Since I’m heading to New York soon (two great events – March 31 at the 92nd St Y and April 1 at the new Book Culture on Columbus Ave), today’s #chaveztrivia is about the New York City “Boycott House.” As a native New Yorker and a baby boomer, I’m well aware that most New Yorkers of a certain age associate Cesar Chavez with the grape boycott, which reached its height in the late 1960s and early 1970s. All around the country there were “boycott houses” which the UFW owned or rented. Boycotters, who worked for $5 a week plus room and board, lived wherever they could find free or cheap shelter, often crammed into tiny spaces and sleeping on floors or closets.
In Manhattan, supporters of the farmworkers’ cause donated a brownstone at 331 W. 84th St., which served as boycott central and the UFW’s headquarters in NYC for many years. On tape recordings of UFW board meetings, Richard Chavez, Cesar’s brother, talks about the filthy and dilapidated conditions he found when he moved to NY to run the boycott. Richard, a carpenter, ended up doing a lot of work to make the place inhabitable. Today, the three-story building is a cooperative, where apartments sell for more than $2 million!
Here’s another fact that New Yorkers will identify with: The UFW staff in NYC ran up more than four thousand dollars in unpaid parking tickets by 1980 and the debt was turned over to a collection agency; they wound up settling for $3,175.
Boycotters also took public transportation, of course, and in fact subways proved a good place to campaign. At the peak of the boycott, in 1975, a Harris Poll found that 17 million people — 12 percent of all adults in the United States – said they had boycotted grapes.
When the boycott first began in New York, in the winter of 1968, a group of 50 farmworkers and UFW volunteers travelled from California cross-country on a donated school bus that had no heat. Their departure was front page news in the Delano Record (a conservative paper that certainly didn’t support the strike or the boycott – perhaps they were rejoicing that so many UFW volunteers were getting out of town!)
And one last piece of NY/UFW boycott history … Here’s a link to column by Jack Newfield that ran in the Village Voice on Aug. 24, 1972, when Cesar Chavez came to town to talk about the lettuce boycott and had a picnic in Central Park.