The Starrett Judo Club has earned more trophies than can fit in its display case.
The overflow of awards, some three feet high, cover a cafeteria-style table and some floor space throughout Starrett City’s Office of Community Relations on Pennsylvania Avenue. The club, founded by former Haitian Olympian Parnel Legros, is a mirror of this integrated 153-acre community of just under 15,000.
“It’s like Disneyworld,” said Legros. “You name the country – Haiti, Russia, Poland – it’s probably the most diverse community I’ve ever seen. I don’t know anything else like it.”
A Towering Neighborhood
Starrett City offers a middle class, almost suburban lifestyle, to a diverse working-class community in East New York. Streets are called loops and the homogeneity of the 46, 15-story high-rise towers give no hint of the diversity that dwells there.
Starrett City was the first and remains the largest federally subsidized housing community in the country. When it was built in 1974, the owners set a policy to ensure a tenant ratio of 70 percent white to 30 percent black. They said the purpose was to prevent white flight, but the reality was that many black tenants were placed on an endless waiting list.
The policy was struck down in federal court in 1998.
Today, the growing Caribbean community in Starrett City reflects the surrounding neighborhood, where 33 percent of the population was foreign-born as of the 2000 census. Of that number, 41.4 percent were from the Caribbean – the second largest foreign-born population in the whole district, behind immigrants from Latin America.
Legros said since the racial quotas were struck down, his club has become a United Nations of judo. Legros, 52, is the sensei (teacher) of the club and has taught physical education at Starrett City’s Intermediate School 364 since 1989.
Legros, who immigrated from Haiti at 14, is a Judo world champion and was captain of the 1992 Haitian Olympic Team. He was training for Barcelona at Starrett City’s school weight room when someone from management asked him to start an after-school judo program for local kids. Now, the club is known as a home to national and international champions.
Harry St. Leger, 23, has lived in Starrett City his whole life. He and his twin brother, Garry, the sons of Haitian immigrants, started lessons at the Judo Club when they were 8. Their parents did not hesitate to support the two brothers and their sport, despite economic hardship.
Starrett City Public Affairs also helped out with college scholarships for both brothers. Harry St. Leger recently took a bronze medal at the nation championships in Massachusetts, despite an injured arm.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t think about my club,” said St. Leger. “It’s different from other sports. You compete out of the state, out of the country.
“I’ve been all around the world.”