From London's Grosvenor Square, you can't see East Harlem. But you can buy it. For
£250 million. 47 buildings and 1,137 homes at a time. That, at least, was supposed
to be the deal for UK-based investment bank Dawnay, Day Group when it reached across
the ocean last March and snatched up entire blocks of this historic neighborhood of
low-income immigrants—one of the last such communities left in Manhattan.
Dawnay, Day Group's plan follows the typical logic of displacement for
"development," a logic well known both to real estate profiteers and to the poor
people they displace. East Harlem tenants like Carmen Sanchez know the game: "The
only purpose is to take us out of our homes. So they can renovate our apartments and
then rent them for ten times what we are paying now." Director Phil Blakeley has
publicly pledged to do as much, saying the company is doing its part to "bring along
Harlem's gentrification" as a beachhead in its bid to build a $5 billion real estate
Yet Dawnay, Day may have gotten more than it bargained for in East Harlem, known as
El Barrio to those who call it home. Here, the powerful multinational corporation
has run into a different kind of power: The power of a community ready to defend
its right to exist.
For tenants, the company's offer to "bring along Harlem's gentrification" can be
translated to mean harassment, eviction, displacement—experiences all too familiar
to the people of Harlem, if all too invisible to the media. For every time we hear
of the deepening housing crisis facing homeowners, we hear nothing of the other
housing crisis—the perpetual crisis that low-income renters face every day in cities
like New York, in neighborhoods like East Harlem.
But here is a "community in resistance." Since 2004, inspired by the Zapatista
rebels of Mexico and by a long tradition of struggle in their neighborhood, tenants
have organized themselves into a force to be reckoned with, a force called Movement
for Justice in El Barrio (MJB). For four years, led by the community itself, MJB has
battled the gentrification juggernaut from the ground up, winning victory after
victory, building by building.
On April 6, Movement for Justice in El Barrio descended on New York's City Hall.
They marched up the steep stone steps of the municipal palace—mothers, fathers,
children and elders helping each other up the steps as they called out to one
—¡Si se puede!
—What do we want? Dignified housing!
—El Barrio, united, will never be defeated!
Following an indigenous invocation, and standing among hand-painted signs and
banners and a giant puppet of a masked Zapatista woman, the hundreds assembled
declared that they were taking their struggle against gentrification to the next
level: Today would see the launch of their International Campaign in Defense of El
"Dawnay, Day Group is waging a war against our community from their headquarters
across the ocean," they proclaimed in a recent declaration, "with the sole purpose
of forcing us from our homes in order to increase their profits…Together, we make
our dignity resistance and we fight back against the actions of capitalist landlords
and multinational corporations who are displacing poor families from our
neighborhood. We fight back locally and across borders."
Both faces of the struggle were on vivid display on the steps of City
Hall. On the local front, tenants shared their experiences with the new
capitalist on the block— speaking of a campaign of threats and
harassments, of needed repairs never made, of supposed debts never owed,
of actions befitting an absentee slumlord. They told their supporters
how MJB is fighting back, as it has done before, with tenant committees
demanding dignified conditions in their buildings, members taking
Dawnay, Day to court for illegal harassment, and growing grassroots
mobilizations bringing heat in the streets.
Filiberto Hernandez, member of Movement for Justice in El Barrio,
brought a clear message for the company, and another for the community:
"¡Ya Basta! Enough!...We know how this multinational company works. They
want to squash us at any cost. They want to displace the immigrants,
people of color, poor people, our people." But the people would not go
quietly: "We are El Barrio. We believe in El Barrio. And we are not
going to go. Here we are going to stay."
As the crowd erupted in shouts and chants (¡Aqui estamos! ¡Y no nos
vamos!), Filiberto insisted: "We are going to save El Barrio."
If they save El Barrio, there will be no politicians to thank for it. In
a year when so many are looking to the political system for salvation,
MJB looks to its own community for solutions, believing the struggle can
only be won by the people of El Barrio themselves, not by those who
claim to represent them. So MJB came to City Hall also to denounce those
within its walls: The City Council, which has rubberstamped the
displacement of thousands across Harlem and beyond, and the Department
of Housing Preservation and Development, which is doing little to
preserve anything more than landlords' profits.
Clutching her baby girl, Josefina Salazar spoke of the complicity of
elected officials who knew nothing of the life or the will of the
people: "We are here to let it be known who the politicians really
are…[The politician] does not know what it is to live and suffer the bad
conditions in our homes." And not just East Harlem, but West Harlem,
where the government has approved plans for Columbia and other
businesses to push out the historic African-American community: "This
project has thousands of poor people who will be displaced…As always, to
change everything for the rich."
Behind Josefina, the faces of the crowd were turned not towards the halls of power,
but towards each other.
As promised, the struggle has overflowed across borders and across the ocean,
reaching from community to community in a "fight against the global empire of money.
A fight against neoliberalism. A fight for humanity." In a very real way, this
immigrant-led organization has always struggled without borders. Its "urban
Zapatistas" have already joined those in Mexico as part of the Other Campaign, the
Zapatista-inspired movement against neoliberal capitalism and for a politics "from
below and to the left," and they have stood with Mexico's social movements against
those who would crush them.
Now MJB is extending the fight across the Atlantic, taking its message from its own
neighborhood to Dawnay, Day's and setting out on a whirlwind tour of cities in
England, Scotland, Wales, France, and Spain. There, according to Oscar Dominguez,
members will "invite the communities of the world to accompany us in our
international campaign…When we have any activity against that company, they, in the
places where they live, will accompany us in taking direct action."
In a company like Dawnay, Day, gentrification has reached global proportions. In the
International Campaign in Defense of El Barrio, Dawnay, Day now faces the prospect
of a resistance as global as its capital, a challenge as transnational as the threat
it poses to community.
Such corporations would rather keep a safe distance from the people affected and
displaced by their dealings. But the people below are encircling their corporate
castles and city halls, uniting in defense of their homes, their cultures and
communities. The resistance began on the block, in the heart of El Barrio, but now
it is echoing on a thousand blocks, in a thousand barrios. It can even be heard in
the distance from the corporate boardrooms, the cry growing louder, coming closer,
impossible to shut out:
—No nos moverán. We will not be moved.