Passionate Residents Voice Desire for Input on Change

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Although the First Annual Harlem Anti-Gentrification Conference took place on West 130th Street, in the heart of Harlem, attendees came from Greenpoint, Williamsburg, the Atlantic Yards area of Brooklyn, Sunset Park, Hunts Point, South Bronx, Washington Heights, Chinatown, the Lower East Side, and beyond New York. The diverse group came together to commiserate over the economic and political forces that are reshaping their neighborhoods and discuss what, if anything, can be done.

Conference organizer Nellie Hester Bailey, director of the Harlem Tenants Council, cited the provisions of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in telling the approximately 100 tenants, researchers and organizers gathered: “Housing is not an entitlement; housing is a basic human right.”

That bedrock concept informed the analysis of many of the nearly 50 panelists, including Rod Wallace, co-author of the 1999 book, “A Plague on Your Houses: How New York Was Burned Down and National Public Health Crumbled,” documenting how the closing of firehouses in New York City’s minority communities in the 1970’s led to a string of public health catastrophes. The forces that disperse communities of color in the U.S. are “another form of ethnic cleansing, violating fundamental tenets of international law and principles of human rights,” Wallace said.

Most, if not all, of the participants who gathered June 1 and 2 in the sanctuary of St. Ambrose Church attributed their common experiences to government policies and market decisions at local, national and global levels. When a woman questioned why there would be so many white panelists at a Harlem conference, Bailey explained that neighborhood-changing forces can actually bring citizens together. “Gentrification is about fundamental social transference. Alliances and coalitions form the basis of what is both a race and class struggle,” she said. In fact, a conference goal was to forge alliances across geographic and ethnic divides. It was co-sponsored by Harlem Fightback, the Delano Village Tenants Association and St. Ambrose Church, with a long list of endorsers.

Deborah Wallace, co-author of the book “A Plague on Your Houses,” recounted the details about fire engine companies that were removed from neighborhoods targeted for “planned shrinkage” three decades ago. According to Wallace, “In Williamsburg, Harlem, Sunset Park, the city deliberately pulled essential services, then rezoned ‘blighted areas.’” She connected this with the RAND Corporation’s involvement – at Mayor John Lindsay’s behest – in NYC policy in late 1960s, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s suggestion – while a presidential aide, before he became a U.S. senator from New York – that President Nixon treat the issue of race with “benign neglect.” In today’s Williamsburg, Chinatown and Washington Heights, participants said, city services are still lacking.

Columbia University’s controversial expansion plans were a major topic of discussion. Columbia student Bryan Mercer, from the Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification, moderated one workshop and said students will analyze documents submitted by the university during the coming land use review process. The tenants’ association at 3333 Broadway, which is near the edge of Columbia’s proposed expansion, was a conference endorser. Attendees railed against the seeming “all or nothing” positions of both developers and the city. Meanwhile, Community Board 9 has a development vision – called a 197-a plan – that would allow development “without displacement and disruption,” said Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, the board chair.

Although discussion of Columbia’s proposed expansion was a constant, it was only one thread in the fabric of Harlem in the 21st century that was laid out by participants. And service cuts, eminent domain issues and conversion of rental complexes were not the only enemies participants said they were struggling against. director John Fisher named “astroturf” groups, or fake grassroots organizations, as another problem. Others brought up middle-class residents who are trying to rid their buildings of poorer neighbors. Housing attorney Edward Vega said these “runaway boards” are trying to sell apartments for the going market rates and take them out of the pool of affordability for which the programs were instituted.

Vega also asked: Is it gentrification when new residents are themselves people of color? What about the South Bronx, where the newcomers are Honduran and Dominican?

[For another recent take on gentrification, see Here Comes the Neighborhood, City Limits Weekly #551, Sept. 5, 2006.]

Gil Noble, producer and host of WABC’s public affairs program “Like It Is,” who moderated the opening plenary, voiced the thought that not much new was being said, but the answers were still out of reach. Organizers shared strategies and did not necessarily agree.

A participant suggested presenting to the UN and other international bodies a working document, with Hurricane Katrina as the example, of forced displacement, tantamount to genocide. Rod Wallace asked, “Will the UN ignore ethnic cleansing on their doorstep?” He projected that displaced communities of color would form a ring of segregated permanent refugee camps around central cities.

Tony Monteiro, associate director of the Institute for the Study of Race and Social Thought at Temple University, took issue with calling displaced people in the U.S. internal refugees, proposing that instead they were a nation within a nation. It is an argument that has waged since Katrina, nearly two years ago, by Jesse Jackson and others who said it was racist to call American citizens refugees.

Another panelist suggested consolidating information into a national database of developers and where they get their money. Civil liberties attorney Norman Siegel said a victory in Harlem could have a ripple effect for other communities because of Harlem’s leadership and history.

Organizer Bailey promised a follow-up convention to come. She will broadcast conference excerpts over the next few weeks on her radio show on “the voice of Harlem,” WHCR 90.3.

This story has been corrected. We regret the misstatement that 3333 Broadway is in the footprint of Columbia’s expansion plans; it is not.

– Angela Dews

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