Speech given by Harry DeRienzo at Banana Kelly’s 5th Annual Meet & Greet, December 5th 2014.
Community Development, as we know it, is at a crossroads. When our work began some 40 years ago, the “inner city” was in crisis and residents came together to respond to the crises of terrible housing conditions, no and low paying jobs, disinvestment, arson, crime and more. Now, after decades of work, we are being told that the institutions created to respond to those crises – community development corporations, like Banana Kelly – are no longer needed. We are being told that we are ineffective and inefficient. Why – because we focus on people, and not on bottom lines. We are being told this, in spite of the fact that the opportunities outside developers now see in our neighborhoods are opportunities that would not exist without all of us. These opportunities are opportunities that we created. These opportunities are our legacy and our future, if we choose to make it so.
When abandonment was rampant and our neighborhoods were written off by government officials and policy makers, we stabilized and rebuilt this community. Are we going to relinquish those opportunities and allow others to exploit them for personal gain? NO! Our legacy; our future.
When we stopped the wholesale demolition of our neighborhoods and fought for local control of that housing, we preserved the character and viability of our community. But in so doing, we also created opportunities for outside investors to take back ownership of housing and once again use housing as a speculative investment. Are we going to allow that to happen? NO! Our legacy; our future.
And when our institutions failed us decades ago, we created new institutions. But now that private investors see opportunities for profit, we are being told that groups like Banana Kelly are no longer needed. Are we going to allow our local institutions to be destroyed? NO! Our legacy; our future.
Now, we are not against investment. We are not against working with responsible partners – in fact, we need them. We are not against new people becoming part of our community. But all of the opportunities that we have worked so hard to create, manifested in lower crime, a rebuilt infrastructure, desirable neighborhoods, preserved housing, open space and more – that is our legacy, the foundation of our future. So we want progress, but progress has to come through us and with us, not in spite of us or without us.
And our legacy goes beyond financial benefits. We also have a culture here that is an important a part of our legacy. And this is a culture of self-help, cooperation, and neighborliness embodied is such people as Frank Potts (who refused to abandon the South Bronx when other landlords were burning down their buildings), Sister Thomas (who worked tirelessly for all – regardless of religion, social status, or ethnic background – treating us all as family) , and Al Quinones (who was burned out of his home in the 70s but worked tirelessly for decades to create a “Peoples Park” that was always short of money, but never short of ideas, commitment, or volunteers). This culture, embodied in all of us, but exemplified in people like Frank Potts, Sister Thomas and Al Quinones, is also a part of our legacy. Are we going to abandon this legacy? No! Our legacy, our future.
This is our legacy to capture or to lose. But the only way to capture it is for all of us to recommit ourselves to working collectively and inclusively to ensure that any investment made in our community benefits those who created and continue to create the opportunity for that investment. And while we are at it, let’s take up the call of those asking that we all commit to making 2015 a year of “Jobs and Justice.” We are already making strides to make sure that any city investment in housing that flows through Banana Kelly maximizes local hiring, local vendor use, and local economic development. Our Resident Council is extensively engaged with our Precinct Councils and this can serve as a platform for the reforms necessary to make sure that all New Yorkers are treated with respect, dignity and given equal treatment under the law. We can make change; we can direct change; and we can make change work for our families, neighbors and our communities. Can we succeed in this? Yes. Our Legacy, our Future!
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