It was difficult to ignore the fluttering signs at last week’s Bushwick Community Plan meeting. Sure, they were black-and-white, only about as big as two sheets of computer paper and just as flimsy, but there were tons of them. As City Council members Antonio Reynoso and Rafael Espinal touted their community-driven alternative to developer-led change, almost everyone sitting in front of them seemed to be holding a flyer reading: “EVICT THE RICH.” The rallying cry may have been more Mao Tse-tung than #BushwickBerners, but the Brooklyn Solidarity Network (BSN) couldn’t have been more serious.
Like the Council members, BSN has been driven to pick up the pace lately, as we saw at last night’s “emergency meeting” at the The Base, an “anarchist political center” that opened in 2013. The Myrtle Avenue space is also home to an anarchist literature circle, a local Copwatch chapter, and even a composting club. Think: crusty communal-living space in the back of a food co-op, populated by bike punks and didgeridoo enthusiasts. There’s a toaster oven, a table filled with flyers about gentrification, an old leather couch, prints hung on the wall demanding the release of political prisoners, Zapatista imagery, and bookshelves filled with anarchist literature.
Members of the Bushwick Solidarity Network are condemning “Bushwick II”, the portion of the controversial Rheingold Brewery development that’s led by Yoel Goldman of All Year Management (the same developer behind the enormous William Vale Hotel now towering over Williamsburg’s north side). They believe it adds “insult to injury,” and it’s very name separates it from “the original Bushwick” and hints toward the “the personal and cultural displacement to come.”
In pure anarchist fashion, BSN emphasizes the roll of violence in “rampant gentrification,” arguing that Bushwick II will intensify what’s already happening: “forced evictions, violent police measures, apartment destruction, and harassment by court, focused on the weak and elderly, and those who can’t afford skyrocketing rents.” It may sound a little bit dramatic to use words like “atrocities” to describe anything other than genocide, but sometimes you hear stories and realize that, in some cases anyway, it’s not too far off. The network is demanding that the project come to a halt, and that the entire Rheingold property be transformed into a community land trust. Far fetched? Perhaps. Even Cecelia, who led the meeting, admitted it was “very grandiose,” but argued that it’s “better to aim high.”
ODA, the architecture firm hired on for the Bushwick II site (which, by the way, is located immediately behind the Silent Barn), pissed everyone off when it released a statement describing the design as one that’s modeled after a “European village.” The sprawling, two-city-block, 1 million square foot self-contained development will feature winding pathways and courtyards designed to “interrupt” the grid pattern– a design that invokes medieval fortresses in its separateness from the city and perhaps not so inadvertently feudalist connotations. (ODA is also heading the nearby Rabsky Group-led development on another section of the Rheingold complex.)
In 2013, Community Board 4 approved the rezoning needed by Read Property Group (the developers who first bought the site), in what was literally a back-room deal. Community groups like Neighbors Without Borders and activists monitored the site from the beginning, and joining forces as the Rheingold Advisory Panel, called on Read to include affordable housing, along with a number of other concessions, in their plans for the site. The developers agreed to devote 30 percent of their units to affordable housing (integrated and permanent with an average of 60 percent AMI, which according to HDC allows for individuals earning at most $38,100 to rent, and families of four earning up to $54,360).
When the City gave the final go-ahead to the rezoning, then-Council Member Diana Reyna praised the informal, non-binding promises as evidence that Rheingold’s case “was a terrific example of development that is fair and accountable to the people,” and went so far as to fawn over Read for having “demonstrated that they are committed to responsible development, comprehensive planning, and community engagement.”
But when Read Property conveniently sold part of the Rheingold site off to Rabsky in the fall of 2014, and another chunk to Yoel Goldman of All Year Management the following year, the new developers were no longer legally obligated to meet any of the requirements hammered out by the activists and community leaders, nor would they have to include affordable housing that Read initially promised to the advisory panel. So far, neither developer has promised affordable housing, so it’s just slightly hard to imagine that BSN will be able to convince the developers to hand over their property to the community.
However, the anarchists shouldn’t be completely written off for having their heads stuck in the clouds (or even somewhere less pleasant). Their “two-track” plan, as Cecelia explained, involves not just taking the developers to task, but also strengthening “community connections” and encouraging neighbors to form an alliance. “Why do we always have to ask them [for affordable housing]?” she asked. “Why don’t they come to us to negotiate?”
After all, as another organizer Robert pointed out, “developers obviously shouldn’t be trusted,” but more importantly, “the politicians have shown that they may not have the judgement necessary to fight against something like this– so, they probably shouldn’t be leading the forefront of this either, it should be more of a community response, rather than a top-down one.”
The Brooklyn Solidarity Network sums up its mission with the rather poetic and extremely lofty anarcho-couplet, “Until Brooklyn Is Ours, Until Brooklyn Is No One’s.” It stages what it calls “escalating campaigns”– usually against individual landlords or business owners on behalf of tenants and workers, over things like harassment and wage theft. But the sheer size of this development, and the developers’ brazen dodging of the affordable housing promises, has inspired BSN organizers to apply their usual tactics to a much larger campaign. “This one was so big, we had to get involved,” Robert explained. “These buildings are not meant for working class people.”
When B+B arrived at The Base last night, there were only a few people seated sparsely around the room, all members of the network. Things were sort of uncomfortable, initially anyway, and the organizers politely informed our videographer that “cameras aren’t usually permitted.” There was a back-and-forth about admitting the press to their public event, but in the end they agreed to allow me in on the condition that B+B not photograph the event and maintain attendees’ anonymity to allow for more free-flowing discussion. Cecelia also mentioned that it was important to “protect” the identity of BSN organizers. It became clear exactly why when she clicked through the powerpoint, which contained images of the network busting into the Rabsky Group offices and unfurling their banner in a disruptive (but totally peaceful) “letter delivery” ceremony. (B+B reached out to Rabsky, but the developers were not immediately available for comment.)
The group even staged a similar demonstration outside of Council Member Reynoso’s office on June 2, nevermind that he’s a new-blood (i.e. not Vito-groomed) Progressive Brooklyn Democrat who ran a grassroots campaign in 2013 on a progressive platform with the backing of the Working Families Party; is a co-sponsor of the Right to Know Act, which pulls back on police abuse of power; a proponent of actually-affordable affordable housing; a Participatory Budget kinda guy; and the rare elected official who’s outspoken against persistent, entrenched racism. Cecelia clicked through the slides showing photos from the action, in which BSN organizers carried signs that read, “Reynoso Sold Out Bushwick: Rezone or Resign.” Specifically, the group criticizes Reynoso’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) initiative, a plan that “merely gives the appearance of helping tenants” and is instead “a green light for rampant development with meager ‘affordable’ housing inclusions.” However, Reynoso’s policy outline acknowledges that MIH isn’t the only solution to the affordable housing crisis, and simply ensures that “affordable housing will be developed along with market rate.”
So far, BSN’s approach to delivering their Bushwick II demands have typically been staged as surprise, in-person, and rowdy actions. But they do have a calmer, more passive side. In fact, the organizers chose to sit outside the Bushwick Community Plan open house last week, where Reynoso, Espinal, CB4 members, and other community leaders (i.e. the special Steering Committee formed to draw up the plan) convened with Bushwick residents to reboot their efforts to gather community input for what they say will be a comprehensive policy package designed to enact change in the neighborhood before developers do it for them. Just out front of the neighborhood rec center, BSN organizers had set up a table and handed out those “EVICT THE RICH” signs to people approaching the door. Even this nearsighted reporter initially mistook the anarchist booth for the official visitor intake station. Nope, they informed me with a smirk.
Inside, city agency reps and Steering subcommittee members were convening with residents, and as we were told by the council members at the open house, they were listening to Bushwickians concerns and taking them into account for the next round of planning.
Jake, an organizer who popped inside the meeting briefly to sniff out the scene, told the meeting last night that the open house was more akin to a “science fair” than a demonstration of true community engagement. He described the effort as “patronizing.”
“It’s an illusion of participation,” he said. “It was pretty awful. They had people go around and put Post-It notes if they agreed with someone or if they didn’t agree with something, but in reality, they were just framing the discussion and framing the topics that we’re allowed to talk about, I guess.” Jake pointed to the Economic Development booth as an example. “There were two options, indicate where you currently shop, and where you want to see more shops– there was no option to say, ‘Fuck all your shops, we don’t want shops.'” (However, Bushwick is considered to be an underserved community when it comes to fresh, healthy foods.)
Then again, BSN made it clear that they’re not interested in the usual mechanisms of change. “We use one-on-one tactics instead of using oppressive institutions,” Cecelia explained. And when a visitor started to go on about the price of running for office, another member stopped her. “We’re not exactly looking to get elected.”
And yet, the group has still put its faith in the zoning process. In calling for Reynoso to roll back the rezoning that allowed for the development to go forward, BSN believes that the development can be stopped by way of City zoning ordinances. Of course, that won’t stop as-of-right developments, and it won’t build more affordable apartments. A plan like Reynoso’s MIH will make way, no matter what the project, for affordable units by requiring that every developer include a certain number.
The organizers did have a good point about community organization and building powerful alliances that can stand up to real-estate actors and the moneyed elite– but only to a certain end. You only have to look at what happened to all those awesome sounding concessions that the Rheingold Advisory Panel convinced Read Property Group to sign off on (namely: they disappeared), to understand that community organization needs the support of elected officials to make such agreements legally binding.
Still, the anarchists might have at least some of the right idea. “If you shoot for affordable housing, you’ll end up with nothing,” Robert reasoned. “If you shoot for complete community control, you’ll end up with something.”