Sixty-three percent of New York City’s population has been redlined from participating in the real estate development and construction industry in the most diverse city in the world. Over the past decade, the Bloomberg administration, the Metropolitan Transit Authority and the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey have awarded billions of dollars in public land and tax abatements to a small club of wealthy developers. They did so without requiring developers to adhere to city and state MWBE legislation. In 2013, according to the city’s comptroller office, African-American and Latino firms received less than 2 percent of the city contracts.
The Hudson Yards development is the most glaring example. The MTA awarded 26 acres of riverfront property in midtown and then agreed to extend a subway line into the development. This was done with no minority partners on the development and design/build teams. It’s the equivalent of someone giving your land away and then making you build a road for them to get to and from.
If we needed any more evidence that the system is biased against minority firms, you need only look at the Long Island College Hospital redevelopment project. In open competition against the largest developers in the city, two minority-owned companies were ranked one and two at the end of the bidding. Brooklyn Health Partners ranked number one, a team consisting of some of the top real estate and design/build minority professionals in the country. The Peebles Corporation, the largest minority-owned developer in the country, was ranked number two. Both were disqualified for dubious reasons, and the project was awarded to a local developer with no minority participation on its team at any level.
Unfortunately, these patterns are consistent with New York City’s history of a lack of inclusion for people of color in its economic life. Africans, along with the Dutch, are the oldest immigrants in the city. After 400 years, they remain economically, what Derek Bell called, “the faces at the bottom of the well.” Unlike immigrants of European descent, Africans and Latinos have never been fully vested in the economic life of New York.
For instance, both Jewish and Irish immigrants faced daunting discrimination and poverty upon their initial entry into New York. The Draft Riots were the result of mainly Irish immigrants’ rage at decades of systematic prejudice and poverty. “Why should we fight to free slaves who would flood the city and take their jobs?” was their thought. But ultimately, because of their European ethnicity, both Jewish and Irish immigrants eventually received full vesture in the economic life of the city.
As each new immigrant group was granted full economic participation, the Africans remained at the bottom. For more than 350 years, they were locked in perpetual competition with each new wave of immigrants for the city’s menial jobs. The Puerto Ricans, who arrived in the late 1940s and 1950s, like all other immigrants of African descent, were sent straight to the bottom. The Dominicans, Caribbeans, East and West Africans soon followed. Needless to say, it is getting crowded at the bottom of the well.
In the late 1940s and 1950s, banks and political powers redlined communities of color, which had historically been diverse ethnic neighborhoods, into Black and Latino ghettoes. These seeds would lay the ground for Robert Moses’ devastating urban renewal, the riots of the 1960s and the crack epidemic of the 1980s.
Today, the redlines no longer surround neighborhoods. Instead, they circle the city’s megaprojects, such as Willet Point, Atlantic Yards, Hudson Yards and Columbia’s Manhattanville expansion. It is a barrier built on a mixture of race and greed that says to professionals of color, “You need not apply.”
You cannot relegate 63 percent of the population to economic second-class citizenship without profound consequences for the future of our great city. Ask yourself why a Southern city like Atlanta, given its tumultuous history on race, became the magnet for Black talent in past 40 years and New York did not.
The city of Atlanta opened a new international terminal in 2012 that was built with more than 51 percent minority participation and minority firms teamed to own more than 51 percent of the concessions at Jackson/Hartsfield Airport. In September, New York and New Jersey’s Port Authority will select a team to build a $2.5 billion terminal at LaGuardia and, unless something changes, the entity that is selected will have no minority equity partners or any minority design/build companies on their team.
The solution starts first with the Black and Latino business communities. They have failed to demand their fair share the way minority business leaders in Miami, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and other major cities have. Just as important, Black and Latino political leadership has failed to demand that the state and city enforce existing MWBE legislation, even though it is some of the weakest in the country.
Finally, the mayor and governor have the ability to change this imbalance overnight. Simply order that, moving forward, no city or state contracts will be awarded without meeting the city and state MWBE goals.