by Brendan O’Connor
About sixty-five miles east of New York City, in the southern part of the Long Island town of Brookhaven, there is a hamlet of around six thousand people called Yaphank. In Yaphank, there is a residential community called Siegfried Park, where the land is owned by a non-profit group called the German-American Settlement League. Siegfried Park was originally owned by the German-American Bund, an American organization that supported the Nazis. The Bund operated Siegfried Park as a summer camp, beginning in 1935. In 1937, the land was transferred to the recently-incorporated GASL, which received funding from the Bund party until 1940, and which, in its Articles of Incorporation, stated that its purpose was to “introduce, cultivate, and propagate in every direction true Germanic culture [and]…the German language, customs and ideals.” In 1938, the camp’s manager, Henry Hauck, told the Mid-Island Mail that membership was open to all members of the German-American Bund, as well as all other “national-minded American citizens of Aryan blood.” A forty-acre residential subdivision included streets named for Goering, Goebels, and Hitler. Hauck said that the camp was non-political, although its members were vigorously anti-Communist. “Are the camp members and visitors supporters of Nazi ideas?” the Mail reporter asked. “Generally speaking, yes,” Hauck said. “But only as they concern Germany, not the United States.”
— NYC Dept of Records (@nycrecords) October 20, 2015
Last fall, Philip Kneer and Patricia Flynn-Kneer, who are married, and white, and both of German extraction, and had lived in Siegfried Park since 1999, filed a civil rights lawsuit, with the help of attorneys from the Long Island Housing Services, a fair housing nonprofit, against the GASL, alleging that the group’s housing practices were discriminatory. Membership, according to the GASL constitution, most recently revised in 1998, was “primarily” open to people who are “21 years of age or older, of German extraction and of good character and reputation.” According to the complaint, “These criteria alone expressly violate the Fair Housing Act’s prohibition on indicating a ‘preference, limitation, or discrimination’ based on race or national origin.” A modified Hitler Youth emblem, which was originally used at Siegfried Park in the thirties during ceremonies and marches and which graced the GASL’s stationary in the eighties, sat atop a flagpole flying the German flag in the Siegfried Park clubhouse as recently as October.
(The FBI investigated the German-American Bund extensively during the late thirties and early forties, and the resultant files are all available online. The organization’s head, Fritz Julius Kuhn, a naturalized citizen, was de-naturalized in 1943, owing to his Nazi allegiances, and deported to Germany in 1945.)
The GASL is a kind of a land trust: the organization owns the land, which it rents to members, who own their houses outright. The Kneers, who had bought their home in Yaphank for seventy thousand dollars in 1999, decided they wanted to sell in 2006, after the birth of their second child. But GASL members who wish to sell their homes were not permitted to advertise that fact — they couldn’t even put a for-sale sign up in their yard. Instead, they were to post a notice in the “community bulletin.” Not only did the Kneers fail to receive a suitable offer for their house, the New York Times reported this fall, they couldn’t even get a loan from a bank to renovate and expand, because potential foreclosure proceedings would be complicated by the fact that the settlement league owned the land on which the Kneers’ house was built, not the Kneers themselves.
After years of unsuccessful attempts to convince the GASL board to change the bylaws, the Kneers simply moved out one Friday in October, without telling anyone, and filed the suit. “They’re just bitter they couldn’t get the price they wanted for their home,” GASL president Robert Kessler told the Times. “People in other parts of town look at us and think this is closed to non-Germans…That’s just not true.” Maybe, but according to the Kneers’ complaint, “GASL has never granted full membership to any non-white individual. All homeowners in Siegfried Park are and always have been white.”
— NYC Dept of Records (@nycrecords) October 20, 2015
The terms of the settlement last for four years: GASL has agreed to receive fair housing training from LIHS, and to keep records of attendance at those meetings, as well as of membership applications, owner notices, and proposed and amended by-laws and leases. LIHS will have access to those records “upon written request with reasonable notice.” Also, the GASL revised its constitution to allow real estate brokers and agents to list, show, and advertise houses for sale in Siegfried Park, and even hold open houses. What is more, the constitution has been revised to make membership open to “all qualified persons regardless of race, national origin, or religion. Owners of homes in the G.A.S.L., Inc. community are permitted to advertise their homes for sale and hold open houses.” GASL denies “all allegations of wrongdoing and liability” and “does not admit, and expressly denies, any violation of law”
“It’s an extraordinary settlement, making for a more open community,” Wilson told me when I spoke to him shortly after the proposed agreement was filed last month. “This is a strong argument for meaningful, material changes — not just superficial changes, but substantial changes.” It is a good agreement, he said, “judged both on its own terms and against what is possible. It’s an example of what you hope civil rights litigation can achieve.” In an email this week, Wilson said LIHS understands that GASL has started taking down the Nazi paraphernalia, but that I would need to confirm that with them. GASL’s lawyer did not return a request for comment.
Whether training sessions and rewriting bylaws will change anything remains to be seen: the population of Siegfried Park looks like what it looked like when the Kneers filed their lawsuit in October — that is, overwhelmingly white. After all, what was exceptional about Siegfried Park was not that its housing practices were allegedly discriminatory but that those practices had been codified and put into writing. Still, Wilson said, “GASL recognized that they made a mistake defending a tradition that was not worth defending.”