Tour Reflections from a Native New Yorker

Stacey Millett, Senior Program Officer at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation and a Native New Yorker, writes about putting people first when considering investment decisions.

I joined Neighborhood Funders Group for the learning tour in early April; we spent day two in New York City for an interactive, information-packed trip that took us by bus from Midtown to East Harlem to the Bronx and back.  These were places I had not seen since leaving my native city years ago.  But I was struck by how the patterns of transformation I saw on the tour mirrored the changes on New York’s Lower East Side where I was raised and remain deeply connected through family, friends, and frequent visits.

In the 1970s my non-Lower East Side friends were warned by their parents how dangerous it was: Bowery Street’s homeless people, Tompkins Square drug deals, and public housing sprawl with only a sprinkle of middle-income co-op buildings.   Over the decades my parents witnessed the neighborhood’s transformation from ‘beware hood’ to ‘chic hood.’  

But chic status in New York tends to bring a lot of complexities for low wealth people who face rising costs when trying to stay put in local housing or storefront businesses. The Learning Tour showcased several remedies to counter the risk of persistent community despair often seeded by disinvestment and displacement.  

A recurring theme for me was the critical role played by local people with long term tenure and commitment to “protecting the past and rebuilding its future,” as our morning session was titled. At every step of the way we heard the voices of dedicated residents and trusted organizational partners detail how they incorporate equity thinking in everything from community engagement to physical development.  

We started our morning at the Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center, a reclaimed local school building on East Harlem’s 116th street that was saved from wrecking balls and repurposed as a community treasure. I remember this neighborhood as Spanish Harlem, home to First Spanish Methodist Church on 111th Street where in 1969 The Young Lords’ took over for 11 days in a stand for dignity and equity. They provided free food and clothes to local residents.

We heard the successes and lessons of a philanthropy/community partnership project called the Transition Tent designed to connect local voices with local government during several weeks immediately following the city’s mayoral election.  This was a milestone first that brought over 50,000 resident voices to City Hall through public conversations, surveys and data rich info graphics to guide policy priorities throughout the New York City’s five boroughs.

We saw the graphic juxtaposition of new six figure priced condo and co-op buildings sprouting between brownstones burdened with deferred maintenance and surviving on financial life support from residents earning too little to tackle repairs.  A collection of organizations is working jointly with residents on tools and tactics to help them hold ground though a land trust model.

We concluded our tour in the Bronx at the 50,000 square foot Kingsbridge Armory that has been vacant for 19 years and will become home to 9 ice rinks, each big enough for a hockey game.  A coalition of residents and organizers reached a community benefits agreement with Kingsbridge National Ice Center Partners. In addition to games, the facility will provide multiple economic and social benefits to local people: free ice time, small business space, and profit sharing.

I have one big take away from this fascinating tour of my hometown:

Put people first, all people, in making decisions about investment strategies, policies, and practices: like Lynn working for Picture the Homeless, East Harlem proud public housing resident Agnes, and many others who joined us funders to share their neighborhood transformation journeys. Give me these voices so I can share their wisdom with more philanthropic colleagues to inform future investments for place-based community change