About 100 people turned up at a rally in Harlem on Saturday aimed at blocking the Bloomberg administration’s plan to rezone 125th Street to allow for denser residential and commercial development. But the rally quickly turned into an omnibus protest about everything from Columbia’s Harlem expansion to Robert Mugabe’s teetering government in Zimbabwe.
The Coalition to Save Harlem planned to create a human chain stretching across 125th Street from Second Avenue to Broadway. In the end, “Hands Across Harlem” only spanned about one block of the area to be rezoned, from Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard to Lenox Avenue, though we heard one organizer remark that it was a “pretty good turnout.”
After the chain broke up at 1 p.m., demonstrators congregated at the corner of 125th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, jangling tambourines, waving pickets, and chanting in unison.
“Whose streets?” coalition member and Harlem business owner Shikulu Shange shouted through a megaphone.
“Our streets,” the crowd shouted back.
“Community development not removal,” one placard read.
“Harlem said no in ’68. Harlem says no in ’08. This is our community,” read another sign, referring to the successful campaign 40 years ago against Columbia’s plans to build a fitness center—dubbed “Gym Crow” by the community—in an area of Morningside Park.
Back then, thousands of Harlem residents and Columbia students demonstrated against the construction of the fitness center.
On Saturday, youth was scarce.
Most of the participants were late middle-age—some of them had likely rallied against “Gym Crow” back in 1968.
Still, it would be hard to imagine a more diverse group. Behind the speaker’s podium a handful of nuns stood next to a half-dozen men in green Nation of Islam uniforms. A tanned, white man in a blue Oxford shirt waved a picket that read, “Stop Eminent Domain Abuse.”
The Bloomberg administration has not proposed using eminent domain to rezone 125th Street. And, in the case of the Columbia expansion, some Harlem business owners willingly sold their land to the university.
“We’re protesting the dislocation of our community,” Akin Labia, a member of the Coalition to Save Harlem, told The Observer at the rally. “We make a connection between Columbia’s plan to completely remake the neighborhood and the rezoning.
“Our struggle is part of a broader issue. Whether you are a shop owner in downtown Brooklyn struggling against Atlantic Yards or in Harlem, you have no say in what happens in your community. And the city assumes bigger is better.”
Brenda Walker, representing organizations DC 37 and Operation Power, said the same city policy that allowed Columbia’s expansion to go forward despite community opposition is behind the rezoning.
“The city did not consult us about either,” she said, “and now we’re being priced out. We need at least 50 percent affordable housing here.”
Other rally attendees seemed to welcome the opportunity to air pent-up grievances and to promote their poetry or subscriptions to the socialist newsletter Militant. A veiled woman wearing a “Free Mumia” T-shirt distributed fliers about an upcoming rally in Philadelphia to re-try the Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted 27 years ago for the murder of a Philadelphia police officer.
Charles’ Barron, a City Councilman from Brooklyn, took the podium and led a chant of “Harlem is not for Sale.”
Mr. Barron cited the political tumult in Zimbabwe, and then talked about the influence that local Councilwoman Inez Dickens could have on the City Council’s final vote on the rezoning, which is expected this week.
“If the local councilmember says no,” Mr. Barron said, “the City Council will say no. If the local council member says yes, the rest will say yes. But Mayor Bloomberg and Christine Quinn have a way of making sure things go through.”
Mr. Barron then led a cheer calling for the resignation of Ms. Quinn, the Council speaker.
“Christine Quinn must go. Christine Quinn must go.”