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Brooke Astor, the People's Philanthropist: Neighborhood Development

January 08, 2010

(Michael Seltzer is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. In his previous post, he wrote about the late Brooke Astor's many contributions to and generous support for public spaces in New York City.)

BrookeAstor_deskBrooke Russell Astor became president of the Vincent Astor Foundation on January 27, 1960, almost a year to the day after her third and last husband, Vincent Astor, the great-great-grandson of America's first multi-millionaire, John Jacob Astor, died of a heart attack at the age of 67. It was the beginning of what would turn out to be a tumultuous decade for America and the world, and the 59-year-old Mrs. Astor would use her position and fortune over the course of the decades that followed to become one of the most prominent and respected philanthropists in the country.

Along the way, she became an early proponent of a new form of urban development driven by community activists rather than all-powerful city planners (e.g., Robert Moses). Those activists rejected massive public housing projects as the answer to urban America's problems and sought to restore the economic and social vitality of New York City's four hundred-plus neighborhoods through genuine grassroots efforts.

The Astor Foundation's entry point into that work was its interest in youth. Although Vincent Astor himself never had children, he had a strong interest in what was then referred to as "disadvantaged youth." After his death, his wife honored that interest through an array of grants to youth development organizations in the city, including Project Broad Jump, Madison Square Boys & Girls Club, and Harlem Prep. In 1961 the foundation made its biggest grant up to that point, an award of $1.25 million, to United Neighborhood Houses in support of the latter's efforts to provide pre-teen programs at settlement houses throughout the city.

Grants like that were the catalyst for Mrs. Astor's increasingly frequent forays into the city's diverse neighborhoods. And as she traveled about, she witnessed firsthand the destruction inflicted on once-vibrant communities through ill-considered "urban redevelopment" schemes and came to learn how terribly misguided the then-favored approach to poverty amelioration was. Coney Island, where hundreds of one- and two-family homes were bulldozed to make way for multi-story apartment buildings, was, in her mind, the most egregious example of these wrong-headed policies. As she said on more than one occasion, "High rise, high crime."

(When I visited Honolulu in June 1968 as a VISTA volunteer, I was jarred by the sight of high-rise public housing in the middle of Kalihi-Palama, then considered one of that city's "ghettos." One didn't have to be a genius to see that the structures were as ill-suited to indigenous Hawaiians as were the grim brick monstrosities that had been built to house African-Americans who moved from the rural South to urban centers in the North after World War II.)

One of the Astor Foundation's best known grants came about as a result of a visit paid her in 1966 by New York's then-junior senator, Robert F. Kennedy. The senator, who was accompanied by Franklin Thomas, later to become a trustee and then president of the Ford Foundation, wanted to talk to Mrs. Astor about his interest in revitalizing the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. As a result of his visit, the Vincent Astor Foundation awarded a grant of $1 million to support the creation of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Renewal and Rehabilitation Corporation (later reconstituted as the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation) -- the first community development in the country and the prototype for the hundreds of such organizations that followed. Over the course of its existence, Restoration (as it was known) would attract more than $375 million in investments to Central Brooklyn and help over 20,000 youth and adults find jobs.

If anything, those conversations made Mrs. Astor more resolute about visiting prospective grantees on their home ground, even when others advised against it. While some of her male foundation colleagues derided her as a publicity-seeking socialite, she was ecumenical in terms of seeking counsel related to her grantmaking and relied a good deal on the advice of grassroots activists, local ministers, youth workers, and block association members. Their names rarely appeared on the pages of the city's tabloids, but Mrs. Astor found them and the foundation gave them funds and its imprimatur. Indeed, she became known as a keen scout of talent with an uncanny ability to size up individuals quickly and accurately.

By 1997, the year it closed its doors for good, the Vincent Astor Foundation had dispensed a total of $200 million in grants. On Mrs. Astor's watch and under the leadership of its executive director, Linda L. Gillies, the foundation processed approximately seven hundred requests for support and awarded a hundred or so grants a year. One has only to look at its grantee lists from the '60s, '70s, '80s, and '90s to understand the scope and depth of its reach -- and Mrs. Astor's commitment to New York and the people who call it home.

Brooke Astor earned the respect of politicians, community activists, other philanthropists, and the average person on the street by dint of her intelligence, wit, common sense, hard work, and, most importantly, humility. It may be a while before we see her like again, but her philanthropic legacy and that of the Vincent Astor Foundation will live on, in ways large and small, across all five of New York City's boroughs. 

That's no small comfort in these uncertain times.

-- Michael Seltzer

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