Strolling the tidy green grounds along the gently curving
streets of Electchester, Queens, you pass classic red-brick apartment
buildings, playgrounds, a grade school, a public library, a police substation,
a small shopping center, a medical clinic, even a 48-lane bowling alley.
|In a scene with main characters Luke and Elena, right, actors rehearse on the set of The Working Theater’s “Alternating Currents” before a performance at Local 3’s auditorium in Electchester.
It’s oddly serene for a neighborhood a half-mile off the Long Island Expressway, across from a housing project, in a borough that is the most ethnically diverse urban area in the world.
“It’s a dream living here,” one longtime resident said, a sentiment echoed by others.
Steeped in union Brotherhood, Electchester is a unique, tightknit community that thousands of New York Local 3 members and their families have called home for nearly 70 years.
This spring, an off-Broadway play immortalized their home, its rich history, traditions and shared values as well as the modern tensions that accompany change.
“It’s not all roses, but at the same time it is,” said journeyman inside wireman Joe Proscia, who has lived virtually all of his 60 years in Electchester and inspired one of the play’s characters. “You don’t see anything like this. If you were sick, you wouldn’t be able to rest, because people would be bringing stuff over. You’re not just living the Brotherhood or Sisterhood on the job, you’re bringing it home with you.”
“Alternating Currents” premiered in April at Local 3’s union hall before moving off-Broadway in May, with additional performances held in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Staten Island. It is the third of The Working Theater’s “Five Boroughs/One City” plays exploring the nature of community. The theater company has produced plays for and about working people since 1985.
The 90-minute play tells Electchester’s story through the eyes of newlywed electricians Elena and Luke, an interracial couple, as they weigh the rewards and challenges of their new home. A narrator and three other cast members provide perspective as they rotate through a wide range of characters.
“I feel it’s a love letter to Electchester and the spirit of community that Electchester is,” said Mark Plesent, the theater’s producer and artistic director. “We didn’t sugarcoat the conflicts, but the ideals of Electchester shine through.”
Embodying those ideals on stage is the legendary Local 3 leader who first envisioned the community.
“Our union’s come a long way since the days of lockouts and brawling in the union hall,” the character of Harry Van Arsdale Jr., the local’s late, beloved business manager intones from a podium. “But we’ve got more work to do, and if we don’t all pitch in, it’s not gonna get done. I’m here to tell you, a union’s not just wages and hours. It’s Brotherhood. It’s looking past our superficial differences. It’s the vehicle for a better life. If we all stick together – help raise our brothers up – there’s no limit to what we can achieve in this world.”
A Living Legacy
|Electchester’s towers and some of its 36 brick buildings as seen from the roof of Local 3’s headquarters.
A larger-than-life figure in Local 3 and the greater New York City labor movement of the mid-20th century, Van Arsdale championed integration and civil rights while tirelessly fighting for workers and unions. His renowned integrity, humility and compassion won hearts and minds. The play pays homage to a gesture he made wherever he went, handing out small cards that said, “Be kind. Everyone you meet is putting up a hard fight.”
In 1949, inspired in part by a housing project for unionized garment workers, Van Arsdale proposed Local 3 build its own community of affordable, comfortable homes for electricians.
One year later, the local broke ground on a site rich with irony: the former Pomonok Country Club in Flushing, Queens, where anti-union titans of business spent leisurely afternoons on the golf course. The first section of what would become 2,500 cooperative housing units in 36 brick buildings and two 23-story towers opened to residents in 1951.
Local 3 purchased the 103-acre site with assistance from the Joint Industry Board of the Electrical Industry, a partnership that continues today. Both the local and JIB are headquartered in the six-story office building that anchors Electchester. The massive bowling alley under the complex is called “JIB Lanes,” with a bowling pin substituting for the “I” in the logo.
Virtually all of Electchester’s one, two and three-bedroom co-op apartments were filled at first by electricians and their families, though housing laws required the local to make a percentage of units available to outsiders. The ratio has shifted over the decades, with Local 3 members and retirees residing in about 50 percent of the units today. The population is also more racially and culturally diverse.
Electchester hasn’t been immune to the friction and misunderstandings that come with change. Yet the bonds among residents are still strong.
“Alternating Currents” explores the fissures while celebrating the community’s solid foundation of unity and good will. Those values shine when characters exuberantly tell newcomer Elena about some of Electchester’s many activities:
Sal: We got the Street Fair, hip hop dance class, the Night Out Against Crime. The Electric Welfare Club for Jewish members.
Shira: If you’re a tech nerd, come check out the Futurian Society.
Saul: The Adlai Stevenson Regular Democratic Club. We’re on Facebook.
Luke: Hey, babe, I just signed up with the Latimer Association – for black electricians. We’re gonna give out these delicious dinner baskets at family shelters.
Shira: At the Amber Light Society, we give out scholarships, bike for the cure, and answer letters to Santa.
Sal: And let’s not forget: we got brothers and sisters on the picket line. Just ‘cause you have a
job, doesn’t mean their strike doesn’t concern you. We gotta represent.
Embedded in Electchester
|Local 3 Business Manager Chris Erikson, with microphone, and delighted children at the annual Electchester tree lighting ceremony, an event portrayed in the play.
To create a full-bodied portrait of Electchester, playwright Adam Kraar and a team from The Working Theater spent a year immersed in the community. They drank with residents at a local tavern, chatted with them at bus stops and community events, visited their homes and invited them to take part in focus groups and theater workshops.
From the team’s first visit, Kraar said in a magazine interview, they found a clean, safe, friendly neighborhood unlike any other in New York City. “People have an infectious pride about the remarkable variety of community activities they offer,” he said. “At the same time, changing demographics and values—and recent pressures on unions in this country—threaten many of the things that longtime residents cherish about their community.”
They also got to know residents of the Pomonok housing project across the street, where noise, drugs and violence are an unending source of stress for its neighbors. The play conveyed the project’s troubles, but also its humanity.
Within Electchester, the team observed that “microaggressions” seemed to be at the root of most conflicts – comments or actions that aren’t intended to be racist but feel that way to others. Plesent, the producer, recalled an exchange during an audience discussion at the end of the second performance in Local 3’s auditorium.
When an older man said he didn’t think there was any racism in Electchester, another resident, an Asian-American woman, reiterated a point she made earlier. “She turned around and said, ‘Maybe it’s that thing I said before, that you don’t see it when you don’t live in that person’s skin.’”
“I thought that was just a great moment of conversation about how people perceive things.” Plesent said.
Reviewers lauded the play as illuminating, perceptive and thought-provoking. In exploring the “messy realities and living and laboring in NYC,” one said, the play “captures contradictions and nuances with empathy and humor.” Another called it “an intimate look at what it means to be part of a community, and what you’re willing to sacrifice personally to be a part of the whole.”
Plesent also was pleased by an enthusiastic response overall from Electchester residents, despite scenes that made some of them uneasy. “When people see their community being portrayed on stage, there are going to be moments when they feel uncomfortable,” he said. “Most of the reaction from the community was positive.”
After a matinee performance at Local 3 in late April, many in the audience praised the play, its creative set and the cast -- all Actors’ Equity members with Broadway, off-Broadway, regional theater and TV credits.
“All in all, it’s a pretty honest portrayal of the community and its challenges,” said John J. Kelly, a journeyman inside wireman and active Local 3 member who lived in Electchester with his wife, Grace, in the 1970s. Since then, they’ve lived less than a mile away. “We chose to live in Queens,” he said. “This is the most culturally diverse community in the United States, and Electchester is part of that. Everybody’s different and nobody’s different. That’s our strength.”
Sharing stories about Harry Van Arsdale, who proudly spent the last 35 years of his life in the neighborhood he’d built, Kelly said he believes his late friend and mentor would have liked “Alternating Currents.”
“He would probably have something to say about it. He always had a critical eye for detail,” Kelly said. “But I think Harry would enjoy the show and the message it was trying to send – that we have some of the answers, but not all of the answers.”
‘I Love All of It’
|Electchester’s popular summer street fair draws residents from throughout Queens.
For the past decade, The Working Theater has collaborated with Local 3, starting when Business Manager Chris Erikson –Van Arsdale’s grandson – commissioned the theater group to produce short plays about sexual harassment for a union conference. When it came time to pick a setting for the Queens chapter of the five-borough series, Plesent said Electchester was the obvious choice.
Proscia, the near-lifelong resident at the heart of the character “Sal,” served as tour guide for the theater team. “He welcomed us with open arms,” Plesent said. “That spirit, his caring for the community, I think that all comes through in his character.”
After seeing the show on opening night, Proscia had mixed feelings. “It started out good and positive, and then midway it kind of went on a sour note, and toward the end there was a silver lining,” he said. Then again, he acknowledged, that’s a lot like life itself.
His love for Electchester is palpable. His father, who was an electrician at The New York Times, moved the family there when Proscia was a small boy. Today he lives in one of the two towers, with his 85-year-old mother and a 92-year-old cousin in the other.
Despite his overnight shift as an electrician at Manhattan’s Javits Center, Proscia trades hours of sleep for community service, from his unpaid role as Local 3’s vice president to the mammoth job of organizing Electchester’s annual street fair. He is ebullient about it all, even remembering wind storms and blizzards fondly for the camaraderie that followed: In a blink of an eye, dozens of Local 3 members turning out with chainsaws, shovels, toolboxes – whatever the situation called for – and getting to work.
In the play, Sal exudes Proscia’s energy, forever looking out for his neighbors, extoling Electchester’s opportunities, juggling volunteer jobs and encouraging Elena and Luke to do the same.
“I work the graveyard, and I’m at the hall every day for my union duties,” Sal says. “Plus I got the scholarship drive, the blood drive. You don’t hear me complaining, and you know why? I love all of it.”