On Fighting Back and Fighting Forward

Gregory in Bedford Park, the Bronx

<em>Gregory (he/him) is an educator, organizer and researcher writing about race and place and how the people of the Bronx fought back against redlining.</em>

Can you tell me about your neighborhood through your experience?

I live in Bedford Park, right off Mosholu Parkway and the Grand Concourse. And when I think about my neighborhood I really think about the larger area of the Northwest Bronx, Norwood, Bedford Park, Fordham-Bedford. And some of it is very localized -- like this is my block, these are my shops over here -- but I also like to go walk around and explore a little bit further. I go to the Bronx River Forest or Burke Bridge. I think about these as extensions of my neighborhood. So there's the very local, your day-to-day, like I like to step out into some greenspace and there’s also public transportation -- that is a beautiful combination for me. But your question about the people is really the most amazing thing about my neighborhood, because you've got people from all over the world. We’ve got people who've grown up here, been here for generations, and we’ve got lots of new immigrants. And people just figure out ways to live together in the same shared space and for the most part get along pretty well. There could be tensions here and there, but honestly, mostly people are doing their thing. Sometimes people are out playing loud music and sometimes that bothers people. But for the most part, if you think about community as this kind of grand experiment, having a really cosmopolitan -- and when I say this word I mean just that people are coming from everywhere -- we have this incredible amalgam of people and all kinds of interesting little spots. And the other thing I love about it is that people here are working-class folks, mostly. Yeah, there are some wealthier, more educated folks, but a lot of people are working class, doing their hustle, doing their thing. We’ve got lots of interesting little restaurants, they're not fancy at all but if you know where to look you can see, “Oh there's the Vietnamese place, oh there's the Salvadoran place, oh there's the Ghanaian place, oh there's the Bangladeshi place.” So not the types of places you’re going to find in Manhattan by any stretch of the imagination, in terms of going to nicer sit-down restaurants. We don't have a ton of those -- obviously if you go to Arthur Avenue it's a whole other world -- but mostly we’re talking about mom and pop places, people running their little stores, and a great variety and selection of things from all around the world. You know, the overall vibe is what I really love.

I think that the other part [of what I love] is knowing I’m part of a neighborhood where people have organized for generations around issues and they've shown their power. When required, people step up and do the thing to make their neighborhood a better place. Whether it's like, We’re going to beautify Mosholu parkway... There are people who are forming tenant associations because there are problems with their landlords -- either with repairs or their rent getting jacked up. There are issues with the schools -- young people doing work to get police out of the schools. So people care about their neighborhoods, they care about each other. They want the place to be better, to be more equitable as it relates to other parts. There are tons of community organizations, of which I’m a part of some of them. I think people have a vested interest in making the place better -- and this is where I wanted to end this part because it might lead in to somewhere else -- is the connection between people and place, which is what good is it to make a place better if it just means all of the people have to leave and then wealthier people come in? Then what have we really done? To me that's like getting rid of the reason for doing the work in the first place, you know? It's really about strategy to make a place 'better' -- how do we have a place do better for its people. I think that's the way to look at it. So that a place becomes a place where the people already living here can do better, and by ‘do better’ I mean reach their full potential, have lots of opportunities, really feel good about their neighborhood and feel like they're thriving.

Place/Love Project · Gregory J

I appreciate you bringing up the issue of gentrification. One of things Place/Love is driven by is the understanding that our places are in need of care and protection against threats like that. I know you’ve had a wealth of experience in community organizing and advocacy and community-based research. So I’m curious, what are some of the things you’ve seen in terms of communities’ strategies against these threats and ways to strengthen from within?

So, what folks have discovered is this idea of community ownership and community control -- and this is not new, sometimes we just have to reframe or repackage it and shift narratives around to present it in a different, perhaps more comprehensive way or maybe add some other tools to it. And sometimes we take it for granted, but it's actually really done as racial justice work. By default, because our neighborhoods were redlined for so long and we are the types of neighborhoods that we are in terms of who lives here, when we say 'community control' it's implied that we’re talking about racial justice work and racial equity. But we’ve actually learned in the last few years that we need to talk more explicitly about it, so that's something that's happening now in the work around community land trusts and worker cooperatives and community development credit unions and different types of what would fall under the larger umbrella of what we call “economic democracy” or the “new economy”. There are different terms getting thrown around but they fit in together. The idea is that we have our democratic governments and institutions, and we’re intentional about building them up in a way that allows folks to do great things in their neighborhoods and not be afraid of being pushed out. Because if you own the land, if you control the housing, if you control your institutions, this allows the wealth that's being generated to stay local -- because anything that's invested-in generates wealth somewhere. So we’re looking at how do we make sure that the investment that comes back is generating wealth here. And I think we have had a lot of great investments for a long time, there are a lot of assets, but I think there is still a lot of wealth extraction happening in places like the Bronx, where profit is flowing outward.

There are a lot of really great creative strategies out there now. They require investment and they require some legislative backing. And this stuff is happening. We’ve got some elected officials who are understanding it, I think. People realize that after all of these years we have to start doing things a little bit differently -- and especially in a place like here. This is why the Bronx is such a special place, for many reasons. But as we've watched the gentrification in Harlem, East Harlem, much of central Brooklyn and a lot of Queens as well, we’re like, well, if we get gentrified then guess what? There's no place left in New York. So I think there's a lot of possibility and potential here in the Bronx to do things differently. I want to say that it's happening differently and there is a shift in the larger conversation. 2020 is such a strange year to actually even figure out what is going on, but if nothing else, there's still so much groundwork laid and there are so many really great campaigns out there that have gained a lot of traction and there’s convergence in how a lot of different groups across the city are speaking. And so I think this year’s election is important on a national and global scale but next year's election at the city and state level is going to be so critical, especially the mayoral and city council races. Are we going to have a mayor that actually wants to listen to communities and do the democratic decision making and comprehensive planning that looks at racial justice and not just producing housing units that benefit in a certain way, but do all of this other damage?

Yeah, it's such an interesting time right now, and I so appreciate hearing your perspective on what the energy is like right now in the Bronx. Like you said, there’s such a history in this borough and in these communities, both of disinvestment and the type of outside reinvestment that gentrification can be -- both of which the community has responded to the challenges of. I know there are so many different Bronx organizations that we could talk about that have historically done that work, but I know two of the organizations you’re working with are the Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association and the New Economy Project. I would just be curious to hear a bit more about them and some of the other organizations doing this work that you think folks should know about.

Sure, I’ll start with those two and add in a few more. I’ll say this, there are a bunch of grassroots organizations of which the Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association is one. We’re doing democratic decision-making, we are a mutual housing association, and we’re starting a community land trust. We’re an older nonprofit, we've been around for 40 years and started with sweat equity projects and have had our ups and downs, but there's a real commitment and the work continues, like how do we organize our residents in our own buildings? We already have a whole portfolio of buildings that are community-controlled and the goal as we acquire new buildings is to work with those new residents that come into the fold. What is it like to be part of this? Your landlord is not an outside entity anymore, now you’re part of a community organization. We own [the buildings] ourselves, we need to pay our rent to cover our expenses. I think that's a different kind of organizing work that I think is really interesting and speaks to a lot of this new type of work. There’s fighting back and fighting forward. And the fighting back work is often like we’ve got these slum lords, we’ve got these extractive capitalist entities out there... And who are we pushing back against? And then there's fighting forward. Like oh, we actually want to get control of these things, and once we get control of them, then we need to run them. And it's not new. People have done this before. There’s a lot of tenant-owned cooperatives and HDFC buildings around the whole city so people have done this for a long time. But while there was a lot of that in the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s, there wasn’t so much in the late 1990s and 2000s. So it's kind of bringing a new generation of folks into that and reinvigorating and making sure that the older ones are invested in and making sure we don't lose them. Banana Kelly is part of some broader coalitions and campaigns and some are fighting back but a lot of them are fighting forward. So [for instance] with the Southern Boulevard Coalition -- the city had planned to rezone a big part of the neighborhood along Southern Boulevard below Crotona Park, down to 163rd Street. So we pooled together a bunch of community organizations including The Point, Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, Nos Quedamos, Mothers on the Move, local labor unions, our Local 79, WHEDco, (I might be forgetting someone), Banana Kelly -- we did this together in saying no, we need a community plan. Planning isn’t bad itself, but let's do planning from the inside, not with the express intent of just rezoning parcels that can be redeveloped and which may or may not benefit current residents. What would it be like through the lens of economic democracy, where when it gets rezoned it’s put in a community land trust and there were multiple folks making decisions about what is put [on that land]. And in the end, the city backed off from its plan but we’re still working on our community plan.

Another group that's good to know about is the Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative. They’re actually a part of our coalition. We brought them in to help with facilitation because they have been convening the Bronx Development Without Displacement roundtable that we had been a part of for a while and that kind of became this. They're looking at how we can make sure that the wealth in the Bronx doesn't get sucked out but stays in. And looking at those different economic democracy models. They've done a lot of work with the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition and other groups around the Bronx.

So those are some good groups to know about locally. And then there's some really great citywide convening organizations. The New Economy Project is one -- we’re focusing on some things at the city level, some things at the state level. One of the big campaigns that we’re working on there is a campaign for a public bank both for New York City and New York State. Public banking is not like retail banking, that's another thing, but public banking is talking about municipal deposits and that the city and the state have massive amounts of money that they have on deposit at any given moment. Which is typically held in the really big national banks, the megabanks like Chase, or Citibank or Wells Fargo, and they can do whatever they want with it. But we're saying that a public bank could hold those deposits and then invest in community infrastructure, you know community development, financial institutions, credit unions, make sure that money is flowing out in ways that invest in this type of work. So that’s another fight forward strategy and those other entities I talked about -- worker cooperatives and community land trusts -- those are things that require a lot of upfront investment. And there are a whole bunch of groups across the city -- you know there is a convergence that people are talking about racial justice in a way that I think we have needed for a long time. We need to talk about our work as racial justice work. We need to be more explicit about that because those are the origins of why we started [this organizing work] -- because of those very racist and systemic practices. So if we're trying to undo those things and we’re not talking about race, we’re not going to be doing a great job, we are always gonna be insufficient.

I love the way you framed those different strategies as fighting back and fighting forward. It was really interesting to hear what an iterative and generational process that is too, as you were speaking about restarting this next wave of engagement after the first wave in the 70s and 80s. I want to ask you one more question. What are you thinking in terms of a shared care for your communities in the next 10 years, the next 15 years? How do you envision the community strengthening further in the coming years?

How do I envision my community stregthening further? I just feel like we're in such a strange moment right now that it's hard to do some imagining. Like, let's see what happens in the next election, what kind of state our country is going into. Here's what I'll say overall, which I think is the upside of this kind of president that we have right now -- in the short term there's nothing really so good about it, but perhaps in the long term -- I know that in this country we've avoided some of these things for so long and a lot of our past is really ugly and we don't like to reckon with the fact that there's a lot of ugliness. I'm hopeful that with the very blatant displays of ugliness that are out there and have clearly not gone away -- no one is able to say we're in a post-racial society, which in the previous 8 years a lot of people were saying -- we've squashed that idea. We've gone through some difficult times and had hard conversations and hopefully will come out the other side rather than keeping things swept under the rug. So I'm hopeful that with the exposure of the real nasty but authentic side, that we can talk and come together in a way to actually build something better. I think the different types of organizing work present really strong models of not just what can happen locally but what can happen nationally. I think there's a lot of work that needs to be done, not just in the cities but in the suburban and rural areas. And perhaps this [political moment in our country] is a springboard for a lot of that to happen.

Question for Reflection: What does it mean / look like for all members of your community to reach their fullest potential, both as individuals and as a whole? How can it be achieved?

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