Sunday, January 6, 2013

Why We Should Care

I was confronted by a resident in Harlem about my comments in this article:, as to why Harlem should care if Black Architects are denied work on Columbia s 6 billion dollar expansion. Below is my response. _____ "They were not cordial to Negro patronage, unless you were a celebrity like Bojangles. So Harlem Negroes did not like the Cotton Club and never appreciated its Jim Crow policy in the very heart of their dark community." Langston Hughes During my term as chair of Manhattan Community Board 9, I had the opportunity to work closely with Columbia’s team, charged with the building of Manhattanville. I sensed in them a genuine need to honor the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) as it spoke to minority and women business participation in the project. Needless to say, I was taken aback when I recently read that Columbia was now unilaterally taking the position that architectural services were not a part of the CBA. As an attorney, I have read the CBA and General Project Plan (GPP) and I have no doubt that not only architectural, but all other professional services are a part of the Minority Women Business Enterprise (MWBE) goals in both documents. Was I bamboozled by a few members of Columbia’s construction team? The answer is too complex for a simple yes or no response. Columbia is at war with itself. The academy believes that it is not only important to live up to its commitment in the CBA but believes if it fails to do so, it will undermine its moral force as an educational institution for decades to come. But the other half of Columbia’s duality is that of a large real estate company. It functions in every way as a corporation whose sole focus is to maximize its holdings. And in doing so, it has gained a reputation for a willingness to plow over any community, group or individual to succeed its mission. It is clear by Columbia's position that the real-estate side is winning. Its stance on architects is symptomatic of the historical treatment of the economic aspirations of people of color in New York. Africans, along with the Dutch, are the oldest immigrants in the city. After 400 years, we remain what Derek Bell called "the faces at the bottom of the well." Unlike immigrants of European descent, Africans have never been fully vested in the economic life of the city. For instance, both Jewish and Italian immigrants faced daunting discrimination and poverty upon their initial entry into New York. The Draft Riots were the result of Italian immigrants' rage at decades of systematic discrimination and poverty. Ironically, their anger was aimed equally at the city's business interest and Africans. Why should they fight to free slaves who would flood the city and take their jobs, was their thought. But ultimately, because of their European ethnicity, they received vesture in the economic life of the city. As each new immigrant group was granted full economic participation, the Africans remained at the bottom. For over 350 years they were locked in perpetual competition with each new wave of immigrants for the city's menial jobs. The Puerto Ricans, who arrived in the late 40s and 50s, like all other immigrants of African descent were sent straight to the bottom. The Dominicans soon followed. Needless to say, it is getting crowed at the bottom of the well. New York’s history is littered with many examples of how political and corporate interests have colluded to redline African economic aspirations. When the city leaders began the ambitious endeavor to build a great park in the middle of the island, it was decided that Africans could not work on Central Park in order to appease Italian and German immigrants. The Great Depression was devastating to the city. For Harlem residents, who had already been economically isolated, the desperation was even worse. When, like the Italians before them, Harlemites rioted, Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia, the last great mayor of the people, a man who celebrated the city’s diversity and whom the Amsterdam News endorsed by saying "The Negro people has no greater friend" journeyed to Harlem. With Adam Clayton Powell and other ministers sitting on the podium, LaGuardia candidly told Harlem that he understood its plight, but even he was powerless to change it. In the late 40's and 50's, banks and political powers redlined Harlem, turning what had historically been a diverse ethnic neighborhood into a black and Puerto Rican ghetto. These seeds would lay the ground for Robert Moses’ devastating urban renewal, the riots in the 60s and the crack epidemic of the 80’s. In Harlem today, real estate and city officials are now like a husband who abandoned his family decades earlier, suddenly showing up expressing unrequited love, when one of the children becomes a wealthy star athlete. Harlem's sweeping vistas, grand boulevards, seemingly unlimited housing stock and express trains to midtown is a commercial siren song too profitable for developers to resist. The Manhattanville project is the most glaring example that Harlem is now in full transition. Transition is neither good nor bad on the island of Manhattan. We live in a unique place whose only normalcy is change. We are the first generation of Harlemites that possess the technical expertise and political clout to shape the transition. Like no other generation before us, we have the tools to fight for our place in the next Harlem. The CBA and GPP represent over $2 billion in jobs, contracts and in-kind services. The CBA/GPP, if fully realized, will go down in history as one of the most important achievements of economic equality in the 400-year history of Harlem. Our "agenda" is to ensure that Columbia lives up to every commitment in the CBA/GPP. That means every job, every contract, every school and every in-kind service. The West Harlem Local Development Corporation should immediately hire a law firm to audit Columbia’s compliance to the CBA and take appropriate action to bring Columbia into compliance. The community should insist the Empire State Development Corporation do the same with the GPP. Today, the redlines no longer surround neighborhoods, but instead they circle the city's mega projects such as Barclay, Hudson Yards, World Trade Center, Second Avenue subway line and Manhattanville like a medieval moat. A barrier built on a mixture of race and greed that says to professionals of color - you need not apply. In Manhattanville and Grant Houses, there are young people of color, gazing out their windows at the cranes that are now rising against the winter's sky. Many dream that one day they might design and build a tower there. But clouding their mental sky with doubt is that invisible redline. We owe it to these young entrepreneurs to erase the redline so no more dreams are deferred in Harlem.