A Harlem charter takeover

October 22, 2010

The Harlem Children's Zone is trying to get its way without input from the community.

WILLIAM DANZY, Sandra Thomas and thousands of their neighbors in Harlem are about to lose their green space--to the construction of yet another charter school.

Smack in the middle of 14 buildings known as the St. Nicholas Houses--a sprawling complex between 127th and 131 Streets, and 7th and 8th Avenues in Harlem--is an open-air park, with trees, grass, benches and playgrounds. Currently, 129th Street runs toward the center of the complex, but terminates in a gentle cul-de-sac. No cars can pass through, and consequently, it's quiet. Remarkably quiet.

"All of this is gone," William told me, waving his hand to indicate the length of the park.

With money from Goldman Sachs, the city government and other sources, Geoff Canada wants to build another Harlem Children's Zone charter school. He needs to raise $100 million.

William and Sandra, who live in the St. Nicholas Houses, oppose the plan. They formed a group called Citizens for the Preservation of the St. Nicholas Houses in Harlem. "Our campaign is to stop Harlem Children's Zone from building a school here," William said, "to stop them from tearing down the park for a through-street, to maintain these green spaces."

Sandra, who was born in the St. Nicholas Houses and whose parents still live there, sees Canada's plan as part of a larger attack on the public sector. "They want to dismantle public education and public housing," she said.

I asked: How are the two connected? "The federal government owns the land," she explained. "The city is buying the land and then leasing it to Geoff Canada. Since the city is interested in privatization, that's just one step closer to putting it in the hands of private real estate developers." She added, "Once the land is sold, it's gone."

But what if Geoff Canada is building a great school, I asked. Isn't that a good thing? "Geoff Canada and [New York City Housing Authority Chairman] John Rhea are nothing but 21st century poverty pimps," William interjected. "John Rhea was appointed by Bloomberg to further privatization. He wants to reduce the government's obligation to the poor, all in the name of social rescue. And these charter schools weed out the physically handicapped, kids with learning disabilities. How is that improving education?"

Sandra agreed. "Bloomberg wants to privatize education," she added, "so he's letting public schools fall by the wayside and is promoting charter schools." "Great schools are good," Williams said. "But not here. Not taking this open space."

IN ADDITION to the charter school, 129th Street will be opened up to connect the avenues, and there are plans for a 49-car underground garage. "We're talking about a minimum of 2,000 extra people coming through here every day," William said, "not to mention cars, buses and trucks."

William showed me a plan for the area that includes an additional 13-story building over the garage. The building does not appear on designs posted online by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) or by the Harlem Children's Zone. "They took it down because of our organizing," William said, "but they said they'll come back to it later."

The original concept behind these projects, William explained, was to avoid the problems of the old slums on the lower-east side of Manhattan. There, public housing was cramped and crowded. Disease spread easily, along with frustration and social tension.

"Each of these buildings is like a whole block of brownstones. So right here," William said, indicating the buildings immediately around us, "you have six blocks in a two-block radius. The idea behind these houses was to have open spaces, services, community centers. There used to be a drama program here. There used to be music instruction here, where kids could learn to play an instrument. And there used to be a 24-hour police presence."

William and Sandra both claim that the police have pulled back their uniformed patrols in recent years. "They want to label this place as crime-ridden," William said.

Other services have been pulled back, too. "It used to be a lot nicer," Sandra told me. "The arts programs are gone, and the grounds are not as well-maintained." As we chatted, a large group of teenagers gathered across the park from us. "Look at them," Sandra said. "Where are the community activities for the teenagers? There's nothing for them to do."

On its Web site, Harlem Children's Zone claims that the project will provide jobs for 100 people. William doesn't think it's enough. "They talk about 100 jobs," he said, "but that consists of summer youth employment, part-time jobs and some full-time jobs. It's not 100 full-time jobs. They're just putting that out to weaken the opposition."

According to the two activists, NYCHA has blocked them from using the community center to organize. Although several thousand people live in the houses, they have so far collected only 700 signatures. "Many people are afraid to sign," Sandra explained. "It's easy to lose your public housing. They throw people out on technicalities all the time."

William and Sandra brought 40 residents to a Community Board meeting, but were told that they weren't "on the agenda." Many spoke anyway during the public comment section, but others felt discouraged.

BOTH INSIST that the tenants have not had been given adequate opportunity to review the plans. "They put up a sign that said 'Tenant meeting.' No details, no topic, and maybe 15 people come," William said. At such a meeting, the tenant association president, Willie Mae Lewis, decided to give the project her blessing.

Patricia Hardy, the nominal treasurer of the tenant association, isn't surprised. "It's not a tenant association, it's the Willie Mae Lewis association," she said over the phone a few days later. "She comes in with directives, and that's it. No one has any function but her. The whole association is a farce. She even rewrites the minutes."

At the last tenant meeting, Willie Mae Lewis held up papers that she claimed prove that William Danzy is not a tenant. In fact, after the death of his mother, William sued for the right to remain in her apartment. The matter is still in court.

"It's like being in a Third World country," Hardy told me. "The executive board never voted on this project. I first heard about it on the news."

"No public hearing, no discussion," William said, "They just did it. And since the tenant association is the legal representative of the tenants, NYCHA has fulfilled its legal requirement for public input. Never mind that there was never an executive board vote. Never mind that the tenant association president was only elected by 23 people. That's not a mandate. Meanwhile, we've got 700 people who don't want the construction."

Final approval for the project is still pending. "We've got to speak up," Sandra said, "we've got to raise our voices."

A woman passing by stopped to talk to Sandra. When she found out I was writing an article about the new construction, she chimed in. "I grew up here, " she said. "I feel safer with my kids playing here. I don't let my kids play on the outside playgrounds. There's gangs over there. In here, it's safe, and it's easier to watch them. That's why I don't want them to take these parks. We're gonna be like sardines in here."

She left, and our attention shifted to a new group of teens walking boldly toward the first group. The conversation stopped abruptly, and William stood, staring. Thinking there might be a fight, Sandra took out her cell phone and prepared to call 9-1-1. When the two groups met, though, there were only handshakes and smiles. Sandra smiled, too.

When the green space is gone, things might be different.

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