Filling the Gaps of the Rezoning Debate

East Harlem is changing, but is the community engaged enough to fight back?

North of Manhattan’s Carnegie Hill neighborhood, East Harlem looks much different from the museums and brownstones that typify the Upper East Side. East Harlem exists more as a community than a geographic neighborhood — a communal expression of culture, ethnicity, language and history, that has colloquially reimagined East Harlem as El Barrio.

As with many other communities in New York City, East Harlem is in the midst of an identity shift. Gentrification and planned rezoning will likely change the relative cultural homogeneity of El Barrio. The city’s proposal for more mixed-income housing and new businesses has some local residents worried that the new East Harlem won’t include them.

Community groups like Picture the Homeless, Community Voices Heard, Faith in NY, along with others, participated in a year-long workshop series to draft the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan — a comprehensive attempt to preemptively respond to a rezoning plan East Harlem residents worried would inevitably displace them.

The Plan was a way to engage the community in the personable fashion that best suits the predominately lower-income community. Popular publications in East Harlem, like El Diario and AMNY offer affordable, print updates on the rezoning news that will likely affect many local residents. Lack of accessibility to online resources (many residents I’ve spoken with either don’t have internet access in their homes, or depend on library and shared Wi-Fi services) often makes disseminating information on rezoning fixed in the hands of local organizations like CVH and community-driven news outlets.

The 138-page EHNP was a victory for some community members, but for others, the EHNP is not representative of the entire neighborhood:

A tweet from East Harlem cultural staple El Barrio Tours.

Dissidence directed at the EHNP is not limited to concerns about how engaged East Harlem residents were in drafting it, some worried that the plan isn’t enough to slow gentrification. Julio Gonzalez, who lives in public housing along East Harlem’s waterfront, says the neighborhood is destined to change “no matter what.”

“We see the condos going up across the street. We’re not worried in the projects, but this didn’t look this way 20 years ago. And it’s not going to look like this tomorrow.” — Gonzalez

Many of the concerns my community has echoed stem from the lack of trust and communication they have with the decision makers representing them. Resistance to rezoning and its assumed legacy of displacement is directed at the city (the mayor in particular), the state government, developers, landlords, community board members — essentially, everyone believed to be keeping the community in the dark.

Print news is not a lost art in East Harlem, and may still be the most effective way of engaging the community in demanding more autonomy over the future of their neighborhood. With legitimate engagement in mind, came the development of New Harlem World — a newsletter, blog and zine, meant to expand the conversation on displacement and rezoning to include those often excluded. New Harlem World zine began as a simple project in my Journalism Innovation class, but its full manifestation — as a seasonal print zine compiled and curated by East Harlem’s most informed and creative engineers — may strengthen the bonds of resistance in a community in need of a unified voice.

On August 17, through CVH, I co-chaired a rally against the city’s proposed sale of a square of public land on 112th Street and Madison Avenue. Formerly a baseball field and four community gardens, the block (one of the few remaining patches of public land in East Harlem) would be fashioned into a mixed-income housing complex — mixed-income meaning that a certain portion of housing units in the prospective building would be for low-income residents.

However, under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing proponent in his rezoning plan, affordable housing includes families of three, earning a minimum of $31,080 annually.

Community groups like New York Communities for Change attended the ‘Public Good’ rally — August 17, 2016 (Photo: Martika Ornella)

Nearly 38 percent of East Harlem residents earn less than $24,000 annually, which means that the inclusionary part of the mayor’s rezoning plan is set to exclude many people.

The feeling of not being a part of the conversation on rezoning is what has motivated my involvement with this community as a reporter, and as the creator of New Harlem World. Rezoning is a difficult and complicated story to tackle — there’s a lot of institutional opacity, red-tape, jargon, and fine print that has made it hard for many East Harlem residents to trust or understand the decisions being made around them.

Frequently I hear complaints from the community that politicians aren’t listening to their concerns, nor is the press, or East Harlem’s Community Board 11. The lack of transparency and community engagement in the rezoning process not only arouses local fears of displacement, but it furthers the communicative gap between the neighborhood and its vocal leaders.

At a recent senior summit hosted by Hunter College’s Silberman School of Social Work in East Harlem, local seniors expressed their concerns about rising rents, gentrification and potentially losing their homes. At the summit, seniors collected flyers and pamphlets related to affordable housing, tenants’ rights, environmental justice — basically, anything that could make sense of the community’s worrying anticipation of change.

The communities most vulnerable to displacement are East Harlem residents earning below the poverty line (less than $24,000 annually) and senior citizens. Entitlement benefits are often not enough to cover the rising rents that seniors who are not in public or fixed housing systems may endure with neighborhood development.

Lack of awareness is not the communicative obstacle when it comes to rezoning in East Harlem. The problem is that the complexity of the rezoning and displacement issue has left many residents, particularly those lacking access to in-depth news resources, in the dark.

The print and shortened version of the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan.

At a recent community meeting hosted by CVH, attendees rushed to get a copy of the EHNP’s April 2016 printed update. Since the plan’s workshops ended this February, participants and newly engaged residents have been looking for updates on the rezoning fight. Resources like the EHNP and El Diario have the potential to not only shrink the knowledge gap surrounding the neighborhood’s planned rezoning, but these print resources can reach the most vulnerable members of this community (like seniors and low-income residents) who are often excluded from the conversation.

New Harlem World zine, focused specifically on rezoning and displacement, can help to alleviate the fears many East Harlem residents currently have, simply by allowing them to participate in the oft-esoteric debates raging on about affordable housing and public policy.

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