(All photos by Adi Talwar)
Speaking before a crowd of at least 1,000 people who mobbed the gym floor at St. Nicholas of Tolentine School last Sunday, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. said the battle for living wages jobs at the Kingsbridge Armory was the beginning of a movement for economic justice in the borough, calling it “our new revolution here, our new civil rights movement.”
The Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition organized the forum, called “A Blueprint for the Bronx,” to lay out their agenda on a broad range of issues at the federal, state, and city level, including immigration reform, universal healthcare, vacancy decontrol, and overcrowded schools. But most of the crowd said they were there to support community efforts to ensure living wage jobs and school space at the Kingsbridge Armory.
People came from all over the Bronx, and many came straight from church. They arrived singing hymns in English and Spanish and carrying homemade signs and banners with the name of their congregations. Many arrived on buses organized by their church.
"We're protesting about the armory. We want to make the decision about what goes in the armory," like a school, said Greg Miller, who came on a bus with, he estimated, 60 other people from Walker Memorial Baptist Church on East 169th Street. "We have enough stores around here," he said.
"We don't need any more stores in the Bronx," agreed Idrena Adams of the East Bronx, who came with members of her congregation from St. James Church nearby. "We want better jobs, better pay."
A group from University Heights Presbyterian Church arrived and stood outside singing hallelujah and clapping as they waited to sing in and enter the gym. Rev. Brenda Berry said they had come "In support of the Armory project, to fight for full-time jobs for the Bronx and a whole new focus on what the Bronx needs." She was expecting 100 members of her congregation to show up.
The Tolentine gym was filled to capacity.
Inside, people packed the gym in the basement of the Tolentine Church, filling folding chairs, bleachers, and standing along the walls, waving small flags that read "Blueprint for the Bronx." Signs on the walls said, "Say no way to poverty pay!" and "Save our jobs! Vote No!"
Up on stage, elected officials and clergy members sat facing the audience, and for two hours, NWBCC organizers, local clergy, and local elected officials spoke, interspersed with music, dance, and a poetry recital. Members of the NWBCC pulled elected officials up to the microphone and asked them to answer straight on the coalition's agenda, ranging from banking reform to, of course, the armory.
Switching back and forth between Spanish and English for the benefit of the crowd, Diaz focused on the Armory, and what he called, "our new revolution here, our new civil rights movement."
"I want to do business in the Bronx,” Diaz said, [but] “it is not radical to simply say, a) we should protect surrounding businesses and b) we should have jobs and living wages," Diaz said. ""You want to do business, we can do business. But business has to be good for everybody. "
‘Bronx has my back!’
Diaz added that the political pressure on him to support the deal with Related before a community benefits agreement has been signed has been intense. "But I know the Bronx has my back!" he shouted, bringing the crowd to its feet in a din of cheers and whistles.
After his speech, Diaz told the Bronx News Network he didn't yet have the support of the full Bronx delegation in the City Council, which will vote on the project next month. "If Related does not want to negotiate, I will ask the City Council to vote no," he said, adding that he had a three-hour breakfast with the Bronx delegation on Saturday. But, he said, "I'm not willing to guarantee that the entire delegation is together" right now.
Diaz said the vote earlier this month at the City Planning Commission, in which two other borough presidents directed their representatives to vote with him against the plan, was encouraging: "I think the tone is changing,” he said. “I think they [Related] realize we have a lot of support outside the borough."
As for the Council members present at the forum, Joel Rivera, the Council’s majority leader who represents the 15th District, promised to vote no on the project unless Related negotiates with KARA. Asked about her position when she left the meeting, Melinda Katz of Queens, who chairs the Council’s Land Use Committee, was noncommittal. “I’m here to support the Coalition,” she said.
[We were not able to approach Councilman Oliver Koppell, who represents the northwest Bronx and has long taken an interest in the Armory, and Robert Jackson of Manhattan for their positions before they left.
Council Member Maria Baez, who was defeated for reelection in the September primary and will leave office at the end of this year, was not in attendance, even though Tolentine and the armory are in her district.]
March to the Armory
After the forum, the remains of the crowd marched to the Kingsbridge Armory, breaking into intermittent shouts of "Si, se puede!" and "Yes, we can!"
Queens councilman Tony Avella, chair of the City Council's Zoning & Franchises committee, turned up to tell the crowd, "Until you get what you want, I'm voting no."
Councilman Tony Avella of Queens spoke to the crowd at the Armory.
As the crowd dispersed, NWBCC organizers passed out small 'prayer cards' with residents' wishes for the armory written on them, for protesters to tie to the armory fence.
As she fastened a string of the prayer cards to the fence, Anne Gibbons, a Kingsbridge resident who came with members of her congregation at New Day Church, said she was hopeful that momentum was building around the issue. "This could be the start of a new direction across the city," she said, when elected officials "take a political risk in favor of the people for a change."
--This story was reported and written by Rachel Waldholz.