Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Harlemites Talk Rezoning Wars

Harlemites Talk Rezoning Wars
By Betsy Morais

On a blustery Wednesday morning, Harlem residents gathered at City College of New York to discuss the winds of change the city has planned for 125th Street.

The City Planning Commission held a public hearing that attracted around 150 residents, business owners, politicians, and local community organizers. Attendees shared their views about the city’s rezoning design for the corridor bordered by Broadway, Second Avenue, and 124th and 126th streets. Rezoning would lead to an extensive street makeover—one that may draw crowds uptown, but could also drastically increase the area’s cost of living and lead to overdevelopment.

The commission calls 125th Street “Harlem’s Main Street” due to its large amount of retail, but says the area is in need of “enhancement.” Commissioners say they would like to see the area return to its roots as a city attraction for arts and entertainment, building on the legacy of the famed Apollo Theater.

But critics are concerned the proposal will result in displacement—due to an increased amount of residential development and concerns about affordability—and say City Planning underestimates the rezoning’s potential impact.

As Councilwoman Inez Dickens (D-Harlem and Morningside Heights) said Wednesday morning, “Each new millennium ushers in whirlwinds of challenge, change, emotion, and fear.” Such are the characteristics of the dispute surrounding the city’s plans for 125th Street, informally known as the “River to River” proposal.

Though Dickens and Councilwoman Melissa Mark Viverito (D-East Harlem) are supportive of the city’s efforts, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer said earlier this month that he would disapprove of the 125th Street plan until it was modified to better protect local businesses and artists and to ensure affordable housing options. Taking a more dramatic stance, the Harlem activist organization Voices of the Everyday People has called for complete withdrawal of the city’s proposal.

A petite woman in a pink plaid sweatshirt approached the microphone first, commencing what would be a slew of concerned, often emotionally charged testimonies. Mylinda Lee introduced herself to the commission as a lifelong Harlem resident and mother, fighting to stay in the neighborhood she calls home but afraid that she could be displaced any day. “It’s a crisis that’s going on unheard ears,” she explained, garnering hearty applause from the crowd.

An estimated 71 local businesses could be displaced—businesses whose owners are mostly black, according to Harlem Tenants Council Director Nellie Bailey.

The city’s vision for the corridor promises affordable housing for low-income tenants and the creation of approximately 6,600 new jobs. But for families like Lee’s, “affordable” is a word that is relative­—a vague term that may leave herand others packing their bags.

The affordable housing plan is geared toward residents with an “area median income” that the city determined to be $56,000 per year—a sum much greater than the average income of current residents in the 125th Street neighborhood, which is estimated at closer to $25,000.

Community Board 10 Chair Franc Perry also addressed the City Planning Commission, saying, “We know the truth—that is, the majority of any residential development will not be within the financial reach of the average Harlemite.”

NB - Although the meeting was held in City College, in Vinegar Hill and straddling accross both Manhattantivlle and Hamilton Heights, our portion of 125th Street is not mentioned even by accident!

The fact that the WestSide or West Harlem portion of 125th starts at St. Nicholas Avenue to the Hudson River and that most small businesses are either Hispanic, Latino or non-Hispanic White makes invisible, unmentionable and the possible impact on them is not even alluded by City Planning nor by the elected officials from Central Harlem the only real "Harlem".

When are WestSiders going to realize that we are only part of Harlem when there is something to be gained by the power-structure of Harlem and that the WestSide is nothing but ancillary territory for easy pickings and that somehow they and not us have a say about what should or should not happen in the geographic area of Community District 9.

The WestSide is a unique multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-linguistic community that came together in the CB9M 197-a Plan and that must remain together or be divested, displaced and defeated by forces from outside our community.

Many think that Columbia University is the enemy of our community - I for one do not believe that the real enemy are thoese forces from outside our community that exersize so much power on our community's destiny. Open your eyes and smell the coffee - WAKE-UP!!!

Councilman Peter Vallone is [rightfully so] promoting the idea of New York City should secede from New York State as the State exploits the City and gives nothing back - West Harlem has exactly the same rightful need to secede from Harlem for the same reasons.

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