Banana Kelly, a LISC partner from the early days, has a storied history in the revival of the South Bronx. Today, like so many groups working in low-income places across the country, the organization uses new tactics, as well as tried and true ones, to foster community and preserve affordable housing in a vastly changed social and economic landscape.
On a sticky summer evening in the South Bronx, down a flight of concrete steps and through a narrow passageway between 928 and 924 Kelly Street, there’s a lush and tidy vegetable garden that’s humming with activity. Spread out like a green fan behind a row of newly refurbished buildings, the Kelly Street Garden’s raised beds—bursting with chard, squash, peppers and basil—share space with a greenhouse made of plastic sheeting, a barbecue grill and composting bins where Hopey Foster, who grew up and raised children and grandchildren in number 928, is dumping out her cucumber peelings.
A dozen or so residents have gathered in the adjacent community room to learn how to turn the week’s bounty into gazpacho and vegetable stew at a cooking workshop. Children flit in and out, some staying to watch, others just to ask when the food will be ready. Adults wander by to take in the breeze and greenery, an escape from the griddle-hot streets. A sign on the sidewalk pointing the way to the garden declares its mission: “Growing Food and Community.”
It doesn’t take long to see how the Kelly Street Garden, a project of the Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association, provides a rare and valuable kind of public space in the historically impoverished neighborhood known as Hunts Point-Longwood, once the epicenter of the infamous burning Bronx of the 1970s, and of the 1980s crack epidemic. A formerly grim and trash-choked yard is now a source of healthy, homegrown food, and a nexus of neighborly collaboration and community organizing that its stewards hope will draw in more residents, inspire them to become active in their buildings, and spark similar activity in other buildings, on other blocks.
In so many ways, the garden, and the evening’s activities, are a logical extension of Banana Kelly’s long, deep history of neighborhood organizing and renewal in the South Bronx, and of the fundamental role that resident activism plays in changing a place for the better. But there’s no neat narrative arc to this story. Kelly Street and the community development corporation (CDC) have ridden waves of devastation and success. After Banana Kelly nearly imploded 14 years ago, its founder and original leader is back, reworking what he and his neighbors helped invent four decades ago: strategies for giving low-income residents a foothold, a voice and a substantive role in their communities. Today, some of the challenges to improving living standards are the same, while others are wholly different—real estate speculation has devoured swaths of once-affordable housing as incomes remain distressingly low and rents surge beyond people’s means.
In fact, while the South Bronx may look a whole lot better than it did when Banana Kelly formed, the obstacles to community development, in some ways, are more challenging than ever. And this holds true of high poverty places across the country. “The neighborhood is built up beautifully,” says Harry DeRienzo, the non-profit’s founder. “But the social networks that people had are disappearing—if they’re not already gone—people are isolated and vulnerable, and most can’t afford the rent.” For Banana Kelly, as with so many other committed CDCs, bricks and mortar are just part of the solution: community organizing and creating public space for homegrown social interaction are indispensable to improving lives.
The Kelly Street Garden is an object lesson of that principle. “People go in and they’re not just growing vegetables and peppers, they’re actually talking to one another and sharing issues and concerns,” says DeRienzo. “In the process, we not only improve the quality of life, by working together, but people are actually having some say about their own futures. That’s something that, when you experience it, is transformational.”
That’s how it all began, on this very block, 40 years ago, when a group of neighbors resolved to save their slice of the neighborhood from the rampant arson and abandonment that was turning the South Bronx into vast fields of charred brick, splintered beams and broken concrete. At the time, the city dealt with the borough’s scores of blighted buildings by sealing them up and demolishing them. Instead of moving out when they were told to, the neighbors banded together with a fervent activist from Long Island, fresh out of college, the young Harry DeRienzo. They applied for a rehab loan for three abandoned buildings on the curving block of Kelly Street (thus the nickname “Banana Kelly”). While they waited—it took 18 months for the loan to come through—they began rebuilding the boarded up apartments with their bare hands. In 1977, they formed themselves into the Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association with the motto “Don’t Move, Improve.”
Over the next 15 years, Banana Kelly went on to create more than a thousand units of affordable housing, provide social services to thousands of residents—including pediatric health care, youth programs and vocational training—and play a major role in transforming the South Bronx from rubble-strewn disaster zone into a neighborhood of renovated apartment buildings, modest row houses and a bustling commercial corridor.
Today, Hunts Point-Longwood is a far cry from what it was in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. The population has rebounded after an exodus during the era of disinvestment and arson, and crime has plummeted by some 90 percent in the local 41st precinct, once famously known as Fort Apache: in 1990, at the height of the crack epidemic, there were 44 murders in the neighborhood; last year, there were three. On warm evenings, nearby Rainy Park is alive with baseball and soccer players and knots of friends talking and listening to salsa, and children ride scooters and play on the sidewalks.
At the heart of the historic “self-help” movement, whereby residents renovated and managed their own buildings, was a functioning community, a natural outgrowth of social relations nurtured over decades, with roots in the Southern places many South Bronx residents had emigrated from. Robert Foster, a member of the original Kelly St. sweat equity brigade who is known as the block’s de facto mayor, grew up on nearby Tiffany Street. But he always hung out on Kelly Street, where the action was. “In the afternoons we played basketball together, stickball—there was always something going on,” he recalls. “Then I met my wife, and her family and friends. I got married in this building right here. When we started thinking about saving our street, and Harry came and opened our eyes to the possibilities, our closeness gave us the ability to do more. That’s how we changed the block, and then the neighborhood.”
It was that same closeness that inspired DeRienzo to help lead the neighbors to preserve their homes. “Organizing has always been hard,” he says, “but back then you were building on networks that were already there. Your work was halfway done. All you had to do was ask people ‘how can we make things better?’”
Almost from Banana Kelly’s inception, LISC supported the CDC with grants, loans and technical support to renovate blighted, tax-delinquent buildings, dumped by their owners and that the city was anxious to unload. In fact, some of LISC’s very first projects channeling private sector dollars into reviving the South Bronx—a completely unorthodox approach to renewal at the time—were collaborations with Banana Kelly, along with a handful of pioneering local groups that were helping residents renovate and manage their own buildings.
After six years of heading the CDC, DeRienzo moved on from Banana Kelly to attend law school and lead another organization (though he remained a Kelly Street resident and served on the board for some time). During that period, as national attention and funding were directed to the South Bronx revival, many CDCs lost touch with their grassroots and became outsized corporate landlords in their own right, more responsive to the demands of funders than to the needs of tenants. Some became corrupt, too: By 2002, a combination of overgrowth, mismanagement and alleged embezzlement nearly destroyed Banana Kelly; many of its properties had fallen into terrible disrepair, leaving residents disillusioned and angry.
DeRienzo was persuaded to come back to salvage the CDC, which was under investigation by the attorney general and the FBI, and had lost more than half of its portfolio of buildings. LISC, having pulled away from Banana Kelly during the 1990s, agreed to step in, too, and continue to oversee the running of the remaining buildings—400-plus units of affordable housing—all of which had been mismanaged, while Banana Kelly rebuilt the portfolio and paid back millions of dollars in liens and other debts. “We had a lot of history with Banana Kelly,” says Denise Scott, LISC’s executive vice president for programs who ran the New York office at the time. “We knew what Harry was doing was rescuing a lot of affordable housing that people depended on and was about to be lost.” DeRienzo calls Scott Banana Kelly’s godmother. “LISC stuck with us and said, ‘Here’s the bar. You meet this goal, you get your buildings back.’”
CDCs across the country, of course, have suffered similar periods of crisis, leadership change and rebirth—particularly during and after the Great Recession and the foreclosure debacle. Not all have had the mettle, and the good fortune of reliable partnerships, to recover.
It took ten years, but Banana Kelly came through. By 2011, all of the 400 units were returned to Banana Kelly's control.The CDC currently runs 50 renovated buildings comprising more than 1200 affordable apartments. A newly constructed building on Fox Street, two blocks east of Kelly, has 58 units for low-income and formerly homeless families and includes a daycare, a community room and play area. More gardens are opening, too, providing safe, public green space where social bonds are forged.
Community organizing is still at the core of Banana Kelly’s mission (LISC’s HUD capacity-building grants help support that work), founded in the knowledge that stronger friendships and neighborhood bonds make for stronger, more resourceful and resilient communities. For DeRienzo and his staff, it’s the only way for the non-profit to be a catalyst for authentic change. These days, to involve the increasing numbers of Banana Kelly tenants who are recent immigrants from Latin America, native Spanish-speaking organizers go from building to building, letting residents know about everything from financial literacy classes to barbecues to Spanish-only meetings.
“When they open the door, they’re relieved—like ‘Finally!’” says Timothy Robledo, a Banana Kelly organizer. “We tell them we’re trying to be more intentional, that we don’t want their voices to get lost.”
Many of the properties Banana Kelly takes on are shockingly decrepit, run by absentee slumlords with hundreds of violations. Such was the case with five buildings on Kelly Street that housed longtime tenants, as well as newer residents with HIV/AIDS who had been placed there by the city and were especially vulnerable to the unhealthy living conditions. In 2012, DeRienzo visited the apartment houses where some of his old friends were living and discovered walls caked with mold and rooms filled with garbage and feces; a mother and her newborn lived in an apartment with no heat.
“There were people sleeping in the halls, and rats the size of cats—that’s no exaggeration,” says Lonnie Brice, who grew up in number 924 and has lived there all her life. “It was devastating. There was no one to call, and no one was making repairs.” Through a city program, and with support from LISC's subsidiary, the National Equity Fund, Banana Kelly wrested the buildings from the bank that held the mortgage, relocated the residents for the 12-month construction term and gutted the buildings; today, they are safe and healthy homes again, with views onto the garden.
The social and economic landscape in which Banana Kelly works today is very different from the one that spawned it. In spite of the development of the last decades, the South Bronx is still the poorest congressional district in the country and has the highest number of people at risk of homelessness in the city, according to a study by the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness. The unemployment rate is also the highest in the city. Rental assistance and outreach to homeless families in the neighborhood has become a big part of Banana Kelly’s work. “We spend a lot of time trying to keep people in their apartments, says Anna Burnham, the CDC’s lead organizer. “These are working people who make too much to qualify for programs and not enough to afford housing. The bottom is eroding up.”
DeRienzo sees a sharp contrast to his early organizing days, when working class people, and even those on welfare, could still live with dignity and cover the costs of housing, clothing and food. “I meet so many people working two, three jobs just to pay the rent,” he says. “They don’t have the time to get invested in their buildings, or volunteer in the community.” Indeed, the pressures of the area’s poverty squeeze residents and CDCs alike. “We have applications for vacancies, but the families can’t afford the apartments. Every week [our COO] comes to me and asks, ‘How low can we go on the rent?’ We give concessions to the best of our ability, but we’ve got to pay the bills, too.”
Self-help was a radical approach to combatting blight 40 years ago, and in the same vein, Banana Kelly still looks outside the box for new ways to preserve affordable housing, empower residents and balance the budget. To that end, DeRienzo has helped assemble a consortium of New York affordable housing nonprofits that are pooling their portfolios with the goal of sharing costs and management of a larger, more efficient portfolio. Known as the Joint Ownership Entity, or JOE, its members hope it will bolster the CDC industry and help residents stay in their homes and neighborhoods by lowering operating costs and safeguarding buildings that could be lost to market forces. “Gentrification is always going to happen, investment is going to happen, and we don’t mind it,” says DeRienzo. “But we don’t want it at the expense of the people who are here.”
As the JOE takes shape, Banana Kelly continues to see resident engagement, and tenant committees, as the engines to improve quality of life in the South Bronx. Like any non-profit managing affordable housing, it grapples with the intense challenges of being a landlord, and having to balance its mission of providing affordable housing while maintaining the economic viability of its portfolio. In some buildings, Banana Kelly is faced with drug dealing or tenants who won't, or can't, pay the rent. “What drives us is the people we work with and the potential for building community,” says DeRienzo. “At some point, people begin to start feeling like, ‘Wait a second. My neighbors care about this building, that must mean something.’ Then they may start to put indirect pressure on someone who’s throwing their garbage in the stairwell. It’s not something you can teach with a sign in the hall. It has to come from a sense of connection to other people.”
Sheryll Durrant moved with her husband to Kelly Street last winter from Brooklyn to become the manager of the Kelly Street Garden. The daughter of a Cuban-Jamaican farmer, Durrant had a career as a market executive, but after getting laid off at the height of the recession, she enrolled in farm school and resolved to help empower low-income people to start taking control of their environment and food sources.
“This garden is an example of what the urban landscape can be,” says Durrant. “But I struggle with how to make it relevant to people, to get them to see that this is theirs, too.” The free produce offered to neighbors each week during the growing season (nearly 800 pounds this year alone), and the cooking classes and other public events, are working. But for Durrant and other garden committee members, the best aperture into the hearts and minds of the community is its children. “They’re not afraid to come down and get involved,” says Durrant. “They grow up being told that the only way to succeed is to leave the neighborhood. But the experience of being in this garden plants a seed, and there’s no telling where that may take them.”
Little by little, neighbors are taking ownership of the garden. Sajata Epps is a designer and organizer who moved with her to son to the block in 1999, when the crack epidemic was still in full swing. On the way to work in the morning, she’d hopscotch over discarded condoms made from sliced-up surgical gloves, souvenirs of the night’s prostitution trade. “I knew there were good people here, but there was this other element that was overshadowing it,” she recalls. “I didn’t know how to engage, but when the garden opened, I saw there was a place for me.” Today, Epps is an active garden committee member, and runs arts and computer workshops for children and adults.
Certainly, the cumulative challenges to Banana Kelly’s mission are daunting. “You can build whatever you want,” says DeRienzo. “You can build a house or a garden or whatever, but unless people are invested in it, every day, working on it and making it grow and maintaining it, eventually it’s just going to turn to rubble.” The neighbors of Kelly Street know that truth, because they’ve seen it happen more than once.
But on a summer evening, when South Bronx natives and new neighbors savor the gazpacho they’ve just made together, children hunker down in the vegetable beds to pick strawberries and green beans, and the aroma of purple basil drifts through thick, city air, the potential of a working community is realized.