Harry DeRienzo – Talk Before the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies – December 4, 2018

I have been provided with the opportunity to speak to how my organization, Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association, a community development corporation in the Bronx, has progressed in its transformative work.  And there is much I can report.  For example, I can talk about the thousands of units of affordable housing we have preserved or built over our four decades of work.  I could speak to how our organization, as a housing association, has turned over substantial control to those most effected by our work – our residents themselves.   I could speak about how our innovative work with community land trusts promises to add even further protections to quality and real affordability into the foreseeable future.  I could speak to how after years of working with the current administration to end the Cluster Site Shelter Program, not only was the announcement of its termination made at one of our locations, but our organization has been designated to take over a substantial number of units from the most notorious of the owners in that ill-conceived program, allowing homeless residents to once again become legal, rent stabilized tenants, with rental subsidies.  I could speak to more regarding our housing and supportive services programs, but to be transformative requires some context.

And I believe providing this context is useful because this is a year of transition for Banana Kelly where I am stepping aside as CEO and our former Chief Operating Officer Hope Burgess is taking on the role of President and CEO.  So – some context:

Last week I was on the subway and a young couple, probably in their late twenties or early thirties, were asleep on the subway, taking up three or four seats.  We have all had this experience.  People staring and looking uncomfortable, some upset that so many seats were unavailable, while still avoiding eye contact lest one of the homeless persons wakes up and asks for money.  My own thinking took me to considering how many people, too many people in fact, live so close to the margins between just barely making it and complete despondency that all it takes is one stroke of bad luck, a lapse in health, a loss of employment or even just one mistake, one bad choice – that is all it takes to lose everything.  And regardless of how much anyone has, to lose everything is a trauma that is most difficult to overcome.

I started working in the South Bronx as a college volunteer in 1972.  After college, I was offered a job working in a Settlement House on Simpson Street, Casita Maria, the same place I did much of my volunteer work.  As a traditionalist, I believed it necessary to move into the neighborhood, moving to Fox Street in 1976, just about the time that the fires from arson were reaching their peak.  So, in addition to my social work duties I also began organizing residents to try and stop the fires that were quickly engulfing the neighborhood.

In 1976 I was offered a job to take over as Director of a Settlement House in East Harlem and I accepted the position.  But I was still organizing residents, and my work on the block of Kelly Street nicknamed Banana Kelly (due to the curve of the block) was beginning to take root.  I had to make a decision.  I needed to live, like everyone else, and a group that provided technical to assistance to self-help housing groups – sweat equity groups, we were called in those days — promised to pay me some money ($100 a week for ten weeks) if I would take up the work on Kelly Street full time.  I made my decision; quit my job in East Harlem; took up the housing work full time, but never received a penny from them.  Now I was without a job, without money, and at risk of losing my apartment since I could not pay rent.  But that was not the end of the world.  I found refuge on Kelly Street, and Simpson Street for that matter.  The people I worked with did all they could to help me.  I ate over people’s houses – and as a white kid who grew up on Long Island, I had my first experience of eating pig’s knuckles and rice.  And one might ask where is my pride – accepting food from people who did not have that much to begin with.  And I would have two responses to that.

First, when a person is hungry, the first thing that person swallows is his pride.  And the process of losing one’s pride comes with a healthy dose of humility – a necessary component of doing the work we do in the way it should be done.

But second, and most importantly, there was nothing special in the way I was treated.  I am not going to overly romanticize the South Bronx in those days.  There was violence, both domestic and street violence; there was drug trafficking, the remnants of gangs and more.  But underlying it all, there was also a sense of community.  Children did not come home from school and need to run the streets waiting for their parent to come home from running errands or returning from work.  Children knew what doors to knock on to be given a safe haven, a snack, and a place to watch TV or do homework.  And when the parent returned to the block he or she knew exactly where to find their children.  And the sharing extended to other things as well — providing neighbors with respite, food, clothing, transportation and other kinds of “helping activities” that implied a bond, a connectedness, active and real social networks.  In a word, there was community.

Over the past 4+ decades there has been a tremendous resurgence in the physical environment of the South Bronx, to which Banana Kelly has made a substantial contribution.  However, 40 years ago the Bronx was burning but people – whether on public assistance or working a low wage job – could afford to live with dignity, feed their families and pay the rent.  Now, the neighborhood is rebuilt and expanding, but people who struggle in low wage jobs or public assistance cannot begin to pay prevailing rents.  And the situation is becoming worse with the speculation, predatory financing, and gentrification that is occurring as we speak.  And through it all, that sense of connectedness – the ties that bound people together in a community – has been lost.  As we continue our work, we do this work with people who have always been politically and economically marginalized, but have, over the past few decades, been socially marginalized as well.  Marginalized and isolated, our people have no power.

So, to be truly transformational, how does an organization such as ours pursue our work?  We continue to provide services and expand the supply of affordable housing.  But is that enough?

The answer, of course, is no.  As a community development corporation we have to work to build community as well.  We have to serve as an anchor institution by prioritizing local hiring and procurement.  We must provide space for people to reconnect, share experiences, turn (to borrow from C. Wright Mills) private troubles into public issues, and then to act and confront the forces of oppression.  Our organization must become the instrument for local implementation of this action and we must be responsive and accountable to those we serve.  We must hold on to the land we own, and expand where possible, to make sure that our people can retain control over their own lives through control of the land.  And we must continue to build our organization’s strength through the people we serve.

This is a long term struggle and we must be aggressive but patient as well. Over the past four or so decades we have destroyed community and it will not be regained easily.  We have been and continue to work against prevailing economic, political, and social trends that isolate and manipulate us precisely to gain economic, political and social advantage.

So our work is cut out for us.  But we have faith in people, and in the belief that real and substantive change will come not from the top down, but from the bottom up.  And that is why we continue to do the work that we do.

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