East Harlem Holds Its Own

A broad coalition of community organizations and officials takes a preemptive stand against gentrification.

By Timothy A. Schuler 

Data can be deceiving, or at the very least hard to parse. But for the residents of East Harlem, the numbers spoke loudly. On average, the community was losing nearly 300 affordable housing units per year, based on eight years of data collected by WXY Architecture + Urban Design. If real estate development continued at the current rate, more than 4,000 affordable housing units would be lost over the next 15 years. “People began to realize that a ‘do-nothing’ option was not going to result in the same old thing,” says Adam Lubinsky, a planner and managing principal at WXY. “A ‘do-nothing’ option would mean 300 homes lost per year to development.”

East Harlem, a largely Latino community where one in three residents lives below the poverty line, was also named as one of eight neighborhoods out of 15 that have been identified for rezoning by the city. Rather than wait to respond to a zoning proposal by the city’s Department of City Planning (DCP), local organizations began working vigorously with elected officials to develop recommendations for how to use zoning to preserve affordable housing stock, open space, and the community’s cultural heritage. The result was the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan, and according to people involved, it marked the first time a community in New York has developed such a plan ahead of a DCP proposal.

“I’ve rarely seen such a broad-based and grassroots approach to plan and comment on zoning,” says Deborah Marton, the executive director of the New York Restoration Project, an open-space conservancy that participated in the process and also manages nine community gardens in East Harlem. “It was a sincere and messy effort that eventually resulted in real thinking and strategy around: What are we gonna do with our land? How are we gonna manage it?” East Harlem is known for its many community gardens, which play an important role in the social fabric of the place, Marton says.

Although many people see the plan as a success, some think the community’s representatives should have fought rezoning altogether, which they see as a harbinger of gentrification—a particularly hot topic in East Harlem, one of the last affordable neighborhoods in Manhattan. Others wish the process had been even more inclusive. Sondra Youdelman is the executive director of Community Voices Heard, a membership organization for low-income New Yorkers that played a major role in developing the neighborhood plan. She says several constituencies were absent from the process and that the steering committee should have had individual as well as organizational representation.

But nearly everyone agrees that this was a rare opportunity—one made possible by the involvement of the speaker of the New York City Council, a powerful position currently held by Melissa Mark-Viverito, a Puerto Rico-born politician who also happens to represent East Harlem. Her clout, combined with the support of Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, gives this plan a kind of staying power, says Lubinsky, whose firm facilitated the process alongside the design/build nonprofit Hester Street Collaborative. “There’s a huge amount of political weight behind the plan, so it will be very difficult to ignore,” Lubinsky says, explaining that the DCP has been aware, and tacitly supportive, of the neighborhood plan, which was handed off to the city this spring.

Still, it remains to be seen which, if any, recommendations are included in the city’s official proposal, which is expected later this summer or fall. Lubinsky believes the process alone has helped spur community action. “The difference between this and a lot of other plans,” he says, “is that everybody is continuing to meet and [continuing] to pressure agencies to follow through on recommendations.”

Timothy A. Schuler, the editor of Now, can be reached at timothyaschuler@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @Timothy_Schuler.

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