Building a Different Reality, at Justice Center en el Barrio

Last Saturday, the Justice Center en El Barrio was packed as organizers shared challenges and strategies for “Building a Different Reality.”

In the context of a citywide and global housing crisis, the event set out to share alternatives. “From fighting for rent control to implementing eviction protections to creating community-controlled housing”, the event material said, “we can build new housing while also providing immediate relief to tenants.”

You can watch the livestream here (part one) and here (part two).

The Justice Center’s Karla Reyes, who is a high school teacher, described her work with the Center as “organizing outside the classroom for the things my students need.”  With one in ten public school students in the city homeless, the right to housing is at the center of their needs.  “A home is a fundamental right,” she said. “You can’t do anything without a place to live.”

Welcoming the panel speakers, Karla said the place to look for solutions is in ourselves, and that “the answers are in our communities.”

Marina Ortiz of the East Harlem/El BarrioCommunity Land Trust described how the City provided $500,000 towards renovating four buildings in East Harlem within a land trust model – similar to that used by the Cooper Square community land trust on the Lower East Side. While a step forward, the amount pales in comparison, Ortiz said, to the multi-million renovation of the East Harlem events and retail space La Marketa. Now it will be important for the community to determine the future of the land trust on their own terms. “Our fight is to push the City and show them there is an alternative,” she said.

She referred to the dominance of the real estate and construction industries within the city and internationally: “they are how this economy works.” And, given the recent cut-backs among NYC local news outlets, said that “we need to create and tell our own stories, and tell them in our communities.”

Lena Melendez of Northern Manhattan is Not for Sale shared lessons from the recent rezoning in Inwood. The Economic Development Corporation’s own consultations, she said, did not include some of the people at the heart of the neighborhood – the auto-parts industry, and small mom and pop stores – and did not provide adequate translation.

Lena said that given the challenges of engaging people who are already tied up in their daily struggles organizers have to get creative. They held a sit-in at Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez’ office to generate media attention, and organized a block party with food and music. Don’t underestimate the power of music to move people, she said!

Chino May of the Bronx Social Center and Take Back the Bronx emphasized how critical it is to engage residents really early on in re-zoning processes, as his group and others are now doing with the upcoming likely re-zoning of an area stretching up from 163rd Street along the Bronx River.

Near the beginning of the event members of Semillas Collective reminded the audience through words and video of El Barrio’s deep historical roots, originally as indigenous land, and as a cradle of Latinx art, music, and organizing.

The combination of building on the work of ancestors, creative responses to the challenges of the present, and efforts to build a better future permeated the room. The Semillas collective read words from Marichuy, the indigenous leader and former Zapatista candidate for president of Mexico, including:

“Nos tejemos en colectivo como pueblos, y en este trabajo nos tejemos también como personas”

“We weave together collectively as a people. And in doing this work, we also weave and unite together as individuals.”

Further context:

The NYC Community Land Trust Movement Wants To Go Big – City Limits, January 2018

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