The battle between Robert Moses and the West Village activists led by Jane Jacobs
in the 1960s set the tone for how struggles over development in New York City
are played out today. But if Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff's Moses-style mega-building
threatens many poor and working-class communities, Jacobs' small-scale neighborhood
sensibility poses the danger of a different sort of gentrification. The former
benefits large developers and big business, while the latter, with its focus
on block-by-block preservation, does little to promote class and race diversity.
Both the Jacobs and Moses approaches favor a narrow range of stakeholders—primarily
property and business owners—and exclude other groups that have a vital
interest in the neighborhood.
Several innovative advocacy groups in New York City are seeking another way.
They are resisting conversion of still more neighborhoods into affluent enclaves
through a combination of grassroots organizing, political education, and leadership
development with their members. Fabulous Independent
Radicals for Community Empowerment (FIERCE), Families
for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE) and Organizing
Asian Communities are among a larger band of organizations that in 2006 formed
the NYC Anti-Gentrification Network with technical support from the
Urban Justice Center. The organizations formed the network to share experiences, strategies and resources and so strengthen their efforts..
FIERCE Work in the Village
Many of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth of color who congregate
on the Christopher Street Pier in the West Village aren’t residents of
the neighborhood. But the pier has long provided a safe haven for such young people from throughout the city, many of whom have nowhere else to go. The experiences of these youth provide the motivation for FIERCE’s work.
The group organized to preserve access to the Christopher Street Pier. The pier
was run down for deacdes until the Hudson River Park Trust stepped in and developed it in 2001. Redevelopment brought manicured lawns, jazz concerts
and high-priced amenities, as well as increased harassment of the youth by residents
and the police. A 9 p.m. curfew was imposed. Bathroom facilities now close at
8 p.m., discouraging young people who want to use the space later into the evening.
To confront this, FIERCE had to figure out how to bring people who did not live
in the area into land use decisions. While FIERCE youth do not own property or
businesses in the West Village, the changes there have had a major impact
on them. For instance, after the pier was redeveloped, the trust wanted to charge
medical vans serving the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth $25,000
a year to be in the space. FIERCE successfully fought this proposal, and the
medical vans continue to have access for free.
Our strategy is, how can we be considered a stakeholder when we can't afford
to live in the neighborhood, but in a lot of ways still identify as residents," said
Rickke Mananzala, FIERCE’s co-director. "It's not like this is affecting
a handful of people—it's thousands of people."
FUREE has also had to confront entrenched notions of who has a say in neighborhood
decisions. One goal of its Downtown Brooklyn Organizing Campaign is to preserve
the Fulton Mall as a shopping, social and cultural destination for black and
Latino families who have historically flocked to the area from other parts of
New York City. Since Downtown Brooklyn was rezoned in 2004, luxury condos have
been popping up and upscale retail has replaced mom-and-pop stores.
Like FIERCE, FUREE pressures the city to consider what defines community and
how culture should be preserved.
The city recently announced, for instance, that it plans to spend $2 million
abolitionist history of Downtown Brooklyn. This marked a success for FUREE. Prior
to its organizing efforts there was little public awareness of this history and
no effort to incorporate it into the redevelopment.
The city does not, however, plan to preserve the houses on Duffield Street in
the area that many locals and scholars believe were part of the Underground Railroad.
But commemorating history will mean little if Fulton Mall's black community gets
pushed out, and the cultural significance of the Duffield Street homes is ignored.
In the West Village, institutions such as the Stonewall Inn will be reduced to
hollow landmarks without a thriving lesbian and gay community. "The West
Village has a history of being a haven for artists and marginalized people. We're
being told to let go of that history," said Mananzala.
The same is true of Manhattan's Chinatown, where redevelopment has focused on
making the enclave more attractive to tourists and the affluent, while longstanding
Asian communities are displaced. Through its Chinatown Justice Project, which
was launched in 1999, Organizing Asian Communities is fighting to ensure that
the area continues to serve poor and working-class immigrants who have historically
settled there. Although many new immigrants now live in Chinatowns in Queens
and Brooklyn, Manhattan’s Chinatown functions as a hub to which people
travel for work, to do business, and to shop and participate in cultural activities.
Currently, Organizing Asian Communities is focused on the potential impacts of
Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan for development of the East River waterfront.
According to the city, displacement would be minimal, but the group is concerned
that once this area gets developed, the businesses there might not serve the
current Asian community. In addition, a rezoning plan is being considered by
community board 3, which includes part of Chinatown but has little Asian involvement.
Countering the BIDs
In their work, the three groups hope to offset the power of
Improvement Districts. The districts collect a tax from property and
business owners and so are accountable to them rather than to the broader public. The
NYC Anti-Gentrification Network views BIDs as tools of gentrification that rid neighborhoods
of anything that is anathema to middle-class consumers, tourists, affluent residents,
or business and property owners.
"From a policy perspective, our position is, no more BIDs," said Mananzala.
New Yorkers who feel that gentrification is inevitable may be inspired by the
successes of the groups in the NYC Anti-Gentrification Network. For instance, members of FIERCE
convinced West Village residents that the youth who frequent the pier are a valuable
part of the community. They argued that the neighborhood would benefit from keeping
the pier’s bathrooms open longer, and from the availability of reasonably
priced food, since this would prevent the young people from filtering into residential
areas to fulfill basic needs. In addition, extending the curfew from 1 a.m. to
4 a.m. would make it less likely that everyone on the pier would leave at once,
which tends to create more noise than if people leave in stages. Community Board
2 passed a resolution to implement these measures. FIERCE is also working on an innovative proposal to allow youth to run vending services on the pier.
FUREE's work on the redevelopment of the Albee
Square Mall helped push the debate
on who will benefit from development in Downtown Brooklyn to a new level. Even
though the group did not stop the project,
they emphasized the importance of the economic, social and cultural character
of Downtown Brooklyn and made it clear they would fight to preserve it.
FUREE has been very much in the forefront of making the politicians wake up and
realize that there are people out there paying attention," said FUREE co-chair and board
member Beverly Corbin. "Most of our members are people of color. We have
become an entity to be reckoned with. That's the only way we're going to get
Members of the NYC Anti-Gentrification Network recognize that gentrification is a national and
even international issue, with common characteristics across locales. The network
is affiliated with the Right to the City Alliance, a national organization formed
in 2007 “to build a united response to gentrification and the drastic changes
imposed on our cities.” But the groups agree that local communities must
lead the fight. The extent to which that happens is a critical marker of success.
Our job is to get people to fight for their own self-determination," said
Helena Wong, program director of Organizing Asian Communities’ Chinatown
Justice Project. "If we can bring people into a process where they feel
like they're entitled to have a say in what happens, that's more important than
some measure of whether or not we're winning in a larger sense."
Allison Lirish Dean is a journalist and urban planner, and is currently producing
and co-directing, with Kelly Anderson, a documentary film about the effects of
the 2004 rezoning on Fulton Mall.Â
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