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Locals turn on Asian women's shelter.

On a quiet street in Brooklyn, a typical brownstone opened its doors some months ago as a shelter for battered Asian immigrant women. There were only small indications--a tricycle out in the courtyard, an Asian woman walking into the house. The silence presented a sharp contrast to the heated conflict that raged through much of last year and delayed the opening by more than six months. While the mostly Italian-American neighbors maintain that race wasn't a factor, domestic violence advocates worry about xenophobic overtones as well as potential precedents. It is quite common for group homes of all sorts to spark opposition from residents before they open, but this is the only known NIMBY campaign against a battered women's shelter.

Last summer, residents of Carroll Gardens, once solidly an Italian-America neighborhood, became alarmed when a construction crew consisting of Chinese immigrants began doing renovations on a house on a quiet residential street. According to Buddy Scotto, the owner of a grand funeral home that sometimes serves as community space, neighbors questioned the crew to learn that "there was going to be some kind of program coming in." Further investigation revealed that the New York Asian Women's Center (NYAWC) had planned to open a four-family dwelling for battered women and their children.

Neighbors formed an organization to stop the shelter from opening, generating one of the most acrimonious conflicts to hit the domestic violence field nationwide. The Concerned Citizens of Carroll Gardens, claiming up to 300 members, made publicizing the shelter's location their first priority. Member Danny Contreras put the address on his website, which no longer seems to exist, and other shelter opponents put up fliers, posters and banners at community meetings. Contreras could not be reached for this article, but in January he defended the revelations to the New York Post as a matter of timing--the shelter was still under renovation, so it was all right to reveal the plan. In a letter to the funders of the NYAWC, the group wrote, "The confidentiality of the shelter's location has been breached ... Please ask yourselves if private funding and public tax dollars should support an organization entrusted to protect at-risk clients when it endangers those clients." Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes rejected this argument, saying that he would actively prosecute if the publicity led to any violence.

These efforts were punctuated by two rallies of dozens of people picketing in front of the house protesting the shelter opening, threats to publish the shelter location in the Asian ethnic press, a failed effort to get a restraining order to prevent the shelter opening and a lawsuit challenging the shelter's zoning compliance. But not all residents agreed with Concerned Citizens, with some complaining that it gave the neighborhood a bad name, and others even calling for boycotts of businesses that advertised on Contreras' website.

Concerned Citizens claimed that it was not motivated by racism, but by crime prevention and localism. Buddy Scotto, who is not a member of Concerned Citizens and whose funeral home provided a neutral space during the conflict, puts it down to the mistrust neighbors have for outside institutions. Scotto says about the Italian American community that, "they're family-and extended-family-oriented people. That's the only thing they really have any confidence in. Suddenly someone next door is coming in with something that isn't a family. It's some kind of institution. If [these women are] in trouble with their husbands, where are their father, their brother, their cousins, their aunts, their uncles? Why isn't their family taking care of this?"

Some residents feared the shelter would draw violent men to the neighborhood. "There was talk that these men are going to come after the women with guns and we won't be able to let our children out on the street," says local Assemblywoman Joan Millman.

But Kyung Hoon, chairwoman of the NYAWC, counters that in the 14 years the organization has operated shelters, there hasn't been one violent incident. Legally, NYAWC did nothing wrong by following the mandate to open the facility quietly and ensure the confidentiality of the site, as service providers have learned to do over decades. In fact, police departments tend to police more often in neighborhoods where shelters exist. Hoon says that diversity is a factor in choosing shelter sites: "We do not want to be in an area that is predominantly Asian, in a Chinatown or in an area where they may have people who recognize them or where there are networks of acquaintances. But we also don't want them in an area where they're the only Asians."

The silence that has become standard to shelter set-up, she says, is mandated by funders. "That's why we don't open with a big fanfare. We're so used to doing our work in a confidential way, then people kind of twisted that and turned it into words like 'sneaking.'"

Despite denials, the racial references were always present. When representatives of the AWC were called into an initial meeting with about 30 angry residents, they were bombarded with shouts and questions. Had the building been bought with cash? Was it Chinese mafia-related? People pointed out that the Chinese women would stick out and draw attention, just for, well, being who they are. Member Salvatore Russo told the New York Times, "If in fact these are individuals who do not communicate in English, how are they going to assimilate into our community?" However, Yoon said that many of the neighbors expressed good will, and that the opposition consisted of a small but vocal group of residents. "They incited an atmosphere of misinformation and hysteria. They had these flyers that said, 'Your block could be next. Your neighborhood could be next.'"

Demographically, Carroll Gardens is 65 percent white, with 22 percent African Americans and nearly 8 percent Asians. The area has also slowly gentrified from an exclusively Italian American, working-class enclave to more of a mix of young professionals and families. Property values have also skyrocketed by 75 to 100 percent. "There was a concern that a facility like this would downgrade the property values, but that has never been the case anywhere one of these has opened," Millman says.

Leni Marin, the national program director on immigration at the Family Violence Prevention Fund, says "It's easy to see that there's a xenophobic feeling, and a NIMBY mentality that doesn't take into reality the diversity of New York, being protective of the neighborhood by saying that these are outsiders who don't look like us so we need to keep them out." Marin adds, "I worry about any incident that pits the interests of a community against the need to provide safe haven to fight domestic violence."

Through Assemblywoman Millman and local Councilman Bill DeBlasio, the NYAWC and community representatives underwent a year of negotiations to create a community advisory board for addressing concerns about the shelter. The board, which includes local representatives as well as liaisons from the shelter, the police and clergy, has created a clause requiring the NYAWC to give the board 30-day notice before selling the property, a compromise reached after some opponents wanted to exert control over the building's future sale. Though it is not explicit, several people characterized this clause as a promise that the NYAWC would have a local realtor handle the sale of the property, who would presumably keep the community's interests. Meanwhile, a lawsuit seeking to cancel the shelter's certificate of occupancy on the basis of a zoning violation is still pending.

Many of the residents who formerly opposed the shelter are now unaware of its presence. Yoon reflects that in retrospect, she might have quietly reached out to some community leaders beforehand so that no one was caught by surprise. "I've learned that there are ways to preserve confidentiality but be a little more proactive, to find the leaders who are going to be supportive and to be able to say that we did talk to people beforehand." In May, NYAWC members went shopping at Mazzone's Hardware store, which had been on the boycott list. As Buddy Scotto predicted when the conflict first began, "We're going to have to accept it because it's coming whether we like it or not. So let's deal with it positively. [The neighbors will] come to that conclusion if they haven't already."

Chaiti Sen is a writer and teacher in New York City.
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Title Annotation:feature; New York Asian Women's Center
Author:Sen, Chaiti
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Dec 22, 2004
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