Organize or Perish

Harry DeRienzo’s Keynote Address at the 6th Annual Meet & Greet, December 6, 2015.

Organize or Perish. This is our theme for this year. It is a theme that comes straight from our resident leadership.  It is a theme that is not simply an act of hyperbole.  This theme is timely and as relevant as it was when Banana Kelly began.

When I began to organize on Kelly Street some 40 years ago, our South Bronx neighborhood was devastated.  But along with the loss of our housing, what was threatened, what was definitely going to perish, and what we sought to preserve and build upon, was an interconnected and vibrant set of social arrangements made up of friends, families, and acquaintances.  These strong social bonds were built over generations.  And even though these social ties were not enough to counter the forces of destruction, they were indispensable components for rebuilding our community.

And what is community?  It is certainly more than a neighborhood.  First, a community is based upon something held in common – location, beliefs, what have you.  Beyond commonality, there must be interdependence – a shared sense that we are all in this together and to the extent that one of us does well, we all do well.   And, of course, if one person suffers, we all suffer.  Finally, there must be collective capacity, which we were able to develop together in the form of this organization – the Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association.  We survived that period by working together to rebuild, not only the housing stock, but our community.

Today, gentrification is now threatening to socially engulf our neighborhoods in the same way that fires of the mid- to late seventies physically engulfed our neighborhoods.  Gentrification destroys communities in the name of transforming them.  We have seen its impact on neighborhood after neighborhood in New York City and the outcome is always the same.  Higher income residents move into neighborhoods and lower income residents are pushed out – some to other neighborhoods; others to homeless shelters.  We are not against new people moving into our neighborhoods.  We are not opposed to investment in our neighborhoods.  We certainly would appreciate having more diversity of retail.  But we do object to all of this happening at the expense of people who have made this their home over many years and fought and worked for the preservation and improvement of this neighborhood.

So how do we ensure that our neighborhood does not become the next Bed-Stuy, or East Harlem, or Williamsburg?  It will take a lot more than just talk.  We will need to preserve and protect our collective ownership interests in this neighborhood.  This will require a working partnership among our staff, our board, our resident leaders, and residents – along with a sense that all of the properties under our control are community resources – not to be treated like apartment buildings owned by an outside landlord, but treated like a precious affordable housing resource that is unlikely to be replaced.  As a true partnership, resident cooperation and institutional accountability must go hand in hand.

We need to expand our ownership over assets wherever possible.  There are dwindling opportunities for not-for-profit CDCs to expand their portfolios.  We must continue to work to make our organization and our not-for-profit community development sector more effective and competitive.

We need to utilize our financial resources and convince others to use their financial resources to promote local hiring and to utilize local vendors who hire locally.  There are enormous amounts of money spent in our neighborhoods.  But it is of little benefit if most of that wealth leaves the neighborhood at the end of each work day.  Local organizations need to commit themselves to be “wealth anchors” for our community through affirmative local hiring and local procurement policies (where local vendors hire local residents).

We need to push our local government to ensure that all public funding promotes local hiring and local economic development.  Such requirements have been around for half a century but have not been effectively promoted.  We need to make them so.

We need to ensure that all publicly funded housing programs produce real affordability for neighborhood residents – not merely “affordable” apartments based upon market trends or area median incomes that include wealthy suburbs as a part of our “area.”

We need to make sure that landlords who seek to profit through harassment and illegal rent gouging schemes are punished.  We need to make sure that our elected officials are not pursuing policies and programs that encourage and promote gentrification. We need to work together to protect the most vulnerable among us.


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