In our work, as a housing organizer and artist in The Bronx, we see the results of urban planners and politicians building and advertising “a better-that-ever-Bronx.” They are starkly absent of working families and residents currently living in the Bronx. When activists and residents demand an explanation, the patronizing feedback we get is, as the Musician Swizz Beatz suggested in Vibe Magazine in response to criticism of his No Commission Art Fair in the South Bronx, “to just go out with a bang.”
We wanted to take a moment to offer an opinion from the ground.
On the ground, the shadow these scenarios cast belittle homeless families who relocated to areas like Longwood. It brands in the notion practiced by the dominant culture that profit definitely comes before people. More searingly, it erases any chance of having home. Instead, it places the unsympathetic reality of having to start anew, torn away from neighbors, many who survived the fires with them. The only option left is moving to suburban towns ill-equipped to meet basic amenities and public transportation needs of working class people. They must rebuild in places where people of color in the era of Trump-ignited-racist-permission are simply not welcome.
Our unlikely collaboration is due to our working closely with people on the front lines of gentrification in The Bronx. We recognize the pattern that gentrification games layout irrevocably displacing the poor, replacing them with artists looking for space and making room for bougie nuclear families who can no longer afford the brownstone of their dreams on Riverside Avenue. They have settled on Alexander Avenue instead.
The pattern, if unfamiliar to some, starts off with vulnerable tenants, mostly immigrants, being harassed by landlords either by withholding heat, threatening with immigration status and/or not cashing in rent checks. Out of fear many leave or take cheap payouts unrealistic for living in New York City in 2016.
As fuller pockets move in with resources to rent or buy, the class wars begin taking out small mom-and-pop shops. In other cases local culture turns into a commodified tourist spectacle with buses of European tourists taking “uptown” tours for photo opportunities in front of graffiti murals. As also seen in what is unfolding in Boyle Heights, in Los Angeles working class sidewalks once looked-down upon become fetishly chic. Million-dollar galleries invade bringing in wealthy speculators and investors interested only in expanding their wealth. Finally, politicians looking to cash in on the land grabbing propose rezoning initiatives aimed at destroying any existing voting strength by working class people of color. It allows for taller buildings to harvest even wealthier displacers changing community boards forever. Even the best local home grown success stories fall short. It seems that no matter how well meaning their intentions are, in the end they are interested in their own legacy and not the legacy a community is capable of leaving if given the chance to stay and prosper.
When gentrification comes big name retailers follow. Rents skyrocket and privilege, whether new or old, implements change so the neighborhood starts to reflect images seen in designer magazines of what an improved community looks like. Often it is peppered with four-figure-dollar boutiques, bakeries and doggie day cares. It is easy to get carried away with these concepts of improvement because they are what is fed to us by mass media. Our culture of consumption which teaches us that to have more, is to be improved. Retail and chain stores are not rooted in community or rarely uphold community benefits agreements. Any remaining privately owned land is increasingly held onto until it reaches a high enough selling-price then switches hands to some Wall Street conglomerate that procures overseas or in wealthy zip codes.These buyers never once spend time in the areas where they invested in listening to the voices of people in the community. They only experience it through a graph chart representing the area under consideration.
A typical argument for gentrification is that the city has always changed. As noted in the documentary film “My Brooklyn” by director Kelly Anderson, former Mayor Bloomberg addresses a press conference saying that, “to go against business and development in New York City, is to go against the City”. Let’s clearly define New York City as we mean it to be: Families and seniors falling below the federal poverty line; small business owners of 20+ year old bodegas, auto shops, beauty salons and barber shops; the homeless in temporary housing; community gardens; local cultural producers; and people driving the informal economies providing jobs through icees, piraguas and tamales. These are the real businesses of the 21st Century where the money generated flows right back into the community.
People in the Bronx are looking to be at the real table of envisioning what happens in their neighborhoods. They are open and ready for ideas that can get them out of poverty or allow them to stay where they are already invested. When the residents of Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association’s Kelly Street apartments were asked what they wanted in their backyard, they asked for a community garden to help feed people on their streets. Five years and over 4000 lbs later, they are distributing fresh organic produce free every week and will train residents to be urban farmers. It’s a model that needs to be replicated to create non-traditional non-systemic choices.
So what are we worth? This question looms over our heads as we go passed the buildings and people filled stoops of The Bronx. Folks jet in and out of their homes to work and school wondering how the day will end, because for sure, there is no answer. Uncertainty has remained a constant here from the times of white flight and burning buildings. Today it is even more potent as rezoning initiatives and gentrification move in once again.
We want to build our own. Selflessly. With a foundation that will not price out, but rather self-seed itself. Humble and rooted in the culture, people and history that is ours.
Wanda Salaman is Executive Director of Mothers on the Move and Alicia Grullon is an artist and fellow at Columbia University’s Wallach Art Gallery. Both are lifelong Bronx residents.