BY OSSIE DAVIS
These eloquent remarks by the great American actor, playwright, and social activists are a love letter to a suburban city.
One of the things that has enabled me to survive all these years is that New Rochelle’s rich community culture was always here. The city has its own distinct history. It was founded early on by the Huguenots seeking to escape oppression. It was also the home of Thomas Paine, a man who means a great deal to American history. He gave us the name “United States” and spoke to us in the American Revolution and inspired us. He also declared himself a citizen of the world. He went around joining all the revolutions of the world until he made himself a little bit “unwelcome” in more than one place. And then he came to New Rochelle to die. He did die here. But somebody−after he did us the honor of dying−took his bones away to England or some other place. We don’t know, but we are searching diligently.
New Rochelle also became a focal point of civil rights agitation in the North because a group of citizens led by attorney Paul Zuber decided to sue New Rochelle on the basis that our schools were not integrated according to the mandates handed down by the 1954 decision [Brown v. Board of Education].
Therefore, New Rochelle became a place that was much in the public’s eye and mind. Even before Ruby and I moved here, there were demonstrations, meetings, and civic activities to which we were invited and to which we came. And we−Ruby and I−became interested in New Rochelle because that was the place where basic decisions about integration were going to be made, and our focus was particularly on that.
In February of 1963 Ruby and I moved from Mount Vernon to new Rochelle. We’ve never regretted it. New Rochelle has always been very kind to us, although there were instances where prejudices and hatred and all of those things common to the black experience also happened to us in New Rochelle. But by and large it’s been a warm and welcoming city. We brought our kids here. We put them in school. And we tried to do our best to become citizens of New Rochelle.
Actors are transient by nature. Actors don’t stay too long. The checks we get don’t always pay the rent. So we’re constantly on the move. But after all these years of flights from one city to the other, New Rochelle is the place we most gladly call home.
I met a man named O’Shaughnessy at WVOX. He was a marvelous, tall-looking guy who had this radio station down in the basement at Huguenot and North. I was at the station, involved in some debate about something and I got to know him. And over the years, as I listened to him, I began to respect him. I wound up liking the guy, to my great amazement and satisfaction! So how can you go wrong in a city that has someone like William O’Shaughnessy? If we ever do find the bones of Thomas Paine, we’re going to deliver them to Bill O’Shaughnessy because he will know what to do and where to place them to give them the proper honor.
I think Bill O’Shaughnessy−and Nancy, in particular− deserve the greatest credit of all for keeping alive the “arts and crafts” of citizenship on a personal and city level. I can’t picture New Rochelle without them being there to attend it, to nourish all the magnificent aspects of the city where those personal qualities we love so are brought to life and practiced. Bill and Nancy care about every aspect of New Rochelle. And watching them and being associated with them has given Ruby and me a chance to care, too. We’ve become deeply embedded in the city and culture of New Rochelle.
Another thing that invited us here was that they were getting ready to build the mall down by the post office, and there was great agitation as to whether or not there would be blacks working on the construction crews. So there was agitation and demonstrations, and Ruby and I were right in the middle of that, too. There were always places you would see young men hanging around because there were not many employment opportunities.
One of the things we noticed about New Rochelle was its economic base. I think there was a big Pepsi plant that is no longer with us, but there were no big factories here, no big source of employment. So we recognized that the economy of New Rochelle was, as far as we were concerned, service oriented. The jobs we had from the old tradition, when the rich moved out of New York and settled in New Rochelle and brought with them their servants, the black folks who worked for them, those traditions no longer remained, but that kind of pattern still seems to take place. Even to this day we have the rich and the poor here in the so-called Golden Apple.
New Rochelle now is a typical American suburb, undergoing some hard economic blows. But it attracts those from the inner city out to the suburbs. So we have now a new mix. New groups are coming into New Rochelle. But they come as we came in. And the problems we posed are the problems attending these new immigrants today: the Mexicans, the Hispanics, the Portuguese. So we are caught up as a city in an effort to solve basic problems which are happening to cities all over the country. And America has not yet decided what it wants to do with cities like New Rochelle. And we’ve got to help make that determination.
One of the reasons New Rochelle has experienced a downturn over the last fifteen years was the failure of our high expectations about the performance of the mall downtown. That was installed to be an anchor, a centerpiece to replace the old mercantile institutions that used to be here. There also used to be a Bloomingdale’s here. There was another big store on the corner of Main and North called “Arnold Constable.” We thought if we built the mall and put in theaters and places for sales and anchored it with Macy’s that would serve to attract into the city other elements that would create a thriving downtown area.
It worked for a while, but then a changed took place in the fortunes of the mall and certain things happened. The railroad station was the center where people came and gathered and went from one spot to the other. But with the automobile, you didn’t really need the railroad station to hold the city together in the same way. The wealth and influence drifted north, leaving behind pockets of less affluent establishments, businesses and residential areas. And when the mall imploded the city came up against some hard times. And if you walk downtown now, you see empty lots where thriving small businesses used to be.
New Rochelle is not unlike a lot of cities in New York, along the Eastern Seaboard, and in the Midwest. The life of cities is changing rapidly and I don’t think the leadership in this city was sufficiently astute and aware of what the solutions should be to handle the change. We’re all struggling. We’re all rooting around here and trying to come up with a solution and we haven’t done it yet.
My vision of New Rochelle springs from my appreciation of how the city got started in the first place. I think of the persecution of the Huguenots and their friends long ago when they were driven out of Europe and came to this country. They found a new opportunity and they built a new community that was a symbol of what could happen and what should happen.
It was an American legend and ritual that the poor and oppressed could come here and turn their life around with hard work. New Rochelle symbolizes that to me. There is a welcome, a welcome from the black community, from the Jewish community, from the Irish community, a welcome in New Rochelle that was a little more gracious and open than you would expect in other cities.
New Rochelle claims that it was the birthplace of show business. It had a particular tie to Broadway other communities did not have, and some of that “atmosphere” and thought went into the lifestyle of New Rochelle. So you noticed that New Rochelle had an extra wide opening of its arms: Come, come, see what we can do!
So I’ve found there has been a welcome. But the openness that must eventually characterize us as an American civilization has impediments in New Rochelle as in other places. What I’d like to see from New Rochelle is that the problems of poverty, exclusion, and racism should be attacked, and we should set ourselves up as the “Queen City by the Sound” as an example how to be, above all, Americans.
We all can be proud of the ethnic identity we’ve brought to this country, our past histories, what we’ve made for ourselves individually and as a group. But should not a city say to itself: “Look, what we want to do is become whatever we are now, to become Americans in the best sense of the word?” So that old Tom Paine and his ghost would look upon us and smile. So this would serve as a model for the world.
My prayer, my hope, and my expectation is that New Rochelle can do that. I refuse to live in a place where there’s no hope, no expectations. And thus I dream big. And if I’m going to fall and stumble, fine. As long as I have a chance to get up and dream again. I don’t know when we can turn it around. I don’t know when we can turn it around. I don’t know when we can say to the world, “If you want to see what democracy really means, come and see New Rochelle!” But one day it will have to happen.
My children are here. They’ll have to see to it. My friends are here. They’ll have to see to it. Bill O’Shaughnessy is here and he’s promised me personally that he’s going to see to it! So I rest easy under those assumptions.
One of the most exciting pieces of news I’ve heard occurred a few weeks ago. Governor Pataki, County Executive O’Rourke, Mayor Idoni, and Sister Rhoda Quash were there. The governor came bearing a check for $4 million. The money came from a state-sponsored development fund. That $4 million is to help get us started on a project called “New Roc City.” New Roc City is going to dismantle the old mall and do some rebuilding. There will be three components to it. There will be a multiplex cinema. There will be a super-superstore. That’s the second unit. And then there’s going to be an ice rink where people can come and skate. And I think $148 million will be spent.
In their proposal and discussion, they say 600 temporary jobs will be there when it is complete. That’s good news. The city fathers have to make sure that when these jobs are allocated, that we allocate them according to how New Rochelle really is. So everybody will get his or her slice of the pie. That makes for peace in the city, justice in the city, and community pride in the city. So I was very glad to hear about that.
I called my old friend Napoleon Holmes. I called Bill O’Shaughnessy. I even called the governor and the mayor and said: “Hey, what’s happening? What’s going on?” So we’re all excited! This is going to change the inner city−the core of the city. And if we strengthen that, if we make that a place that is shining and attractive, then the rest of New Rochelle will also begin to rise. New businesses will come. And we hope that among these new businesses will be places for young entrepreneurs: women’s stores, black stores, Hispanic stores, Indian stores, Mexican stores, Asian stores, and the stores of the merchants who are already here. A rich cultural as we all commercial mix that has its own excitement. I can’t wait! If I had a hammer and a saw, I would go out and start building today!
Every miracle has its own cost. You have to be sure that the miracle has a blessing. For example, when we allow these big units to come in, we must make sure they don’t destroy the small groupings that might serve the same need, which constitute the life of the community itself. It is all well and good to have a super-superstore, but not if it comes at the expense of the periphery to keep something alive. We mustn’t throw them out. We mustn’t exclude them. To be fair and just we must make room for the big. And we also must make room for the small. A balance is what we need here.
To communicate with each other, each group, each segment should start now. We shouldn’t wait for a flash point or when a social disturbance occurs and we have to come up with a social disturbance occurs and we have to come up with a picket line and do demonstrations. I much prefer that we, as a city, begin to answer the questions before they are raised. Let us make sure, at the highest level, that justice is done, that economic justice is done, that civic justice is done, that the interests of all our groups are taken care of. We must do that.
This is New Rochelle. The city is mine. The streets are mine. When I walk, the trees are mind and the stones and lakes and rocks. The good parts are mine. The bad parts are mine. The drunk on the corner is mine. The girl going to school is mine. The police force is mind. Its newspaper is my newspaper. Its radio station is my radio station. Oh, is it ever! Its churches are my churches.
I belong to this community. I love it.