While there was much to admire about Mayor de Blasio’s “tale of two cities” campaign slogan that put him in Gracie Mansion four years ago, his housing policies have put him squarely on the wealthier side of the railroad tracks. Last week’s primary for City Council District 10 in Washington Heights, Inwood and Marble Hill drew wide attention to the mayor’s “affordable” housing program. Through his proxy, incumbent City Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez, the mayor wants to rezone a large area of Inwood as well has a site at 181st Street and Amsterdam Avenue in Washington Heights so that private developers can build luxury housing that would draw wealthier residents into the community, triggering massive gentrification—as we have witnessed in other areas of the city. In exchange for tax relief the developers would set aside a limited number of units for below-market rentals that few, if any, residents living in the area would be able to afford.
Rodriguez’s main opponent in last week’s Democratic primary for the Council seat, Josué Peréz, promised to vote against all re-zonings that would benefit private developers and the real estate industry, including the sale of the Inwood Public Library.
City Council District 10 stretches from West 159th Street in Washington Heights to 228th Street in Marble Hill, the first stop on the elevated 1 train in the Bronx. Although Rodriguez won the primary by nearly 62 percent, more than 31 percent of residents voted for Peréz; a remarkable feat given low voter turn-out, limited name-recognition, and the powerful political machine that was lined up against him. Rodriguez was bruised in the election, and although there will be no run-off, the vote represents a shot across the bow to de Blasio and his agenda.
When it became obvious that Peréz was gaining political support, Rodriguez tried to make the election about race and ethnicity. He claimed that only White residents on the west side of Broadway oppose the development project for Inwood called Inwood/NYC. An incomplete preliminary examination of data collected by the Peréz campaign shows that while Rodriguez did win east of Broadway, there were Peréz supporters on both sides of the avenue. When the elections are certified at the end of the month our information will be more conclusive.
It seems to me that the more important question is to what extent Rodriguez and his allies understand themselves as representatives of everyone in their district. Two days after the election, U.S. Representative Adriano Espaillat – the doyen of the political establishment – publicly dismissed his White constituents when he said “[w]e lost the west side, unfortunately, but it’s a reality.” To racialize the election and community concerns about the future is to create a toxic straw horse. If effective it will divert residents’ attention from fighting against the social and economic violence that accompanies gentrification.
Former senior planner for the City of New York and professor of Urban Policy and Planning at CUNY Tom Angotti has shown that re-zonings—like the one the city is trying to get through Inwood—contributes to economic inequality and disproportionately hurts poor people, especially people of color. Wherever possible, the Department of City Planning tries to rezone areas by labeling some parcels of land “underutilized” – even when people are living and working there. When an area is marked underutilized, this signals to developers great profit potential, setting off a flurry of speculation that increases the value of land. Landlords harass tenants and withhold services, hoping that they will move; and they lean on small businesses, either by offering new leases at exponentially higher rents or terminating leases entirely. Already businesses are closing along 10th Avenue in Inwood; and along 181st Street in Washington Heights – both of which are east of Broadway in the more densely-populated working-class Latino communities.
The labeling of land parcels as “underutilized” today resembles the federal urban renewal program of the 1950s and 1960s, which gave cities broad power to acquire property for development. Local elites labeled communities “blighted” to qualify for federal money to raze entire working class and increasingly black neighborhoods, thus setting the stage for reconstruction. Critics called this program “Negro removal.” According to now voluminous literature on urban renewal, this claim was not hyperbolic. Urban renewal always destroyed more housing than it created, causing massive displacement of poor black people.
In the de Blasio/Rodriguez plan for redevelopment the arithmetic will be similar. Even if a small number of residents living in the area that Rodriguez wants to develop earn enough money to qualify to move into below market-rate apartments, the numbers of displaced families will far exceed – and not only in the immediate area slated for redevelopment. Already there is growing evidence that renters in adjacent areas are vulnerable to landlords’ eagerness to take advantage of new economic opportunities.
The great irony is that Rodriguez, born in the Dominican Republic, calls anyone who opposes his rezoning proposals or his plan to lease the library to a private developer “racist.” His supporters called Peréz, also born in the Dominican Republic, a “traitor,” presumably for his audacity to challenge Rodriguez and his entrenched political machine; and also for his willingness to listen to – and take seriously—the concerns of multi-ethnic activists pushing against what they perceive as the brutality of gentrification.
The city’s dreadful track record in re-developing libraries goes back to the Bloomberg era. In 2007 it sold the spacious five-story Donnell Library in midtown to private developers who razed the building, ran out of money and sold the site to other developers to build luxury apartments and a hotel. As detailed by journalist Scott Sherman in Patience and Fortitude, the entire affair was a giveaway to the real estate industry. It was facilitated by Jared Kushner – the same Kushner who today sits in the White House as senior advisor to another real estate developer. While the Donnell was under construction, the NYPL provided a brick-and-mortar substitute in cramped space on 46th Street. Eight years later they opened a new state-of-the-art library, barely half of its original size, and shaped by developers and not librarians: it is no wonder the new library is short on books.
In Inwood, the NYPL says it will lease a temporary site, but has not said where that will be or for how long the Inwood branch will be closed. If Donnell is anything to go by, it will be years. Moreover, according to an engineer who works with Save Inwood Library, the new library will be approximately 20 percent smaller than the current library with no room to expand.
While denouncing Northern Manhattan is Not For Sale and other cross-ethnic alliances working to bring the community together, Rodriguez trumpets the new “state-of-the-art technology” in the new public library. The implication is that White people who are worried about the library don’t want Latinos to have access to cutting-edge technology. As a historian and educator I am especially sensitive to claims that technology can be a stand-in for books and long-form reading and writing. To me this sounds more like anti-intellectualism and less like the critical thinking we need to be fostering, in all communities, including working-class, no matter what their ethnicity. If the new Donnell Library is anything to go by, the Inwood Library will have a sleek mega-screen, bar stools and possibly a few circulating volumes – more a public hangout and internet café than a place to do homework.
Adele Oltman lives in Washington Heights and worked on Josue Perez’s campaign for city council. The author of Sacred Mission, Worldly Ambition: Black Christian Nationalism in the Age of Jim Crow, she is working on a book about the history of public health and medicine in NYC in the post-war era.