“Enjoy your neighbors, bring out your art, music, ideas,” one speech bubble reads on a black-and-white poster. The announcement for the festival features an aerial shot of a two-way street with a fire truck passing between apartment buildings stacked on both sides. “Tenants Rights Info,” another bubble proclaims, “No biolabs #3, no displacement.”
I see the festival before I hear it: a bouncy castle with a neon green bottom, purple pillars, and a sunshine-yellow top occupies the intersection of Claremont Avenue and Tiemann Place, a 10-minute walk from Columbia’s campus. The castle pillars slope downward to form two highlighter-orange slides, and the whole thing jiggles as kids leap around inside. The color scheme reminds me of the dragons from Dragon Tales, and I know five-year-old me would have looked for Emmy and Max bouncing inside.
It’s three o’clock in the afternoon. From Claremont Avenue to Riverside Drive, Tiemann Place has been blocked off for the 30th Annual Anti-Gentrification Community Awareness Festival. The street bustles with people playing, eating, relaxing; children on scooters roll past a heated game of pickup basketball; parents draw angel wings and smiley faces in pastel chalk across the asphalt; people walk along the sidewalk holding beers and burgers, gingerly weaving through the artwork for sale. As I take in the small-town feel of the festival, I wonder what it has to do with gentrification and what it means for me, a Columbia student, to be here.
Tom DeMott—resident of West Harlem since 1970, graduate of Columbia College’s class of 1980, and on this day, wearer of a magenta bandana—has organized the festival since its inception. He stands near a piece of corkboard propped against the fence behind him. It’s so tall that I’m afraid it will tip over and hit festival-goers lounging on the sidewalk. The words, “Harlem no se vende!” (“Harlem is not for sale”) are scrawled in green crayon. Below that, red instructions tell tenants, “Know your rights.” White sheets of printer paper taped onto the corkboard rebuke New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s rezoning plan, calling its assurances to generate affordable housing a lie. The last bullet point on the page tells residents that the plan would replace the community’s culture with a “culture of money.”
The corkboard is emblematic of the festival’s birth. The event, which has been held annually for the past 30 years, arose from the Tiemann Place Tenants’ Association, a group of neighbors that banded to understand and protect the safety and quality of their housing. Tenants met in apartments and hallways for discourse, in courthouses for legal action, and on the street for the fair.
At the festival, information tables, lawyers, and now larger-than-life pieces of cardboard have provided courses of action against unfair landlords and situated landlord-tenant laws in the current landscape of housing politics. Money raised in earlier incarnations of the festival through food and rides was put back into the community to fund grassroot organizations like the Coalition to Preserve Community, a group led by DeMott. The CPC fought for community involvement in Columbia’s expansion plan in Manhattanville by holding rallies and meetings and staging protests against the project.
The Electric Slide comes on. Around me, feet tap and shuffle. I see Marcia Ruiz, a local resident, dancing spiritedly in the middle of the street; she wears a purple bandana around her forehead that matches her lavender shirt. She laughs as she notices me watching her.
Underneath Ruiz’s buoyant demeanor lies a weightier struggle, as I will learn when I sit down with her in the cafeteria of Teachers College, where she is a secretary. Her family has been renting her apartment on Tiemann Place, where she tells me she was conceived, born, and raised. The apartment is rent-stabilized, which under New York City regulations gives her the right to renew her lease and sets limits on how much her landlord can increase her rent annually.
But Ruiz knows of landlords in the area refusing to cash checks or exploiting language barriers in efforts to convict tenants living in rent-regulated apartments of housing agreement violations. Through this, owners are able to vacate properties, which allows them to renovate the spaces and raise the rent. Events like these have only strengthened her steadfast determination to keep her apartment, and she’s been involved with her tenants’ association for years. Despite this activism, Ruiz has seen many neighbors leave, and she considers herself a holdout. “At my demise, they’re going to have to put a plaque with my name on it before they renovate my apartment,” she says dryly.
Where do I stand? The corkboard questions my role at the festival, and I question it too. I’m a participant in the street fair. I’m a journalist relaying West Harlem discourse to the Columbia student body. I’m a Columbia student studying chemistry and biology. I feel particularly removed from that last identity as I chat with residents about the artwork they’ve brought to the festival to sell, but it nags at me anyway.
Columbia’s development of the Manhattanville campus brings a new crowd of students, faculty, and families to West Harlem, and the recent flock of wealthier residents has been linked to the higher rent prices that local activists take issue with, as well as the displacement of small businesses. I eat, sleep, and study within Columbia and reap immense benefits from the institution. Ultimately, I perpetrate the gentrification that DeMott and Ruiz fight against. But this role also affords me a platform to voice the experiences of local residents to the Columbia community. I’m a student of Columbia and a student of West Harlem.
It’s four in the afternoon. The DJ plays a Spotify playlist called “school clean hip hop.” Set up on two black fold-out tables, his sound system is a jumble of green, white, and orange wires that vibrate with the music. Ruiz is still dancing, now to tracks like “TAYLOR SWIFT-22 (clean),” “Rihanna Needed Me (clean),” and “Tony Lanez-Say It (clean).”
This is a community event, and a family event; parents who remember the festival from their childhoods now organize the gathering so that their children can partake in the fun as well. “I feel very fortunate that I can share something I did as a child with my kids,” Erika Ortiz, who has lived in West Harlem since she was five, responds, when I ask how she feels about her son Rylee coming to these festivals. “It’s nice to share this, just for one day.”
The festival has taken place for three decades, and in this time both its size and character have evolved. “It was a real carnival,” Ortiz tells me, recalling the event from when she was 11—Rylee’s age. That year, there were midway games, face painting, and a spinning ride in the back of a truck. For the winners, prizes included certificates for bouquets of flowers, donated by a local flower shop, and discounts on haircuts, courtesy of a nearby beauty shop. She laughs, “It was really something else.”
DeMott confirms that during the first 20 years, the festival was much bigger than it is now. In addition to the games, residents would make Spanish, Thai, Chinese, and Pakistani food and bring it to the fair to sell. Cultural groups and merengue bands would also perform.
He identifies the changes to the Anti-Gentrification Festival as the result of new residents in the neighborhood who enforce city regulations more tightly, and he uses the festival’s banner—which requires a permit to hang—as an example. “We used to just tie the banner up to a fire escape and to another building and that was that,” he explains. “Now, people can get very huffy, saying, ‘What’s all this riffraff doing out here?’”
It’s five in the afternoon and I’m shocked at the clock. An eternity and no time at all has passed since I arrived. I’m chasing after five-year-old Aja, who, minutes earlier, drew two stick figures in yellow chalk on a piece of street, to steal the mini soccer ball she’s kicking around. Down the street, an awards ceremony begins spontaneously, and I walk over to join the commotion.
Speaking confidently and improvisationally, DeMott thanks the residents for coming out. He hands off a series of West Harlem Coalition Anti-Gentrification Ass-Kicking Awards to residents and activists, including Jessica LaVesque, Haben Yemane, and his daughter Jamie DeMott, “for waging uncompromising, persistent, and imaginative battle against gentrification.” When I ask DeMott about the planning of the ceremony, he tells me the award recipients aren’t notified beforehand, and that there’s no set time for the ceremony. After all, the festival’s aim is “to not make fun into a structured event.”
The awards ceremony, in addition to the games and food, dates back decades. In 2004, members from the Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification—a student-run group working to increase student involvement in Columbia’s Manhattanville expansion plan—accepted several Anti-Gentrification Ass-Kicking Awards for their efforts to preserve the “soul of Harlem”. This year, I don’t see a single Columbia student in attendance except for my colleagues at The Eye. But the movement to promote communal education and protect tenant rights has only strengthened with time; residents will continue the fight to preserve West Harlem and their place in it.
Ruiz, who suffers from a weak right knee, is still dancing after the ceremony as the sun begins to wane. She calls the festival a celebration of her lifelong residence in West Harlem and dance a beautiful expression of it. She’s already looking forward to year 31 to “do it all over again.”
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