L.A. Confident

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Four years ago, a grassroots coalition pulled off a remarkable coup. City Hall lavishly subsidized a gargantuan development project near the shore: The developer was to receive more than $400 million in public subsidies, with another $90 million for a high-profile entertainment company that had set its sights on locating its operations there.

It took a two-year campaign and some sudden-death, last-minute negotiations, but the coalition, called the Metropolitan Alliance, sealed a compact in which the entertainment company agreed to fund media technology training academies at nine community college campuses. Heavy-hitter companies in the entertainment industry eventually committed to placing 1,000 academy graduates in jobs during the first phase of the project.

Don’t be surprised if you haven’t heard about this groundbreaking agreement. It happened in Los Angeles.

The development project, on bluffs overlooking the Pacific, is called Playa Vista, and the entertainment company was DreamWorks SKG, founded by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen. “First, $90 million in public money was going to be given away without any guarantees of what the community would get,” recalls Adrianne Shropshire, who helped pull together Metro Alliance’s successful campaign. “Second, it was going to an industry where poor people and people of color are for the most part locked out.”

Metropolitan Alliance is made up of 29 organizations stretching across L.A.’s sprawling 435 square miles, mostly in the blue-collar and no-collar neighborhoods where jobs evaporated long ago. Taking the lead was AGENDA, Action for Grassroots Empowerment and Neighborhood Action–and Shropshire as a chief organizer.

Along the rocky road of negotiations, Metro Alliance members made impressive demonstrations of grassroots support. They sent hundreds of letters and postcards to DreamWorks to persuade company representatives to come to the table; made mass mobilizations at public meetings; put pressure on political allies when talks broke down.

DreamWorks eventually located elsewhere, but kept its word on financing the academies to the tune of $5 million over five years; other companies brought the total to $12.5 million. And the payoff was even bigger than that. Metropolitan Alliance’s success had activists across the country craning their necks to see how the L.A. organization pulled it off.

Two of those activists were Jonathan Rosen, who until last month was executive director of the New York Unemployment Project, and Simon Greer, who heads New York’s Jobs With Justice office. They decided New York City had a lot to learn from L.A. A little over a year ago, they began talking with Shropshire about making the move to New York to help run their two organizations–and launch a similar organizing campaign here. Says Rosen, describing their national strategic thinking: “We started talking about, ‘This is a chess board. What are the pieces on the ground, and how do we arrange them?'”

Now interim executive director of the Unemployment Project and co-director of Jobs With Justice, Shropshire has her work cut out for her. New York City has seen few campaigns to leverage benefits for communities affected by publicly subsidized development projects, and even fewer that have succeeded. Good Jobs New York estimates that the state and city combined have doled out $2 billion in tax breaks and other major incentives in the name of job retention since 1990. Those deals call for companies to retain specified numbers of jobs. They are not well-enforced, however, and few of the jobs that are retained go to communities with high unemployment.

The Bloomberg administration has vowed it will not replicate the wild corporate giveaways New York saw in the 1990s. “We’ve essentially ended corporate welfare as we know it,” Mayor Bloomberg declared in October. But in fact it hasn’t given up the retention game entirely. What’s more, 9/11-recovery bond dollars are opening up new opportunities, which continue to be subsidized by taxpayers. In recent months, the city has made retention deals with Pfizer, Bank of America and other major companies.

From her work in L.A., Shropshire says, she “learned lessons about coalitions, moving public officials and engaging a base over long-term campaigns that last.” The Unemployment Project is starting that process in East Harlem, which has seen an influx of young professionals and interest from retail developers. Along the FDR Drive at 116th Street, the Long Island-based Blumenfeld group is about to construct a shopping complex called East River Plaza, with the help of $3 million in loans at 1 percent interest from the Empire State Development Corporation plus $15 million more in state tax breaks. The proposed anchor stores–among them Target, Old Navy, Starbucks and Costco–promise low-wage jobs and not much of a career ladder.

Unemployment Project organizers have already knocked on a couple thousand doors, engaging neighbors in discussions of the community’s needs. On a recent Wednesday evening, organizer Erica Waples went knocking on doors at the Jefferson Houses on 113th Street. There she met Graciela, a 25-year resident. With new stores opening, Graciela told Waples, the neighborhood was starting to look better, but she was still distressed about noisy teenagers and decrepit housing conditions. Graciela was surprised to learn about the plans for East River Plaza and a proposed Auto Mall on Second Avenue at 127th Street, and listened with interest as Waples told her about the government subsidies.

If Graciela were to talk with elected officials about the neighborhood, Waples asked, what would she tell them? “Oh, I don’t go to these people’s places,” Graciela replied. Waples reminded her that she pays taxes and is entitled to speak. “If it was just the three of us, do you think they would listen to us?” Waples asked.

“No.”

“But if it was 500 people?”

“Yes, maybe,” Graciela said, her eyebrows rising. Waples got Graciela’s phone number and her promise to provide names and numbers of like-minded neighbors. The women agreed to keep in touch.

About 15 Unemployment Project members showed up at an October meeting of the Industrial Development Agency, which was deciding on $17 million in bonds for the Auto Mall–they were the only community presence at the meeting. “I live in East Harlem and I am the mother of a young man,” testified Judith Manning, a resident of the Wagner Houses on First Avenue and 122nd Street. “If these businesses want to come to East Harlem and get tax breaks, they need to invest in the community.”

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Founded in 1993, just months after Los Angeles erupted in massive civil unrest, AGENDA developed a strong membership base in much the same way. Organizers went door to door, took phone numbers and held public meetings in South Los Angeles, where industrial urban-core jobs had drained away in the 1970s as the Southern California economy moved toward aerospace and the suburbs. Traditionally an African-American neighborhood, South L.A. has shifted demographics in the last decade to half black and half immigrant Latino.

The organization did more than bring bodies out to meetings. “One of the challenges,” says Shropshire, “is to develop people’s analysis of the problems, the causes and conditions–not just ‘Our community doesn’t have jobs,’ but ‘Why? Who’s making the decisions?'” To make that dialogue happen, organizers have to dispense with the arcane jargon usually associated with government subsidies and instead talk about facts that speak more directly to what’s at stake–like $50 billion in corporate welfare, the national annual total of federal, state and local subsidies.

Metro Alliance is just one of several influential groups doing innovative grassroots organizing around corporate accountability in Los Angeles. Two years ago, the Figueroa Corridor Coalition for Economic Justice, an alliance of 29 Los Angeles community organizations and five union locals, sealed a landmark deal that was officially recognized by the city. It required 70 percent of the 5,400 permanent jobs created by a downtown sports arena expansion to either pay a living wage or be covered by a collective bargaining agreement. The developers also pledged $1 million for the creation or upgrading of parks within a mile of the project, which takes in some of the poorest neighborhoods in Los Angeles and portions of the most densely populated area west of the Mississippi.

And the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, now celebrating its 10-year anniversary, has established groundbreaking “community benefits agreements.” In a 2001 deal, for example, LAANE leveraged $29 million in city subsidies to one mixed-use development in the North Hollywood area, winning affordable housing, a developer subsidy of 50 spots for low-income children at a planned child-care center and free space for a community health clinic. Seventy-five percent of the 2,000 mostly retail and office jobs expected from the development must pay a living wage (defined as $7.99 an hour with health benefits, and $9.29 without).

LAANE and its community base have so far negotiated six community benefits agreements with individual developers who benefit from public funds. LAANE’s ultimate goal is to make such agreements part of all publicly subsidized developments in the city of Los Angeles.

New York grassroots leaders want to see the same kind of subsidy accountability here, with community organizations having a true voice in the debate that surrounds economic development. “We want to change the way the city thinks about development,” says Greer, codirector, with Shropshire, of Jobs With Justice. To achieve that, observes Rosen, policy advocates can’t act on their own: “A coalition and a base-building arm need to work closely together.” A successful campaign takes long-term grassroots pressure to keep rolling; knowledgeable activists to pack public meetings; smaller delegations to city and state agencies to tell officials the issue won’t go away; postcard campaigns that don’t stop until the public is allowed into the debate.

Since Rosen founded it two years ago, the New York Unemployment Project has put together small but influential organizing and advocacy campaigns, taking on New York State’s hostile unemployment insurance agency and other strategically selected targets. The four organizers now working on the East Harlem subsidies will home in on leverage points, such as agencies that give the subsidies. These could be tough nuts to crack; the city’s Industrial Development Agency, for instance, which ratifies bond financing for businesses, has in its history denied only two applications.

Another pressure point can be the developers themselves. In Los Angeles, LAANE has successfully negotiated with developers, proving that community groups and builders can have mutual interests. For one thing, under the right circumstances, both want development projects to go forward, even when NIMBYist neighbors oppose them. East Harlem, which is part of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, also presents a special opportunity to push companies and the city to commit to job creation, because businesses in the zone get a $3,000 tax credit for each local resident they hire.

Shropshire says she’s energized by the potential of cross-pollinating L.A. organizers’ experience with the lessons New York activists have learned. There’s good work in both cities, Shropshire says, but “none of us has come up with the answer to reverse the trends. Decisions that impact lives are made increasingly on a global level.”

Bobbi Murray lives in Los Angeles and writes frequently on labor and economic development issues. Additional reporting by Megha Bahree.