Residents sound off about gentrification

Residents speak out on gentrification at the Immaculate Conception School on March 5. Photo: Lori Freshwater

As market rate developments continue popping up across the South Bronx, residents worried about losing their homes are getting together to let off steam and consider strategies to prevent being displaced.

The Bronx Documentary Center held its 4th annual Gentrification Conference last Sunday, at the Immaculate Conception School, bringing together veteran housing advocates and local tenants to examine the problem and mobilize their neighbors.

At a panel called “Urban Renewal, Redlining, Rezoning, and Race,” Longwood tenant Tahica Fredericks told attendees she is nervous about the neighborhood’s future. Fredericks said she was displaced from apartments in gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhoods twice in the past and had no choice but to move into a shelter with her family.

One of the hardest things Fredericks had to adjust to while living in shelters, she said, was reporting daily to staff who watched over her—-strangers who were often much younger than her. After moving to Longwood she decided that sharing her story with her neighbors would be one way to deal with her own misfortune while helping others.

Activists told the gathering that gentrification in the South Bronx is nothing new. Harry DeRienzo, president of Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association, presented a detailed history of the problem, from “whites only” laws to “redlining,” which prevented people of color from getting mortgages. The problem worsened when government stopping investment in areas like the South Bronx, he said.

“Like a body, if you don’t take care, it deteriorates,” DeRienzo said of neighborhoods like Mott Haven and Hunts Point, which became slums due to government neglect. Now that upscale developments are being planned across the area, he said, the very people who stayed and sacrificed to defend these neighborhoods are at risk of losing their homes.

Nancy Biberman, a developer, said people often misunderstand the catch-all term gentrification when the real issue is a property owner’s rights.

“What we are really talking about is real estate speculation, and it has nothing to do with who is moving in,” said Biberman, who chairs WHEDco, the Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation. “And that’s a fundamental right of a property owner’s decision to make.”

In a discussion after the panel, one attendee countered that gentrification has advantages, such as making neighborhoods feel more cosmopolitan. But Fredericks argued that did not help her family, two artists and a pastry chef, when they lived in Brooklyn.

“Being cosmopolitan and wanting all these good things did us no good,” she said. “We wanted those things, too. But it came at the expense of our apartments.”

Others said that the housing being built that the city deems “affordable,” isn’t for them, and pointed out that South Bronx neighborhoods need more investment for low income residents.

Resident Jade Vasquez said that she and her friends have formed a group called Potluck and Politics whose main objective is building community bonds.

“We bring food, and we just talk about our feelings and how a certain topic is affecting us and what we can do to get involved,” said Vasquez.

So far, the group has discussed healthcare, immigration and other policy issues, but gentrification is one topic they will focus on closely in the near future, she said.

For more information about Potluck and Politics, their Facebook is Potluck-tics.