Crumble in the Bronx

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Five years ago, Sandra Addison and her three children moved from a homeless shelter into 991 Union Avenue, a building owned by the South Bronx community group Banana Kelly. Addison liked her new home, with its spacious living room and wood floors, and she painted the walls with eggshell blue trim. She attended tenant meetings, and, with encouragement from Banana Kelly staff, became a tenant leader, advocating for her neighbors and her building.

She had some very good experiences with Banana Kelly. A counselor helped talk her through a difficult period of her life. Another worker organized parties and field trips for children. At Christmas, she and her neighbors competed with families on other floors to see who could create the best-decorated hallway.

And yet, sitting at her dining room table, Addison frowns as she talks about her experience. She’s had an intermittently functioning boiler, a bedroom too cold for sleep in the winter, and her neighbors’ stoves and fridges stood broken for months. During a rainstorm, she and the super deployed six garbage cans under huge roof leaks in a vacant apartment to keep the water from pouring through the floor and onto the tenants living below. “You have an apartment with half the ceiling falling down and fungus growing on the walls,” she recalls.

But it wasn’t only the conditions in the building that made her skeptical about the group that owned it. She says that after working with Banana Kelly for several years, she began to feel they would start programs and make promises that were never delivered, like opening community spaces and a laundry room in her building. Eventually, she came to distrust their intentions.

“I used to go to bat for Banana Kelly,” she says. “I would have put my life on the line. But now…” She falls silent. Although another community group has assumed management responsibilities for her building, Addison says she is worried by the fact that Banana Kelly is still its owner. Inspired by a cooperatively run building on the block, she says that she and some of her neighbors are now trying to find some way to take over the building and run it themselves.

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Addison is one of hundreds of residents who have worked with Banana Kelly through the past 20 years to help themselves and rebuild their Bronx neighborhood, Longwood. Formed by residents determined to save their block from arson and abandonment, Banana Kelly came to symbolize the power of ordinary people, with little but a collective vision, to take control of their surroundings and remake them. Foundations and governments from around the world have praised the group for its successes–not just in developing housing and providing social services, but for bringing residents together to rebuild a devastated area.

“We wanted to be owners. We wanted the people always to have a say in what happened in their buildings and what they did with their lives and what happened in their community,” says former executive director Yolanda Rivera, who remains chair of the board. “I think the organization has always kept to that vision.”

Street, says that water comes through the walls of her building when it rains. “There is a huge roof leak and the walls of the stairwells are crumbling,” she says. When contractors installed her windows during a renovation, they left a hole that she could stick her hand through.

At 750 Bryant Avenue, anger at Banana Kelly reached such a pitch that the residents flung eggs at the property manager’s car when she visited the building–and this was a manager whom tenants say they personally liked

As Banana Kelly rebuilds, it now also faces the challenge of reconstructing relations with community residents. It may have a task ahead of it every bit as challenging as its original effort to reclaim the neighborhood. “Yolanda Rivera says: ‘It’s a new era, you’re going to have to give me a chance.’ But Banana Kelly has been in transition for a decade,” says Marta Rivera. “You mention Banana Kelly and people want to kill you.”

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Banana Kelly was born during the late 1970s, in the crucible of the South Bronx. Arson and abandonment had laid waste to vast swaths of the borough, and was still consuming new buildings daily. By 1980, two-thirds of the people who had been living in the Longwood area a decade earlier had fled. Those who remained struggled in a zone where the city government had effectively ceased providing services.

It soon became clear that if anything was to be done they would have to do it themselves. A handful of local residents and one committed outsider started discussing ways to fight the destruction. Inspired by the efforts of a nearby sweat equity project, they decided to try to save their block of Kelly Street. They began by clearing a vegetable garden on a vacant lot. To draw in the community and build support, they held block parties and other social events. “At that time, Banana Kelly and the neighborhood were one,” recalls Felicia Colon, who joined in the spring of 1978 as a bookkeeper, and remained with the organization for almost 13 years. “Our first Thanksgiving we had a big dinner. People of the neighborhood came and everybody cooked something.”

During these years, Banana Kelly was controlled by the community simply because almost no one else was involved. The organization ran on volunteer and minimally paid labor, undertaking only projects that those people–almost all local residents–wanted to see accomplished.

Their first major ambition was to rescue three abandoned buildings on Kelly Street. Members poured their own labor into the project, hoping to eventually take title to the buildings and live in the apartments they were fixing as cooperative owners. “It was like now with the World Trade Center disaster–everyone was pitching in,” says Pearl White, who moved into one when they were finished. “At the end of the day we’d have a potluck dinner and we’d all sit down together in the middle of the floor. It was lovable.”

But after just a few years, the early spirit of cooperation began to succumb to other pressures. As it became clear that the effort to rescue the three abandoned buildings was succeeding, Banana Kelly gained public attention, new support and more resources. Flush with success, the fledgling organization tackled new projects as fast as it could in a headlong rush to preserve and revive the neighborhood. It began fixing other buildings, spearheaded a drive to convert a large stretch of rubble into a park, trained local youth in construction skills and took on many other smaller tasks.

These myriad projects left Banana Kelly relatively little time to carry out large-scale community organizing efforts or incorporate residents into the organization in a systematic way. Instead, as the group took on increasingly complex endeavors, it became more hierarchical and professional, relying more on paid staff and less on volunteer support. Within just five years, “our organizers had become our managers; our volunteers had become our employees; our members had become our clients,” Harold DeRienzo, the oganization’s first executive director, later concluded in a City Limits op-ed piece.

Under the leadership of its next director, Getz Obstfeld, Banana Kelly grew to be one of New York’s preeminent community developers, rehabilitating city-owned buildings, and later redeveloping vacant buildings with federal housing tax credit funds. By the end of the 1980s, Banana Kelly had helped rehabilitate over 25 buildings, attracted services, including the first new health clinic in decades, and provided support and encouragement to hundreds of property owners, local employers and residents.

Colon and other staff believe the group retained strong resident backing. “I would say 90 percent of the people supported Banana Kelly,” she says. Many locals who remember the organization from a decade ago echo this sentiment. “We liked Getz. He was on the money–he worked with you,” recalls Helen Linton, a tenant at 850 Southern Boulevard who, with Banana Kelly’s help, turned her building into a co-op.

Much of the neighborhood support was nurtured by the group’s organizing staff. “We attempted to merge organizing and development work,” Obstfeld recalls. “We chose small projects with big impacts.” During the late 1980s, Banana Kelly spearheaded a campaign against the Transit Authority’s plan to close the Intervale Avenue train station. It cleaned up some of the worst drug buildings in the neighborhood.

Others, however, felt that organizing was already being subordinated to development. “Banana Kelly’s model was, ‘Don’t move, improve,'” says New York ACORN executive director Bertha Lewis, who worked at Banana Kelly as an organizer during Obstfeld’s years. “It was to teach people to control their neighborhood. But the next thing, Banana Kelly was holding the bag. More and more, Banana Kelly became a sponsor. There were less and less actions, and more and more development.”

Over time, serious tensions developed. Obstfeld, like DeRienzo, was a white man from outside the Bronx, and some people active in the organization felt this was inappropriate. By late 1991, Obstfeld resigned–under pressure, many observers believe, from the board of directors.

Yolanda Rivera, chair of the board, took over as executive director. Rivera had grown up in the South Bronx and had years of experience as a tenant advocate and housing administrator. She assumed control of Banana Kelly’s day-to-day operations with the intent of returning the organization to its community roots.

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Rivera inherited not only the responsibilities of a large landlord, but fairly new commitments as a social service provider. During the late 1980s, with homelessness on the rise through the city, Banana Kelly agreed to provide housing for a number of families who had gone through the city’s shelter system. The new residents were very poor, and had no ties to the neighborhood or longstanding loyalty to Banana Kelly. Some had serious substance abuse problems. Integrating them into the neighborhood was a formidable task.

Recognizing the potential problems, the city and other funders began to offer Banana Kelly and other community groups more money for social programs–for Banana Kelly, at least $6 million from the city alone starting in 1991. By the time Rivera assumed control of the agency that year, Banana Kelly had begun to develop a range of programs–in early childhood education, drug counseling, immunization, assistance to families with developmentally disturbed children, and more.

More recently, about 60 tenants have been receiving rent subsidies and counseling through a federal program that helps them get on their feet after periods of incarceration, homelessness or substance abuse. After years of struggling with drug addiction, domestic violence, and homelessness, Luz Acevedo was able to secure an apartment and rental subsidy. Says Acevedo, sitting on trim a red couch in her sparkling apartment, “Banana Kelly saved my life.”

Rivera chose to hire local residents who could work with their neighbors as peers. The strategy paid off–some staff forged close connections with residents. Banana Kelly’s community workers spent hours at tenants’ kitchen tables, chatting and laughing, but also helping with a range of serious issues–how to navigate the city’s welfare bureaucracy, where to find help going to school, how to recover children temporarily removed from their care, and so on.

“Wonderful things came out of Banana Kelly,” says Mavelin Morales, a former director of Banana Kelly’s social service department, who was responsible for developing several of the agency’s programs. “The agency was giving to the community at a certain point. The people received case management, they received support groups, they received recreational activities. There was child development, leadership training, housing.” Hiring residents was a contribution in its own right. “People from the community were able to get jobs,” Morales says. “Banana Kelly did wonderful trainings and sent the staff to get training. There was an opportunity for community residents to grow.”

There’s no question social services have helped build ties between the organization and local residents. But by themselves, these efforts were not enough to make residents empowered partners in rebuilding a neighborhood, or to give them active influence within the organization.

The steady dissolution of the tenant involvement that had been the organization’s hallmark might have been reversed through efforts aimed at helping residents develop a collective voice. In the early 1990s, organizer Carlos Permell received Rivera’s go-ahead to do exactly that. His plan was to develop a tenant consortium that could act as a channel of communication between the organization and tenants. Although he had first learned to organize with the Industrial Areas Foundation, which taught him the confrontational tactics popularized by Saul Alinsky, Permell attempted a different approach this time. Permell says that he wanted the consortium to work as a forum where tenants and Banana Kelly could work out problems together and cooperate on projects of importance to the entire neighborhood. “It was not just about challenging management but being the eyes and ears of the community,” Permell says. “We had a few meetings and it was going great–building contacts, talking about what’s happening in the community.”

But after several meetings, Banana Kelly management backed away from the project. Permell remembers Rivera and other leaders walking out of a meeting after being criticized by residents over building conditions. After that, the consortium project was shelved.

Over the following years, staff periodically attempted to build other tenant associations. But these efforts never succeeded for long. Banana Kelly leadership could never decide whether or how the associations should deal with the maintenance problems that were, increasingly, tenants’ central concern.

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One place where residents might have had a meaningful voice in Banana Kelly was through its board of directors–a mix of local residents and outside, usually professional, supporters. But conversations with residents of Banana Kelly-run buildings indicated that many, probably most, had no knowledge about the agency’s board of directors. “I never heard anything about the board, never,” one says emphatically. “If I had known, I would have tried to go to see, because I as a person would want to know about what’s going on.”

Rivera says that to this day, the board has always remained strong and active. For their part, however, many board members, observers, and former staff say that they themselves had little power or influence over the organization.

Pearl White, on the board from Obstfeld’s days until very recently, says the changes were unmistakable. “When Getz was there,” says White, “There were financial reports and backup for what was going on in the buildings. We talked about what was needed, and where we were.” After Rivera assumed control, adds White, meetings became much less informative, and board committees were virtually inactive.

Other board members voiced similar opinions. “Nothing got done at these so-called ‘meetings,’ recalls one former member who requested anonymity. “Nothing ever got discussed.”

Julie Levine, who served as a board member for about half a year in the mid 1990s, resigned when asked to vote for proposals to increase Rivera’s salary and pay her taxes. She says she received the strong impression that the board was serving as a rubber stamp. Levine says her experience on the board radically changed her opinions about Banana Kelly. “When they asked me to be a board member I said I’d be honored,” she says. “I really bought into all of it.” But by the time she resigned, she wanted nothing more to do with the organization. “Banana Kelly should not be a legend,” she concludes.

The decline of organizing efforts and the board effectively weakened most local residents’ voice within the agency. If Banana Kelly had been running trouble-free operations, that might not have mattered. But instead, residents lost influence at a time when the group was experiencing increasingly serious troubles.

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By the mid 1990s, Banana Kelly was managing 41 properties scattered throughout Longwood and Hunts Point–affordable and in some cases very decent accommodations for about a thousand households. But by then it was clear that some buildings were experiencing serious maintenance problems. Tenants recount a litany of horrors: recurrent leaks, buckled floors, boilers down for days or weeks during the winter, public lights shut off and drug trafficking.

And they agree that it was extremely difficult to get Banana Kelly to make repairs.

“We had a persistent leak where the toilet was,” recalls Flores, the former Fox Street tenant. “It was on and off for years. They would just make spot repairs, and that was only if you continued to call and complain. And the floors were all warped because of water damage. That was a typical experience there.”

Another resident says that the elevator in her building would stay broken for weeks at a time–a great difficulty for the disabled people in the building. She contacted the elevator company and discovered it would not make repairs because Banana Kelly owed too much money. And in 12 years of living in the same apartment, she says, she had never received a paint job. “It was horrible,” she said. “It was unbelievable.”

Tenants generally agree that Banana Kelly’s property management operation was unresponsive. “You were supposed to call the office, and it seemed like they would write the complaints on a block of ice,” says Marta Rivera. “They just disappeared. They got the rent, but they never got the complaints.” Many tenants say they regularly received warnings from Con Edison that lights in the public areas were about to be cut off because Banana Kelly had not paid its bills. One tenant at 750 Bryant Avenue, where the public lighting was actually turned off several times, had kept a bill stating that the owner owed $52,000 for one account.

Tenants also say they were regularly charged for back rent even if they were current on their payments. “You were always receiving notices that you owed arrears,” says Cheryl Jones, who lives at 750 Bryant Avenue. Several tenants made it a habit to save their receipts so that they could demonstrate that the arrears billed were erroneous when Banana Kelly took them to housing court. Former employees who worked for the group for years confirm that property management operations were beset with such problems. “It was embarrassing in front of the judge when they saw that the tenant had paid,” one recalls.

“There was no money–no money for repairs, no money for materials,” says another manager. “The supers had no control either–sometimes they didn’t have a broom or a mop.”

One of the likely reasons the organization had so little money on hand was that it had difficulty collecting rents. Marc Jahr, program vice president of LISC, confirms that Banana Kelly has experienced such problems since the buildings his organization helped fund opened to their first occupants in the early 1990s. “Their rent collections were very poor relative to other groups,” he says. “You could go down the street and find other CDCs with the same portfolios, and they were collecting rents.” Rivera notes that her organization attempted to work out payment deals with tenants who fell behind on their rents, even if collection rates suffered as a result.

Banana Kelly’s woes are not all of its own making. Running a large portfolio of buildings designated for low-income tenants, would be a formidable challenge for any organization. Banana Kelly had very little margin for error–it needed to keep rent collection rates high and the buildings close to fully occupied. What’s more, it had to contend with construction flaws that may go back to the earliest days of city-funded rehabilitation of abandoned buildings. Flores, for one, says that the plumbing problems in 788 Fox Street were never really addressed during the entire 20 years that Banana Kelly ran the building. Such problems may have been a serious drain on the organization’s resources.

But property management also suffered, according to former staff and outside observers, because information systems were terribly inadequate. In the early 1990s the South Bronx Comprehensive Community Revitalization Project, a program designed to strengthen a select group of Bronx community organizations, provided resources for Banana Kelly to bring on staff with the necessary expertise. Janice Berthoud, who was hired during this period, says that as vice president of operations she created a new system for property management that was in place by the time she left in 1994.

But staff who stayed on say that most changes were never institutionalized. Rapid turnover, they say, impeded further progress. “There was a rapid round of firing and hiring in key positions, says Simon Moule, who worked at Banana Kelly in 1991 and 1992 and now runs a property management consulting business. “There were different property and fiscal staff every three months.” In 1996, 16 staff were fired in a restructuring; in 1999, still more, including the president. Rivera says that turnover at Banana Kelly was no greater than is typical at nonprofit agencies.

Yet the organization clearly had problems following through with projects. Some of its buildings lost out on tax abatements worth hundreds of thousands of dollars because applications were never completed. A vacant synagogue on Fox Street that the organization planned to turn into a base for its programs has stood undeveloped for 10 years. A vacant lot across from the organization’s main office met the same fate.

In 1998, tensions reached a boiling point for the residents of 866 Beck Street, who descended on a community board meeting to demand that Banana Kelly resolve drastic problems in the building, including rats, leaks, and a month-long gas shut-off. Through the mediation of a community board member, tenants and the group eventually agreed to obtain a state loan. But Banana Kelly failed to file financial documents in time. By 2000, 866 Beck was boarded up.

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Battered from its tribulations, Banana Kelly is attempting to rebuild. It is relying on other organizations to take on responsibilities it formerly carried out in-house. “It’s better to give management to other entities solely doing management, while we focus on how people are doing,” explains Rivera.

SEBCO vice president Phil Foglia says that the properties had serious problems when his organization took them over, but that it is making repairs. An outside firm, N. Cheng & Co., is now managing Banana Kelly’s finances–a step Rivera expects will quell questions about fiscal practices. An executive search firm is helping recruit new board members.
The new Banana Kelly is looking to develop programs in areas it identifies as strengths, particularly in youth initiatives, business and technology, and “adults and their dreams.” It will continue to manage social service contracts. She says residents want to see Banana Kelly continue to create programs that allow them to be property owners and express their dreams. “People would like to see us be more involved in their lives,” she says.

Banana Kelly’s success at winning over skeptical residents will hinge in part on whether the organization can deliver solid, useful services to the neighborhood. The more fundamental challenge, however, may be to provide them with a genuine voice within the organization. The board of directors could be one place to do that. But in the end, it will surely require a return to the sort of organizing that would enable residents to take an active, cooperative role in building and running their neighborhood. For if resident involvement and control has been the key to much of the organization’s past fame and success, it could prove equally crucial to its future.

“If [Yolanda Rivera] had given Banana Kelly to the people and let the people who were running it continue,” contends Mavelin Morales, “the agency wouldn’t have fallen apart the way she let it fall apart.” Bertha Lewis says it’s a lesson that’s been learned and lost over and over again, and not just by Banana Kelly. “Our neighborhoods need a combination of different things,” observes Lewis. “They need advocacy and they need community development and they need social services, but the engine that drives it all is organizing. And that’s the thing they always leave out.”

Robin Le Baron is a project manager with the Parodneck Foundation. During 1996 and 1997 he conducted dissertation research at Banana Kelly.