27 Oct Reclaiming Your Community
Through of the much of the last century, urban neighborhoods populated by Black and brown people, have been defined as places where not to live. Our long history of redlining, deliberate housing discrimination, crime, environmental pollution and benign neglect has systematically made residing in these communities of color undesirable. Success for the brightest and most talented individuals born in these areas is most often expressed by how far their education, talent and hard work can allow them to escape from the sidewalks, streets, shops and storefronts that their family and friends still call home. The unfortune brain drain of the talent pool has created a multi-generational downward spiral of poverty with few prospects for prosperity. And under these circumstances it seems the only way to succeed is to leave.
In her book, Reclaiming Your Community: You don’t have to move out of your neighborhood to live in better one, Majora Carter offers a step-by-step instruction manual on how to revitalize even the most impoverished of American cities. She demonstrates that with much meticulous attention, compassionate care and love these urban enclaves can become the preferred homeplaces of people from every stratum of society. Through her lived experiences from childhood in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx borough of New York City, Carter leads her readers through an insightful journey of persistence and perseverance in which she discovers the pathway toward creating a vibrant community that is not only resilient but resplendent with opportunities for economic growth.
Beginning on the banks of the Bronx River, Carter’s plan for reclamation focused initially on the preservation of the natural environment. In her remarkable vision, the river became a conduit of change that reinvigorated the entire neighborhood.
“Sunlight was glinting off the water, and it reminded me of golden birds lighting on the water just to delight me. And a gentle but crisp breeze gave me a whiff of success to come,” she writes in the book. “This. This is the beginning of my neighborhood’s transformation…This is how we are going to show that we are more than the trash that our city and state believe we are. Watch me.”
It was through her activism as a community leader Carter’s important work gained national recognition. Among her many accomplishments she was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, the so-called Genius Grant in 2005 as well as a Peabody Award in 2010 for her Public Radio program “The Promised Land”. A self-styled “urban revitalization strategist”, Carter was pivotal in establishing community engagement partnerships through her organization Sustainable South Bronx which made her home community a safer place for outdoor recreation as well as natural wildlife restoration in the heart of a bustling city.
But it is as real estate developer that Carter has made a lasting impact on the neighborhood in which she grew up. She created the Boogie Down Grind Café as both a viable business and a center for community interaction. With her husband James Chase she purchased and began the renovation of the Hunts Point Railway Station designed by the architect Cass Gilbert. As the daughter of a Pullman Porter, men whose service on America’s transcontinental train system formed the backbone of the Black middleclass, Carter had grounded herself in the historic legacy of self-improvement through community investment. She has built a life for herself very near the same location where her father bought his first house more than half a century ago. Within her professional acumen and dedicated service to her neighborhood, she has added value to the many square blocks of Bronx property that has slowly and surely begun to attract the interests of outside investors and homebuyers.
Unfortunately, as her success continued to grow, Carter became the constant target of criticism as a contributor to what is commonly known as “gentrification”. By making her Bronx neighborhood an attractive place to live and work, it was suggested that she was selling out her own people and their culture for profit.
“Our coffee shop was part of our approach to real estate development which creates lifestyle incentives that stem the tide of brain drain in low-status communities by giving people born and raised there reasons to want to stay and reinvest themselves emotionally, financially and spiritually,” Carter writes. “I reject the notion that specialty coffee shops belong to white hipsters with skinny jeans and ironic beards in gentrifying neighborhoods. Coffee came first from Africa, spread to the Middle East and Asia, and was brought via colonialism to the Americas…coffee is the Blackest beverage on earth, thank you very much. Reclaiming a little piece of the specialty coffee market as a Black-owned business was apropos for our real estate and economic development.”
As a dynamic force for social change with long ranging impacts, Carter is never one to shrink from conflict or controversy. By embracing the concept of “self-gentrification” she advocates for the creation of a higher standard of living for low-status community residents that includes a living wage and affordable housing. For her purposes, that means savvy real estate development and good ol’ fashioned capitalism. By lifting up the expectations of her neighbors to demand better conditions in which to build a home and raise a family, she prescribes a worthwhile alternative to relocating to someplace new.
“Our approach might be considered problematic to some, and sometimes it does feel lonely when I stick my neck out,” Carter writes “However, I remain encouraged because I know I am not alone. I am not the only one getting caught trying to accomplish what the late congressman John Lewis famously called ‘good trouble’.”
In her book Carter provides a series of case-studies that illustrate the successful application of her basic formula for bringing an idea to reality = “Discipline + Work + Time”. She calls out the work of organizations like the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative lead by Noni Session in Oakland, Symone Walters, a community activist who l lost her son Taji to gang violence in Toronto and Ken Weinstein, a Philadelphia-based real estate developer who created Jumpstart Germantown, a program that provides start-up capital and training for aspiring entrepreneurs. With each example Carter demonstrates how a person with passion and the determination to make a difference can create a neighborhood worth living in.
“By demonstrating that we do not have to participate in a cycle that adds to our collective failures, we can show that building landscapes of hope and possibility are achievable in places that have been written off all across America and in our hearts,” she writes. “No one should have to move out of their neighborhood to live in a better one.”
University of Wisconsin Madison Nelson Institute For Environmental Studies
With financial support from the Schlecht Family Foundation
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