Hymn to Working-Class New York

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Mark Naison is a Professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University and Director of Fordham's Urban Studies Program. He is the author of three books and over 100 articles on African-American History, urban history, and the history of sports. His most recent book, "White Boy: A Memoir," was published in the spring of 2002.

Storm cleanup in West Harlem, October 30, 2012. Credit: Flickr/Dave Bledsoe.

As we struggle through the aftermath of the worst storm in New York’s history, my thoughts turn to the first responders -- firefighters, police officers, EMS worker -- and the role they played in the last great tragedy to strike New York, the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11.

The heroism these men and women displayed, both then now, is not a surprise to me. For the fifteen years I spent coaching and running youth programs in Brooklyn in the '80s and '90s, civil servants, especially firefighters, were an integral part of the coaching cohort I interacted with daily, both in my own neighborhood and throughout Brooklyn and Staten Island. There was never any doubt in my mind, based on that experience, that they would sacrifice their health, well-being, and, if necessary, their lives if called on to rescue people in trouble.

My relationships with many of these individuals, especially those who represented opposing parishes in Catholic Youth Organization basketball or opposing teams in sandlot baseball, was not always easy. They were, like me, stubborn, intimidating, overbearing and fiercely competitive and we had many arguments in the midst of closely contested games. But they were also selflessly devoted to their players, with whom they spent countless hours at games and practices, and whatever their private political or racial attitudes, were determined to maintain Brooklyn sports leagues as a place where young people from every neighborhood and racial and ethnic background could find an outlet for their talents. Never did I see any of them participate in, or tolerate, the slightest amount of race-baiting from their players and parents, even though some of them came from neighborhoods -- such as Bensonhurst, Bay Ridge or Rockaway -- that were then infamous for racial exclusivity. When push came to shove, they were as fair as they were loyal, and I never felt the slightest hesitation taking interracial teams from Park Slope into gyms or ball fields in all-white neighborhoods, because I knew we would always be protected.

This kind of quiet heroism, I felt, allowed for more dramatic forms of heroism when circumstances called for it. It surprised me not at all that some of my fellow coaches ran up the stairways of the World Trade Center to their death while other people were running down. Nor would it surprise me to see their counterparts today -- some of whom might be their own children -- run into flooded buildings to save stranded families or risk being crushed when clearing fallen trees. This is the ethic of loyalty and sacrifice they grew up among, a New York working-class tradition passed on from generation to generation among members of the uniformed services and among more than a few teachers, transit workers and other civil servants.

For quite a while, most of the attention by elected officials and the media have been bestowed upon financial and artistic elites who gravitate to our city. But it is the working people of New York who insure the city’s daily functioning, and in moments of crisis, sacrifice themselves for others so that the city can continue to survive, and when things improve, begin to grow and thrive.

We have always lived among quiet heroes, some of them immigrants working three jobs to support families her and in their home countries, some of them teachers and social workers serving people in the face of deep skepticism and contempt from the powers-that-be; some of them members of our uniformed services who are asked to risk their lives for the rest of us.

I just wanted to take this moment to show some love for these people and hope you will do so as well.

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