Harlem: Snakes And Ladders

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[Notes From The Frontline]

Sometimes we learn life’s lessons early, as children, reading Bible stories or just playing.

Originating in ancient India, Snakes and Ladders makes a game of successfully maneuvering the weighty matter of trying to lead a well lived life. The objective is to utilize “ladders” to reach worthy goals that edify. Human nature’s distracting “snakes,” that ensnare so many, to our peril, are meant to be assiduously avoided.

Problem is, what do snakes look like? The one that tempted Eve was supposed to be good looking and a smooth talker. What color was he? Who do they sleep with, these snakes? Surely, one taking a form that looks like or acts like us, couldn’t be nasty or wouldn’t do us harm? Would it?

“It’s a bitter thing, first learning how Cain killed his brother Abel,” explains the Rev. Earl Koopercamp of St. Mary’s Church in Harlem’s Manhattanville. “Lots of times, even after it‘s happened, people still refuse to believe that a loved one would abuse or ill treat them.”

Pretty much, we all believe that someone who’s a member of our special group, of the same race, gender, sexuality, religion or political party, “has our back.”

“‘They might betray others, outsiders,’” we reason, “‘but us? never!, we are family!’”

Such solidarity is certainly characteristic of the rich and elite. And, we needn’t only look to George Walker Bush and his tax cuts for the wealthiest, and record CEO-compensation or $104 barrel oil, for examples of this type of common cause. Closer to home we have the efforts of our own billionaire mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg, to enlighten us.
Aided by his socialite, multimillionaire planning commissioner, Amanda Mortimer Burden, he has done all he can to lower taxes and otherwise tailor policy, to make big wheeler-dealers richer than they ever imagined possible.

Only now, forgetting all he did to seat the president, all he spent to elect fellow Republicans across the state and country; going so far as to change his registration, Bloomberg, contends he’s become an Independent!

Sure, all those generous subsidies to needy Wall Street firms, banks, the Yankees and Major League Baseball, they cost a bundle of public money. But without this judicious investment by our government, the city was due to lose valuable jobs; this is the typical rationale.

Remarkably, it’s nearly identical to the justification offered by Christine C. Quinn, the New York City Council Speaker.

Compared to Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Burden, she has next to nothing. Yet as the Clinton’s demonstrate, pursuing politics and amassing riches need not be necessarily mutually exclusive activities for the enterprising. Supported by the mighty real estate industry, she aspires to succeed the mayor with whom she has worked so cordially.

In deference to her gay and her non-rich constituents, last year, when the local economy was booming, Speaker Quinn made a novel proposal.

Just as Bloomberg is supposed to be an Independent, Quinn is supposed to be a liberal Democrat and a reformer to-boot. To prove it, she suggested that apartment renters, the majority of city residents, be given tax breaks, comparable to those bestowed on homeowners.

Naturally, Quinn’s initiative, much like calls to maintain the subway fare, went straight down the toilet. She had made her best try and failed. One could hardly expect her to resign or to bring up the enduring disparity again this year, between the richest householders and all the rest of us.

As for the city council’s slush fund, where nonexistent charities were allocated funds that were eventually given to not-for-profits as rewards in favored council member’s districts, that’s instructive too. It ought to surprise no one, that with so crusading a Democrat-reformer as Speaker Quinn, her district has reaped the largest share of this secret plunder.

What’s all this analysis of Downtown politicians misrepresenting their true allegiances to do with Harlem?

Well, this, might surprise you. You’d think that in a neighborhood where the local Community Board and several hundred residents voiced vehement opposition to rezoning plans for 125th Street, that their elected officials would support them. Well, except for Congressman Charles Rangel, referencing that tired old promise of jobs to come, to hear them tell it, they do! Wow!

But wait, I’ve just taken all this time suggesting that whatever it sounds or looks like, a snake is a snake, is a snake!

But, because she’s Black, a woman and lives in Harlem, does that mean that Council Member Inez Dickens can’t be a snake?

Well her shuck-n-jive routine with Amanda Burden at a recent hearing was not encouraging. Nor was her inarticulate denouncement of Council Member Toney Avella. Still another mayoral contender, he dared to come to Harlem to do what she wouldn’t and oppose the rezoning outright at a rally. But in fairness, stating for the record, that she would “fight for her community… and not vote for the rezoning without changes.” What Inez Dickens would actually do, remained to be seen.

Community Board 10 insists that they want no new housing on 125th Street. They feel that where permitted, luxury housing should be balanced by a minimum of 50 % affordable housing units. With only five landmarked buildings located there now, they want the Victoria Theatre, the old Blumstein’s Department Store and a host of the area’s other significant buildings to be protected by the city landmarks law.

Built in 1913, the former Hotel Theresa is already a designated landmark. Before 1937, when Joe Louis stayed there, Blacks were unwelcome as guest. Hoping to preserve the fabulous sense of place in Harlem, where one can readily still see the sky, the board urges that no new structures exceed the Theresa’s 13 stories.

“Inez, she came to the board‘s executive committee meeting and promised she would, ‘fight for us,’” says Board 9’s Landmarks Committee Chair, Imee Jackson, “and we are hopeful that she respects us enough to honor her commitment.”

Perhaps! Who knows? Stranger things have happened. Only, bear in mind, developers who currently need to acquire costly assemblages or air-rights in order to build extra-tall buildings on 125th Street, want this rezoning desperately. Their best friend, billionaire Mayor Bloomberg, also wants this gentrifying rezoning, “bad.” Speaker Quinn? She wants to be mayor, so she wants it too.

Harlem’s City council member wants to become Speaker Dickens a year from now. Does that automatically mean that she’ll betray her constituents?

Does it? Sorry to say; it did.

On Tuesday, April 15th, boasting how she was, pleased that changes made in the plan provided more affordable housing, building height limits and new cultural venues, Speaker-Presumptive Dickens voted to approve a plan many view as accelerating Black Harlem’s obliteration.



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