From The Bronx to Boston, Boricuas Resist Displacement

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Dr. Evelina López Antonetty

On the wall over my desk looking over me is Evelina López Antonetty, the famous Bronx activist and organizer. She is looking straight ahead, her arm outstretched and her lips stuck in mid-sentence. I imagine her exclaiming her famous words:

“We will never stop struggling here in The Bronx, even though they have destroyed it around us. We would pitch tents if we have to rather than move from here. We would fight back. There is nothing that we would not do. They will never take us away from here. I feel very much a part of this place and I am never going to leave. And, after me, my children will be here to carry on … I have very strong children … and very strong grandchildren.”

Those words, her words, should inspire our thoughts and actions in the struggle to resist gentrification.

We see the debate over gentrification everywhere. We see it in online blogs, television shows and traditional periodicals. Its bleak shadow surrounds our neighborhoods and whole cities are plunged into darkness. People, our people, find themselves strangers in their own neighborhoods. The members of our communities have fallen into pessimism and sorrow. Some have plunged into rage. Unfortunately, very few people are actually talking about actively resisting gentrification.

However resistance to gentrification is not a new phenomenon. Gentrification has been occurring in different communities around the country for nearly fifty years. Before Brooklyn, Wicker Park and the Mission, there were neighborhoods that not only faced gentrification but complete destruction. One notable example is Villa Victoria in Boston.

[Photo: MIT Center for Civic Media]

[Photo: MIT Center for Civic Media]

It is a proud, pleasant community with Puerto Rican flags and imagery everywhere. It came into existence through a passion and resistance that Evelina spoke of in the above quote.

In the late 1960s Boston was transforming from a small city still stuck in its 18th century fame to a modern metropolis. Many neighborhoods faced redevelopment, including a Puerto Rican neighborhood in the South End that would later be called Villa Victoria. This neighborhood survived because residents were aware of what was going on. They quickly organized the Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción (IBA) and mobilized their community. They used everything at their disposal, including protesting. They offered their own plan for their neighborhood. They fought head to head with the developers and the City. They resisted gentrification and won. Whether you think that your neighborhood is being gentrified or not, there are ways to deter or stop the gentrification of your community. Here are some of my thoughts.

The most important thing to do is to observe. We must be in touch with what is going on around us. Who is making economic and real estate decisions? Who is renovating buildings and moving in? We must be aware enough of what is going on around us on the day to day. Talk with our elders and ask them to tell us what they have seen from their porches, stoops or windows. Don’t wait until you read or hear about it on a blog or newspaper.

Next, we must gather. Neighborhoods are tribes and they can be families. They are not just a patchwork of random people. We know our neighborhoods inside and out. We are familiar with the elders who first moved there, the priests and pastors, and the small business owners. Find people who can help to create a better community. Some people, especially the ones who complain the most, just need a leader to inspire them. We must find out what people want. In order to create a better community, we need to know what benefits the most people.

After we have everyone together, we must act. We must use what our abuelas and mamis gave us: el grito. We must collect our supporters and create a bigger voice. Let the grito resonate through the whole city. Be Evelina in the picture above. There are people who are willing and able to help us. They may include citywide organizers, grassroots leaders, pro bono, and activist architects. With our observations and the passionate community members we have gathered, we can develop our own plans for our communities.

Finally what is left is to teach. We’ll bring all this knowledge and strength to our families, friends and neighbors. We need to set up meetings and classes, pass out flyers and send out letters. Some people can’t, or won’t, join us in this struggle. They are, nevertheless, part of the community. They need to be informed. We must also impart this knowledge to the next generation. All children, at all ages, can be taught about their culture and history. All children can be taught to appreciate and love their community.

It is not an impossible task. It is challenging – and will require a certain amount of energy and persistence from the group undertaking it – but it can be done. Like the people of Villa Victoria, IBA, and Evelina López Antonetty, we have to resist. Gentrification is not inevitable. Our victory can be.

View this video on the history of Boston’s Villa Victoria community.

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