A “Harlem Community Forum” organized by Nellie Hester Bailey, director of the Harlem Tenants Council, was held on January 23 at the Ambrose Church on West 130th Street. Around 60 people came out to the event, which was billed as a response to the Bloomberg proposal to rezone 125th Street in Central Harlem. The six panelists touched on a diversity of issues including race, gentrification and the connection between this proposal and the Columbia University planned gentrification of West Harlem.

A press release handed out at the event described the rezoning plan as “a scheme to ethnically cleanse Harlem.” Bailey opened up the event by saying that this rezoning proposal is a part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s “master plan” for a “radical makeover” of New York City, and has been met with “anger and consternation” by Harlem residents battling the “tremendous pressures of gentrification.”

A member of the budget board of Community Board 10 in Harlem, Imee Jackson opened the panel discussion with a complex and informative talk. In great detail, Jackson provided an overview of the gentrification plan and the response made by Community Board 10. The press release stated that CB 10 is “unanimously rejecting the rezoning plan…[NYC is] seeking to change the character and socio-economic demographics of Harlem’s business district and beyond.” The reasoning behind this rejection is because it is “impossible to support any housing that we can’t afford to live in.”

Michael Henry Adams, the second panelist to speak, gave historical context to only the latest plan to displace low-income Black and Latino residents of Harlem. Adams, a historian of Harlem and author of the book “Harlem Lost and Found,” said “what is happening in Harlem now is poised to change the demographics of Harlem for the next 100 years.” He connected the rezoning of 125th Street to the encroachment of Columbia University in West Harlem. He said that it was “ridiculous” that the university is claiming that their intention is to improve Harlem, while at the same time displacing residents of Harlem.

Shikhulu Shange, the owner of the Record Shack and who is fighting his own eviction battle, gave a passionate, rightfully angry speech on the gentrification of Harlem. Shange said that Harlem is “being prepared for the existence of the richest.” He gave criticism of the fact that outsiders who are not rooted in the community are condemning local, small businesses in Harlem. Shange also said that the gentrification of Harlem is “nothing less than slavery” and that the “entire idea of rezoning 125th Street is to remove residents of Harlem.”

Criticism of New York politicians who have aided and abetted the Bloomberg proposal and other displacement plans was a popular sentiment. “The problem with the Columbia plan, put simply, is our politicians,” said Walter South, a urbanologist and panelist at the forum. Sarah Martin, a Harlem resident and panelist, described meetings with politicians that yielded no result. She heavily criticized City Council member Robert Jackson, as did other panelists, saying that he and other NYC politicians “do not have our interests in their hearts.”

On the other hand, Tom DeMott, co-founder of the Coalition to Preserve Community, offered some hopeful words. Citing Bill Perkins as an example of a politician who stands up for the residents of Harlem, DeMott said “it is possible to be in City Council and not be a snake.”