Community Organizing Led by Love

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By Akosua K Albritton

For years, it had become known that Brooklyn Community Board 9 (CB9) meetings could become contentious. Some board members and residents were dissatisfied with how District Manager Pearl Miles carried out her responsibilities. The struggle for control of the community board and the community itself came to a boiling point when an environmental assessment statement for the rezoning of Empire Boulevard was submitted to the community district office in December 2013 by 529 Empire Realty Corporation (prepared by Philip Habib and Associates and Sandstone Environmental Associates).

A number of high-rise residential buildings were being constructed on Flatbush Avenue. The future buildings would cast long shadows and would be priced for upper-income households; however, be considered affordable. Affordability is based on the Area Median Income. Rather than the AMI being based on the five boroughs, the AMI includes the five boroughs, Long Island and the lower five counties of upstate New York.

Community members had been opposed to the high-rise construction on Flatbush Avenue. This latest rezoning request suggested that Prospect-Lefferts Gardens and Prospect Park would experience higher population density, changes in architecture and changes in who lived in the area. Rather than acquiesce to the plan, the people of the community banded together to fight against Empire Boulevard’s rezoning. One group, Movement to Protect the People (MTOPP), would emerge as a people’s movement that city government would concede to. One tactic employed was taping CB9 committee and general meetings. The group also made an alliance with Tom Angotti, then-Chair of Hunter College’s Urban Planning Department. The following are responses to written questions by Alicia Boyd, the face of MTOPP and one of its key leaders.

1) Who coined the name Movement to Protect the People and from what ought the people be protected?

A small group of us coined it. We began the fight to stop the rezoning of the community. We came together to create the name. We realized that it was going to take a movement to protect this community and by doing so we would be protecting the people, not just the physical land.

2) What event ignited your community preservation fire? It was the first out-of-scale development that was going up along the perimeter of Prospect Park. We wanted to stop this as-of-right development that had almost 100% funding from the state and federal governments. But we were very late in the game and almost all of the deals had been done by the time we even knew about it. I had wanted to protect Prospect Park from the visual intrusion and I knew that other developments would be coming.

However, during that fight I found out that a serious rezoning was being planned to change my actual backyard into a tall 20- or 30-story building along Empire Blvd. I knew this type of development would be detrimental not only to my home and my neighbors’ but that we would lose the people through a massive amount of displacement. I couldn’t imagine living in my community without black people around me, so I promised to protect the residents in this community, both tenants and homeowners.

3) What does it take to activate residents to do something about the displacement taking place in their communities? It takes a lot of effort and energy. It takes educating people, showing them that they have power to do something. And that organizing and resisting can make a difference. Too often people say, “Oh, there is nothing you can do,” but we have shown that it is not true. We are powerful; we just have to use that power in a focused and concentrated way!

4) What is your assessment of MTOPP’s preservation efforts? What tactics does MTOPP use? We have been quite successful at preserving the community. We have stopped a major rezoning process from happening–where all of our avenues were being planned to have seriously tall skyscrapers and we have been able to protect the public assets such as the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and Prospect Park from development. Since we began our fight, there has not been another major development executed.

We have several strategies that we employ. Education, research, calling out our local politicians, organizing people, attending and getting involved in the local community boards where rezoning requests are submitted, uncovering corruption at the local community board, filing lawsuits to stop illegal behavior, filing Freedom of Information Act requests to find out what is being planned behind closed doors, and working with other organizations and groups that are fighting gentrification and displacement.

5) Who do you point to as your mentor? Is there a school or institute that you enrolled in to learn housing rights, community preservation? No, I don’t have a mentor. All of my work has been done as a hands-on activist. I have been very grateful to the information and knowledge that I have received from a lot of sources, such as Professor Angotti, who has schooled me in rezoning laws; former Councilman Charles Barron, who told me how to make local politicians accountable to the public; and, of course, my fellow activists in the field–learning from their successes and failures.

6) Will you please name the organizations that have joined with MTOPP? A list of organizations that MTOPP has worked with from time to time on different projects both in Brooklyn and citywide includes: BAN (Brooklyn Anti-gentrification Network), The Sullivan-Stoddard-Ludlum Block Association, FLAC (Flower Lovers Against Corruption), 320 Sterling St. Tenant Association, 300 Sterling St. Tenant Association, B&W Sterling St. Block Association, Washington Avenue Tenant Association, 901 Washington Avenue Tenant Association, Defend Public Libraries, Chinatown Working Group and more.

7) What is/are the current issues that MTOPP is dealing with? We just won a battle with a developer who wanted to rezone three blocks of a height-restricted zone along the perimeter of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. The developers have promised to come back when they can get the support of the local politicians. In other words: when it is not an election year. So we need to stay on top of this issue and prepare for when they do come back.

We need to address the issue during an election year when it comes to our local Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo, because she is clearly pro-developer and is only considering not doing the Brooklyn Botanic Garden deal because of her desire to get reelected. She has stated she is not a career politician and so we are concerned that if she is reelected, she will use the last two years in office to line her pockets with donations to her MoCADA museum at the expense of the people.

We also have four lawsuits pending in the courts that need to be answered. We continue to face illegal behavior by the community board to help this community become rezoned and so we continue to focus on uncovering the corruption that still exists at Community Board 9 and fight in the courts for a more democratic process, where a community board acts like an advocate of the community and not a rubber stamp for developers and politicians who are in bed with them.

8) MTOPP has 12 demands on a website. Have these demands been sent to any organization or government official? If yes, who received it and what is their response? Those demands actually come from BAN of which I am one of the main organizers. Yes, it has been sent to elected officials and in fact several of the demands have been met and thus, we are constantly updating it to reflect what we still need to do.

For the most part, the elected officials simply ignored the demands and a few agreed with some of them. For example, an assemblyman met with us just a few weeks ago about our demand to make the Area Median Income (AMI) that is used for the “affordable” category to be based upon the local AMI and not the federal government’s AMI which continues to be discriminatory to us. The assemblyman wants to propose a bill in Albany to use the AMI of the local area.

9) As the saying goes, “No woman is an island”. Who do you count as your collaborators? My neighbors, my friends, even my enemies have been instrumental. In fact, some of my enemies have become my friends as the fight has gotten to other areas of the community and into their backyards. I count the people in my community, the people who thank me and give money to us, the people who do our research and who cheer us on. We have a lot of people, a lot of allies and we continue to be thankful to all of them, because without them, this would not be a movement. Most importantly are the members of my group, who have stayed strong and committed to this movement from day one.

10) If you have a statement that you want to express, please do so now: One of the most important things is to believe that we are powerful and that we can affect change. That power isn’t about money; it is about the belief that each and every one of us can make a difference. That there are forces that we can’t see but are helping, supporting and directing our actions and that wrongs will be righted. This is the force of love and by using this energy we can continue to protect the 200,000 people who live in our community.