Bronx Group’s New Path: Not Fighting Power, Taking It

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The battle over the Kingsbridge Armory generated some of the biggest victories in the Northwest Bronx Community ad Clergy Coalition's history. But it also made clear to its members that a different approach was needed.

The battle over the Kingsbridge Armory generated some of the biggest victories in the Northwest Bronx's history. But it also made clear to its members that a different approach was needed.

As one approaches it from aboard an elevated 4-train, the hulking shape and red-clay color of the Kingsbridge Armory make it seem more like a landform than an individual building—a massive feature in the topography of the northwest Bronx, as permanent as a mountain. For two decades its physical impression mirrored political reality. Community groups, developers, city agencies and elected officials wrestled over whether the building, no longer of military use, should become a school or a mall or something else. Agreement eluded them and the Armory sat inert.

Two Decembers ago, the political landscape finally shifted when the City Council approved a plan to allow private developers to construct a massive ice-sports center within the cavernous Armory. A hockey facility was, to say the least, an unorthodox choice for a borough where very few residents are remotely aware of hockey. What sold elected officials on the deal was that its developers had agreed to a historically broad, specific and binding community benefits agreement.

Unlike CBAs linked to earlier projects like Atlantic Yards or Yankee Stadium, the Armory agreement gave local groups unprecedented control over how benefits would be delivered and offered an unusual degree of legal protection to the community if the developer welched. The approval of the Armory plan was a huge victory for the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, which had led the battle to make the Armory project a net positive for the neighborhood.

Today, a person walking past the Armory still won’t hear the slice of skate-blades or the blast of goal horns. The ice-center developers are working to assemble the necessary financial backing to begin renovation. But broader change is already afoot. At its recent 40th anniversary celebration, the Coalition embraced a newly defined mission inspired by the Armory deal.

It boils down to this: Next time, the NWBCCC won’t be figuring out how to squeeze benefits out of a something as counter-intuitive as an ice-sports center in the Bronx. They’ll be deciding what to build—and building it—instead.

The real history of a resurgent Bronx

There is a history of modern New York that credits the city’s revival to Mayor Ed Koch’s housing plan, the daring of certain developers and a police force made larger and smarter under Mayors David Dinkins and Rudolph Giuliani. Then there is reality: Those top-down changes, while often helpful, boosted ongoing efforts by community groups to save their city, by people who took stands against drug dealers, bad landlords and rapacious financiers.

Founded in 1974 by local priests who’d noticed their congregations shrinking amid the Bronx’s arson and abandonment, the Northwest Bronx Community Clergy Coalition has fought in virtually every theater of community combat. Its members pressured banks and financial regulators over inequities in mortgage lending in the Bronx and squeezed the Fire Department to expand anti-arson programs. They organized tenants and nudged city officials to combat lousy landlords, then orchestrated the rehabilitation of abandoned buildings. Coalition people marched in the streets against crack and demanded 300 new cops be sent in to fight the dealers while also working to set up parents groups at local high schools. When the biggest oil company in the world, Exxon, earmarked an insultingly low dollar amount for weatherization assistance in 1982, the Coalition picketed its CEO’s home.

“The organization had no compulsion about going after political targets, corporations,” says James Mumm, who served as executive director of the Coalition from 2005 to 2008. As confrontational as dropping bus-loads of protestors on someone’s sidewalk could be, Mumm says the tactic more often than not helped force a working relationship. “There are some things known as ‘f–k you’ hits. That’s generally lazy organizing,” Mumm says. “The Coalition has always been about bringing pressure to you in order to force a relation to occur. A landlord doesn’t want a relationship with their tenants. Developers don’t want a relationship with their neighborhood. Politicians don’t want a relationship if they don’t need it.”

Once the bus arrives and the chanting starts, it’s clear that a relationship exists whether either party wants it or not, and most targets know the deal as well as the protesters do. “Business people get that,” Mumm, now a Managing Director at National People’s Action, says. “People get it.”

Over time, the Coalition took on a two-pronged role—critiquing institutions for failing to serve the Bronx, and creating its own institutions to fill the gap. It launched a handful of housing entities. During the Bloomberg era, the Coalition was instrumental in founding a high school, the Bronx Leadership Institute.

“The Coalition can be very critical and at the same time it can be very pragmatic working with the agencies,” says Mary Dailey, who ran the organization from 1994 to 2005 and is now lead organizer at the Center for Community Change.

Not everyone adored the Coalition’s expanding role. In 2005, the Bronx Leadership Institute was described as a “madrassa of the far left” run by a group “well known for using the most radical interpretations of the ideas of the late Saul Alinsky” in the New York Sun.

Unhinged arguments by right-wing columnists aside, Dailey is not sure that NWBCCC fits the typical image of an Alinsky-style pressure organization. “It tried out a lot of different approaches to organizing, sort of blending in social services and a heavy emphasis on youth organizing,” she says. “It’s always been a bit of a hybrid model.”

\An organization like the Coalition has to decide whether to focus on fixing individual, isolated problems—poor maintenance in this building, drug dealing on that corner, overcrowding in one school district or another—or aim for systemic change. The former draws new blood and lends itself to relatively easy wins. But going building by building is a hard way to achieve real social justice.

“I think the organization toggled back and forth between being a squeaky wheel that got what it wanted from agencies and leaders, and an organization that tried to be part of broader coalition efforts to address bigger systems in the city.” Over time, Dailey says, the NWBCCC “started to lean in harder toward the bigger picture.” The Armory saga nudged it even further.

Turning ‘no’ into ‘yes’

In 1994, the National Guard announced plans to leave the Armory and the argument over what to do with it began. “Two proposals dominate the debate in Kingsbridge,” the New York Times wrote in April of that year. Some “would like to see several schools and an array of social services on the site to relieve crowded conditions in the district’s schools. Another plan,” the paper wrote, “calls for converting it into a center for amateur athletics.”

By 1999, Home Depot was expressing interest in the site, and Giuliani had convened a task force on what to do about it. The Coalition, meanwhile, was calling for schools, a greenmarket and community space. A year later, the mayor proposed a $110 million plan for an entertainment, sports and retail complex involving a firm called Basketball City. That plan vanished, and the city moved to launch a new request for proposals in 2004, but the process was slowed down in part because officials needed to find a place to move the remaining Guard units who were using part of the Armory. Two years later, the city tried again, and in 2007 the Economic Development Corporation announced that it had selected Related Companies to build a shopping center there, including a big department store, a movie theater and smaller shops.

That plan deviated substantially from the Coalition’s long-standing hope for new schools. It also threatened existing businesses in the area, in particular a supermarket nearby that feared competition. The battle that broke out focused on wages—namely, the refusal of developers to commit to paying workers at the site a “living wage.” Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., joined the Coalition (which was the biggest force in an entity called the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance, or KARA) in opposing the deal on those grounds, and the City Council killed it.

Three years later the city tried again after being contacted by a few developers, including the hockey group. Other bidders made competing proposals, but the Kingsbridge National Ice Center—with its nine rinks and 5,000 seats—won out, chiefly because of its commitment to community benefits. Besides living-wage and local-hiring provisions, the deal includes promises of green amenities, community space in the complex and $1 million in in-kind support for community projects in the broader neighborhood.

Killing the Related deal in 2009 and winning the CBA in 2013 were likely the biggest victories in the Coalition’s long history, but they came as the organization struggled through a difficult financial period as funding for organizing dried up and federal stimulus money put many a neighborhood nonprofit on a feast-then-famine diet. From 2006 to 2013, the Coalition ran a deficit every year and saw the assets identified on federal tax returns plunge from $958,000 to less than $30,000.

‘They have been rocky,” says Yorman Nunez, a one-time youth organizer with the Coalition affiliated Brothas and Sistas United and now a NWBCCC board member, of the past few years. “Our economic strength as a community has been dwindling,” and that has been reflected in the fortunes of the organization, he adds.

At the same time, the rules of the game the Coalition played were changing. The days of rampant violent crime were gone. Instead of landlords walking away from their buildings, the worry was that shadowy private-equity funds were walking in, buying apartment houses at absurd prices and then either evicting low-income residents or cutting back on maintenance to try to make the math work.

The altered landscape presented a challenge. “If you have a bad landlord you have all kinds of tools to use,” says Mumm. “But if someone is just trying to use semi-legal tools to flip buildings and do that over 10 years, that’s rough for organizing.”

The political dynamics were also evolving. “We went through this period with Giuliani where everything was a fight all the time. Post-Giuliani with the Bloomberg administration, you entered a period of time where there were real, legitimate fights to have—like around how redevelopment would be done in New York City—but there was also a lot of cooperation to be had,” recalls Dailey. “With Bill de Blasio in City Hall, now that’s really a challenge for people in the change industry. How do you leverage change out of someone who really is in office to make change but is up against some really tough obstacles?”

Permanent friends, permanent enemies

Alinsky-style organizing has typically been characterized, Mumm says, by avoiding naming any “permanent friends” or “permanent enemies.” The only loyalty of the organizing group was to the group’s mission, and any alliance that might bring you closer to achieving that mission was fair game.

That analysis is changing. “We found there are permanent enemies in the Bronx,” Mumm says, like certain financial institutions. There are also permanent friends, such as labor unions. The question confronting the Coalition and groups like it, Mumm says, is, “In 40 years, does this still want to be an outsider group while others govern? An organization that’s been in a neighborhood that long should govern that neighborhood.”

The Coalition says its finances have stabilized and are improving. More important, it’s defining its mission—and the art of organizing—in a new way. The Armory fight demonstrated that the community had the power to shape its destiny, but it took years of organizing to get the win, and it still meant accepting a project that was not what the community would have dreamed up on its own.

“I think overall our organizing strategy at its foundation has been about bringing people together and helping them recognize the power they do have to stop the evil and stop the things that are really hurting us in our communities,” says Nunez. “More recently — starting with KARA — we’re starting to recognize our collective power at not just stopping bad things from happening” but also creating positive vehicles for economic advancement. “We also have the tools in our toolbox to build the businesses of the future, to build the banks and the businesses of the future.”

Even before the Armory victory there were moves in this direction. Nunez in 2011 co-founded the Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative, which aims to harness the robust buying power of the Bronx to support local businesses and high-quality jobs. The Northwest Bronx piloted an “economic democracy training series” for 40 community members affiliated with the BCDI and that, Coalition leaders say, forced the organization to rethink its traditional organizing model to focus explicitly on building shared wealth and collective governance.

The new approach builds on the group’s traditional work. The Coalition earlier this year won funding for a Healthy Buildings project that uses data on hospital admissions and building-code violations to identify multiunit structures where poor maintenance is impairing tenants’ health, then squeezes owners to address the issues in their buildings. The project resembles typical Coalition fare in some ways—organizing tenants, pressuring landlords—but couples that work with a financing arm and training for community members to be involved in the work of correcting the problems.

The new tack is not without risks. Projects could fail. Parts of the community could be alienated by one idea or another. But the status quo is dangerous as well, as the city’s economy evolves to alienate low-income people more and more from a fair share, or even a foothold.

As for the Armory, it has to be built and perform for a few years before anyone can say whether it’s been a net gain or loss for the Bronx or its developers, who, Nunez says, “can decide to cut their losses and leave us alone and to suffer the consequences.” Next time, he hopes, “We can be the ones to help ourselves to the positions of power.”