Back in the 70s, when Gale Cincotta first began organizing her Austin neighbors to fight for better housing policy, the Organization for a Better Austin decided to take a local slumlord to the city's housing court. The OBA spent weeks building its case, prepping the witnesses, and negotiating with the defendant's attorney, but when the big day arrived, the judge found an error in the case and dismissed it on a technicality.
"We left the courthouse befuddled, bewildered, like sheep without a sheepdog," recalls Shel Trapp, Cincotta's longtime colleague. "Then Gale became our sheepdog." They should go directly to the state's attorney's office, Cincotta declared, and demand that the suit be filed again. As she led her posse of 30 residents toward the office, a young lawyer spotted them and tried to slam the door shut. Trapp got his foot in the door, and he and the lawyer wrestled back and forth. "I stand for law and order!" the flustered young attorney exclaimed. "Get away from my door!"
Cincotta cleared Trapp away and then slammed into the door shoulder first, knocking the attorney to the floor. As the group filed into the office, Cincotta stood over the bewildered attorney and yelled, "You stand for shit!"
On November 1, about 200 community residents, political organizers, and national leaders filled the banquet hall of the Chicago Fine Arts Exchange on Chicago near Halsted to celebrate the life and work of Gale Cincotta, who died August 15 at age 71. Wife of a gas station attendant and mother of five sons, she lived her entire life on the west side, and for 35 years she fought for community reinvestment, affordable housing, and neighborhood-based crime and drug policy. But no matter how often she frequented the halls of power, Cincotta never left Austin behind. Says her colleague Brenda La Blanc, "She would talk to the head of the Federal Reserve Board like he was the guy next door whose dog was shitting in her yard."
Cincotta, the daughter of a Greek restaurant owner, was born and raised in Lawndale, and she and her family moved to Austin in the white flight of the mid-50s. With five boys in the public school system, she became a vocal member of the PTA, and eventually she crossed paths with Trapp, who had recently left the ministry to become an organizer. He still remembers their first encounter, in the basement of Mandell Methodist Church. "I was pretty nervous about this powerful person. So I go up and say, 'I'm Shel Trapp,' and she says, 'Well, who are you with?,' and I say, 'It's a new organization that's just starting but doesn't have a name yet.' And she slaps her head and says 'Oh Christ, not another one!'"
Like many Chicago neighborhoods, Austin was falling prey to realtors who used racial paranoia to drive down prices. As Trapp explains, "They show up at your door and say, 'The niggers are coming. I can give you $20,000 for this house today, but if I have to come back tomorrow it's going to be $19,000.' A lot of people took that $20,000, and then the realtor turns around and sells the house to a black family for $30,000." Most white residents focused their anger on the black families moving in, but according to Austin resident Gayle Brinkman, Cincotta wasn't one of them: "Gale was very clear about this. She was very political and she understood major systems, and she was able to communicate that in a way that the neighbors could understand."
My father, Roger Hayes, was an organizer with Cincotta back in the day. "Gale was really good at building multiracial coalitions," he tells me. "In any coalition situation you're going to have to finesse racial politics, and she was great at it. She just had a lot of respect for people."
Aided by the regional offices of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Trapp and Cincotta won a series of local victories. Before long they shifted their focus from panic peddling to abuses of the Federal Housing Authority and to redlining, the banking practice of systematically denying loans to people in low- and middle-income neighborhoods. To make any headway, they realized, they would have to take the fight to the national level. One night, while attending a conference at Notre Dame, they sat up late drinking and talking. "She had a bottle of vodka and I had a bottle of Jack Daniels," Trapp remembers. "We were talking about what the hell we could do. At about three in the morning one of us, and I am really clueless who, said, 'Let's have a national conference.' We came back home, and unlike most ideas you get when you're drunk on your ass, this one still seemed pretty good the next day."
In March 1972 they held a housing conference on the west side that drew double the expected turnout, with community residents, organizers, bankers, and politicians in attendance. Out of that event grew National People's Action, a grassroots lobbying organization that holds an annual conference in Washington, bringing together neighborhood groups from across the country for issue-based direct action, and the National Training and Information Center, which provides community organizers with training and support.
In 1975, largely because of the NPA's lobbying efforts, President Ford signed the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, which forced banks and S&Ls to report their lending patterns by zip code and census tract. Once this data was made public it became clear that banks were avoiding loans in certain neighborhoods, denying home owners use of their equity to make improvements and thereby fueling the urban decay of the early 70s. Armed with this disclosure data, Cincotta spearheaded NPA's successful campaign to pass the Community Reinvestment Act, which requires any bank with FDIC insurance to loan a certain percentage of its money in the neighborhood it serves. As of this year the law has been responsible for over a billion dollars in neighborhood reinvestment.
NPA didn't win these victories through petitions and backroom lobbying; its policy of direct action used shame, embarrassment, and "people power" to get results. At the Chicago Fine Arts Exchange in November, nearly every testimonial involved one of Cincotta's "hits," and the story seldom varied: some bank executive or government official would give NPA the runaround, refusing to meet with the organization, only to wake up one Sunday morning and find hundreds of protesters yelling and picketing outside his Georgetown home. Usually he'd schedule a meeting right there and then.
"The people who create the shitty situations, they also create layers and compartments that separate them from that shit," says Trapp. "Well, the kind of organizing that NPA and NTIC does penetrates those layers and it says, 'This shit you've created out here, we're gonna bring it to you, to your house, to your kids' Little League games.' And it's real simple--you can stop the shit anytime you want, you just gotta clear it up at its source." Cincotta was relentless; one of her favorite expressions was, "They got it. We want it. Let's go get it."
Because the battles were waged on behalf of specific issues and not across ideological or political lines, the NPA went after Democrats and Republicans, private and public institutions alike. "We got a lot of flack when we went after [HUD secretary] Andrew Cuomo, who was the liberals' darling," says Anne-Marie Douglas, a founding member of the NTIC and its current operations director. "But he was screwing up, so we went after him."
For all of Cincotta's aggressiveness, she also had a sure grasp of the issues. Trapp remembers, "Gale had an ability to understand complex issues and talk to very 'sophisticated' people on levels that they could understand, and the next day be talking to neighborhood people on a level that they could understand." That talent, he says, explains why Cincotta was eulogized by the same institutions--Harris Bank, Fannie Mae, American Banker--that she'd centered in her crosshairs. "The enemy realizes that we're not idiots. We're not just out there screaming. While we're out there screaming, we're also gonna bring some answers to their problems that can make them look good."
Much as Cincotta was missed, the mood at her memorial service was decidedly upbeat. Displayed on chairs throughout the banquet hall were various pictures from her life; in one she stands, grinning and applauding, beside President Carter as he signs the Community Reinvestment Act, her large frame and signature floral-print dress standing out in a sea of business suits. The title for the memorial--"The Next Move"--was taken from the column she wrote for the NTIC's newsletter, Disclosure, but it also established that the movement she helped found would continue after her death. The NTIC currently has its largest staff ever, and from its original bread-and-butter issues it's branched out into summer jobs for youth, community-based antidrug initiatives, and reform of special education. They want it, and as Gale Cincotta insisted, they aim to get it.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.