When I came upon the protests taking place on a little strip of green at the intersection of West Burnside Avenue and University Avenue, I heard chants of “Fight, fight, fight / Housing is a right,” and “Whose Bronx? / Our Bronx.” There were about 250 people by my highly subjective count, many carrying signs, or handouts, some dressed in T-shirts that indicated a particular group affiliation. Some held long banners between two or three people. All were gathered to protest the “scoping meeting” to be held by the City Planning Commission, at the Gould Memorial Library Auditorium on the campus of the Bronx Community College, just a few minutes north by foot from the staging area.
This meeting — in which the Department of City Planning (DCP) is set to present the plan and then allow the public to ask questions — is the first step in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to add more housing to a district in the Bronx that is now largely dominated by auto shops. The DCP recently laid out its plan to rezone for residential use 73 blocks along Jerome Avenue, starting in the south at McClellan Street in Highbridge and running north up to 184th Street in University Heights in the south and west Bronx. The argument made by DCP is that this would revitalize the neighborhood. However, people I spoke with at the event had a distinctly different view.
The organizers had erected a small stage from which to disseminate information to the activists. A mutual friend introduced me to Jenny Dubnau, who is one of the founding members of the Artist Studio Affordability Project (ASAP), and she told me that her concerns were with the possibilities of housing for the future. Demonstrating that she is aware of the correlation of gentrification with the movement of artists and galleries, she asserted, “we who are working artists are not gentrifiers; we are just trying to survive and pay our rent.”
Dubnau said that she came to the protests to “make common cause with the people and artists who are being displaced throughout the city.” She is convinced that the rezoning of Jerome Avenue, “is going to displace so many residents and businesses”
I then spoke with Alicia Grullon, an artist who describes her practice as committed to decolonization, to find out more about the problems with this proposed rezoning. She is someone I’ve spoken with before at previous protests held in the Bronx. According to Grullon, there are several issues, among them “the working class voting strength that will be taken away” by an influx of an estimated 12,000 new residents who will then begin to fill spots on community boards. Grullon believes that these people will “be new to the area and have different interests, and don’t have a long history here, and may only be here for speculative reasons.”
Additionally, she thinks that the pressure on existing infrastructure is already too much, and all these extra residents will not ultimately be sustainable. She argues that people have already been pushed into the Bronx from Washington Heights when that became unaffordable for many residents. Grullon believes that current residents will be pushed further out to the suburbs where they will suffer for the lack of good public transportation and amenities, including access to healthy and affordable food markets. “Public transportation in the suburbs is horrendous,” she says, “people are being ripped away” from communities in which they have long invested.
Eventually, the group started to march up the curve of University Avenue among a loose coalition that included Mothers on the Move, Banana Kelly, the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, Take Back the Bronx, Picture the Homeless, and CASA. When they arrived at the gated entrance to the college, the chants changed subtly to “No Union / No Peace,” and “What do we want? / Union jobs / When do we want them? / Now.” This seemed to indicate the influx of other activists who were just as concerned with the prevalence of non-union workers on the construction sites that would be erected (if the DCP and de Blasio have their way) as they may be with the displacement of residents in the ensuing influx of new residents. At the conclusion of the protest, a number of activists queued to enter the scoping meeting in the hopes of publicly voicing their concerns and objections. But, this is just the start for this leg of the journey. What will eventually happen in the Bronx —which is essentially a microcosm of the movement of people, the construction of housing, and the disposition of housing policy that characterizes most of New York— is a harbinger of what may happen city wide. The core question is how will longtime Bronx resident sustain themselves, and at what costs.