else moves out. There goes the neighborhood.


CAMPOAMOR: I am against all high-rise, low-income buildings. Most of these things just turn out to tremendous ghettos.

FREEDMAN: But is that really what would have happened in Forest Hills? Nick Bloom doesn't think so. He wrote a whole book on New York City's public housing.

NICHOLAS BLOOM: So you're talking about like one project. How many people are we talking about? How many units was it?

FREEDMAN: It was supposed to be 830, 840.

BLOOM: In an enormous neighborhood that was - had no public and was primarily middle class. And why I can tell you, why they were wrong, is there were projects like Pomonok Houses just a few miles away that were perfectly peaceable.

FREEDMAN: The Pomonok Houses have more than 2,000 apartments, more than twice as many as were planned for Forest Hills. And in fact, my cousin Jay grew up in Pomonok, and his parents never left.

BLOOM: So all of this is just in people's - it's a fiction that people create in their minds. If you're asking me whether one - even one development that had a higher percentage of welfare residents would have changed Forest Hills, and completely alter that community, no way.

FREEDMAN: But just like in South Jamaica after the Second World War, there were vultures circling in the sky over Forest Hills, ready to profit off of people's fears. In late 1971, it was reported that blockbusting had already begun in Forest Hills. That is, real estate agents were going around the neighborhood trying to scare people into selling their property for cheap.

GRIFFITH: Even so, that doesn't fully explain the intensity of these protests. You just can't separate all this talk about welfare and crime from race.


FISCHER: A Sunday morning at the site in Forest Hills. Thousands of demonstrators are out picketing. A well-dressed Black woman - she later identified herself as a schoolteacher - wanders on to the scene, and an argument develops.

YOUNGE: White, Black - I don't care who it is. They're white trash. It's the same thing as Black ones. When they move in, that's where the project goes.

: We are responsible for these people.

YOUNGE: Yeah, listen, we're responsible. I'm working and my husband's working. How many people that are on welfare?

: Is it their fault that they're on welfare?

YOUNGE: They're bums.

: They're society's...

YOUNGE: Let them go to work, like I do. I work with my two hands like anybody else.

: I feel that if you could put this much energy into helping people make an adjustment in life, that we would have a good world to live in. But I think that this instigates hate. This instigates hate and fear. The people are fearful here. You can see it all on their faces. They're in fear.

FREEDMAN: I have a distant relative who's lived in Forest Hills since 1961. When I asked him about this story, he told me he never really understood all the hullabaloo, but there was no question in his mind what was behind it. They were afraid of the schvartze, he said. That's a Yiddish slur for Black people.

GRIFFITH: When opponents of public housing in Forest Hills weren't talking about the substance of the issue, the who and the what and where of the housing project, they talked about the how, the process.


: The residents of Forest Hills feel that they should have some sort of say in the destiny of their community. When it comes to the middle-income community of Forest Hills, there is no such thing as community participation.

FISCHER: Well, it's been argued on the other side that if the residents of middle class areas had say over whether low-income housing developments would be built, they never would be low-income developments built.

: I don't believe that statement, Ms. Fischer. I don't believe that statement at all. I think that low-income projects can be built, they should be built. But I'm a firm believer in community participation, and the people just don't want this rammed down their throat.

GRIFFITH: This was Simeon Golar's response.


GOLAR: I think what's bedeviling us here is the clamor for a time in New York City, and I guess other cities across the country, for community control. And this came out of ghetto areas. Interestingly enough, it had its birth in the poverty program. And what we were talking about was involving poor people in ghetto areas across the nation in working out their own destinies, their own lives, giving them motivation and so on, largely out of a recognition that they, unlike people in middle class areas in American society, were not vigorously and adequately represented. Nobody ever pretended that the people in Forest Hills and other good middle class communities across American society aren't represented exceedingly well by their elected officials.

What we - I think we're losing sight of here is that, assuming you give a maximum voice to people in communities by whatever instrumentality, at some point government has to strike a balance between responding to the desires of people in the community and making decisions that respond to the overall need of all the people in the community.

GRIFFITH: Simeon Golar, wrote The New York Times, has achieved the notoriety rare among housing bureaucrats.

FREEDMAN: The reaction to the mention of his name in Forest Hills or other middle-class white areas of New York is intense.

GRIFFITH: Frail old women contort their faces with fury and spit on the sidewalk.

FREEDMAN: Mild-mannered family men string out obscenities.

GRIFFITH: Simeon Golar was divorced and most of the time his daughter Charlotte lived with her mother in Brooklyn. But when Forest Hills exploded, she happened to be living with her father in Queens.

GOLAR RICHIE: I actually kept a diary, OK? And I actually found a page that was about Forest Hills.

FREEDMAN: She was 13.

GOLAR RICHIE: The date is December 21, so it was a Tuesday, 1971. And it says, dear diary, this evening was something else - exclamation point, exclamation point. I was getting my bath ready and the bell rang. We all thought it was daddy, but it was a man called Mr. Monacelli or something like that. He said he wanted to know how daddy was going to handle a demonstration. Grandma Lottie said he wasn't home and she didn't know anything about any demonstration. He asked if anyone was home - he asked again, thinking probably, in my mind, that Grandma Lottie was the maid. Grandma Lottie in return said, I'm someone. I'm his mother. Shortly after, a busload of about 50 to a hundred - that's something a kid would write, 50 to a hundred - white Forest Hills residents started picketing around the house saying Golar is a bigot, God bless America, no crimes, slum, et cetera. Before they left, a man said, we're here with a hundred tonight. Tomorrow, 200. And then they were gone.

FREEDMAN: Charlotte wasn't new to protest - women's liberation, the Black power movement, Vietnam - that was her childhood.

GOLAR RICHIE: OK, so there was marching going on everywhere, but not in front of my house.


GOLAR RICHIE: I was like, wow, they're calling our father some names. They don't know who they're messing with. I'm telling you, my father was not a pushover. He was not afraid like that, you know? They were messing with the wrong person.

GRIFFITH: The circus continued for the next few months. Jerry Birbach kept up weekly protests at the construction site. Sherrie Birbach once got herself arrested with a group of Jewish housewives demonstrating in front of a politician's office. When John Lindsay ran for president, Forest Hills followed him. As Lindsay was campaigning in South Florida, Jerry Birbach reportedly hired a plane to go up and down the beach with a banner that said Lindsay means tsuris. Tsirus - that means trouble in Yiddish. But remember, Jews were supposed to be synonymous with liberalism. Forest Hills was supposed to be this liberal neighborhood. So where were all the liberals? I asked Sid Davidoff. When it blew up, where were the liberals?

DAVIDOFF: Ah, where do the liberals go when it's in their community? I don't know. That was one of our jobs was to get out there and find some. I don't think we did a good job of that one in my recollection. There were some. You know, some synagogues, some rabbis, some Jewish leaders. But it wasn't as loud as the anti-voice.

GRIFFITH: Some local Jewish leaders claimed that Forest Hills was proof that the mayor was targeting Jewish communities for destruction, that hardworking middle-class Jews were under attack by what might now be called the woke liberal establishment. Picket signs referred to the mayor as Adolf Lindsay.

There was some organized support for the project. WNYC's Eleanor Fischer reported from a demonstration in front of Jerry Birbach's real estate office.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Housing is a right of all people.

GRIFFITH: And she noticed something about who was there.


FISCHER: Interestingly enough, it's whites, not Blacks, who've been doing the counter-demonstrating, an indication that what we're really dealing with in Forest Hills is a middle-class convulsion of conscience - a kind of civil war between conflicting social attitudes.

GRIFFITH: Forest Hills also had at least one local politician who was in favor of the development, a state senator named Emanuel Gold. He said, quote, "my ancestors did not break loose from the ghettos of Europe to have me lead the charge here in New York City to keep others in ghettos." And when Jerry Birbach ran against Gold in the Democratic Party primary, he lost. Though, of course, Birbach said the election had been stolen. So loud as he was, Jerry Birbach did not necessarily represent the broad majority he claimed.


FISCHER: Mr. Birbach, can you tell me, please, where do matters stand now?

J BIRBACH: Well, there's been a new lawsuit just entered the other day. The Housing Authority, along with Mayor Lindsay, have been served on a basis of fraud. There's going to be other lawsuits coming.

FREEDMAN: But in May of 1972, the opposition had their final lawsuit dismissed. It seemed as though the path was clear for construction in Forest Hills. And yet this is when Mayor Lindsay decided to compromise, after standing firm for months, just when it seemed like the battle had been won. Why?

SHAUN O'HAGAN: (As Mario Cuomo) The opponents have no legal strength. They have exhausted the courts and the legislature and they are now at the mercy of the mayor. But the matter is not that simple.

FREEDMAN: These are the words of a relatively obscure Queens lawyer named Mario Cuomo.

O'HAGAN: (As Mario Cuomo) If the project is built and large numbers of residents move out, they will not be replaced by middle class people, but will be substituted by other low-income and welfare people. And that will be the beginning of the crawling blight that has affected other middle-income areas of this town. That must be prevented, if possible.

FREEDMAN: Later on, Mario Cuomo would serve three terms as governor of New York. His son, Andrew, tried to repeat that feat, didn't quite make it. But in 1972, Mario was in private practice. And when Lindsay needed a negotiator in Forest Hills with local credibility, Cuomo was the man for the job.

GRIFFITH: Cuomo enters the fray after the break.

Mario Cuomo kept a diary while he was working in Forest Hills, which he later published as a book.

O'HAGAN: (As Mario Cuomo) Friday, May 19. The calls are coming in at a frantic pace, and it's already clear that the opponents of the project are well organized.

FREEDMAN: He went incognito into Forest Hills to talk to people at gas stations, bus stops and grocery stores. What he found was almost unanimous opposition.

O'HAGAN: (As Mario Cuomo) Dozens of misconceptions have been generated and are fervently believed and brandished by people involved in this controversy. It's difficult to tell whether this is the result of intellectual slippage, the efficacy of the demagogues, or a simple fabrication by the people involved. But if they are fabrications, then I've met some of the best actors in New York City outside of the Broadway stage.

GRIFFITH: Flooded with calls and meetings with the opposition, Cuomo realized he was spending too much time with the Forest Hills people, but he wasn't sure how to reach the other side.

O'HAGAN: (As Mario Cuomo) I continue to have difficulty finding a Black voice. I went to Cunningham Park early this morning knowing that a lot of the Blacks from South Jamaica would be there in family groups. I took a few shots with some of the fathers and sons on the basketball court and eventually struck up a good conversation. These Blacks were fortunate enough to have houses of their own. They unhesitatingly said they would not want the project in their neighborhood. They feel that many of the whites who oppose it in Forest Hills are bigots. But then, in an interesting contradiction, they themselves admit they would oppose it in their own neighborhoods. No one but the idealists who are sufficiently removed from the problem so that they are not really challenged by it, seem to favor the project as it's now planned.

FREEDMAN: While Cuomo was trying to find a compromise, Jerry Birbach was still running around town, reminding him what could happen if he failed.

O'HAGAN: (As Mario Cuomo) Wednesday, July 12. Birbach announced - with all the firmness he could muster - that unless the project is changed so that it will be livable in his opinion, he would publicly place his house for sale to a Black and would lead a massive emigration from Forest Hills, tearing down in his wake, the whole community. He would, said Birbach, burn down the town rather than let the project tenants destroy it.

FREEDMAN: When Cuomo finally published his report, he called for cutting the size of the project in half - twelve-story towers instead of 24, 400 apartments instead of 800.

GRIFFITH: Cuomo made a lot of different arguments for reducing the size of the project but one was strategic. If the Housing Authority didn't cut the number of units in Forest Hills, the backlash might jeopardize scatter site housing in this city for many years to come.


FREEDMAN: Jerry Birbach told reporters the new plan was totally unacceptable. Then he called Cuomo and admitted he hadn't bothered to actually read the report.

GRIFFITH: Simeon Golar called the compromise plan a disappointment, outrageous, manifestly absurd and not a rational solution. But the person whose opinion mattered most was John Lindsay. And when Mayor Lindsay finally announced his support for the Cuomo compromise, Golar went along.

FREEDMAN: But there was one final public hearing.

O'HAGAN: (As Mario Cuomo) It was a pathetic charade, as most of these hearings are. The ancient catharsis, a chance for the public to get it off its chest. And they did.

FREEDMAN: It dragged on for 10 hours.

O'HAGAN: (As Mario Cuomo) In the back of the room, a scuffle broke out right next to me between two middle-aged women, one of whom had unceremoniously usurped and bitten the other's banana. When the banana owner expressed her dissatisfaction by jamming it into the usurper's face, the fight started. In the end, perhaps that's what this was all about. A battle over scraps.

FREEDMAN: It was nearly 9:30 at night when the Cuomo compromise was finally approved.


GRIFFITH: Hardly anybody remembers this story today except as a milestone in the rise of Mario Cuomo. Forest Hills made Cuomo's reputation as a statesman. The great compromiser. Somebody who would do what was necessary to get things done.

FREEDMAN: But I found a record of this speech he gave just a few months after Forest Hills, and I got a look at the darker side of his pragmatism.

He was talking to a local Democratic club in Queens in another mostly white neighborhood, and he knew his audience.

GRIFFITH: This is very of its time and, warning, it ain't pretty.


O'HAGAN: (As Mario Cuomo) You've got all these Blacks and Puerto Ricans down in South Jamaica where I was born and raised. You think they're all bad because they're the ones who were coming up here, mugging and raping you and breaking into your houses. And you're saying, we don't want them in our neighborhoods. We don't want them anywhere near us. Leave them where they are. They should all die. Well, the net result of that attitude is their poverty will get worse and they'll produce more muggers and rapists. The truth is we can't get far enough away from them to be safe. OK. The liberals come and tell you that it's our moral obligation to help those people because we oppressed them - the Blacks, anyway - for 400 years. That's what John Lindsay told you, right? How can I tell my father that?

(As Mario Cuomo) My father, who for so many years had a grocery store in South Jamaica - in that store, he never punished a Black or hurt a Black or enslaved a Black. If you tell him about his moral obligation, he won't know what you're talking about. Here's what you have to say to my father. Whether you love them or not, whether you have an obligation to them or not is between you and God. When you go to confession on a Saturday, talk to the priest about it. But unless you do something about where they are now, how they live now, they will continue to come into your neighborhoods and mug and rape. You can't run forever. You have to find ways to break up segregated neighborhoods. And most of all, you have to find ways to get them jobs - real jobs. And that, in part, means electing people who will really do that. Remember, we have to do this because we love ourselves, not because we love them. In the end, the only thing that works is self-interest.

GRIFFITH: Look. I'm a veteran community organizer, and any organizer will tell you that self-interest is what motivates people to take action. That's hardly a new or profound idea. But preaching self-interest can go too far, can be destructive when something can only be good if it's good for me.

Cuomo does even bother with the common good, never hints at the humanity of Black folks. He's willing to play to these people's basest impulses, no matter how racist. Don't care about these animals, just throw them a bone so they don't rip out your throat.

FREEDMAN: But in some way, is he right? Is that the takeaway from the story - that, to make anything good happen, you have to cater to people's fears?

GRIFFITH: Well, if all you want to do is win, sure. But if the whole point is to make a more just and tolerant society, this ain't it. Policy dictated by fear has consequences. Sure, those buildings went up in Forest Hills, but the devil's in the details. After 10,000 people applied for 432 apartments, they still found ways to cherry pick the first crop of tenants such that 70% of them were white.


GRIFFITH: And the example of Forest Hills had ripple effects across the country, just as many civil rights leaders had feared.

FREEDMAN: At the end of 1972, President Nixon froze all federal funds for new public housing construction, which brought the Scatter Site program in New York to a grinding halt. Then he announced that, in the future, instead of building homes for poor people, the federal government would give them subsidies and let them find housing for themselves. Nixon's top housing official in New York said this would allow for integration at a more gradual pace and prevent battles like the one in Forest Hills. Many experts at the time pointed out that this policy change would more likely result in a massive underwriting of slumlords.

GRIFFITH: Forest Hills didn't just mark the end of attempts to use public housing to integrate neighborhoods, it marked the beginning of the end of large-scale public housing period. In the 30 years before Forest Hills, 150,000 units of public housing had been built in New York City. In the 30 years after Forest Hills, only about 30,000 units were added, and most of those were renovations or reserved for the elderly.

After Cuomo negotiated the final deal, how did you feel and how did he feel? Did you feel like you won or you lost or somewhere in between?

S BIRBACH: Lost. Lost.

GRIFFITH: Sherrie Birbach.

S BIRBACH: Well, they put it down to 12 stories, but we still felt - we lost. Of course. We lost the whole thing. But I think it - that they = it became part of the area - and I don't think it's a bad place today. I think they've controlled it and it's a very good project. I never went inside, so I wouldn't know. Right after that, we moved.

GRIFFITH: How come? Why did you move?

S BIRBACH: I wanted a bigger house.

GRIFFITH: They moved to another part of Queens, then to Florida.

You say you've never visited the development that was built, but you've heard that it's an OK place. Knowing that now, would you have done anything differently then?

S BIRBACH: Maybe. Maybe. I don't know. Maybe we wouldn't have fought so hard. I don't know. I really can't tell you that now, looking back.

GRIFFITH: So the Birbachs were long gone by the time the Forest Hills houses actually opened in 1975. Still, the city had to cancel a grand opening ceremony for the new buildings because of protest against an integration plan for Forest Hills High School. And the day Blanca Izaguirre actually moved in, her new neighbors showed up to greet her with picket signs, and worse.

IZAGUIRRE: They threw eggs and tomatoes and that stopped. Then they protest without throwing stuff because I think they were, like, ticketed or something. But once the buildings were filled - I mean, they couldn't come here every day. They had lives, too. And I don't want to feel that I shrugged it off. It's not nice to move into a place and be met by people, you know, throwing eggs or tomatoes and having a sign - we don't want you. No.

FREEDMAN: But for Blanca, the good outweighed the bad. She was so happy to have the housing.

IZAGUIRRE: And if you want to live in New York, I'm sorry. You got to have tough skin. It's a tough town.

GRIFFITH: And the tension that she had walked into dissipated. Blanca says that's mostly thanks to the Queens Community House, which started in the Forest Hills project not long after she moved in, with day care in a senior center and today provides services all over the borough.

IZAGUIRRE: This became the glue of the community. And this became where the people from across the street came to play with us. So people used to walk their dogs, come across. The same - some of the people who didn't want us here would come to us. What an irony.

FREEDMAN: So whatever indignities she had to put up with, Blanca says it was all worth it. She stayed in the same apartment for almost 50 years.

IZAGUIRRE: I'm grateful for where I live. I'm grateful for the time that I was in because any other point, I wouldn't have been able to achieve or to do what I wanted to do.

FREEDMAN: She finished college, got a master's degree. After she got divorced, she raised two kids as a single mom.

IZAGUIRRE: I would have never, never would have accomplished what I did if I was not living in affordable housing. It was not going to happen. I consider myself that I got lotto in life. It sounds corny. I know it might sound corny to you. I bore you to death with my "Pollyanna" shit. But it's what happened to me. And it could happen to a lot of other people if the circumstances were - it's not like - that was then. And it can never be like that again.

GRIFFITH: But between 2013 and 2020, there were more than 25 million applications for just 40,000 affordable apartments in New York City.

IZAGUIRRE: People are being tripped. There's obstacles to surviving. And we tell them, you can't make it because you don't work hard enough. That's what I would have been told. That's what I would have been told. So I'm proof that if you take down some of the barriers, people can move in the right directions. You're still going to have issues. But when you have your basic needs met, you will step in the right direction if you can.


GRIFFITH: On the next episode of School Colors - we've been to the south side. We've been to the north side. How did they become part of the same school district?

FREEDMAN: We follow three decades of struggle for power and resources in District 28.

BILL SCARBOROUGH: There has always been in District 28 a clear sense of the north in the south.

SHIRLEY HUNTLEY: All the Black kids stayed in the Black school. And all the white kids stayed in the white schools. And they didn't want to integrate. They did not want to integrate.

HOWARD ABADINSKY: Here you have a predominantly white school board telling a Black community that you can't appoint this Black principal because you know what. Well, it's easy to see how that can be converted to a racial issue.

HUNTLEY: They were real SOBs. They did everything in their power - everything - to keep our schools from being even with theirs.

MANNY MARTINEZ: It wasn't like we were looking at other schools and saying, well, how come they get this, and we got that? We just survived.


GRIFFITH: School Colors is created, reported and written by me, Mark Winston Griffith, and Max Freedman, produced by Max Freedman with Carly Rubin and Ilana Levinson. Additional reporting by Carly Rubin and Abe Levine.

FREEDMAN: Our editor is Soraya Shockley. Our project managers are Soraya Shockley and Lyndsey McKenna. Fact-checking by Carly Rubin. Engineering by James Willetts. Additional research by Anna Kushner.

GRIFFITH: Original music by Avery R. Young & De Deacon Board. Additional Music by Blue Dot Sessions. The voice of Clarence Perry was Nick Santa Maria. Mario Cuomo was played by Shaun O'Hagan. Archival tape courtesy of WNYC. This episode was recorded at Seaplane Armada.

FREEDMAN: Special thanks to Joanne Faryon, Peter Leonard and Rachel Quester, Ozzie Araujo, Richard Aurelio, Gene Milgram, Jared Pinchasick, Adina (ph) and Barbara Sandman, Peter Saunders and Vivian Sonnenfeld, Kevin Figaro, Jean Kaufman (ph) and Morgan McGuire We are indebted to the work of historian Daniel Wishnoff.

GRIFFITH: Thank you to Leah Donnella, Steve Drummond and the entire CODE SWITCH team. Thank you to our executive producer, Yolanda Sangweni, and NPR's senior vice president of programming, Anya Grundmann.

FREEDMAN: Season 2 of School Colors was made possible by NPR, the Spencer Fellowship in education reporting at Columbia University and by the Brooklyn Movement Center.

GRIFFITH: You can listen to the first season of School Colors at or wherever you get your podcasts.

FREEDMAN: Until next time.



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