“Brick by Brick: A Civil Rights Story,” follows three families in a contemporary American battle for equal opportunity in housing and education. The struggle over racial discrimination and the fight to overcome systemic housing segregation is shown through the eyes of three families in Yonkers, NY. At a Reel Progress screening yesterday, Bill Kavanagh, the film’s director, and Gene Capello, a central figure in the struggle, discussed Yonkers and the ongoing problems of housing discrimination.
Housing discrimination holds implications far beyond geographical boundaries. An African-American family excluded from one Yonkers neighborhood encountered problems when their children were denied access to quality education and opportunities. Families such as the Capellos disengaged from the community as a result of housing discrimination, creating a vicious cycle that made even more housing discrimination easier. Eventually the disadvantages became intergenerational and harder to escape as equality of opportunity vanished.
Capello was critical of the government’s response to the crisis in Yonkers, particularly after a court had ordered the government to end the discrimination. “You expected your leaders to do the right thing,” he said, but they failed to meet expectations. He also cited the difficulties in organizing the community as the case stretched to last more than a decade. The lesson, said both Kavanagh and Capello, is that without grassroots involvement and government cooperation, change is nearly impossible to achieve.
What shocks audiences about the Yonkers case is how recently it occurred, and that this civil rights battle took place in New York, well above the Mason-Dixon line. Education integration became an issue in Yonkers in 1986, while the low-income housing developments ordered by the courts were not completed until 1992.
Andrew Jakabovics, Associate Director for the Economic Mobility Program at the Center for American Progress, pointed out that these battles are still occurring along racial lines but more significantly along economic divisions. The process of gentrification displaces lower-income families without providing adequate housing substitutes, and programs to provide for ongoing maintenance of housing projects go underfunded. As battles over affordable housing, integration, and equitable education continue, strong leadership and grassroots involvement will be necessary to create stable communities.