Hopeful Contradictions in The Bronx

Last week, five participants from the Lab met in the Bronx in New York City to do a regional sensing journey.

Why the Bronx? When we met in Berlin, part of the Lab structure was to choose a location for a regional sensing journey. Our North America cohort was interested in an experiential understanding of the key issues shaping the future of the United States. After an hour-long brainstorm in Berlin, our energy centered around two main issues: income inequality and the various racial and structural issues of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. We starting thinking of places where we could:

  • See and feel these realities
  • Experience emerging solutions that could improve wellbeing for all
  • Connect with key innovators

The Bronx became an obvious choice.

A mural in the Bronx

A mural in the Bronx

The MIT Community Innovator’s Lab (CoLab) is a close partner of the Presencing Institute. A few years ago, CoLab helped launch the Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative (BCDI) which takes its inspiration from the Mondragon Corporation in the Basque. The deeper intention of the BCDI is to create a local economy that provides residents the wherewithal for healthy, productive and creative lives.

Between February and early April, the Lab facilitation team worked with BCDI and other partners to design a daylong sensing journey into the Bronx, to explore what BCDI calls “hopeful contradictions.”

The air was brisk in New York City and a light drizzle fell as we gathered into a van for the 20-minute drive from our hotel into the Bronx. We arrived at a tall black gate separating Fordham University from the surrounding Bronx community. As both a symbolic and actual border, starting here set the tone for the “tale of two cities” narrative that would be interwoven throughout the day.

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Standing outside the gate that separates Fordham University from the surrounding community 

Our BCDI colleagues soon arrived. They showed their badges to security and took us through the gates. As we walked through campus, one of the BCDI staff looked around and quietly said, “I myself grew up in the Bronx. And this is the first time I’ve been in here.”

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Inside Fordham 

Leaving Fordham, we walked down Fordham Road toward the Kingsbridge Armory, exploring what BCDI refers to as the “hopeful contradictions” of the Bronx. Individually, people in the Bronx tend to be poor, but collectively they are rich in assets. The Bronx has tremendous wealth but it does not stay in the Bronx to support local lives and livelihoods. It leaks out. A key reason is lack of coordination across sectors and organizations that need each other in order to thrive. BCDI is trying to co-create mechanisms and holding spaces from the ground up working with parts of the community who have been most excluded and marginalized in planning and development processes.

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Shops on Fordham Road in the Bronx

To illustrate the situations they face, we made two stops.

First, in an alley between a new branch of the New York Public Library and an old building that previously housed the Library but currently sat unused – or mostly unused. Organizers and many local residents had wanted the building to become a community space. The City instead wanted a “kill shelter” (for stray animals), and when the community pushed back, the City then proposed housing for artists – while simultaneously planning to rezone the neighborhood – which was seen as “textbook gentrification”. Currently, the building is being used to house paper shredders for the NYC government.

Lab participants learning about local development issues

Lab participants learning about local development issues

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The old New York Public Library branch (center left)

Next, we walked to the Kingsbridge Armory, a massive building the size of four (American) football fields. Michael Bloomberg, New York City’s previous Mayor, had plans to turn it into a high-end shopping mall. Although the project was ultimately halted, a story similar to that of the library has ensued – the community’s plans to build educational spaces inside didn’t go, and currently the Armory sits empty.

We met for lunch at The Point, a community development corporation (CDC) an organizational form that was an important innovation in community development coming out of the urban renewal period of the 1960s. Today the Point sees itself as an incubator of community-driven ideas. They have visual and performing arts programs, after school programs, as well as economic development programs and preservation of green space. The Point CDC is a founding partner of BCDI.

BCDI community leaders shared their model for Economic Democracy, posing questions such as: What is the networked civic/economic infrastructure we need to develop to foster deep democratic practice and shift investment patterns at scale in the Bronx?

Dialogue after lunch at The Point

Dialogue after lunch at The Point

The presentation led to a dialogue on what Bronx leaders are doing to localize procurement systematically and channel it into shared wealth building efforts, the challenges they’ve encountered along the way, and how to understand the needs of anchor institutions and engage them accordingly.

We ended the day’s journey through the Bronx by visiting the Banknote, a co-working space for local entrepreneurs, where we shared observations, thoughts, or questions that had bubbled up throughout the day. The intention here was to continue our collective sense making, surface and share what we noticed during the day.

Sense-making at the Banknote

Sense-making

The following morning, we convened at Eileen Fisher Learning Lab, a beautiful renovated space overlooking the Hudson River. We spent the morning in a circle and reflected on our journey together so far:

  1. What sparks of inspiration did you carry with you from Berlin?
  2. What did you notice about yourself?
  3. What inspired, surprised, or challenged you yesterday?
  4. What else has been happening in your work and life that relates to our deeper journey?
  5. Prototyping ideas you have come across to date
  6. Contemplating the weeks between now and Bhutan, what are the questions that have your attention – or should?

We’ll share some of the ideas and possible prototype projects that emerged from our Bronx journey in a later post.

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