Saturday, November 1, 2014

What Morgan Powell Feared the Most: The Gentrification of the Bronx

As Morgan Powell's many friends and admirers try to grapple with his passing and affirm his legacy, we should not forget that one of the things he feared most was that his tireless efforts to preserve, improve and bring public attention to the Bronx's rivers and waterways could lead to displacement of the Bronx's residents by developers and elected officials who invited them in.

This was an irony Morgan spoke to me about many occasions during the last four years, particularly in the neighborhoods adjoining the Bronx River. As the twenty year effort of environmentalists and community activists to clean up the River and create new parks and walkways along its banks was finally bearing fruit, Morgan was worried- for good reason- that the neighborhoods along the river, which were overwhelmingly populated by working class Blacks and Latinos and recent immigrants, were going to rise in value and that landlords in those communities were going to start raising rents beyond the capacity of its current residents.

Worse yet, Morgan feared, industrial neighborhoods alongside the lower portion of the river were going to be rezoned for housing and market level housing was going to be constructed there with rents far beyond the ability of local residents to pay,setting in motion a rent and displacement spiral similar to what has happened in Park Slope, the Lower East Side, Harlem and Washington Heights.
Morgan was right to be afraid, Right now, a market level housing complex is going up along a formerly industrial strip on West Farms road, right next to Fanny Lou Hamer High School. Morgan spoke out about this complex at meetings of two local community board, but his comments were ignored and the development was approved.

But even though Morgan lost this battle, we can't let the developers win the war. Every time someone proposes a market level housing development for the Bronx, every time an elected official proposes rezoning a district from industrial to residential, those who admired Morgan and his work must be present to speak out against and stop those plans.

It would be a terrible tragedy if Morgan's crusade to beautify Bronx rivers and waterfront areas so that working class and immigrant Bronx residents could enjoy the natural beauty in their midst, would lead to displacement of those residents just as the crusade began to succeed.