Reclaiming Neighborhood Power
In many ways, it was a typical block party on a sunny, Saturday afternoon in late July 2018: barbeque grills grilling, kids working on a communal art project, community organizations offering services and signing up new members. And of course, there was music and dancing—in this case, salsa, bachata, and most of all merengue, the signature dance of the Dominican Republic. The block party was in Inwood, a neighborhood at the northern tip of Manhattan with about 40,000 residents, half of whom are immigrants or children of immigrants from the Caribbean nation.
But the music wasn’t the only distinct feature of this block party. The communal art project was a banner that said “Nuestro Calles, Nuestro Barrio,”—“our streets, our neighborhood.” Sidewalk chalk art covering parts of the street featured calls to “Save Uptown” and declarations of opposition to luxury high-rise development. The main event on stage wasn’t a band or a famous singer, but a verbal sparring match about zoning, between one of the event organizers and the local council member—in distinctly Dominican rapid-fire Spanish.
This was the “Block Party for a Just Rezoning,” organized by Northern Manhattan Is Not For Sale, an all-volunteer coalition of Inwood residents and business owners. The organizers hoped to use the occasion to pressure their local council member to nix a city-driven rezoning plan and instead follow an alternative the coalition had proposed.
For immigrant communities in New York City and elsewhere, it can seem like public institutions have abandoned them at best or targeted them for deportation and family separation at worst. Xenophobia and racism continue to wreak emotional and sometimes physical havoc upon immigrant communities. And now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, immigrant neighborhoods such as Corona or Jamaica in Queens have some of the highest infection and death counts in New York. Elmhurst Hospital, surrounded by several heavily immigrant neighborhoods, became a local epicenter of the virus outbreak.
But with all that as a backdrop, immigrant communities in New York City are using urban planning and zoning to make their voices heard and reclaim at least some measure of dignity, power, and self-determination. And immigrant communities have started to win major victories against developers and even City Hall, pushing back against changes that they fear would result in the loss of their neighborhoods.
“We’re trying to make a larger argument that planning and land use, though they may be technical issues, don’t need to be only the domain of technocrats and developers with a whole ton of capital,” says Melanie Wang, the Chinatown Tenant Union lead organizer for the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, which also has fought gentrification on the Lower East Side. “These are issues that affect every New Yorker, and land use processes and community development processes should be transparent and understandable and arenas that every New Yorker can engage in, because they have an impact on us all.”
The minutiae and jargon of urban planning can be a barrier even for native English speakers. New York City’s full zoning resolution text is now 3,310 pages long, with 14 articles and 10 appendices. The commercial district regulations alone describe 16 separate commercial and community uses and eight zoning designations, each with a unique combination of permitted uses. There are also 54 “special districts,” which are basically codified exceptions to the rules applying mostly to specific commercial corridors or neighborhoods.
“The driving force behind our organizing is a real belief that the people living in this community most impacted by gentrification and displacement have the tools and the knowledge to find a solution,” Wang says. “Our goal as an organizing staff is to build the collective infrastructure for folks to express that knowledge and take action based on it.”
Anyone can submit an application to the city government to change the zoning on a single property, or across multiple properties, or an entire neighborhood. This may seem daunting because approval requires an elaborate multi-layered process that takes from a few months to a year or more to complete. It’s far from perfect, but land-use changes in New York and elsewhere do provide residents, workers, and business owners multiple public chances to weigh in on changes that might affect their homes, jobs, or businesses—and you don’t have to be a citizen to take part.
“There are ways for everyday people to contribute, and they do contribute,” says Josselyn Atahualpa, an organizer with Queens Neighborhoods United. “It just doesn’t look like going to the polls, because a lot of people can’t vote.”
In the borough of Queens, 48% of the population is foreign-born. Queens Neighborhoods United, an all-volunteer association of residents and small-business owners, focuses most of its work on the Jackson Heights, Elmhurst, and Corona neighborhoods, where 60-70% of the population is foreign-born, predominantly Latino and Asian. Members of the group run the gamut from second- or later-generation immigrant family members and permanent residents to DACA recipients and undocumented immigrants.
Queens Neighborhoods United has been organizing residents, workers, and business owners to push back against gentrification. The issue isn’t just about housing becoming too expensive and pricing out current residents, it’s also what is seen as an incursion of large global corporations into neighborhoods that residents have valued for their internationally flavored yet locally owned businesses.
In 2018, a development group applied for a zoning change for a property at 40-31 82nd St., the former site of the beloved Jackson Heights Cinema. The developers had already torn down the theater and planned a 13-story mixed-use building with 120 residential units and two stories of commercial space anchored by a Target store, which wouldn’t have been allowed under the current zoning.
The developers argued that the development would bring jobs for residents and other opportunities for commercial tenants in the building. Twenty-four of the planned residential units would be permanently below-market rate, in compliance with New York City’s mandatory inclusive housing policy.
Queens Neighborhoods United rallied local businesses and residents against the requested changes. More than 100 people attended and expressed their opposition at the first public hearing on the proposal. Some opponents said more traffic could cause delayed response times for emergency responders at the nearby Elmhurst Hospital, now a local epicenter for the coronavirus outbreak. Others had well-justified fears that 96 new market-rate units would be just the beginning of a flood of new development targeted at wealthier tenants. Many also pointed out that most people now living in the neighborhood would still not be able to afford the below-market rate units offered under the proposed plan.
Moreover, many smaller businesses and street vendors in the blocks around the site already sell all the kinds of items that would be found inside a Target, including produce and other groceries, jewelry, electronics, clothing, shoes, and luggage.
In New York City, as is common among many cities, the city council maintains an unwritten rule that the local council member gets the final say in most land-use decisions. It was a contentious few months in 2018 when Council Member Francisco Moya continued to negotiate with the developers to try to get them to agree to more affordable units or fewer units. But Moya eventually bowed to pressure from groups such as Queens Neighborhoods United and his constituents and withdrew his support for the zoning change.
But even when a council member approves a contentious zoning change, it doesn’t have to be the end of the story. Even though the Inwood block party rallied the neighborhood, and in spite of community members occupying his office until some were arrested, Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez voted to approve the zoning changes sought by the city for Inwood, creating the 54th “special district” in New York City’s Zoning Resolution.
But activists didn’t give up. Led by Northern Manhattan Is Not For Sale, opponents pointed out that the below-market-rate housing offered under the rezoning was not guaranteed to be affordable for Inwood’s mostly working-class residents, in conflict with the city’s stated goal of encouraging affordability in housing. Residents and businesses feared that landlords would raise rents on the remaining market-rate tenants and evict existing businesses in favor of wealthier tenants and the businesses that serve them.
Anticipating that the city’s rezoning plan would be approved, a few members of Northern Manhattan Is Not For Sale started preparing for a lawsuit even before the final decision came down. Plaintiffs needed to submit their stories in sworn affidavits, but Spanish was the first language for many potential plaintiffs, and was their preferred language to tell their story, even if they could speak English.
Cheryl Pahaham, one of the volunteer organizers with Northern Manhattan Is Not For Sale, ended up meeting with many residents in her apartment, listening to their stories in Spanish and taking notes in English, which she turned into a coherent narrative for the suit. Fellow organizers Lena Melendez and Francesca Castellanos would retranslate affidavits into Spanish so that the plaintiffs could review and sign them.
One Inwood plaintiff, Celín Rodriguez, was originally from the Dominican Republic and has lived in Inwood for 30 years, raising four kids in the neighborhood. According to her affidavit, in the mid-1990s, Rodriguez inherited a taxicab repair shop in Inwood from her husband’s parents, who had been operating the business since the 1960s. In 2000, the building ownership changed hands, and rents started to increase, but the business was doing well enough to survive until Dec. 6, 2017, when a city marshal arrived and evicted them on the spot. They weren’t even allowed to take their equipment or finish their business for the day. An owner’s representative informed them that a new charter school was going to be built on the property, to serve the incoming market-rate tenants for a rezoned Inwood.
Rodriguez stated in her affidavit she eventually accepted $120,000 in “compensation” after filing a lawsuit related to the eviction. She’d hoped it would be enough to get the business back up and running in another Inwood building, but neighborhood rents were already too high. Meanwhile, her husband suffered two heart attacks in the aftermath of losing the business, requiring medical care that drained the family’s savings. She’s now operating a makeshift taxi repair service out of the back of her van.
There were 14 petitioners on the Inwood lawsuit. Others included immigrants from Senegal, Singapore, China, and two Jewish immigrants who fled Germany just before World War II.
To their surprise, the judge ruled in the petitioners’ favor, granting their request to annul the city’s new special zoning district for Inwood. The city filed an appeal of the decision, but with COVID-19 pandemic, the state appeals court has not set any dates for its 2020 term, which technically began in April. Northern Manhattan Is Not For Sale and other neighborhood groups meanwhile are pushing their own plan to allow a smaller number of new housing units, with a majority of them below-market rate and affordable to current Inwood residents.
A similar plan unfolded at the other end of Manhattan, where a multiethnic, multigenerational group of organizations, including the Chinatown Tenant Union, put out its Chinatown Working Group Plan in 2014 to help preserve the character of the neighborhood close to the East River in booming Lower Manhattan.
But the city never took up the group’s plan, and in 2016, developers started pushing a proposal to build a series of four mostly luxury housing towers along the Lower East Side waterfront. One 847-foot tower has already been built, and of the other three, one planned tower would be over 1,000-feet tall, the others 798 feet and 730 feet—roughly four times higher than the 10- to 15-story public housing and co-op buildings now standing along the Lower East Side waterfront.
“It’s really tough for residents and communities to be repeatedly told by experts you don’t know what’s best for your neighborhood and what’s best for your neighborhood is this arbitrary number of units,” Melanie Wang of the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence says. “In actuality most residents have a more nuanced understanding of land use issues in their neighborhood than that, and it’s really frustrating for folks to be repeatedly steamrolled in these processes.”
The committee and other organizers sued the city planning commission for not following the proper approval procedure for land-use changes of this magnitude. Other suits were filed by the city council and other groups of residents and community organizations, focusing on different elements of the law. It was an intentional, coordinated strategy, and it worked. All three decisions went against the developers and planning commission.
Wang remembers the day in July 2019 when the first decision came down. There was a victory party in the community room at 286 South St., a branch of the YMCA inside a public housing complex. “We had food, we had speeches, we had music,” Wang says. “We just took some time to celebrate the concrete impact that decision would have, regardless of who were the parties in that specific lawsuit.”
While the developers have planned to appeal all three decisions, it will take time, and perhaps enough time for the Chinatown Tenant Union and its allies to get their rezoning application approved. The application, based on the earlier working group plan, would allow some development, but is intended to preserve the character of the neighborhood as an immigrant, working-class community. Like other city functions, the rezoning application review process is on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s highly unusual for communities to initiate rezoning applications,” Wang says. “It’s taken a long time for us to put together because of the difficulty of navigating the technical process which is really designed for developers with capital and highly paid specialists. We had to figure out how to navigate that process and make it meaningful for the community members who are part of our organizations.”
These immigrant communities aren’t claiming to have all the answers, especially when it comes to looming challenges like sea-level rise that threaten the Lower East Side waterfront where Wang’s tenants live and play, as well as parts of Inwood. With the support of organizers and legal aid groups, what they are claiming is the right to take part in shaping the cities that they call home.