Whose Barrio? Q&A with Directors Ed Morales and Laura Rivera

By Guest Columnist Aug 12, 2009

By Tiffany Chow Whose Barrio? is a documentary that was screened last week at the New York International Latino Film Festival. The film is a great primer for those who want to learn about the basics of gentrification. The displacement of one community, usually low-income ethnic groups, by structural property takeovers is also known as "developing" a community and it’s no new phenomenon. Neighborhoods such as the Mission District in San Francisco or Williamsburg in Brooklyn have dramatically changed faces and atmosphere as the upwardly mobile seek out new spaces to invest in. A palimpsest effect has taken over the cultural histories of Spanish Harlem and Morales strives to share its devastating effects of those being pushed to the margins. Ironically, these places were originally created to house and centralize certain populations are now being deemed potentially valuable real estate. Morales’ main focus is the community’s attempt to hold onto its identity as a cultural epicenter for Latinos in the U.S. We got to sit down with the film’s directors, Ed Morales and Laura Rivera. Check out their thoughts on gentrification, culture, community and history as it’s unfolding in Harlem. RaceWire: What do you see as a key difference between the Spanish takeover of Harlem from the Italians and Jews versus the white takeover of Harlem from the Latino community? Laura Rivera: The period when Puerto Ricans began settling in significant numbers in East Harlem, in the mid-1950s, coincided with the widespread development of suburban housing on Long Island and other places. The populations of Italians and Jews in East Harlem had matured. No longer were they part of an enclave of poor and working-class immigrants. Rather, they had largely assimilated into a higher socioeconomic status. For many of them, moving out of East Harlem – and into suburban areas touted by developers as the solution to the problems of urban life, i.e., crime and poverty (with a strong subtext of discrimination against the newcomers) – was a symbol that they had done well for themselves and their family. What is happening now in East Harlem, in terms of gentrification, is in some ways the opposite phenomenon. Here you have the construction of new housing stock marketed to owners with higher incomes than the current population. As a result, the neighborhood has seen an influx of residents of a higher socioeconomic class, many of them white. Their ability to pay a rent that longtime residents can’t afford, as Jose Rivera remarks in the movie, creates upward pressure on rents in the neighborhood, to say nothing of the housing stock for sale. Ed Morales: The Puerto Rican “takeover” of East Harlem, even though contested, happened in the context of a time when the cities were crumbling and fiscally non-viable. The housing was designed for the working class, but the industrial workforce was shrinking, which began a cycle of poverty for groups who were unable to take advantage of postwar prosperity. “White flight” to the suburbs was also subsidized and maintained by redlining practices in which banks rarely gave mortgages to people of color. With the return of middle-class whites to the inner city, poor and working poor people are being displaced to peripheral neighborhoods, which is reminiscent of the European urban model. RW: Can you talk more about the process and incentives of the government selling land for $1? LR:…[T]he city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, through its Cornerstone Program, provides incentives for developers to build mixed-income housing. Among those incentives, the city disposes of city-owned land at one dollar per tax lot. I have seen at least a few projects advertised to bidders noting the $1 per tax lot price tag. Here’s a little more information about the program: http://www.nyc.gov/html/hpd/html/developers/large-scale-cornerstone.shtml The city’s charter gives the Mayor authority to approve the sale or lease of public land for less than fair market value under a number of circumstances. Also, the city’s Economic Development Corporation is authorized to sell city-owned property for less than fair market value under a "negotiated disposition," also under various scenarios. I don’t know under which of these programs/legal provisions Artemis (the firm pictured in the film) got the $1 deal in East Harlem. EM: I’m just guessing but I think the rationale for these sweetheart deals is that supposedly the real estate developers “develop” the land in a more efficient way than the city could, and that they grow the city’s tax base by attracting higher-income people who will pay property and income taxes. Of course it’s kind of a legacy of Reaganomics, the idea that private capital is the most beneficial to a society while government spending and administration is what causes cities to falter economically. In this case this kind of thinking implies that poor and working class people are of little benefit to society because they don’t contribute much to the tax coffers and it benefits the city to move them out. The evidence isn’t really that clear yet but it’s possible that some of the stimulus spending put in place by the Obama administration may prove to benefit urban areas in more equitable ways in the coming months. RW: Can you tell me more about the elected officials of the area and their role in the current shaping of their communities? EM: “Whose Barrio?” in some ways offers a critique of the role of elected officials in the gentrification process. City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito takes a pragmatic position on the issue even though she has had a background of labor organizing and grassroots politics. She sees gentrification as kind of inevitable, and her role is to defend the community and extract concessions from developers while leading the fight for affordable housing and the retention of the neighborhood’s ethnic quality. I think in many ways she has been important in doing so—she was elected after the community was upset about a previous uptown development…that among other things featured luxury housing and an L.A.-style virtual reality theme plaza that celebrated “Latino culture.” With her input (and she would say, the input of the community through her) that project became the E. 125th Street project, whose final vote was documented in the film. She is currently trying to gain support for passing an anti-warehousing law that would in theory create much-needed affordable housing. In some ways I think her work is laudable, but I’m not sure how it will work out in the long run…Mark-Viverito is also active in this symbolic attempt to retain the historical character of the neighborhood. She’s up for re-election this fall. RW: One aspect I wish your film had gone into more detail about are the historic laws that eventually gave people of color the right to property ownership. How do laws that were set in place many decades ago continue to effect urban communities? What can ownership do for a community? EM: In theory the idea of home ownership as preserving a stake in a neighborhood like El Barrio makes a lot of sense, and many of my peers have bought into the idea. However, not all of them, I would say most of them, even though they have good jobs, have not been able to buy into East Harlem because the prices are prohibitive. If the structure of real estate pricing were fair and middle-class people could afford to buy property, I think it would be the best way to assure the neighborhood retain its ethnic quality. But the Manhattan real estate market is so out of control (even now in the middle of the recession) that even well-meaning homeowners with spaces to rent can’t afford to keep the rents affordable. I’ve also been thinking, and this is only my theory, that the recession’s effect of shifting the market from buyers of luxury condos to renters isn’t helping either, because the rents they’re asking for are still too high for average people from the neighborhood and this has only resulted in a slightly more downscale gentrifier moving in. RW: What are resources available to community members who want to become active in preserving their home? EM: City Councilwoman Mark-Viverito sponsors an anti-gentrification task force that includes non-profits and community orgs in the neighborhood like Hope Community and Picture the Homeless. People can show up at community board meetings and make the approval process more difficult. Other groups include Movement for Justice in El Barrio, Esperanza del Barrio and East Harlem Preservation. In the upcoming mayoral race, I think voting against incumbent Mayor Mike Bloomberg would be a possible way to slow down the relentless forces of rampant real estate development. The deals that his Economic Development Corporation make are ones that favor large-scale developers who are hardly interested in the neighborhoods they build in.