November 23, 1997

RBI vs. the World

RBI vs. the World
Or, "How to win on an Issue"

The Harlem RBI, recently petitioned Community Board # 11 for support in their efforts to hold onto the East 100 street and First Avenue playground site until a new site can be found and prepared. Harlem RBI was concerned that they would loose the current site to those who wish to build low income housing on the site before they can obtain a new site. The current site is zoned for housing and not as a park or recreational area. The Metro North Association, Inc. has community over site of the disputed area.

This issue has pitted housing interest against Harlem RBI, children against parents, church leaders (I.A.F.) against the community and construction interest and C.B.O.s against C.B.O.s. This fight for a small parcel of land has grown to gargantuan proportions and has put elected officials and community leaders, especially those on the community board, squarely in the middle of this battle. Being in between competing constituencies is not good way to make friends or in the case of elected officials, a way to necessarily stay in power.

A Brief History
The ball field was originally created as a temporary recreation area until such time that money could be found to build housing. Harlem RBI, the Parks Department, Assemblyman Diaz, and the Metro North Association, Inc, came together to make the ball park a dream come true. This field was to provide a place for East Harlemís children to play, a place for Harlem RBI to use (without having to obtain those hard to get Central Park ball field permits), and a temporary good use of the land by the Metro North Association until housing could be built.

Housing moneys have started to become available to the East Harlem community. This is evidenced by new housing/home building on 109 Street between Second and Third Avenues and by the new homes on 113 Street between Third and Lexington Avenues. Other groups such as El Barrio's Operation Fight Back have also created new rental units at 100 Street and Second Avenue.

The Metro North Association, Inc. is no different than any other community based organization given over site of land use in the community. The Metro North Association, Inc. quite naturally wanted to eventually build housing on the site now used as a baseball field. It was the Metro North Associationís understanding that Harlem RBI would vacate the field as soon as housing moneys were found to build low to moderate housing on the site. Harlem RBI was just a temporary user of the site.

It came as a surprise to many that Harlem RBI wanted to stay at its current location. Harlem RBI went to the New York City Partnership going over the Metro North Associationís head to ask to permission to stay at the 100 Street field. Sources within the Metro North Association, Inc. were upset by this turn of events. After all Harlem RBI was an "...invited guest, who now wanted to become the landlord." This came at a time when it was realistically possible to build housing on the site. Another community group which was said to also be facing the same situation with Harlem RBI is El Barrio's Operation Fight Back. El Barrio's Operation Fight Back has oversight of two lots, one of which RBI also uses as a playing field, and which Harlem RBI also wishes to keep. El Barrio's Operation Fight Back wanted to build housing on its site and gave Harlem RBI the option of using an adjacent lot. Members within El Barrio's Operation Fight Back were not too happy about being put up against the wall by Harlem RBI either. Harlem RBI was seen as being sneaky, deceitful and stubborn.

Harlem RBI and Berlin Fight Back
Harlem RBI on the other hand states that a lot has been invested in creating the baseball fields. It had after all put in most of the money and work of creating the baseball diamonds. They said that the children would be the ones to suffer and that the children should be the first consideration in the decision making. Harlem RBI led by Richie Berlin started a strategically smart campaign to win over the hearts of the community and to put elected officials into a position in which they could not refuse.

Framing the Issue
Mr. Berlin and Harlem RBI started by framing the issue not in terms of Harlem RBI versus CBOs, but in terms of Community Interest versus Children. Richie Berlin gathered and solidified support among the parents of the East Harlem children who are part of his program. He then took his campaign to the community board level. He spoke during public session espousing his cause. He frequently mentioned that children were important and that housing could be built elsewhere in East Harlem. He said that baseball fields were scarce and that Harlem RBI had no other place to go.

Opponents countered with arguments on the need for housing. They also pointed out that Mr. Berlin and Harlem RBI broke their trust and covenant with both the Metro North Association, Inc. and with El Barrio's Operation Fight Back. That said that Harlem RBI were interlopers in the community and that only indigenous programs should be supported as a way to avoid having "outsiders" come into our community to use it and itís resources.

Elected Officials
Elected Officials were caught in the middle. They wanted to see housing in East Harlem and some secretly voiced resentment at the fact that "another outside agency was using East Harlem to obtain what they could from the community". Yet most could not come to oppose Harlem RBI publicly because of the way Mr. Berlin and Harlem RBI framed the issue. It would have been political suicide for any elected official to oppose Harlem RBI, for who could afford "to be seen as being against children?"

I.A.F. (East Harlem Partnership for Change)
To further add fuel to the fire, Harlem RBI obtained helpful networking resources and support of the East Harlem Partnership for Change. The Partnership rallied around the easy to support and instructive lesson building issue of children vs. housing interest. It was duly noted by one elected official, (who wishes to remain anonymous) that "Itís not surprising that Bob and the Boys from the Partnership would support other "outsiders" over the indigenous communities wishes. Neither Bob, nor Richie and their respective organizations originated in East Harlem, so why should they respect it? They would never dare to do what they have attempted here in a middle class or other communities."

Another official commented, "Mr. Berlin is not looking after our childrenís interest, but after RBIís. Isnít RBI just another community group seeking legitimacy and funding to stay alive?"

Other community leaders wanted to know what percentage of children in Harlem RBI are from East Harlem. Do children from outside the area use the field and are they the majority?

In Harlem RBIís defense, it must be said that they have created a truly rich and deep program which actually meets the needs of those they service, youth (an amazing feat when considered with other community programs). Mr. Berlinís leadership is honest and Harlem RBI has met with success wherever it goes. Youth are taught leadership skills. Youth are kept away from destruction events, actions and people. All who participate have fun. The baseball field is among the best looking and best kept in the city. Harlem RBI helps East Harlem children.

Crunch Time
Well it all came to a head during the October general meeting of Community Board 11. Mr. Berlin asked that the board agree to Harlem RBI using the 100 Street baseball field until another location of the same size was found within the community. Harlem RBI further asked that they stay at the current location until the new found field be prepared and completed (i.e. grass, diamonds, etc..). Walter Torres led the fight for Harlem RBI. Opponents asked pertinent questions. When the vote was taken, Harlem RBI had won. Well, almostÖ you see the board's vote is not binding. And the actual resolution only "supported" as an ideal, Harlem RBI's request to stay at the current site until a new site could be found and completed. If and when housing moneys become a reality, Harlem RBI will be out of luck. The community board after all does not have the power to prevent housing from taking place. Neither does it have the power to keep Harlem RBI at its current site.

One can see the community activist point of view in wanting to control their community environment. Better put, community activists do not want a continuance of a "lack of control" over the life in the community. Nevertheless, Harlem RBI has a proven track record. They provide a very valuable service and do it without corruption. Yes, Harlem RBI could stand to be more diplomatic in obtaining parks in our community. But let us not mistake zealousness and a few rough edges for a reason to get rid of a good program. Harlem RBI is a needed resource in our community. Overall, who can argue against any organization which helps kids? Especially our own. East Harlem Online will continue to cover this issue as it unfolds.

For Further Information on Harlem RBI:
Harlem RBI (Harlem RBI's own web site, pretty good site!)


Editorís Note: The actual Harlem RBI issue aside, it is disturbing that those from outside the community continue to dictate policy in the East Harlem community. Harlem RBI and the East Harlem Partnership for Change will serve as good examples. Both groups do good in our community and both serve a great purpose. The community is better off with them than without. However, they still constitute agencies not originating from this community. And this community should have agreed to standards of who, what, when, where, and how outside agencies can operate within our boundaries.

Issues like these tell us much more about ourselves as a community than anything about Harlem RBI or the I.A.F. It tells us that we are powerless to fend off the advances that outside agencies bring to our feet and to our community. It tells us that we are not together as a community and because of that we tend to let things go against our wishes. Lastly it tells us that anyone can divide us. I would feel much better about dealing with any outside agency if we were on equal footing. If we chose to invite them in as oppose to having them forced upon us. If we could dictate the terms of their stay and when they over stay their welcome, then things would be in their proper perspective. What community would not want to have it that way? What community would want to act as a rug to outside influences?

Again, itís not a matter of the merits of Harlem RBI or the I.A.F.; they both serve good purposes. It is just a matter of a communitiesí sovereignty and respect. East Harlem's leaders are no more control freaks than those in the West Side or the Village. East Harlem leaders just wants to have a say in what happens within her borders. Hispanics and African Americans within East Harlem also want respect and a measure of control (total measure that is). Any behavior other than respect by outside agencies is disrespectful to the self-determination and sovereignty of East Harlemís residents.

This is not a plea for control for control sake. If we are to develop as a people within and without the New York City community at large, we must learn to have respect for ourselves. Part of this respect involves not allowing external entities to dictate what happens in our community. We are as much at fault in this as anyone. We must also learn to respect ourselves in other ways, for instance, by ending our internal bickering and cooperating with each other. It is a sad thing that politics and the need for power by those on all sides of the factionalized political fence keeps us fighting each other. Coming together will give us the ability to externalizing our self respect and it will allow us to be better prepared to grant or deny access to agencies wishing to work in the East Harlem Community. JBR

Posted by Jose at November 23, 1997 07:09 PM