On the Front Lines of Gentrification
If the Bronx is burning today it is a sign of war between community and developers
If you take a walk down Jerome Avenue, between Kingsbridge Road and 161st Street in the Bronx, you take a step back in time to New York’s industrial past. The area is dominated by the auto industry; hundreds of flat-fix, repair, and car stereo installment shops line the street. For almost the entire length of the avenue, the elevated tracks of the 4 train curve above like a metallic forest canopy, light falling through in bars that slice the street. The occasional rumble of a train above is just loud enough to drown out the dembow and merengue pumping from cars getting tuned up at the shops or cruising down the avenue. Sidewalks are lined with shops displaying rims for sale and three-man, generator-powered car washes with water hosed from the back of a van. This is the side of New York tourists never see: gritty industry run by immigrant laborers.
Why is this more-or-less unknown area important? This 73-block stretch of road is currently zoned for industry. However, it is about to be rezoned for mixed residential development, the process that usually ignites gentrification and displacement; the big box mall development of 125th Street and the Barclays Center were both made possible by rezoning.
The Department of City Planning’s original name for the redevelopment project was the “Cromwell-Jerome Neighborhood Study Area.” On October 25, 2015, the city planning department held a walking tour of the proposed Cromwell-Jerome development area for prospective developers. Cromwell-Jerome has been proposed as a site for building affordable housing under Mayor de Blasio’s 200,000 unit housing plan. However, housing under this plan defines a “low income family” as a three-member family earning $46,620 per year, while the Area Median Income in the “Cromwell-Jerome” area is $27,000 (in Community Board 4) and $21,000 (in Community Board 5). Housing built under de Blasio’s affordable housing program would not be affordable to current residents. Rezoning would likely displace thousands. It would also immediately eliminate over 300 auto industry businesses rendered illegal under residential zoning regulations, which provide crucial jobs to residents and maintain the city’s air quality by ensuring that cars and trucks meet pollution emissions standards.
The “Cromwell-Jerome” Study Area Map. Via nyc.gov
A local chapter of the political group People Power Movement staged a protest to confront the walking tour. The group questioned city officials and developers and chanted slogans like “We don’t want Cromwell-Jerome, we just want a decent home!” The Department of City Planning officials ended the walking tour early, having not anticipated the public relations disaster inherent in creating a “new neighborhood” in an existing community. Jay Espy, of People Power Movement, said, “Some will paint us as irrational disruptors. But people forget that city planners and politicians are the ones disrupting entire communities.”
Just north of the “Cromwell-Jerome” rezoning area, a second landmark development is already underway. However, this development has different implications for The Bronx. The Kingsbridge Armory, located on the corner of Kingsbridge Road and Jerome Avenue, has been acquired by a developer who plans to turn the cavernous building into the world’s largest ice rink.
The story of the armory has been a historic journey in community-led development. The Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance, a coalition of community groups including the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, fought for over seventeen years to create a community-controlled armory. In 2009, they confronted the construction of a big-box mall that would provide only low-paid jobs to the community. After widespread protests, the City Council voted 45-1 against the big-box mall development. In 2009, Bloomberg said that he was “violently opposed to community benefits agreements,” but community organizing moved forward regardless.
In April of 2013, the ice rink developer, Kingsbridge National Ice Center (KNIC), signed a Community Benefits Agreement with the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition and the city, the first in the history of New York City. A Community Benefits Agreement is a contract between a developer and a community that specifies certain benefits the developer agrees to provide to the community.
The CBA signed by KARA and the developers is impressive. Under the CBA, 51 percent of jobs will go to Bronx residents, at least 25 percent and up to 51 percent of goods and service purchased by the project must come from the Bronx, 25 percent of construction contracts will go to Women and Minority-Owned Businesses in the Bronx. Jobs must pay at least $10 an hour, and there will be 52,000 square feet of community space in the rink. The developer will also contribute $100,000 towards creating a new school on 195th Street. An 11-member Community Advisory Council will oversee the process. Important questions have been raised about the CAC, because there has been little transparency over how the members will be appointed. Many worry that the community will be excluded from the oversight process. However, if implemented correctly the CBA will be a great improvement over big-box stores that offer little to their communities. Alexis Francisco, an organizer with the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance, said, “We no longer want to see developments coming into our communities that simply extract wealth from our people. Any development coming to our neighborhoods must commit to bring tangible benefits to the people currently living in the area, or they must be opposed.”
KNIC National Ice Center.
The downside to the Armory is that real estate speculation due to the development is already causing rents to rise in the Kingsbridge area. Thirteen mom-and-pop stores on Kingsbridge Road were hit with huge rent hikes in the summer of 2014. Some businesses, including Lucy’s Flower Shop, were served with 50 percent increases from an unnamed landlord who bought the properties, unbeknownst to tenants. Many tenants and businesses worry that even if the CBA is implemented, they may not be around to benefit from it due to rising rents. In response, People Power Movement has organized with local business owners to inform them of their rights and to build solidarity. They are also organizing with tenants. In 2015, one business owner said to organizer Jay Espy that if People Power Movement had not begun working with them, he would have already been pushed out.
Via People Power Movement: a tenant union in the Kingsbridge area.
A third redevelopment area plan is brewing in the southernmost tip of the borough, in the area south of 138th street known as Port Morris, which is adjacent to Mott Haven. Real estate partners Somerset Partners and Chitret group have purchased a site along the Harlem River waterfront for $58 million. The partners are attempting to rename the area the “Piano District,” after a factory that produced pianos on the development site. The site was originally slated for six high-rise luxury apartment buildings, but the development has been whittled down to two luxury buildings. The developers held a “Bronx is Burning” themed party to celebrate. The celebrity-studded party was egregiously offensive and featured bullet-riddled abandoned cars and burning trash barrels as “art.” This appropriation of the borough’s darkest days reveals the extent to which the Bronx is just an image to most people, and not a real community with real people living real lives. Lisa Ortega, of community organizing groups Take Back the Bronx and The Bronx Is Not for Sale, notes that “the Bronx’s history is getting repackaged and sold, through things like the Bronx is Burning real estate party, or that new Netflix show The Get Down – we’re getting turned into an image, and that image is being used to attract the investors and yuppies that will violently displace us.”
The South Bronx, Piano District billboard, after being defaced by agitators unknown. Via DNA Info/Eddie Small
Collective action and effective organizing have worked in the past to prevent displacement in the Bronx. In 1993, the Melrose Commons Urban Renewal Area redevelopment plan threatened to displace thousands of residents in the Melrose neighborhood of the South Bronx. The 33-block area was to be redeveloped in a suburban style. Resident and activist Yolanda Garcia founded We Stay/Nos Quedamos, an organizing group, to fight the plan. After two years of protesting, organizing, and lobbying, the group was able to design its own redevelopment plan, known as Melrose Commons, which called for affordable six-to-eight story buildings that would provide the foundations for a vibrant, livable community. The Nos Quedamos development now includes 18 buildings, 16 of which are designated as affordable housing (in the 1990s, when the buildings were planned, the income levels for affordable housing were lower than they are now). The development also included co-op and condo units, as well as townhomes, to build home ownership (and thus intergenerational wealth) in the community.
The stories of Nos Quedamos and the Kingsbridge Armory Community Benefits Agreement show the strength of community organizing. The question is: can the residents of “Cromwell-Jerome,” the “Piano District,” and Kingsbridge pull off another miracle? I interviewed community organizers from organizations in the Bronx, including People Power Movement,a democratic people’s organization dedicated to educating, agitating, and organizing for popular control of communities; The Bronx is Not for Sale/Take Back the Bronx, a coalition of Bronx residents fighting police brutality, gentrification, and landlord harassment; Eztudio 43, an group mobilizing against deportations and displacement in the South Bronx; and the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, a grassroots organization founded in 1974 to mobilize Bronx residents to fight problems in their communities, specifically the arson occurring at the time. I asked these organizers about the observations they have made about gentrification, and the tactics they are using to fight it. These groups face the interests of property developers and the city, but have a powerful collective history of organizing, as well as the potential to unify and mobilize the poor and working class residents that make up the majority of the South Bronx.
One of the benefits of the Bronx’s late development is that activists have learned lessons from gentrification in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan. One strategy is to begin organizing against gentrification before it becomes apparent. Espy said that, “We’ve learned that if you don’t begin early to organize in your communities to both resist against gentrification ... then real estators will sweep you up and gentrify you outta town before you can even say “stop gentr—!” By the time you see a Starbucks in your hood, it may already be too late.”
Brenda Leon, of Eztudio 43, agrees. “Organize! Organize! Organize! I was born and raised and East Harlem and rent hikes were not a mere coincidence. My family and I were displaced. Now as we at Eztudio43 recount our experiences with multiple displacement we see that nothing is coincidental. We have learned that the information needs to be out on the streets and communicated in a language that is accessible to the community.”
Groups I interviewed connect the local struggle in the Bronx and New York City with a global pattern of displacement and resistance. Leon notes that “In recent years, the South Bronx has become home for many immigrant and refugee families and their U.S.-born children—some who have experienced multiple forms of displacement, both from their countries of origin, primarily Mexico and countries in Central America, as well as from other gentrified areas around the city, where they first put down roots, and who currently face yet again the threat of eviction due to attempts at rapidly gentrifying the Bronx.” By linking macro and micro levels of analysis, Bronx organizers are approaching the situation holistically. This empowers them to draw from the examples of international groups such as those commemorating the Ayotzinapa 43 in Mexico, as well as to support those groups through their work. Take Back the Bronx has done similar work, holding a protest called “From Hunts Point to Ferguson,” which linked the struggles in the South Bronx with those in Ferguson, Missouri. They also screened footage of the Ferguson riots on the streets in the South Bronx to engage in community conversation with residents about shared struggles.
Photo via Take Back the Bronx
Another lesson? Know who you’re dealing with. Politicians and community boards may seem to be on the side of renters and small business owners, but at the end of the day they are often funded and influenced by business interests. Ruben Diaz Jr., the Bronx’s Borough President, was in attendance at the Bronx Is Burning rave thrown at the Piano District building, and has extolled the virtues of development. Tanzeem Ajmiri, from community organizing groups Take Back the Bronx and The Bronx Is Not For Sale, said, “Politicians and developers are working together to displace poor and working class people of color from our neighborhoods. We have learned politicians don’t work for us but rather for big business interests. This includes developers.”
Another organizer focus is people power and the strength of organized collective resistance, especially tenant resistance. Espy emphasized the importance of building strong community networks. “The key is to start early to build a cultural and social foundation of resistance, a base of informed and politicized residents, so that once they announce a new development, all it takes is to spring that base into action.”
Ortega also discussed the potential of radical collective action. She argued that middle-of-the-road solutions like affordable housing and community benefits agreements are ineffective. “All the ‘community benefits agreements’ in the world won’t stop gentrification, and de Blasio’s housing plan sure as hell won’t. The only way to stop it is for people to take democratic control over the buildings and neighborhoods they live in, and take the land and housing off the market, so it can’t be bought or sold for profit.”
Gentrification is treated like a natural phenomenon, but it isn’t. If anything makes that clear, it is the drastic impact that zoning and redevelopment policies can have on communities. The Bronx is the last stronghold of working class New York City. If it falls to development and real estate speculation, what does that mean for the city? Likely, the fight for justice and equity will always continue – in the words of Espy, “More oppression breeds more resistance.”
If the activists succeed - if mass displacement is prevented - what will it mean for city and international organizers who dream that another world is possible? The example of the Bronx could be the foundation for a new model of urban development and global equity. Ortega calls everyone to action, saying, “Having seen the rest of the city gutted and flipped by developers, everybody knows the Bronx (plus a few other neighborhoods like East New York) is the last stand in this city for an affordable place to live. So everyone in the city has a stake in the anti-gentrification struggle in the Bronx succeeding ... I also know that the Bronx has a history of fighting when our backs are up against the wall. I think there is a bond here in the Bronx of a strong people who will not go down without a fight.”