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El Barrio Fights Back Against Globalized Gentrification

From London’s Grosvenor Square  you can’t see East Harlem., but you can buy it. For £250 million. 47 buildings and 1,137 homes at a time. That, at least, was supposed to be the deal for UK-based investment bank Dawnay, Day Group when it reached across the ocean last March and snatched up entire blocks of this historic neighborhood of low-income immigrants—one of the last such communities left in Manhattan.

Dawnay, Day Group’s plan follows the typical logic of displacement for “development,” a logic well known both to real estate profiteers and to the poor people they displace. East Harlem tenants like Carmen Sanchez know the game: “The only purpose is to take us out of our homes. So they can renovate our apartments and then rent them for ten times what we are paying now.” Director Phil Blakeley has publicly pledged to do as much, saying the company is doing its part to “bring along Harlem’s gentrification” as a beachhead in its bid to build a $5 billion real estate empire here.

Yet Dawnay, Day may have gotten more than it bargained for in East Harlem, known as El Barrio to those who call it home. Here, the powerful multinational corporation has run into a different kind of power, the power of a community ready to defend its right to exist.

For tenants, the company’s offer to “bring along Harlem’s gentrification” can be translated to mean harassment, eviction, displacement –experiences all too familiar to the people of Harlem, if all too invisible to the media. For every time we hear of the deepening housing crisis facing homeowners, we hear nothing of the other housing crisis—the perpetual crisis that low-income renters face every day in cities like New York, in neighborhoods like East Harlem.

But here is a “community in resistance.” Since 2004, inspired by the Zapatista rebels of Mexico and by a long tradition of struggle in their neighborhood, tenants have organized themselves into a force to be reckoned with, a force called Movement for Justice in El Barrio (MJB). For four years, led by the community itself, MJB has battled the gentrification juggernaut from the ground up, winning victory after victory, building by building.

On April 6, Movement for Justice in El Barrio descended on New York’s City Hall. They marched up the steep stone steps of the municipal palace—mothers, fathers, children and elders helping each other up the steps as they called out to one another:

—¡Si se puede!

—What do we want? Fair housing!

—El Barrio, united, will never be defeated!

Following an indigenous invocation, and standing among hand-painted signs and banners and a giant puppet of a masked Zapatista woman, the hundreds assembled declared that they were taking their struggle against gentrification to the next level:  Today would see the launch of their International Campaign in Defense of El Barrio.

“Dawnay, Day Group is waging a war against our community from their headquarters across the ocean,” they proclaimed in a recent declaration, “with the sole purpose of forcing us from our homes in order to increase their profits…Together, we make our dignity resistance and we fight back against the actions of capitalist landlords and multinational corporations who are displacing poor families from our neighborhood. We fight back locally and across borders.”

Both faces of the struggle were on vivid display on the steps of City Hall. On the local front, tenants shared their experiences with the new capitalist on the block— speaking of a campaign of threats and harassments, of needed repairs never made, of supposed debts never owed, of actions befitting an absentee slumlord. They told their supporters how MJB is fighting back, as it has done before, with tenant committees demanding dignified conditions in their buildings, members taking Dawnay, Day to court for illegal harassment, and growing grassroots mobilizations bringing heat in the streets.

Tenant activist Filiberto brought a clear message for the company, and another for the community:  “¡Ya Basta! Enough!…We know how this multinational company works. They want to squash us at any cost. They want to displace the immigrants, people of color, poor people, our people.” But the people would not go quietly:  “We are El Barrio. We believe in El Barrio. And we are not going to go. Here we are going to stay.”

As the crowd erupted  in shouts and chants (“¡Aqui estamos! ¡Y no nos vamos!”), Filiberto insisted:  “We are going to save El Barrio.”

If they save El Barrio, there will be no politicians to thank for it. In a year when so many are looking to the political system for salvation, MJB looks to its own community for solution, believing the struggle can only be won by the people of El Barrio themselves, not by those who claim to represent them. So MJB came to City Hall also to denounce those within its walls:  The City Council, which has rubberstamped the displacement of thousands across Harlem and beyond, and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which is doing little to preserve anything more than landlords’ profits.

Clutching her baby girl, Josefina Salazar spoke of the complicity of elected officials who know nothing of the life or the will of the people:  “We are here to let it be known who the politicians really are…[The politician] does not know what it is to live and suffer the bad conditions in our homes.” Behind her, the faces of the crowd were turned not towards the halls of power, but towards each other.

As promised, the struggle has overflowed across borders and across the ocean, reaching from community to community in a “fight against the global empire of money. A fight against neoliberalism. A fight for humanity.” In a very real way, this immigrant-led organization has always struggled without borders–its “urban Zapatistas” have already joined those in Mexico as part of the Other Campaign, and have stood with Mexico’s social movements against those who would crush them.

Now MJB is extending the fight across the Atlantic, taking its message from its own neighborhood to Dawnay, Day’s and setting out on a whirlwind tour of cities in England, Scotland, France, and Spain. There, according to Oscar Dominguez, members will “invite the communities of the world to accompany us in our international campaign…When we have any activity against that company, they, in the places where they live, will accompany us in taking direct action.”

In a company like Dawnay, Day, gentrification has reached global proportions. In the International Campaign in Defense of El Barrio, Dawnay, Day now faces the prospect of a resistance as global as its capital, a challenge as transnational as the threat it poses to community.

Such corporations would rather keep a safe distance from the people affected and displaced by their dealings. But the people below are encircling their corporate castles and city halls, uniting in defense of their homes, their cultures and communities. The resistance began on the block, in the heart of El Barrio, but now it is echoing on a thousand blocks, in a thousand barrios. It can even be heard in the distance from the corporate boardrooms, the shout growing louder, coming closer, impossible to shut out:

—¡No nos moverán! We will not be moved!

MICHAEL GOULD-WARTOFSKY is a  writer and activist from New York City. His work has appeared in The Nation, TomDispatch, Z, and the book Poets Against the War. He can be reached at:  mikegouldwartofsky@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

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