Jerry Birbach, Leader of Fight to Block Poor Tenants in Queens, Dies at 87


During months of negotiations, some civic leaders preached racial harmony and sought a middle ground. But the project’s opponents resented having to bear the brunt of decisions dictated, as they saw it, by government liberals cloistered in Manhattan.

Mr. Birbach and his followers insisted that they were not racists; rather, they said, they feared that a sudden influx of hundreds of poor tenants would cause a crime wave in what they saw as a stable, middle-class sanctuary.

Mr. Birbach led angry protests (rocks and torches were thrown, but he disavowed sabotage to construction equipment), was arrested at City Hall, hinted at violence and threatened that if the project proceeded, he would lead a mass exodus — and even sell his own home to blacks.

In 1972, Mr. Birbach challenged State Senator Emanuel Gold, who represented Forest Hills, in a Democratic primary but lost. In a debate between the two, Mr. Birbach was “jowly, gruff, unprepared — but effective!” Mr. Cuomo wrote in his book “Forest Hills Diary: The Crisis of Low-Income Housing” (1974).

Mr. Birbach, Mr. Cuomo added, was “a reasonable fellow and, in a lot of ways, likable” but was “obviously responsive to a growing militancy in this town’s middle class.”

Photo

Forest Hills residents protesting Mayor John V. Lindsay’s administration’s plans in 1971 to put three 24-story towers for mostly black and Puerto Rican residents in their largely white, Jewish enclave.

Credit
Michael Evans/The New York Times

The New York City Housing Authority’s decision to build on a vacant patch at 62nd Drive and 108th Street in Forest Hills even reverberated in the 1976 presidential campaign.

Asked about the policy of placing low-income housing in middle-class communities, Jimmy Carter, the Democratic candidate, said he would not force racial integration that would disrupt the “ethnic purity” of a neighborhood. He was denounced for the phrase, which he said was misunderstood, and he apologized.

By the time he was enlisted by City Hall, Mr. Cuomo had already mediated a dispute between the city and residents of Corona, Queens, over construction of a school that would have displaced homeowners. At times, though, with divisions in each camp, it was unclear whom to negotiate with.

Mr. Birbach repeatedly demanded that the project be scaled down to a garden apartment complex for older residents. Ultimately, it was cut nearly in half, from the 840 apartments originally proposed to 432, with 40 percent of the units reserved for the elderly. The towers ended up being 12 stories tall.

The city also adjusted maximum income levels and transformed the project into New York’s first cooperative public low-income housing, in which residents were shareholders.

As a result, 15 years later, 65 percent of the residents were white (compared with 12 percent in all public housing in the city), and 3 percent were receiving public assistance (compared with 27 percent in public housing citywide).

In the next mayoral election, Mr. Cuomo recalled, “none of the candidates argued for integration or dispersal of ghetto residents in middle-class areas.” (That election was won by the Democratic candidate, Abraham D. Beame.)

“The new and safer emphasis was on rehabilitating the ghettos,” he continued. “The clock had been turned back nearly two decades, and many people felt that the impetus for this withdrawal had been provided by Forest Hills.”

In the mayoral race four years later, Mr. Cuomo lost to Edward I. Koch, who had aligned himself with the Forest Hills protesters.

Mr. Birbach sold his Forest Hills home (not to a black buyer), moved to a house a few miles away in Holliswood, and, Mr. Cuomo wrote, “lost 30 pounds, and with it much of his old image.”

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