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Residents Continue to Rally Against Gentrification in Harlem
Community members have been taking action against displacement in their neighborhoods.
By Stephanie Basile
Movement for Justice in El Barrio and other neighborhood groups are fighting for their dignity and their right to safe and affordable housing.Naomi Langley has seen many changes in her neighborhood over the 34 years she’s lived here. She recalls a time when small businesses thrived and rent was affordable for the average working family. As affordable housing gives way to luxury condominiums and local businesses are replaced by high-end stores and restaurants, Ms. Langley is worried about the future of her neighborhood. “I think it’s time for the community to get together. Nothing gets accomplished when we work separately.”
Ms. Langley isn’t alone in these sentiments. She was one of many community members who gathered on East 116th St on Sunday, April 27 to protest the ongoing displacement of jobs and housing caused by gentrification. Adults and children of all ages held colorful signs and banners, and chanted in unison: “¡El Barrio unido jamas sera vencido!” (El Barrio, united, will never be defeated!). Passersby often stopped to ask what was going on. Some of the children handed out flyers to curious onlookers. ABC 7, FOX 5, and New York 1, Noticias, El Diario/La Prensa, and Hoy were all present.
The protest was part of The Day of United Action Against Displacement in Harlem, in which three simultaneous actions took place in East, Central, and West Harlem. The protests were held in response to a call from Movement for Justice in El Barrio, an East Harlem community group that fights for dignified housing and against displacement.
Movement for Justice in El Barrio (MJB) is a member-run organization that operates on the simple principle that decisions should be made by those who are directly affected by them. The group asserts that it is the community members of East Harlem – not politicians or the corporate elite – who best understand the needs of the neighborhood.
In keeping true to this belief in autonomy and direct democracy, MJB coordinated the East Harlem protest, while community groups in West and Central Harlem organized the protests in each of those neighborhoods. Each protest took place outside the office of the community’s council member: Melissa Mark-Viverito of East Harlem, Robert Jackson of West Harlem, and Inez Dickens of Central Harlem.
Viverito, Jackson, and Dickens have come under criticism for their support of the “River to River” plan, which will displace residents and local businesses to erect luxury housing on 125th Street. The plan will displace hundreds of tenants as well as 70 small businesses and hundreds of workers.
This is not the first time Viverito has been criticized for failing to represent the interests of her community. MJB members who spoke at Sunday’s protest accused her of consistently supporting measures that hurt low-income people. Paula Serrano, one of five MJB members who addressed the crowd, described a council member who time and again has made promises she’s never kept. “She supposedly says that she supports low-income people and immigrants,” said Serrano. “Behind the scenes she is ignoring us.” Victor Caletre echoed these sentiments, adding that while the three council members of Harlem have turned their backs on the people, MJB is ready to stand with the people in solidarity. “They can count on the support of every member of Movement for Justice in El Barrio,” said Caletre.
According to Filiberto Hernandez, Viverito held a meeting with MJB in which she promised to write two letters to push forward a bill that would punish corrupt landlords. She said she’d write the letters within a week. The group never received her letters and was brushed off when they subsequently tried to contact her. She later claimed that she didn’t remember making that promise. “We know we won’t achieve anything working with [politicians],” said Hernandez. “We have to work together.”
The speakers drew parallels between their work in East Harlem and the anti-gentrification work against the expansion of Columbia University in West Harlem. In both cases, the local community is destroyed through rezoning. Oscar Dominguez explained that Columbia is building chemical laboratories that will pollute Harlem. The people of West Harlem responded with mass demonstrations, including protests and hunger strikes. Yet Robert Jackson, along with Viverito and Dickens, voted in favor of the expansion.
MJB’s recent protest is only one example of how different groups and individuals are coming together to make positive change and resist the forces of gentrification. On Monday, May 5, Movement for Justice in El Barrio joined a number of community groups gathered outside a fundraiser for Council Member Inez Dickens to protest her support for the 125th Street proposal as well as other legislation which will displace residents and small businesses. The Harlem Tenants Council, Coalition to Preserve Community, and Mirabal Sisters Culture and Community Center were among the many groups that came together to protest Dickens’ policies.
While the Harlem community as a whole continues to mobilize against the 125th Street proposal, residents of East Harlem have also been battling another threat, the Dawnay, Day Group. The London-based multinational company bought up 47 buildings in East Harlem and plans on forcing out low-income residents in order to raise the rent tenfold. “They have companies all over the world and their objective is to get El Barrio,” said Josefina Solano. One intimidation tactic the company uses is sending a tenant a bill for repairs that were never made. The company then adds $50 for each month that these false charges go unpaid. These bills can accumulate to thousands of dollars in false charges. MJB is bringing a legal case against Dawnay, Day Group for this.
At the same time the protests in Harlem took place, other members from MJB were across the ocean confronting Dawnay, Day Group at its headquarters in London. The trip is part of MJB’s International Campaign in Defense of El Barrio, which confronts global capitalism with global resistance from below. MJB has been reaching out to community groups around the globe to build a network of resistance to take on Dawnay, Day Group and other neoliberal threats.
After about an hour and a half of lively chants and speeches, the crowd rolled up their posters and called it a day. It was the end of the protest, but just the beginning of a long campaign for the most basic rights anyone could ask for: a respectable living and a decent place to live. And while the city council and Dawnay, Day Group might be used to exploiting poor people and people of color, they might just have met their match in a group of people who refuse to roll over and let the forces of oppression go unchallenged. “We will not move because this is our neighborhood,” said Solano. “We won’t leave. Here we’ll stay.”