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Council Member and Community Groups Clash Over South Bronx Future

Councilmember Rafael Salamanca (D-Bronx).
Councilmember Rafael Salamanca Jr. (D-Bronx). Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

A South Bronx grassroots group contends it’s being punished for pushing back against local politicians’ attempts to revamp the area surrounding Southern Boulevard.

The alleged aggressor: A long-established nonprofit organization once synonymous with the neighborhood’s turnaround.

The dispute exploded publicly Tuesday with accusations ranging from raucous partying to threats of pulling public funding to selling out the South Bronx to developers.

Take Back the Bronx circulated a document declaring the Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association caved to pressure by Councilmember Rafael Salamanca Jr. (D-Bronx) by ejecting the group last month from a basement space it had used for free since 2015.

“The eviction of the [Bronx Social] Center shows how politicians enforce gentrification through crony relationships with local nonprofit organizations,” read the account.

The document pointed to an email sent in October 2017 with the subject line “Problems with our Local Councilmember.”

After Take Back the Bronx began protesting the Southern Boulevard planning, Banana Kelly co-founder and President Emeritus Harry DeRienzo wrote that Salamanca threatened to cut off financial support — including rescinding $90,000 he approved for a tenant-organizing program.

The email concludes with a list of Banana Kelly projects funded by Salamanca, who chairs the Council’s Land Use Committee.

Councilmember Denies Threats

In a statement, Banana Kelly’s board of directors did not dispute the authenticity of the email.

Former Banana Kelly employees, speaking to THE CITY Tuesday, confirmed they received the missive.

Salamanca vehemently denied making any financial threats.

“I don’t know why Harry said that,” he told THE CITY.

Salamanca acknowledged speaking to DeRienzo, but added “there was no threat of removing funding. … Funding was never removed.”

Salamanca, along with Assemblymember Marcus Crespo (D-Bronx), has played an active role in a Southern Boulevard neighborhood study being sponsored by the Department of City Planning.

A series of community meetings with city officials are a prelude to a potential rezoning of the strip south of the Cross Bronx Expressway, enabling future development.

Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association on Prospect Avenue in the South Bronx, May 7, 2019.
Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association on Prospect Avenue in the South Bronx, May 7, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

City planners anticipate the study “will identify opportunities to protect and increase affordable housing, strengthen retail and local businesses, increase pedestrian safety and walkability, and improve community resources, all of which will support the long-term sustainability of the area.”

Fears that new development could displace longtime residents galvanized Take Back the Bronx to protest starting in the summer of 2017. Some Banana Kelly community organizers joined them.

“As we agitated and did a little more confrontational stuff with Salamanca, or just like the rezoning, in general, then they got the pushback from Salamanca,” said Elliot Liu of Take Back the Bronx.

‘New Pimp on the Block’

Former Banana Kelly staffers said two employees were terminated and another was suspended after their off-the-clock participation in the protests against the Southern Boulevard planning.

In the 2017 email, DeRienzo describes getting a call from Salamanca complaining Banana Kelly organizers were demonstrating outside his office, with one standing under a sign calling the lawmaker “New Pimp on the Block.”

According to the DeRienzo email, Salamanca said “he cannot work with Banana Kelly” as long as that organizer remained with the nonprofit.

“That email is true,” said the former organizer, adding she was fired by Banana Kelly.

CEO Hope Burgess “basically sat us down and said [Salamanca] threatened to remove funding for the after school program,” said another tenant organizer, Timothy Robledo, who worked at Banana Kelly for three years.

Activists said Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association forced grassroots group Take Back the Bronx out of its basement location at 970 Prospect Ave.
Activists said Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association forced grassroots group Take Back the Bronx out of its basement location at 970 Prospect Ave. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

He said he had been suspended for participating in protests, before leaving the organization.

In its statement, the Banana Kelly board says it dismissed the organizers for different reasons: “The board demanded changes in our organizing department based upon their determination that our organizing staff took advocacy positions and led campaigns that did not include [Banana Kelly] Resident Council leaders.”

Banana Kelly, formed in the 1970s as a grassroots effort to reclaim a neighborhood blighted by arson and landlord abandonment, maintains that its relationship with Take Back the Bronx and the Bronx Social Center was informal.

In an April 12 letter to Take Back the Bronx, Banana Kelly board chair Rev. Theodora N. Brooks said the decision to remove the Bronx Social Center was based on raucous late-night parties. “The relationship with Banana Kelly has become openly antagonistic over time,” she wrote.

Take Back the Bronx plans to protest the Bronx Social Center’s removal on Thursday evening at 970 Prospect Ave. The group, which contends a rezoning will drive up rents, says it’s been reaching out to the community about the plan.

“Gentrification is a word everybody knows,” Liu said. “Rezoning isn’t.”

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