Against Formidable Odds: Community Revitalization in New Cassel, New York
The unincorporated hamlet of New Cassel, New York, located in the Town of North Hempstead, is less than five miles from the center of the Hofstra University campus. Yet when I ask students in my classes – many who grew up on Long Island – very few know of, or have visited, this small community. The same is true for many Long Islanders and even some government officials. Those who do know of New Cassel often know only what is most often reported in the press: crime and corruption.
While there is crime and corruption in New Cassel, this is not the only story. Between 1998 and 2008, against odds that were formidable even before the recent recession, a powerful government-community partnership raised more than $100,000 to support a series of ongoing revitalization projects.
The Hamlet of New Cassel
One of Long Island’s oldest African American villages, New Cassel was first settled as a farming community by former slaves, who had been freed in the mid-1700s by Quakers. Historically a predominantly African American community, New Cassel became home to an increasing number of Latino and Haitian residents in the latter half of the 20th century. By the 2000 U.S. Census, 47 percent of the community’s roughly 13,000 residents self-identified as Black/African American; 32 percent as white; and the remaining 21 percent as other races or mixed race. New Cassel had the highest concentration (41 percent) of Latino/Hispanic population of any community in Nassau County.
1. New Cassel, New York
2. New Cassel situated in
New York state
1. U.S. Census (2000)
2. Wikipedia Commons
At the turn of the 21st century, New Cassel suffered from a lack of affordable housing, no downtown center, environmental contamination, overcrowded and illegal housing, and community despair and discord. Residents, government officials, and nonprofit leaders cite a number of complex factors that may have interacted to precipitate a need for revitalization, including:
- The Town of North Hempstead’s conscious or unconscious designation of New Cassel as a marginal area, which it therefore neglected during much of the 20th century.
- The effects of race, gender, and class segregation and discrimination in housing, education, employment, and access to resources.
- The lack of a regional development plan that adequately responded to the changing and diverse needs of all Long Islanders.
Ten years later, the picture was changing significantly. Community members had been mobilized, a vision for the community’s future had been developed, and a committed government team was actively implementing the community’s plan.
At the end of 2008, many New Cassel residents felt their community was both cleaner and safer than it was in the 1980s and 1990s. Residents noted with delight the construction of seven (soon to be nine) new buildings in downtown New Cassel. The pictures on page 20 show the transition of the site that is now called the Gateway to New Cassel.
As it entered 2009, the community was looking forward to more affordable housing and a new park; a bank, full-service grocery store, and pharmacy (among other new and expanded businesses); and a new community center. To support the safe, attractive, and “walkable” downtown center called for in the vision plan, a streetscaping program was scheduled for 2010. Some elements of the rebirth – such as the summer youth programs and community participation in planning processes – were not as visible as buildings, but were equally important to the community’s health.
Studying Community Revitalization
I am interested in understanding what sustains or, when necessary, revitalizes communities and the ways in which groups of people – whether in government, community organizations, or business – can address complex problems in a sustainable way. Community revitalization is rare, complex ... and never finished. We should celebrate New Cassel’s initial successes and continuing progress.
At the same time, it is important to study the process carefully so that we understand what happened. For example, one of the key factors in New Cassel’s success was a community visioning process in which more than 800 community residents came together to create a plan for what they hoped would be the community’s future. At the press conference to announce the results of the first New Cassel case study, it was heartbreaking to hear questions from a community group based in the nearby community of Roosevelt. Roosevelt shares many characteristics with New Cassel and had hosted a visioning process that took place earlier than the one in New Cassel. “Why,” they wanted to know, “had New Cassel been more successful than Roosevelt?” There is no simple answer to this question. This is why research into community revitalization is so important.
Case studies of this type are most useful when they continue over decades. Revitalization takes a long time, and the best of plans are disrupted by many things, including, for example, swings in the economy; changes in government, laws, and funding; and new residents with different ideas.
Once we have documented an accomplishment such as a new building – one that has ground-floor retail space and affordable housing rentals above it, for instance – we will want to know who moves in. What types of businesses lease space? Do they serve the locals and bring in new business from neighboring communities? Who rents the apartments? How do the new and traditional residents mix? Do residents and business owners take pride in the new streetscape with broad sidewalks, planters, and benches?
How do people rate the quality of life overall in New Cassel? Fifteen years from now, it will be important to look at how well the buildings and streets are maintained and the longer-term success of residents and the community as a whole.
I am the principal investigator for this research, which is conducted under the auspices of The National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University® and which will, I hope, continue for at least the next two decades. Phase 1 was commissioned by Sustainable Long Island, an organization that acted as a catalyst and facilitator in the early days of this renewal process. The results of the first phase of this research are documented in a monograph that is available online at hofstra.edu/Academics/CSS/ncss_newcassel.html.
Phase 2 research began this summer; it is presently funded in part by Hofstra University’s School of Communication and is in part self-funded.
I take great pleasure in involving students in this research whenever possible. While they are learning, students can provide information that is useful to community organizers. As part of New Cassel research, students have visited government offices to study voting records, analyzed Census information, created surveys and interview templates, conducted online research, and accompanied me during site visits and interviews.
Phase 1 Research Results
In addition to documenting the results, Phase 1 research focused on what lay behind the successes and the remaining challenges. Community activists have been investing significant time and energy for years. The decade of 1998 to 2008 was far from the first time that New Cassel had been promised renewal by government officials.
What Made It Work This Time?
Mobilizing a community and its government is hard work. In the late 1990s, Reverend Patrick Duggan, then executive director of Sustainable Long Island, and Bishop (then Reverend) Lionel Harvey, chairman of the local community group, the Unified New Cassel Revitalization Corporation (UNCCRC), formed a coalition. They helped to create the conditions under which discouraged and divided community residents could come together and form an organization with a unified agenda that represented everyone in New Cassel. They met with church and civic leaders, business owners, the superintendent of schools, and Town of North Hempstead officials and commissioners – more than 500 meetings in all. They made presentations at church services, in schools, at meetings in homes, and for individuals and families. Although there was some small resistance from discouraged residents, one member of the organizing team remembers that “much of the resistance came from the community leaders ... who felt that they had already done this. Why are you trying to do it again?”
In 2002, after four years of community outreach, education, and organization, more than 800 community residents and stakeholders, through a facilitated community participation process, developed a comprehensive vision plan describing their hopes for New Cassel. Formally adopted by the Town of North Hempstead in 2003, this plan has helped a committed multilevel government partnership raise more than $100 million in public and private funding and continues to guide the ongoing renewal work.
Some of the elements that enabled New Cassel’s recent successes include the strong support of civic and faith-based groups, the outstanding government teams working on behalf of the community, the presence of existing infrastructure such as sewers (not the case for some other communities on Long Island), the Town of North Hempstead’s ownership of many development sites, and significant attention to brownfields and underused lots (with considerable work remaining).
What Else Did We Learn?
Despite the “odds” – the prior failures and complex, constantly-changing challenges – success is clearly possible in some situations. In New Cassel during this decade, we saw evidence of some excellent processes and teamwork. We learned that:
- Formal community participation fuels energy and optimism as well as government revitalization processes. It also helps to ensure that suburban renewal initiatives actually address community wants and needs.
- Government partnerships can work to the benefit of communities. Town of North Hempstead, the town’s Community Development Agency, Nassau County, New York state, and federal agencies all worked together to benefit New Cassel. Partnerships of this type work only when officials are strongly motivated.
- A third-party organization with expertise in participatory planning and community asset building, such as Sustainable Long Island, can be useful in bringing diverse community members and government officials together in ways that can sustain long-term development.
- A strong mandate from the community is one of the keys to successful fundraising. Both the New Cassel Vision Plan and the formal legal partnership between the community and the Town of North Hempstead were important.
- As in other areas of the United States, a faith-based approach, involving the participation of multiple religious organizations, can be effective in mobilizing communities even – and perhaps, especially – where there is a history of discrimination and neglect.
- An effective block captain program can serve as an effective communication system and mobilize resident participation.
- Community organizations can take responsibility for achieving goals, not simply representing a community. By sponsoring block captain and summer youth programs, New Cassel’s community group (UNCCRC) has demonstrated its ability to provide services on its own as well as in concert with others.
- The willingness of businesses to invest in communities makes a crucial difference. After discussions with Town of North Hempstead Supervisor Jon Kaiman, Neptune RTS, an electric transmission business newly locating in the industrial area of New Cassel in 2005, committed $10 million to support the development of the hoped-for community center. While not sufficient to cover the whole project, this contribution provided the foundation for the center.
Because every revitalization situation is different, and the situation in New Cassel itself changes over time, no single “cookie-cutter” plan will be effective. Each situation should be carefully considered before assuming these lessons apply.
Of course, the process was not without difficulties. These include the improprieties exhibited by some government officials; construction and financial problems experienced by property developers; contention over the appropriateness of union labor; racial discord; and disagreements within the community and among the organizations working to support the revitalization.
Outstanding challenges include:
- Development and revitalization processes are long and slow. It is challenging for both the government and for civic organizations to sustain both funding and community participation.
- Throughout Long Island – and common to many renewal projects around the world – builders, nonprofits, and community stakeholders often complain about the time and costs of bringing a construction project from conception to the start of construction.
- Awarding multiple projects to a single real estate developer in a revitalization project of this size increases the level of risk, especially in economic downturns.
- There are genuine conflicts in the New Cassel community. Political power counts and is uneven in the community. Change always generates opposition, and the struggle to confront and address conflict can be viewed as an important part of the development process.
- Jobs, job training, and union involvement in construction projects are big, complex, and systemic issues.
- The term affordable housing has many different meanings. Local government officials and residents are aware that federal definitions do not address the needs of all New Cassel residents.
A review of other revitalization initiatives indicates that efforts in New Cassel face obstacles that are not just local in nature: longstanding patterns of privilege and discrimination; onerous government bureaucratic processes; and lack of sufficient funding for affordable housing, public transportation, education, and other elements of suburban revitalization.
It is important that local measures are complemented with efforts at the national and global levels.
Phase 2 Research: Hope and Anger
In the two years since the monograph describing the Phase 1 research was published, progress has continued: the promised streetscaping is in progress, a request for proposals has been issued for the community center, and there are residential and retail occupants in two of the new buildings. Apex II, developed by the Anna and Philip Kimmel Foundation, provides creative senior citizen housing. Partnering with Habitat for Humanity and United Way of Long Island, UNCCRC, New Cassel’s community revitalization organization, has purchased five individual houses for rehabilitation. The community group has also diversified its board of directors.
On the other hand, progress has been slowed by economic recession, additional revelations of government corruption, and changes in elected officials.
When interviews began again in summer 2010, New Cassel community members reported a mixture of hope and anger. The new headlines (July 22, 2010) describing the arrest of additional government officials directly involved in the New Cassel revitalization project dismayed and angered residents. Boarded-up and empty retail and residential sites are a daily reminder of what many see as yet another in a long line of betrayals.
In addition, the streetscaping construction on Prospect Avenue is annoying, as such construction always is, even if the results will be wonderful. Some new members of the community who did not participate in the visioning that took place eight years ago question the original plan to give up two traffic lanes in order to add broad sidewalks with outdoor seating and community art and to promote traffic calming, thereby making the community safer for pedestrians.
It is worth repeating here that staying power and political will are key to medium- and long-term revitalization success. Town of North Hempstead Supervisor Jon Kaiman understands it is difficult to see “that we are almost there. When people look at boarded-up buildings, it is hard to see that 80 percent of the work is complete and that New Cassel will soon be transformed.”
The grand opening of New Cassel’s new athletic shoe store three months ago is a concrete example of progress. Joseph Santamaria, Town of North Hempstead Community Development Agency, explains: “We are addressing business retention and expansion as well as attracting new and diverse businesses. This shoe store is different from the other establishments in New Cassel because it is selling ‘big brands.’ This helps connect New Cassel to the global economy.” When Phase 2 research is published in 2011, I hope to report, among other things, that a widely anticipated, much larger supermarket has indeed opened, that winners of the upcoming lottery for affordable apartments in two more of the new buildings have moved in, and that there is visible progress on the community center.
Allison, M. (2009). Community Revitalization in New Cassel, New York. Hempstead, NY: The National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University®.
Brown, A. (2010). Interview.
Kaiman, J. (2010). Interview.
Levine, M. (2010). Interview.
Pettus, K. (2010). Interview.
Santamaria, J. (2010). Interview.
Tate, S. (2008). Interview.
Thompson, C. (2010). Interview.
WABC Local News. (2010, July 22). Arrests in Nassau Co. corruption, bribery case. Retrieved July 23, 2010, from http://abclocal.go.com/wabc/story?section=news/local&id=7569646
Waddell, S. (2005). Societal learning and change: How governments, business and civil society are creating solutions to complex multi-stakeholder problems. Sheffeld, UK: Greenleaf Publishing Ltd.
This research is conducted at The National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University® (NCSS), a nonpartisan research institution dedicated to promoting objective, academically rigorous study of suburbia’s problems, as well as its promise. The tasks of identifying, analyzing, and solving the problems of suburbia are essential to the health of the county – and central to the mission of the NCSS. I am grateful to Lawrence C. Levy, executive dean of the NCSS, and Christopher Niedt, academic director, for their commitment to reporting positive and negative – but always useful – results.
Phase 1 of this study was commissioned by Sustainable Long Island, whose mission is to promote economic development, environmental health, and equity for all Long Islanders, now and for generations to come. Sustainable Long Island is a catalyst and facilitator for sustainable development: cultivating the conditions, identifying resources, and providing tools to make sustainable development happen on Long Island. In addition to funding, Sarah Lansdale, executive director, and her staff volunteered insights and lessons learned, which significantly enhanced the value of this research.
Catherine Stutts, a historic preservationist and community planner, is assisting with Phase 2 research. At a time when communication has never been more central to the overall functioning of society, and the forms of communication are increasing and evolving with unprecedented speed, Hofstra University’s School of Communication brings together students and faculty with different backgrounds, interests, and disciplines who share a common passion for the art and science of communication. My thanks to Evan Cornog, dean of the School of Communication, and Cliff Jernigan, associate dean, who are steadfast in their support of scholarly and creative research, for funding portions of this project.