12/5/2013, 4:25 p.m.
I took a groundbreaking trip to Albany this week with several of my constituents—some of the few remaining pioneering, local Black- and minority-owned business owners who invested in our community years ago while everyone else was fleeing. Some who came decades ago, these trailblazers saw a singular opportunity to serve the Harlem community that they love and call home by investing in unique businesses located at 121 W. 125th St. They toiled for years to grow their businesses and are finally in a position to secure their financial future—if they are not unceremoniously kicked to the curb and thrown out of their homes, along with the equity they have established therein.
For, you see, the revitalization renaissance that these visionaries helped usher in now threatens to consume them in the form of a projected development called the Urban League Empowerment Center Land Use Improvement and Civic Project. This project—which has a number of merits, including the headquartering of the Urban League—is unfortunately backed by a number of power players who have sought to predetermine outcomes in advance: first, acting as if the current businesses did not literally exist as part of this project and, second, begrudgingly offering them nominal forms of insufficient assistance couched in the language of bureaucratic formalism.
As we made our way to the state capitol, we were traveling the road to history, as these local businesses were destined to be the first members of the public to ever address the Public Authorities Control Board (PACB) since it was created in 1976. The PACB is an obscure entity that approves billions of dollars in spending each year, all the while meeting in a windowless room in Albany, often far away from the actual location—and visible presence—of those who will be affected by the projects they consider.
We changed the course of history on Wednesday though, as Massamakan Tounkara of Kaarta Imports African Fabrics, Joseph Benbow of Fishers of Men II, Ron Waltin of Golden Krust and Raj Whadwa of Sarku Japan Restaurant all pleaded with the members of the board to ensure that any proposed redevelopment plan accept them as project partners, recognize the equity they have brought to 125th Street and ensure that everyone can grow and thrive together, consistent with the mantra of the Urban League: “Empowering Communities; Changing Lives.”
The words that these heroic entrepreneurs spoke at the PACB meeting were poignant and, for the first time ever, put human faces behind the blind decisions of a distant public body that disenfranchises the two “minority” members, one of them being me.
Tounkara, owner of Kaarta Fabrics, said, “Please revisit your proposal and see the hard work and investment after risking our life in this area, and today you’ve come to develop it. We welcome the idea, but let us get what we deserve … I entered into the store that I’m in now, my investment for the past 23 years.
“Today, as we see developers come into Harlem, we also want to be part of the development, but we don’t want to be eradicated.”