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People’s Planning in Harlem: Cecil Corbin-Mark

By 08/24/2009January 13th, 2016All Posts, Gilda's Posts

Here is a transcript of Cecil Corbin-Mark’s remarks, speaking at People’s Planning School: about working with planning professionals, the link between planning and health, and the importance of taking control of the land. (Los Angeles, SAJE, 2007)

My name is Cecil Corbin-Mark. I come from an organization called WEACT for Environmental Justice. Our organization has been around, next year, for 20 years, working primarily at the start on issues of environmentally polluting facilities and their siting in our communities. We started out that way as an organization being very reactive to the primary polluter in our community — that being the City and the State. And we were always waking up and finding out about a new facility.

And over the years we came to realize that there was a power that we weren’t using. And that was the power to engage in planning for the future of our neighborhoods. As our cities have grown up, one of the things that we have found has been that people in this country are completely more and more disconnected from what actually happens on the ground in their neighborhoods, with respect to the introduction of new facilities or stores or whatever it is. And we decided a long time ago that we needed to work on a model of being more proactive.

My entry into this work is very much driven by my family’s engagement with the civil rights movement. I learned a long time ago, whether it was from my grandmother taking me out into the neighborhood and actually digging up the sidewalk, little dirt patches, and planting flowers in front of our church. Or, whether it was from some of my other relatives who are more engaged in the civil rights movement, writing journals, or starting youth organizations and so forth. It was that we need to be engaged in the business of planning, and we need not to be reactive.

And in many respects, Dr. Martin Luther King really held this at the core of what he was doing. He had a notion called the beautiful community. And he worked on the creation of the beautiful community throughout his life. And that the idea of the beautiful community is one that we must be engaged in creating, and which we must not retreat from.

And so this presentation is really about that.

I wanted to start out by saying to people that the planning school — and congratulating SAJE for the work that they are about to embark on — that the planning school that you’re about to engage in is a very important thing. The idea that planning our communities needs to be the sole purview of people like the wonderful folks who have come from USC’s planning department with all their training is a fallacy. Each of you who lives in a community have expertise. When we think of experts — when you think of your doctor what would you like your doctor to have? In addition to the fact that that person went to school and was trained. Wouldn’t it be good if the doctor also had years of experience and practice?

Well I’ve heard people in their introduction today — this brother over here on the other side said that he lived in this community for 17 years. Well, anybody who does anything for 17 years can qualify to be an expert of some kind. So, for those of you who have lived in your communities, don’t let anyone, no matter what degree they have tell you otherwise. You know why? Because no matter how much planning that planning school teaches planners, their knowledge and their theoretical tools have to marry with some practical experience. That practical experience comes from those of us who live on the ground in communities every day.

This project that I launched several years ago, actually in 1988, is called Harlem on the River. As I said I come from New York City. I come from Harlem. The village of Harlem is very dear to me. My family has lived there the better part of 75 plus years in the exact same place. I dare anybody to tell me that me and my family don’t have expertise about where we live. The picture you see on the screen is actually the end result of our community planning process about a patch of land in Harlem that was connected to 125th Street, which is a very famous Street in Harlem. Its our main commercial thoroughfare. I don’t know what the equivalent would be in Los Angeles. Oh, 125th Street is like the Figueroa Street of Harlem. And the plan here that you see is the community vision for restoring that waterfront patch at 125th Street to a place where there are piers and parks.

Just a little story here. When I was growing up as a kid, I grew up hearing my relatives talking about going down to 125th Street to catch the ferry at a time when the opportunities for recreation for African-Americans were extremely limited, right? And they would come down to 125th Street, and they would catch the ferry. And one of my aunts would talk about getting ice cream down there, and all this sort of stuff, and I grew up hearing about this.

But in my day, I never saw piers down there. They were gone in the 1950s. (Despite how I might look I am that old. Or seasoned, should I say. I’m trying to get to that season.) And they would come down to the piers to actually take the ferry and actually get to recreational places.

So a lot of people came and complained about the state of this area to the local community board or at different community meetings. Everybody was talking about this area.

So this says, “What is community visioning?” Essentially the tool of community visioning is really about getting your neighbors together and really thinking about what the future of your community should look like based on your needs, right? Based on the community’s needs. So we wanted to engage in a process that was community visioning.

So here we have a slide that says “What’s the purpose of community visioning?” So the purpose of community visioning for us was really about building community power. One of the things that we realized was that in this development process, the role of the community is often the least counseled part of the process. So community residents hear about things late, were reacting to them late, and were never engaged in the process early enough to be able to have any input or shape the process outcome. So we wanted to build community power.

We also wanted to change the development process as it is set up. Right now — and I’m sure this is pretty true of LA based on some of the articles that I have been reading — about things like Proposition 90, or the Washington Boulevard Corridor Redevelopment. Or I read about this Home Depot that supposed to be coming into Long Beach near the Orange County line border, built on a wetland. (I did some homework. I did some homework. I just wanted to let you know that I would not come into your house and not figure out a little bit about what’s going on here.) But there’s a whole process of how development occurs and it doesn’t occur with us in communities. Iit occurs on us in communities.

So one of the things we wanted to do was to inject our community into the process. And make sure we could transform that development process. We also wanted to hold government accountable for the decisions that they made, which is something that I think you all are talking about with regards to this Proposition 90 thing.

You want to hold government accountable for allowing noxious facilities or bad development to come into our communities. They should be because they’re giving permits and approvals in the process.

We also wanted to change from being reactive in the development process to being proactive in the development process. This picture — I’m hoping some of you can see it, but if you can’t — what I’ve done is create three circles. The three circles represent the primary players in the development process. But each circle is a different size. Slightly different in some instances. And very different in one instance. But to me this represents the power of either the developer or or the government. Those are the two biggest circles in the development process.

So you have the developer — a lot of power because they are often bringing a lot of money. And the government also brings a lot to the table with their ability to approve development or condition how development goes forward. And sometimes government is actually calling for the development. They put out things that, at least in New York. are known as requests for proposals.

And then we have got the community over here — a very small circle. The size of the circle, for me. represents the power of each of these actors in the process. Then I’ve got lines going to each of them. The lines represent the level of communication. So between the developer and the goverment, you’ve got this thick, bold, heavy line — there’s frequent communication. They are often talking to one another. In some instances, calling each other up and saying, “Hey, we have something that you should respond to.”

But then, when it comes to the community, you have thin lines. And some lines are even very circular or not straight. So between the government and the community, you’ve got a thin line. Now supposedly, the government is supposed to be responsive to us as constituents, right? In reality, what we find is that, as I said, we are often reacting in the development process to what is going on between government and developers. And the line of communication is a thin one, and sometimes is not that good. But between the developer and the community, that’s often even worse.

And so I’ve tried to indicate that by making this line go sort of through a loopy loop here kind of thing. If you get any communication from a developer, a lot of times its taking you in a loop. And then, if you look up here, these two players, government and developer, really are larger than the community in the process.

But where’s the development happening? In the community! That’s right. Exactly.

So this is what we did here. This is a picture of us beginning the organizing process. Because in order to make this happen — this community visioning process happen — you have to have organizing. On the ground. In your community. And so what we did was, we started out by calling a Town Hall meeting. Why? Because, once again, at our waterfront, there was another proposal coming forward to actually have development take place. A development, this time around, calling for a hotel at the waterfront at 125th Street.

Just one little caveat here. All along the Hudson River — which is where this waterfront is — all around the Hudson River, in lower downtown manhattan (read: the more white, more affluent part of Manhattan), they were building fabulous waterfront parks. $300 million dollars of state taxpayers money to build a waterfront park downtown.

But when you come uptown, at 125th Street, they want to build a hotel.

Now, how many of you have ever sort of wanted to go to the bathroom and there was like a hotel around and you kind of said, “Oh, well let me….Oh, no, I don’t think I want to go in there.” How many of you have ever had that experience? O.K. So you get my point. A hotel is not necessarily the most inviting thing to the waterfront — to be putting on the waterfront.

So that was a big concern for us. There were lots of developers responding to this. And so we thought this was an appropriate time for us to get engaged in the process. For pulling our communities together. Why? Because we felt as though, if we didn’t have some vision to compete with the developer’s vision about what should happen there, ultimately they would win. They would win. There’s an old saying in politics, “In a vacuum, power flows.” So this is the power arrangement (pointing to the circles). And if there is a vacuum, who is going to lose? The community.

But guess what? We are going to turn that around. Step by step. Community by community.

I have a lot of slides here that will really talk to you about what lower Manhattan is really like. Some of the things that we really deal with in my community. I just want to lay a little bit of context. Some of the things that we really deal with.

So this is the island of Manhattan. Here’s your Jeopardy question, a serious test. How many of you know that New York City is really a bunch of islands? New York City is actually about 63 different islands. So, if you go on Jeopardy, remember that I gave you that, and give me some of the earnings, too.

But this is the island of Manhattan. And when people think about New York City, they primarily think about Manhattan, but there are five other boroughs in the City of New York, and then there are 63 minus five other islands. You do the math. In Manhattan we generally divide Manhattan into a series of neighborhoods. But primarily we talk about “uptown” and “downtown.” And for those of us — when we talk about “uptown”, generally we are talking about what we call the “96th Street divide.” So if you are above 96th Street, you’re pretty much uptown. If you’re below 96th Street, you’re downtown, right?

Fundamental differences are — there are two. So 96th Street is our divide and you have a situation where above 96th Street, most of the polluting facilities on the island of Manhattan are there. There are all the sewage treatment plants — that treat sewage emitted in all of Manhattan — are in northern Manhattan. All the bus depots, primarily all of the bus depots. There are seven bus depots on the island of Manhattan, diesel bus depots. Six of them are above 99th Street. Trucks and diesel truck facilities. A Port Authority facility. All of the nasty facilities are uptown.

Guess what else is uptown? Yes, communities. But very, very clearly distinct communities, right? Primarily African American, primarily Latino. These are the folks that live uptown. And something else happens uptown as well. The thing that you probably can’t see as well also on this map is that there is coloring here about asthma hospitalizations. So in the communities uptown, we have the highest rates of asthma, not just in New York City, not just in New York State, but in the entire country, are in East Harlem. And in Central Harlem, they have said that the rate is one in four. So if you were literally to go across this room and count off one, two, three, four — every fourth person would have asthma. If you lived there.

This is what you can see that the area looked like before, which, as you can see, looks very desolate. Lots of issues going on down there. This is historical stuff you can see where we are. What I did with this slide was that I tried to give a run down of different types of developers’ plans that have come to the neighborhood — all of which have actually failed. This is a shot of people on the waterfront — how we used the waterfront in the community. Primarily a lot of people going there to fish. This is some of the facilities, like the sewage treatment plant. This is the start of our town hall meeting process. We did a lot of door knocking, going out to churches, etc. This is actually engaging community residents in the visioning process. This is actually the area that we planned for. This is actually the community visioning plan that resulted. We created green for green spaces, yellow for arts and cultural stuff, red for commercial stuff, and gray for parking and transportation facilities.

So, it was a very comprehensive looking plan, because you need to know we had to compete with a major developer.

This is a vision of what the actual master plan that was prompted by the community organizing process. So we went to the City and we said, “Look. You all have to adopt our plan.” And we fought. It was a fight. Because they wanted to build this hotel, we had to have an organizing presence, we had to hold them accountable.

And this is what ultimately came out of it. We raised money for the City to actually develop our plan. We went to the State, we went to the federal government, and we went to the City and we said, “Put your dollars here. Because otherwise we are going to fight everything else that comes.”

This is the actual construction that is taking place on the waterfront right now. Just to let you know that it is possible, with a solid plan and a planning process to overcome some of these things.

In the process of putting this together, one of the things that we tried to do was build partnerships, with not just our neighbors, but we recognized that to move the private process, you need city planners at the table. You need the government officials to come in. Before they come in, you need to get your plan together about what it is you see your future as. Now, our planning process, just to be clear, we went out and raised the money to actually hire a professional planner. And we told that planner, “You cannot govern and dictate what this process looks like. Your role is to help us turn our vision and our dreams, into “planese.” For those of you who don’t know this, that’s a technical term. Planese is the language that planners talk. Mr. Faisal and others in this class can tell you about planese.


So that was our role. So this man over here was our planner, Mitchell Silver. This other guy in the back here. These are other community residents. And these are the elected officials, these two are elected officials. And this is Peggy Shephard, the cofounder of our organization.

So I’m here to tell you lessons learned. You’ve got to build a process that is respected by the government process. But before you do that, you have to build a vision that reflects what your community needs, wants, and sees out of this. You also have to raise funds. This stuff is not cheap, right? T o hire that planner, we had to get a grant. It took us $30,000 to pay him for a year’s worth of work. You also have to recognize that it is a lot of work to get us as community to agree upon a direction. And most times, these folks in government, are afraid of sort of the organic stuff that happens in community. But we have got to show them that even though we need to go through that organic stuff, that we can get there, to the point of having a plan that we can stand behind, that can we can organize for, and that we want to see implemented with our tax dollars.

You can do this too. Remember that there are resources out there. Both at the city level, at the state level, at the federal level. And in private foundations. We raised money in all of them to make this possible.

I just wanted to say to you that our park, on the waterfront, that emerged out of this planning process, is going to happen in 2008.

There are some other developments taking place. One– Lindsey is going to talk a little bit about — is that Columbia University, which was part of this planning process, has now decided that, “Oops. We want to build a brand new campus there and wipe out this entire community that is next to this park.” So that’s a whole other thing that we are battling with right now. We’re fighting it, and figuring out how to engage. I also had a slide there, that would have shown you all the major developments that are taking place in Harlem. In Harlem alone, there’s about $1.4 billion dollars worth of development going on. And only three of those developments — there’s like 60 — only three of those developments are in any way being driven by some community visioning process.

We’ve got to turn that tide around.

This land is our land. It was made for you and me.

But we’ve got to step up to the plate and let people know that we have the power to plan for our future.

One Comment

  • Albert L. says:

    Cecil Corbin-Mark demonstrates that when community members organize and make long term strategic decisions, you can fend off gentrification. This is such an important point given that poor communities are being pushed out of their communities across the country and it’s easy to be fatalistic that we cannot do anything about it.

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