Brick by Brick Title


Adrean OwensMary DormanGene & Doris Capello

Adrean Owens

Adrean Owens

Adrean is a bright and easygoing African-American woman in her thirties, with a dry sense of humor and eyes that have clearly seen much pain. She lights up when talking about her family and how far she has come in her life. She has a strength and an even quality that calls out, "We'll take today as it comes and make something good of it."

Adrean moved a lot as a child, and was raised by her grandmother, Fanny, who was a housekeeper. Fanny, Adrean, her siblings, and Adrean’s mother Barbara moved throughout Westchester County during Adrean’s childhood. Partly, they moved to be near her grandmother’s work but they also moved to keep ahead of Barbara’s abusive boyfriends. Her mother had been only fifteen when Adrean was born and was already mired in a spiral of domestic and substance abuse. Despite Fanny’s best efforts to protect her granddaughter, Adrean also witnessed terrible abuse at the hands of Barbara’s partners.

Eventually, little Adrean was sent ahead to Yonkers to stay with her Aunt Sandra. Sandra lived in downtown Yonkers, near the big projects that were jammed together. Fanny, who had stayed behind to tend to her daughter Barbara’s injuries after a brutal assault, joined them in Yonkers about a year later, and she and Adrean moved into one of the projects. Barbara later got another apartment.

When Adrean recently toured through the Schlobohm Houses with the filmmaker, the deterioration of facilities there was clearly on display. She didn’t remember those conditions as a child living there.

"Because of the way the buildings are, if you look at it like a little kid, it looks like big people standing all around you," she recalled. " To me it was nothing different. Because I moved so much, it was just another place to move to."

Adrean attended Yonkers schools and was a student until she turned 17. Her life then changed quickly.

"I didn’t know much about the birds and the bees," Adrean says. She became pregnant while in the tenth grade. At this time, her grandmother decided to move down South with Adrean's Aunt Jeanie and urged Adrean to join them. Adrean’s mom had already decided to stay. "It’s either go South, or you’re on your own…" Adrean recalls. "I didn’t want to go, so I was on my own."

She moved in with her mother in the projects when Michael, Adrean’s newborn son, was three months old. "That was a real nightmare," as Adrean remembers it. Her mother’s substance abuse had become worse. The apartment, her new home, had become a shooting gallery. "People coming in and out…I finally got the bedroom. When I didn’t want to be bothered with them, I’d just close the door and we’d stay in the room," Adrean told the filmmaker.

She lived in apartments in the Schlobohm complex, first with and then without her mother for the following 12 years. The legacy of domestic violence and abuse haunted Adrean’s young life for a good part of this time. She fought her way out of an abusive relationship and raised her family, which had grown to include two daughters and another son. Adrean lived the difficult life of a young single mother, eking out an existence with low-paying work and help from public assistance.

Finally, in early 1992, the Housing Authority placed flyers under the doors at Schlobaum, advertising the opportunity to live in new townhouses that were being built in East Yonkers under the court’s desegregation order. Around that time, a shooting incident nearly took her son as he played outdoors at Schlobohm. "He ran right by the barrel of the gun. It was definitely time to move," Adrean said in an understated way.

Adrean and hundreds of other heads of household, mostly young mothers, sent in their applications for the new housing. As the film describes, Adrean won a spot in the O’Rourke Townhouses across the city and became the first African American resident to move into them. Despite threats and a pipe bomb that was detonated during the development’s construction and heavy security attending the first months of her tenancy, Adrean made a pleasant home there, beginning at the age of 28.

While her life has not been easy, Adrean has gone on to finish high school, attend college classes at Westchester Community College in social work, has found employment with a domestic violence prevention center called My Sister’s Place, and raised her family with grace and wit. She married her long time boyfriend, Magic, four years ago and has another son, Hashim Elijah. Adrean now leads workshops on domestic violence prevention. She hopes to make life a little easier for "people coming up behind me."

In an interview, Adrean said, "I’m proud to be one of the families picked in the housing lottery…to move …as a family wanting to make a better start. We have to continue to strive for what we want and what we believe in."

Gene & Doris Capello

Gene and Doris

Gene and Doris moved to Yonkers from Brooklyn, were Gene grew up. They met at college on a picket line, fell in love and married. Gene went on to a get a degree in law, while Doris studied social work. They were both idealists and their ideals were rooted in their Catholic faith. When their son Michael was born, the couple began to look for a home outside of New York City. They hoped for a house in a pleasant neighborhood, with a commute convenient to both Gene’s work at a law firm in the city and Doris’ continued studies in the Bronx.

As they looked for a place, Yonkers fit the bill. Gene and Doris would call realtors there for leads, and were told to look for properties in the Yonkers neighborhoods east of the Saw Mill River Parkway. That was where they would find the "right kind" of neighborhoods.

Once the couple, Doris, an Hispanic woman, and Gene, an African American man, would arrive at the real estate office to see these properties however, they were only shown homes in the Southwest of the city. Many of the areas they were taken to, despite the couple’s preferences, were affected by blight. The selections didn’t include homes in East Yonkers.

Eventually, Gene and Doris found a home, in a Southwest Yonkers neighborhood called Van Cortlandt Crest, in a pleasant area on a hill about a half-mile from the projects downtown. The neighborhood was a mix of small lots with one family houses and many apartment buildings around the hill. The Southwest was, at the time, Yonkers’ only significantly integrated region. It included Caucasian, Hispanic and African-American families.

Despite this experience with private housing discrimination, Gene and Doris only first read about the US v. Yonkers case when it was decided in 1985. Gene said, "It seemed the verdict was clear and the right thing would be done. The violations would be remedied." He remembers thinking that was the end of the case. School and housing changes would take place and the city’s life would go on.

"I was wrong," Gene now reflects.

It wasn’t until 1988, after school desegregation had begun that Gene and Doris began to pay closer attention to local affairs. A new and committed anti-desegregation City Council had been elected and had first agreed to a housing plan, then reneged under pressure from East Yonkers homeowners’ groups. The Council had actually gone into outright contempt of the federal courts. Gene’s respect for the law and the couple’s shock at their city’s position motivated them to go down to City Hall and see for themselves what was happening one August night.

Once they arrived at City Hall, Gene went to park the car while Doris held a place on a boisterous line to get into the Council’s chambers. There, she was queried by the otherwise all white crowd. "Was she on welfare?" they asked. She was frightened at the depth of the anger in the crowd. Doris remembered the tone of discussion around the period, "We didn’t know what would happen next, (in those days) we didn’t know how this racism would manifest itself from day to day… That’s how angry these people were."

Gene became motivated after their experience at City Hall to support groups that were pressing the city to comply with the law. He became a fixture at various meetings. Gene’s nights and weekends booked up with a variety of new commitments. He updated the Van Cortlandt Crest homeowners by attending gatherings of the moderately conservative CANOPY, a group of community leaders that was now calling for compliance, trying to keep some local control of the placement and construction of public housing. Gene also became involved in the local Democratic Party. He supported the campaign of Mayor Wasiscko in an ill-fated attempt at re-election after facing off against the Council over their contempt of the courts. And finally, Gene joined and later was brought onto the Executive Board of the Yonkers NAACP, helping to press for remedies in the desegregation suit.

Doris has been active as a parent in challenging the schools to live up to their charge—to educate all children in the system. As Gene and Doris have brought up their second child, they’ve been impressed with aspects of the magnet programs, but have seen a lack of follow through in the higher grade levels.

Over the years since 1988, Gene has been a vocal and articulate voice of moderate dissent as the City of Yonkers has continued a rear guard battle against compliance with the housing orders. He has also monitored the activities of the Board of Education and has argued for a continued effort to eradicate the vestiges of Yonkers’ formerly segregated school system. Today, Gene, his hair turning gray, continues an uphill battle to urge city government to do right by schoolchildren and the families entitled to housing under the remedy.

He believes the Yonkers story is mainly about two things. "It’s about race and a failure of leadership, leadership at all levels."

Gene persists, "We continue our efforts because we have to. We can’t give up on this kind of thing because we won’t have won anything (if we do). We’ll have a hollow victory—a victory on paper without having the thing that we really fought for, which is some form of equality, some form of equal opportunity."

Mary Dorman

Mary Dorman

Mary Dorman and her husband Bud, exemplify the American working class dream. In the film, Mary talks about finding a home for her family. She grew up in the Bronx as an apartment dweller and later she and Bud moved to Yonkers, initially renting an attic apartment above the local animal hospital in their East Yonkers neighborhood. After their family grew to include a daughter, she and Buddy began to want to live in their own house.

While saving a small nest egg, Mary told of finding just the right place. She said to the filmmaker, "I wanted a little brick house on St. John’s Avenue or no house at all." One snowy day, driving with her daughter, she spotted a "For Sale" sign. The house she imagined was right there, nestled on St. John’s Avenue, in a blue collar Irish, Jewish, and Italian east side neighborhood in Yonkers.

When she and Bud discussed buying the house, the owners were happy to make a deal. In the film, we see a picture of the tray the previous owner left for them on moving day, with a bottle of wine, three glasses, and a can of dog food for their pet.

The Dormans felt at home in their neighborhood, Lincoln Park, and Mary began to pay attention to civic issues at her homeowners’ group meetings. When the desegregation suit was first brought up, her initial reaction was, "It (public housing) can’t happen here, our (homeowners’s) group is too strong."

She said her concern wasn’t about race. "It ‘s just that it (the high-rise housing in Southwest Yonkers) looked so dirty and not taken care of. I just didn’t want to see that happen over here."

Mary became more involved when Yonkers was found liable for housing discrimination and flouting federal laws on equal opportunity in education and housing. As a housing remedy was being formulated, Mary joined with neighbors and friends in lobbying against building any public housing in East Yonkers. They picketed at Federal Court in Manhattan, were present at City Hall for most Council meetings and supported their local Councilman, Hank Spallone, who was elected on a platform of opposing the court’s verdict and most emphatically resisting construction of new public housing in East Yonkers.

Mary is seen in the documentary at and outside City Council meetings. She was out organizing regularly, chanting slogans and protesting any action by then Mayor Nick Wasiscko that she viewed as a capitulation to Judge Sand’s orders. Later, Mary supported the Council’s vote to go into contempt of the court’s remedy order. "When the Council went into contempt, we just went bonkers, we thought we were going to win."

Mary showed her deep disappointment on film the night the Yonkers City Council finally voted to pass a zoning ordinance that put it in line with the court’s housing remedy. After that, she continued fighting for years to keep low-income housing out of her neighborhood. It was not until much later that Mary considered a new tactic to protect her community.

When it became clear to Mary that the housing developments, designed townhouse style, were actually going into construction, she began to look at the situation differently. Her neighborhood was going to change, one way or another. Meanwhile, the Save Yonkers Federation, a group she had protested with, was continuing to fight the courts, trying to stall the new housing program. The group was trying every tactic, from civil actions in court to protests at the Judge’s home, to zoning and environmental impact statements to delay the construction. Mary began to doubt whether this was wise.

After events that are described in Brick by Brick: A Civil Rights Story, Mary Dorman finally met some of the prospective tenants of the new townhouses springing up around her. Getting to know the residents-to-be, Mary was impressed. She argued to her neighbors and political confederates that the new tenants themselves were not responsible any unfairness behind the remedy order. Shouldn’t they all try to make this work? Mary decided she would. She was welcoming to her new neighbors and supported some of them in their encounters with unfamiliar surroundings and in their dealings with the Housing Authority.

Today, Mary Dorman describes the new housing developments in her neighborhood as good for the community. Her ties to many former anti-housing organizers are now strained or broken, although she maintains that the city should never have been found liable in court. In various ways, she is still active in local civic and church affairs. Mary believes the housing issue has helped citizens like her become more directly involved in their community and thinks that Yonkers is a better place for the experience. She’s earned the trust, and in one or two cases, friendship of her new neighbors. Mary loves the sounds of children playing around the new development near her home.