Protesters with the group Movement for Justice in El Barrio hold signs protesting the mayor’s plan to rezone East Harlem. The plan will allow new developments to begin construction in the neighborhood. Photo by Kristen Torres.
Protesters gathered outside an East Harlem town hall meeting last night to push back against Mayor Bill De Blasio’s plan to rezone some sections of the neighborhood.
They held up signs that said things like “East Harlem is not for sale,” and “Say no to racist rezoning.”
Salome Leon was one of the protesters. She’s part of a group called Movement for Justice in El Barrio, which aims to stop gentrification in the neighborhood.
“We’re here because what De Blasio is saying is a lie,” Leon said. “He keeps saying rent won’t go up with these new developments, but they will, and we won’t be able to afford it anymore.”
Leon said she’s lived in the area for the last 19 years. She raised her children just down the street from the Johnson Community Center, where the town hall meeting took place.
“De Blasio keeps using the affordable housing mandate as an excuse for these buildings being built. But the landlords aren’t complying,” Leon said. “We want him to ditch the rezoning plan. It doesn’t help the people who live here.”
The East New York Neighborhood Plan was announced by the mayor’s office in 2015, and is meant to create 1,500 new affordable housing units in the borough, according to De Blasio.
Contrary to what Leon and her fellow protesters claim, De Blasio said the rezoning would actually help more people get out of shelters and into permanent housing.
“When this is all over, we’ll have four thousand, five thousand people into new homes,” he said.
Last year, the city council passed the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing bill, which forces developers in certain areas to make at least 20 percent of a building’s units affordable housing units.
Ethel Velez is president of the New York City Housing Authority’s Manhattan North Council of Presidents.
She pushed back against the mayor at the meeting, asking why so much money was going into building new affordable housing, while the existing units were falling into disrepair.
“Public housing is the only low income housing option that we know of,” Velez said. “If we’re going to talk about preserving public housing, then we need money, too.”
Some residents also pushed De Blasio about his motives for the rezoning, claiming he was giving out development contracts to campaign contributors.
“I have spent plenty of time in the last four years taking on landlords and developers,” De Blasio said to the town hall participants. “I’ve done a lot that goes against any interest of the real estate industry. So you might disagree with me on the vision, but don’t look for a motive that isn’t there.”
De Blasio also said current affordable housing buildings will never be switched over to private companies — a concern that many Harlem locals brought up over the course of the two hours.
“East Harlem has the highest amount of affordable housing units in the country,” De Blasio said. “If we don’t keep investing in new affordable housing, though, a huge number of people won’t be able to continue living in the city.”
The rezoning plan says the city will rush the construction of 1,200 new public and private affordable housing units over the next two years in the neighborhood.
It rezoned certain areas of East Harlem to allow construction of mixed use buildings, meaning developers can have storefronts on the ground level, and housing units on the upper floors.
“Look, I get it. There’s a lot of bad connotation when it comes to saying anything we do is privatized,” De Blasio said. “But everyone is going to keep what they already have. We’re just taking the opportunity to develop new units.”
Artist Miles Mims stands in front of one of his photographs on exhibit at he Social Justice Art Show at the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning in Queens. He says his exposure to segregation as a child while traveling with his family in rural Virginia helped shape his current work as a photographer. Photo by Kristen Torres
Miles Mims still remembers the day he was arrested in Virginia for stepping onto a beach marked “whites only.”
“On the black beach, everyone was huddled together, hundreds and hundreds of people on one side of this thin red line,” Mims said. He looked at the floor, drawing a line across his feet with his hands. “The ‘white’ beach — well, it had more space and it was cleaner.”
That was back in the late 1950s, when Mims was about 8 years old.
“I didn’t pay no attention to those things back then,” he said.
But 50 years later, Mims hasn’t been able to shake the memory. He’s now a full-time artist, photographing portraits of black Americans to raise awareness of civil rights issues.
“Social injustices — they’re in my fabric of being,” Mims said. “When I look at things now, I do it through that lens. I can’t help it.”
Mims — along with about a dozen other local artists — are currently displaying their work at the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning in Queens.
It’s the second year that the Social Justice Art Show comes to the eastern borough, and features work from artists focusing on racial discrepancies in the criminal justice system.
Wanda Best is the show’s director and also has artwork featured in the exhibit.
She said the exhibit ran for one night last year, down the street at the King Manor Museum.
“We had over a hundred people show up that night,” Best said.
This year, the show will run for two weeks.
“There’s something powerful about combining art and social issues in this way,” Best said. “People look at these exhibitions and they won’t walk out of here thinking the same way about these things.”
Best worked with Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Hillcrest) to start the exhibit in 2016.
“These issues, these problems, they’re not talked about as much as they should be,” Best said. She pointed at one of her paintings. “This one is about mass incarceration — they’re locking up African Americans way more often than whites or Hispanics.”
“This is our chance to change the way people think about these issues,” Best said.
Pieces in the exhibition include all types of artistic mediums, like woodworking and interactive visual pieces.
Some installations focus on the role of African American women in society, while others call attention to the years of slavery.
Mims has two photos on display in the exhibit — a portrait of a woman and one of a man.
He pointed at the photo of the man.
“That was down in Manhattan, by Seaport,” he said.
Mims said he approached the man because he liked his “look” and asked him if he could take his photo.
“The guy was really upset because he couldn’t get a job and I said ‘having that afro and beard don’t help,’” Mims said. “But he had this look of determination on his face.”
Mims said the man was biracial and spoke to Mims about the struggles of not fitting into a society where a hard line is drawn between being black or white.
“After talking to him, I started to realize some things,” Mims said. “I used to automatically look at the way people treated me and asked myself, ‘is it because I’m black?’ I used to control my behavior to make sure I didn’t do nothing to offend anyone and I would still get hostility.”
“It was hurtful,” Mims said. “But I examined it and started to realize what prejudice was all about. All I can do with my art is express what I have inside me and try to make people who look at it a better person. That’s all I can hope.”
The show runs through September 29th.
Spectators follow along as Rev. Dr. Bill Lupfer leads the crowd at St Paul’s Chapel in Lower Manhattan, in the Prayer of St. Francis at the end of yesterday’s ceremony. Photo by Kristen Torres.
Few spectators attended a ceremony meant to honor victims on the 16th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center at St. Paul’s Chapel in Lower Manhattan yesterday.
And Leo Pyzynski was one of them. He’s a 56-year-old architect who lives in Long Island.
“I try to come in every year for the ceremony,” Pyzynski said. “I’m a little disappointed there’s not areas for all of us to pay our respects so this is a substitute for me.”
The site of the former World Trade Center closes to the public on the anniversary of 9/11, admitting only friends and family of people who passed away during the attacks.
Pyzynski expressed disappointment in the lack of turnout that remembrance events — like the one at St. Paul’s Chapel — have received in recent years.
“I feel like it’s kind of going by the wayside, you know?” Pyzynski said. “Some people just think about it today, but some people think about it almost every day — like I do.”
Much like many New Yorkers, Pyzynski remembers exactly where he was when the attacks happened. The first plane hit at 8:46 a.m.
“I was washing dishes and had WBAB radio on,” he said. “I turned on the TV after hearing about the first plane, and when the second one hit…I don’t think I moved until after 12 from that spot.”
Pyzynski said he worried about how the attacks will be remembered in future generations.
“So many kids that I tutor on Saturdays — they don’t even know what happened,” he said.
At St. Paul’s Chapel, Reverend Dr. Bill Lupfer rang the church bell for the first time at 8:46 a.m. — the exact time the first hijacked plane struck the north tower of the World Trade Center.
“It’s a horrible privilege to be here with you all this morning,” said Lupfer, director of Trinity Church.
“We ring this bell in solidarity for victims of attacks here and around the world,” he said. “We remember those who have fallen — we always will.”
Lupfer continued to ring the bell for four sets of five rings, following the tradition of New York City firefighters’ salute to the fallen.
St. Paul’s Church stands directly across from the scene of the Sept. 11 attacks, but remained completely unscathed by the wreckage.
In the aftermath of the attacks, the church served as a feeding station for first responders in the area.
“For almost a year we had barbecues set up, we had foot care available — when the plane hit the towers we became a respite station,” Lupfer said.
Yet despite the church’s involvement in the rescue efforts after the collapse of the buildings, only about 40 spectators attended this year’s commemorative ceremony.
The Bell of Hope was given to the people of New York by the City of London shortly after the attacks in 2001. It’s now permanently housed on the grounds of St. Paul’s Chapel.
“Our church has been here for a long time — since our nation began,” Lupfer said. “So we’ll be here a long time, praying for those who fell on 9/11.”
Huddling against the wind, some spectators bowed their heads in silence while others gripped at their programs, eyes staring blankly at the ground.
One man held up a camera, wiping tears from his eyes.
Everyone was silent.
“We talk about the healing of memories, and so the church has always prayed to remember,” Lupfer said. “The opposite of remembering is dismembering, so we try to take what is fragmented and do it through prayer — bring people back together so they’re back in unity.”