A Neighborhood Advocate Waits Out the Storm


Pat Singer and Janet Veksler chat in Singer’s apartment in Brighton Beach. Photo credit: REBEKAH MINTZER

It’s the day before Thanksgiving and Pat Singer is expecting 13 guests at her Brighton Beach apartment for a holiday meal. At the moment, however, the community advocate doesn’t have time for cooking and cleaning because she is too busy answering calls on her cell phone and updating Facebook in an effort to help tenants, immigrants, and other groups in need around her South Brooklyn neighborhood.

As founder and president of the Brighton Neighborhood Association, a small community group started in 1977 and dedicated to helping the residents of Brighton Beach access essential social services, Singer has taken on drug dealers, angry landlords, politicians, and most recently Hurricane Sandy. Though her life has been turned upside-down by the storm, displacing her from her office, she hasn’t been discouraged from helping the community she loves.

“It’s an interesting life but I feel like I’m in limbo a little bit,” says Singer, a petite woman with short reddish brown hair, as she sits at the kitchen table in her apartment off Brighton Beach’s main street. She had to leave her home and stay with relatives for 17 days after Sandy and her office, located in a nearby Chase bank building, is closed due to the storm.

As a result, Singer had to temporarily lay off the neighborhood association’s three part-time employees and is fielding phone calls from her cozy orange-walled kitchen, which lacks many office amenities, but contains an abundance of tchotchkes that Singer calls her “three dimensional wallpaper”—everything from an old dinner bell to an assembled puzzle that reads “Home Sweet Home.”

Today Singer’s cell keeps ringing. One tenant is dealing with a persistent noise complaint; another needs help getting FEMA to inspect his property.

“When someone smiles and says, ‘Thank you, thank you for doing that, I was so worried and you took something off of my shoulders’ it’s a good feeling,” Singer says.

Singer’s career as a community advocate began, she says, out of necessity. In the 1970s she was a young widowed mother of two living in Brighton Beach, which at the time suffered from a slow economy and high rates of crime and drug use. Singer’s aunt, who lived in the neighborhood too, urged her to pack up and leave.

“I said, ‘There’s the ocean, where are we going?’” Singer recalls. “So I decided out of the blue to fight back.”

She began by gathering a few other concerned citizens, then her efforts expanded to a rally of over 500 at a major intersection in the neighborhood followed by a rally of 1,000 at a local school. Both rallies called for more government attention and police presence in the neighborhood to combat Brighton Beach’s drug and crime problems. Singer’s drive and energy gained her support from then-mayor of New York Abraham Beame and Chuck Schumer back when he was a state assemblyman from the area.

Singer and her fellow advocates tried to close down houses of prostitution and drugs that had sprung up in Brighton Beach. She recalled going to these single-resident-occupancy homes to try to convince the women and children living inside to get help.

“What I did in those days was crazy,” she says. “I’d go into drug houses without a question, I was young, I was in my 30s. I’d walk in and talk to them with no fear. I guess at that point in time I didn’t give a s— because there was nothing else to lose.”

Eventually Singer quit her day job and ran the association full time. The group’s services expanded to include assistance with food stamps and Section 8 housing, after-school programs to keep kids off the street, a yearly street fair called the Brighton Jubilee, and help for the influx of Russian immigrants and immigrants from other countries coming to the area. Singer, whose maternal grandparents are from Russia, is still helping people from the former Soviet Union who need a hand and a sympathetic ear.

Pat Singer waters a dying plant in her Brighton Beach office. Photo credit: REBEKAH MINTZER

Olexandr Kuvryaztsev, who came to New York from Ukraine in 1999 and lives in nearby Sheepshead Bay, called Singer recently because of a disagreement with his landlord over whether his apartment is habitable after Hurricane Sandy. A friend had told him that Singer is “concerned for common folks” and newer immigrants who “don’t really know the country.”

“She was very good with my situation to send me to the right people, to talk to the right people, the right inspectors and with just checking up on us, how our situation is,” Kuvryaztsev said.

Singer jokes that her work is payback to her Russian immigrant grandmother who lived in Brighton Beach and would invite her there every summer during her childhood. These summers by the beach were the only times when Singer, who is Jewish and grew up in a heavily Protestant neighborhood in Queens, felt like she belonged and could escape a certain level of intolerance that she felt in Queens.

“I fell in love with the neighborhood,” she says of Brighton Beach. “Here I was Frieda’s granddaughter, I had identity.”

She traces what she calls her “terrible commitment” to the area back to those summers and the accompanying feelings of freedom and belonging.

“I love this neighborhood for that, it gives me that sense of childhood, of innocence here,” she says.

On an afternoon in early December, Singer and one of the social workers from the neighborhood association, Janet Veksler, decided to check on the condition of their office, which was still closed to the public. The two women set out from Singer’s apartment and strolled down Brighton Beach Avenue. A block or two down the street the two passed a large theater.

“This is where we’ll have the party,” Singer said, pointing to the building.

This is Singer’s next project, a holiday party at Oceana, a catering hall located inside an old art deco theater. She holds the party annually, complete with a DJ, refreshments, and gift bags for the kids who attend.

“We do this every year, but this is more important this year,” she said, due to the hurricane.

Singer’s office appeared to be in fairly good shape except for a few small signs of Sandy.

“There’s ants on my desk, do you see that?” she said to Veksler. Small ants crawled on the surface of her desk and computer keyboard, but she quickly eliminated them with a disinfectant wipe.

Besides giving the ants an opportunity to invade, Sandy has also cut off the office’s internet, a minor inconvenience for Singer, who was happy to have a working landline and glad that her files and the photos on her walls appeared to be unharmed. The plants in the office were also yellowed and withering, but Singer rushed to grab some water to try to save them.

Veksler, who came to the U.S. from Ukraine in 1979, says that Singer has taught her how to be a stronger person in the years they have worked together.

”When life gives you lemons, you give lemonade,” Veksler says. “That’s what she taught me really, that life goes on and we’ve got to take life as it is.’”

For Singer, life is now finally returning to normal. She happily reported that as of Dec. 17, the neighborhood association is back in its offices. She was also pleased that the association’s holiday party, which she said drew around 500 people, was “sensational.”

“I’m looking forward to the future, I really am,” Singer said.


Leave a Reply