The New York City Health Department came to Fannie Lou Hamer High School on Thursday to hear from South Bronx residents. It was the latest in a series of monthly meetings to encourage residents to provide feedback on the city’s plan for redeveloping a 130-block swath of Southern Boulevard from Longwood to Crotona Park.
Previous topics for the monthly meetings have included food and restaurants and housing. This month’s topic was “Violence as A Public Health Issue.”
They didn’t get very far.
“Rezoning is violence,” members of grassroots activist group Take Back the Bronx shouted, both outside the school before the meeting started, then again inside the schoolroom during the meeting. They and other critics of the plan suspect that the city will not just tinker with details to improve residents’ lives, but will rezone the area in a way that will lead to mass displacement of current residents. The city says that’s not so.
The protesters began interrupting the presentation about three minutes in, just after a representative from the city’s health department, Elizabeth Hamby, introduced herself.
“Our approach to this conversation is really to think about violence as an issue,” Hamby began, but was cut short when protesters in the back of the room demanded she speak in Spanish. The tongue-in-cheek request soon turned into chants and megaphone speeches while the agency representatives stood motionless alongside maps and diagrams they had laid out.
The presenters tried to regain control of the meeting twenty-some minutes later, but a school security guard entered the room, announcing that the event was over and instructing everyone to vacate the room.
The city contends that the neighborhood study is intended to stave off tenant displacement and harassment, and to incorporate residents’ needs into any future development, adding that any rezoning would be minor.
“No proposals have been developed or decisions made regarding zoning, except that DCP will not rezone the entire study area,” reads a one-page description of the neighborhood study on the Department of City Planning’s website. It notes that the neighborhood study is meant to bring residents and city agencies together to identify needs and goals before decisions are made. “Then we will identify tools to meet those goals, which could include changes to the zoning, City investments, new services, and other strategies,” it continues.
Claudia Sumner-Beck is skeptical that is the way things will play out. After the meeting imploded the 65-year-old massage therapist, who lives a few blocks from where the aborted meeting was scheduled, recounted business and youth nonprofit ideas that she says she and her friends hope to launch.
“People here have a lot of ideas,” she said. Hers were the kind of locally grown ideas that the city says it wants to incorporate into its plans through the monthly meetings. But Sumner-Beck said she had no intention of discussing her aspirations to create grassroots nonprofits at the Thursday evening meeting with the city representatives, or at any subsequent meeting with them.
“They don’t want to hear our ideas because what they want to do, they already did it, and what we’ve got to say don’t make no difference,” she said.
“They’re trying to sugar coat things to say ‘oh, we gave them a chance to voice their opinion,’” when the opportunity to do so was after-the-fact, she added.
The protesters comprised the vast majority of the meeting’s attendees. Many who protested in front of the school just before the meeting was set to begin donned shirts from various activist groups and union coalitions. Construction worker Sharon Lessington, a member of Local 79 for 40 years, was among them. At present, she said, the only union that the city plans to work with on the project is hers. Even so, she said, she and other members of Local 79 had come out to participate in the protest.
“We’re out here for them,” she said of the numerous other local unions not contracted by the city on the project.
The planning department began conducting the neighborhood study in November 2016. Although activists have confronted city officials at previous monthly Neighborhood Study meetings in the past.