Robin Le Baron in New York
August 31, 1996
The bus pulled out, turned, and rounded the corner onto Longwood Avenue. Just beyond the rails of the elevated subway we passed an abandoned building, its windows masked with sheets of plywood. "That building," Joe said, "is the last abandoned housing in Community Board 2." There was a collective murmer of astonishment from the sociologists.
We stopped half a block down the street, in front of a row of trim orange brick houses.
This is the area where Banana Kelly began, and where it has worked the longest. On the far side of the park, we saw the curve of the original banana-shaped block, lined with red and white apartments. The park itself was the result of Banana Kelly's early labours. In the seventies it had been a street of rubble-filled lots and crumbling, derelict buildings. Banana Kelly organized a coalition of local groups, and after sustained effort got the city to clear the area and plant grass and trees.
We walked through the neighborhood, and Joe talked about the history of the neighborhood. The health center, created largely through Banana Kellyıs efforts, was the first such facility to open in the area for 20 years. The orange brick buildings were built for homeowners by a city-wide non-profit agency with BK support. As part of rebuilding the neighborhood, Banana Kelly worked to actively involve the new owners in local issues. It took a year for a local association to be created, but it was eventually done.
Beyond the park Longwood Street is lined with bustling little shops and restaurants. English and Spanish mingle on the storefront signs, baskets of green bananas and garlic line the pavement outside some shops, and the warm smells of stewing beans and roasted chicken waft from open doorways.
We passed a large square former school building that Banana Kelly had rescued from abandonment and used as an office for several years. Joe pointed out a large new building just beyond a solid and rather forbidding hulk, its gravity slightly relieved by a playground teeming with excited children. This, Joe explained, was the new center of the Police Athletic League, a charitable organization run by New York City police officers that provides young children with reactional activities.
The Athletic League building's presence is a sign of Banana Kelly's success in rebuilding the area. Fifteen years ago no organization would have considered the area a suitable site for childrenıs facilities. Now it is evidently viewed very differently. And as groups like the Athletic League move in, they bring new energy to the neighborhood, and reinforce perceptions that it has changed.
Beyond the Police Athletic league building we turned down Fox Street, flanked on one
On the other side of the street was an old abandoned synagogue, and another weed-filled lot to its side. Banana Kelly has plans for this space as well, Joe said: it has bought the lots, and is considering turning the synagogue into a community-based school.
We continued on, passing more new and renovated housing, some the results of Banana Kelly's efforts, and others built by various other local development groups. As the tour progressed, I watched the sociologists' growing amazement. We saw so many different Banana Kelly projects that after a while it became hard to take it all in.
Our penultimate stop was Villa de Hortensias, a charming little restaurant just off Fox Street. As part of its local business development program, Banana Kelly had helped the restauarant get on its feet with a loan and advice. Now we all trooped in, and over meals of chicken, been, and rice and beans the sociologists talked animatedly about what they had seen, voicing their admiration and asking more questions.
The best, perhaps, came last. We boarded the bus again and drove through the gritty industrial section of Hunts Point. At length we stopped before a long brick wall, awash with a bright mural that Joe said had been painted under the direction of a visiting Mexican artist. Around the corner and through a gate we found the Point, a large building that now serves as a center for youth activities. Several youth gave us a tour, showing us the preparations for a fashion show, and a small theatre where drama performances and poetry readings take place.
On the way back to the Hilton I made a mental list of all the sites I wanted to visit again and learn more about: the health center, the Fox Street co-ops, the Point, and other places. The tour was a good overview, but clearly it was just a beginning.