Persecuting the “undesirables”

September 9, 2015

Don Lash analyzes the moneyed interests behind a gentrification plan in East Harlem.

A NEW "quality of life" initiative is beginning in an area of New York City centered on the intersection of Lexington Avenue and East 125th Street--perhaps the busiest corridor in East Harlem. Summoned by an assortment of civic improvement groups, business owners, nonprofit and for-profit developers, and landlords, a succession of politicians has come to the area for walkthroughs, photo ops and press conferences.

And while some of these events have highlighted the neglect of the homeless, the plight of those seeking substance-abuse treatment and the city's indifference toward working-class communities of color, the general approach seems to be geared toward promoting gentrification in the central corridor of East Harlem, rather than solving the problems of the homeless, residents of the community or those coming to the neighborhood for treatment.

The East 125th and Lexington intersection is a transportation hub, connecting a subway station with three lines, eight bus lines and a commuter rail station. One bus line has the shortest route in Manhattan, running across the Triborough Bridge to Randall's and Ward's Islands. The islands contain no permanent housing, but are home to two men's homeless shelters, a residential drug treatment program and a forensic psychiatric hospital.

Picture the Homeless taking action earlier this summer
Picture the Homeless taking action earlier this summer (Picture the Homeless)

Every day, 1,000 men board the bus for a short ride to the line's last stop at the northwest corner of East 125th and Lexington, where they are discharged onto a narrow sidewalk next to the subway entrance. From there, some go to work; some go to one of the nine methadone clinics or other outpatient drug treatment facilities within an eight-block radius; others go to programs or appointments; still others are just looking to kill a little time before returning to the institutions.

On the southeast corner of the same intersection, there is a recycling center that draws homeless people who collect and return deposit cans and bottles to scratch out a meager existence.

However undeniable the congestion and other problems in the area related to the lack of services for the homeless and those needing substance abuse treatment, the area's residents and visitors did nothing to create these problems. Yet the narrative from politicians and those seeking to benefit from the "revitalization" of East Harlem is about the "undesirable elements" creating problems for the neighborhood.

IN THE spring of 2015, Melissa Mark-Viverito, the Democratic speaker of the City Council, in whose district the corridor sits, conducted a multiagency walkthrough, accompanied by an entourage of high-ranking police commanders and civilian officials, including the Commissioner of Homeless Services.

The immediate response included an increased police presence and a request to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to replace subway ventilation grates. The grates are raised above the sidewalk level to prevent flooding, which Mark-Viverito said made them too inviting for homeless people looking for a place to lie down. Later, the speaker requested a crackdown on the sale of synthetic marijuana in the area.

On August 27, another group of Democratic lawmakers loitered for the cameras at Lex and 125th to call for more vigorous law enforcement in the area. The press conference was called by Assemblyman Robert Rodriguez, who represents the area in the state legislature.

Rodriguez demanded still more police, the removal of the comfy subway grates and legislation limiting the number of methadone clinics in the area. Rodriguez was accompanied by Rep. Charles Rangel, who has represented the community in the U.S. Congress for the past 44 years, as well as the state senator who represents the area and another member of the Assembly from a neighboring district.

Interestingly, the two state legislators who accompanied Rodriguez have both announced they will run for Rangel's congressional seat when he retires at the end of the current term, and Rodriguez himself is reportedly considering entering the race as well.

Mark-Viverito expressed annoyance about the four politicians who attended the August 27 press conference, questioning their motives and promoting her own efforts to cleanse the area. The speaker, who is term-limited, has said she will not join the scrum to replace Rangel in Congress and has no further electoral plans, even as she raises money for a race she has no plans to run.

The electoral ambitions of the politicians involved are likely to be very relevant to their actions with regard to the East Harlem corridor. Real-estate interests are a major source of campaign contributions for state, city and federal elected officials. Real-estate entities and their employees have been by far the largest category of donors for Rodriguez, for example--and that doesn't include related categories such as finance, construction, building materials and insurance.

Largesse from development interests can therefore be said to have provided much of the campaign money he used to pay his fine and legal fees after a 2013 drunk driving conviction.

DEVELOPERS HAVE a keen interest in what happens in the vicinity of 125th and Lexington.

The photo-ops by Mark-Viverito, Rodriguez and the others were staged in front of a commercial block anchored by a large Pathmark supermarket. The Pathmark was built in the 1990s for $15 million, about 25 percent of it public funds. There was also public investment in tax subsidies for Pathmark, based on its promise to create 200 jobs for area residents.

The supermarket opened in 1999, after nearly a decade of effort to complete the project. While the new jobs were offset by those lost in smaller grocery stores squeezed out by Pathmark, the project was deemed a success because residents now had a full-service supermarket and a commitment from Pathmark to hire in the community.

Now, less than 20 years later, the nonprofit developer of the site, East Harlem Abyssinian Triangle, along with the city, which owns 49 percent, has sold the property for $39 million to a major for-profit developer, Extell Development.

Extell plans to build a 10-story building consisting of luxury condominiums, while setting aside 20 percent of units for "affordable housing." The standard for affordability in the city's "80/20" program, however, means that units designated as affordable require a household income of about $46,000 for a family of four, far in excess of the East Harlem median. In return, Extell will get a generous tax abatement. This follows the construction of several co-op and condo towers to the east, on a stretch of East 125th Street previously dominated by an eccentric collection of salvage businesses.

Extell Development and its president Gary Barnett have been known to be generous to politicians. In 2013, Extell subsidiaries donated $100,000 to Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo's re-election campaign. The same day, Cuomo signed a bill giving tax breaks to just five developers, among them Extell, which will benefit to the tune of $35 million over 10 years.

Less than three weeks later, Barnett personally donated an additional $100,000 to a Democratic Party fund that Cuomo accessed to run television commercials promoting his agenda. Cuomo's spokesperson said it was "beyond reckless" to make any connection between the donations and the targeted tax break.

When Pathmark opened in 1999, the CEO of the nonprofit developer said the project had "done what it was supposed to do--inspire new commercial development." At that time, she meant that it had begun to reverse the blight that produced vacant lots and empty storefronts.

But the way neighborhood economic development is carried out in urban areas, publicly subsidized projects set the stage for gentrification. Other developers, also expecting and receiving subsidies of one sort or another, follow. According to the logic of the real estate barons, when there is market demand for luxury housing and retail space, the more "down-market" commercial concerns that serve the existing neighborhood have outlived their usefulness--and are impediments that must be replaced.

This is about to happen with Pathmark, and elected officials have forgotten how vital a full-service supermarket and those 200 jobs were when Pathmark was a development priority.

As "consolation," Pathmark will have had its years of profitable operation, bolstered by tax subsidies, and the nonprofit former owner will reap a healthy profit from the sale. The residents of the luxury condos that will rise above the site where Pathmark sits will not miss Pathmark. Already, a Whole Foods is being built a few blocks west on 125th Street.

And if that's not convenient, just across the river, a major portion of the South Bronx waterfront has been turned over to FreshDirect. This will put a massive trucking terminal in the community with the highest concentration of childhood asthma in the country, but delivery to the new condo towers going up in East Harlem will be quick and easy.

BUT THERE remains the "impediment" of the homeless and drug-addicted, some of them lounging on subway grates rising above the sidewalk like steel divans. They will be watched and harassed by a beefed-up contingent of police, and eventually shunted off to areas not yet prioritized for development. Perhaps bus routes will be altered, and treatment programs relocated to less central locations. Whatever happens to them, their well-being will not be a priority.

Nor will the priority be the working-class people who live, work or go to school in the neighborhood. Many of these people are understandably frustrated by the congestion and tumult in the corridor, and for that reason, many welcome the promises of elected officials to "do something about 125th and Lexington."

Ultimately, however, some may find that their homes and workplaces have become an impediment to development--and if that happens, they won't be of primary importance for their elected officials either.

Although the elected officials--all of whom consider themselves "progressive Democrats"--along with the leaders of nonprofits and community boards, seem to be aligned with real-estate interests against the homeless, there is a fightback developing. Picture the Homeless, a grassroots organization led by homeless New Yorkers, is convening a rally for September 9, at 11 a.m., to turn the "crackdown" on the homeless into a search for real solutions to neighborhood issues.

"We need to fight back," Picture the Homeless declares in the announcement for the rally at 125th and Lexington. "The administration needs to adopt real solutions--not brutalize the victims of gentrification."

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