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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Diaz Calls Economic Development Fight at Armory ‘A New Civil Rights Movement’

Bronx B.P. Diaz delighted the crowd with his demand for living wage jobs at the Armory.
(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.


  1. What about a supermarket? While the employers at the Armory need to pay a living wage, just as important to the rest of the residents of the Bronx is the availability fresh, reasonably priced food.

  2. Right on anonymous! One of the strangest things to me about the armory debate is how certain issues just sort of float around and then go away. I would love to see a large, quality supermarket in the area.
    Someone please answer this question for me:
    Can schools even be put in the armory structure??
    It was my understanding that building/zoning/fire regulations prevented this from happening.
    I thought that the only feasible spot for schools was the structure directly next to the Armory that is now used by the National Guard. If they were to move, that's where the schools could go right?
    People seem to be severely misinformed on this issue (or maybe I am! wouldn't be the first time...).

  3. Schools cannot go in the landmarked head house and drill floor of the Armory, because the structure would need to be significantly altered for air and light, etc. It has been many years since it was even on the table that these buildings could possibly used for schools.
    But the two National Guard buildings to the rear of the facility are not landmarked and can be used for schools, or knocked down and rebuilt. Finding the Guard a suitable Bronx location to move to may be on the horizon as we reporte in June on this blog (for some reason I can't paste the URL here but will do when I figure out the problem). You can just search at top of blog though for Muller Armed Forces Reserve Center and the post will come up.
    One more question: What exactly are the types of foods that people are looking for that cannot be bought at Assocatied or the excellent produce market across the street from the Armory. I'm sure there are things, but the debate thus far has been lacking in specifics. What can't you get in the neighborhood.

  4. Thanks for those clarifications, Jordan!
    I'm assuming that Associated is Morton Williams, right? If so, my major problems are that I do not think their prices are very good and their limited space means there is limited selection as to brands. MW for sure offers better quality products than the glorified bodegas in Bedford Park/Norwood, but I still would love another shopping option nearby. I am also not really impressed with MW's price/quality in terms of produce. As you said, there is a produce market nearby, but why not have one place that can maybe offer it all (the Stop & Shop up in Cross County seems to be able to)? I say maybe because as many people have pointed out, who knows what caliber of store would end up in the Armory. But I certainly think having some local competition would be great for consumers looking for the best deals while grocery shopping. The best of all options that could end up there would have to be a Stew Leonard's - they combine exceptional quality with reasonable prices like no other store I've ever shopped in. Or, as a commenter here (Nick N. I believe?) had suggested, a permanent farmers market ala Union Square.
    So those are a few of my thoughts on the issue. My question to others is: why NOT a supermarket in the Armory? If the deal is looking as if it's going to be retail in nature, why do people talk about the idea of a grocery store opening there as if it's akin to opening a sex shop? The vehement anti-supermarket rhetoric that we've seen just hasn't made a whole lot of sense to me (other than the fact that it would appear Morton Williams was a major, if not only, factor in getting folks all riled up).

  5. I do think the perma-Farmer's market could provide the kind of access to products that would benefit community residents and not bankrupt Morton Williams. Currently, Related is including space for a Farmer's market in their plans for an outdoor plaza on the southwest corner of the Armory. These plans wouldn't require dedicated space inside the Armory for a grocery retailer.

    An even more radical solution to eating healthy, organic, and local would be to open a North Bronx Food Coop akin to the fledgling South Bronx Food Coop on Third Ave. near the hub (http://www.sbxfc.org/). Plus, one of the founders lives on Mosholu Parkway. Hello resource!

    I don't shop regularly at the Morton William Associated Market so I can't talk about any lack of products in the store. I too would be curious to hear what kinds of food or brands folks think are missing. In my experience, grocery chains in Norwood just need pushing to provide certain products or brands. If enough people ask for stuff at Foodtown, they start to stock items.


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