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This trademark stubbornness did not diminish over time. A protest organized by Singer a few decades later would firmly establish her as an outspoken leader. In 1977, Brighton Beach — the area to where she had since relocated — was succumbing to New York City’s fiscal crisis of the 1970s. Crumbling infrastructure and job losses forced middle-class families to move away, leaving abandoned buildings that were sometimes set on fire. Singer recalls one month when there were 13 muggings on her block alone.
Things reached a low point when her apartment building, where she still lives today, emptied out: “It’s a 96-unit building, so to wake up and find out that all your friends have moved to Long Island or New Jersey, it’s kind of sad!” Singer no longer recognized the idyllic community of her childhood, where she used to sleep on the beach, “cooled by the ocean breeze and unconcerned about crime.” Enough was enough.
She put up signs around the neighborhood to advertise a community meeting. Sixty people ended up attending. That weekend, Singer helped mobilize 500 or so residents for a protest against skyrocketing crime and a lack of police protection. Senior citizens — many carrying canes and walkers, others in wheelchairs — blocked traffic at the neighborhood’s main intersection for four hours. “We had the funniest little circle…. We were out there like crazy people.”
Singer, at that point divorced with two teenage children, was decades younger than many of her fellow concerned citizens. But with her bright-red cropped hair and her round, energetic face, she was the movement’s figurehead. (Nearly 36 years later, she looks the same.)
After she successfully convinced local police commissioners to patrol the area more frequently, a group of community members started meeting regularly at her apartment. Two years later, State Assembly member Chuck Schumer (now a senior New York State Senator) gave her a grant of $25,000 to open an office. And so the BNA was born.
In the association’s early years, Singer pursued negligent landlords, encouraged voter registration and lobbied for the city to repair broken streetlights and potholes. As she became more established she sometimes advocated for commercial development to renew her neighborhood and took positions that appeared to favor developers, which ruffled some feathers. State Assembly member Alec Brook-Krasny, the first Soviet-born elected official in the United States, who represents Coney Island and Brighton Beach, says that not only did some people take odds with her positions, but they also didn’t like her style: “When she agrees with something, she is very loud, and you can hear her voice and her opinion everywhere. Some people might not like that, but I respect it.”
The neighborhood changed drastically when some 25,000 Soviet exiles moved there between 1977 and 1980 because of temporarily relaxed immigration policies in the USSR. Singer recalls walking through the neighborhood and hearing a new language: “What the hell is this? They were rude and pushy in the grocery stores, grabbing for toilet paper, not realizing it would still be there tomorrow.” It was hard to reach out to the growing Russian-speaking community; life in the Soviet Union made the people paranoid and suspicious. But when Singer successfully fought for the local precinct to hire Russian-speaking police for a more culturally competent force, her work started to achieve recognition.