Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Battle Draws Fresh Voices

Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Battle Draws Fresh Voices

By Lauren Raheja for City Limits

Last week, fifteen Bronx high school students added their voices to the volatile mix of dialogue over the redevelopment of the Kingsbridge Armory, a former National Guard ammunitions warehouse in the Bronx.

Kingsbridge — About four years ago, the city put out a request for proposals for the redevelopment of the Kingsbridge Armory, a former National Guard ammunitions warehouse that has been vacant since 1994. Of the three proposals that were submitted by developers in 2008, one was taken into serious consideration and it spawned extensive analysis, debate and vehement opposition. Last week, fifteen Bronx high school students added their voices to the volatile mix.
The students spent their summer researching community benefit agreements and last Tuesday — in a dining hall at Hostos Community College — 10 of them presented their findings to an audience of about 80 people, including community leaders, teachers, family members, and peers. Also present were stakeholders in the Kingsbridge Armory redevelopment project.

The students did not unearth new information about the redevelopment project, but took sides on one of the most divisive issues – living wages. They said they agreed that the redevelopment should require prospective retailers to pay every worker a living wage of at least $10 per hour.
The students took turns explaining how they conducted their research and what they learned, and presented their final product: a 24” x 36” poster they created (with the help of artists Hatuey Ramos-Fermin and Prudence Katze) complete with diagrams, illustrations, and talking heads to summarize their perspective on CBAs and the politics of the Kingsbridge Armory project.
During the panel discussion that followed the student’s presentation, stakeholders talked about the armory. No new areas of consensus emerged among them about the project, but the event gave them an opportunity to get input from Bronx youth about the Kingsbridge Armory redevelopment. One of the panelists who participated in the discussion — Desiree Hunter, a community activist who belongs to the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance (KARA) and the Kingsbridge Armory Task Force — said that she plans to show the students’ poster to the task force.
“I think it’s wonderful to see young people grapple with complex issues,” said Bettina Damiani of Good Jobs New York, one of the other panelists at the presentation, “and come out with a knowledge of how a democratic process should work.”
The city’s 2006 request for Kingsbridge Armory redevelopment proposals led to a high-profile protracted community development battle. The proposal that the city selected was submitted by Related Companies and aimed to convert the castle-like 575,000 square foot building into retail, entertainment, and community space. When KARA, a coalition of Bronx community groups, asked Related Companies to agree to require all prospective retailers to pay their workers a living wage of $10 or more plus benefits, the company said no. Because Related and Bronx community organizations could not reach an agreement about the redevelopment, the city council voted the company’s proposal down in 2009, and the development process was sent back to the drawing board. In March of this year, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. created a new task force to help move the Armory redevelopment forward.
The students presenting their views of the Kingsbridge Armory redevelopment were ten of the fifteen who participated in the most recent installment of a program called Urban Investigations, a series of projects coordinated by The Center for Urban Pedagogy. In each Urban Investigation, high school students are charged with collaboratively investigating one facet of how the city works. In the past, Urban Investigations have researched what happens to garbage after it’s thrown away, who owns the internet, and where public housing comes from. The question underlying the Kingsbridge Armory research was ‘Who benefits from CBAs?’

o create their poster, the Urban Investigators conducted interviews with decision makers and stakeholders involved in the Kingsbridge Armory project, including Desiree Hunter of KARA; Jesse Masyr, the lawyer for Related Companies; David Lombino of the Economic Development Corporation; Tom Angotti from the Comptroller’s Task Force on CBAs; and Vicki Been, a co-author of a report on CBAs. The students also went on site visits to the Kingsbridge Armory and conducted street interviews with members of the communities that will be most affected by any development that happens there.

The project gave some of the students an opportunity to learn about the city in a way that regular classroom learning does not. “I learned about CBAs,” said Luis Peña, a fifteen-year-old from the Urban Assembly for Applied Math and Science, whose mother told him to either do something constructive with his time over the summer or be sent back to the Dominican Republic, where their family is from. He chose the Urban Investigation. Before July, “I didn’t know [CBAs] existed at all,” he said.
“It’s hard to really construct a city,” said Taylor Feliciano, 17, a student at the Eagle Academy for Young Men and another Urban Investigation participant, as he reflected on what he learned over the course of the summer. “[Development] has to be settled with the community.”
The goal, according to project leader Valeria Mogilevich, was for students to not only learn about the complex development process that CBAs are a part of, but also to create a poster, a tangible final product, that would educate the public about the significance of CBAs in the Kingsbridge Armory redevelopment. She hopes the students will play a role in city-wide debate and have an impact on decision making.
“We’re trying to get students to change their perception of how the city works, and their potential impact on it,” said Mogilevich.

Students Investigate Local Issues Through Service Learning

Students Investigate Local Issues Through Service Learning

An after-school project earns New York City kids academic credits and an inside look at their urban environment.

The final bell rings at the George Wingate Educational Campus, home to four Brooklyn public schools, and a handful of ninth-grade students trickle into a classroom for their after-school service-learning class on a rainy spring afternoon.

The students quickly settle into seats, and their teacher, Hatuey Ramos-Fermin, pulls up a chair alongside them to begin the session. The class is in the midst of conducting an urban investigation, a unique, local service-learning project that asks students to confront challenging issues within their community to gain fuller understanding and become more engaged citizens.

Raising Awareness
Through a partnership between an after-school program at the Wingate campus called the Brooklyn College Community Partnership (BCCP) and the nonprofit Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP), these students have tackled a big question — “What will the East New York neighborhood look like in 2030?” — as a way of exploring an often overlooked corner of their city. After spending a semester on interviews, research, and documentation, the group will explain what they discovered about the future of East New York by creating an educational art project, which they’ll share with the community at large through a public presentation.

“The idea is to encourage civic participation,” says CUP program manager Valeria Mogilevich. “You don’t feel ownership over where you live unless you understand how the neighborhood works and that there are people with faces who make decisions about it. We’re training the students to know it’s possible to ask questions and figure out how things work.”

For eight years, CUP has worked with more than a dozen public high schools and community educational programs across the city to craft after-school, summer, and internship projects like the one taking place at the BCCP. The investigations are often part of a school’s service-learning curriculum or an extracurricular class that supplements core subjects.

Students have asked and answered questions such as “Where does the city’s garbage go?” or “How do the bodegas — markets — in the Bronx get their food?” To illustrate what they’ve found, the students collaborate with a rotating cast of local teaching artists to produce polished, professional-grade documentaries, art exhibits, posters, or mini-magazines that are then used to educate the general public.

At the BCCP, the classroom investigation proceeds as Ramos-Fermin, a teaching artist, hands out a short bio of East New York pastor and community leader David Brawley, who the students will interview that afternoon. “Before we go, let’s talk about what we’re doing,” says Ramos-Fermin. “Why are we talking to David Brawley?”

“Because he’s with the people who are building a bunch of houses there,” responds 14-year-old Gavin.

After a few more minutes of discussion, Ramos-Fermin motions that it’s time to catch the subway to meet Brawley at his church. This will be the group’s fourth interview with as many key community leaders in the past six weeks, and the students are clearly becoming more comfortable with the activity.

“I used to be shy about asking questions,” says ninth-grader Isaiah. “But if you take the time to think about it, it’s a skill that everyone has. It’s really just curiosity.” As he slips on his backpack, the high school freshman grins and says, “OK, time to make some people nervous.”

Building Kids’ Investigative Skills
At the beginning of every urban investigation, CUP pairs students with a teaching artist, who shepherds the teens through every part of the process, from refining the initial question to conducting and documenting the interviews to crafting the final product. Previous urban investigations have often resulted in art exhibits and documentaries — some have been shown at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art and at national conferences, such as the National Conference for Media Reform, and community organizations regularly use others as educational tools.

For his students’ East New York project, Ramos-Fermin started out by giving them a primer on real estate and urban planning, because the neighborhood they’re investigating is undergoing rapid redevelopment. The class learned the definitions of relevant terms like foreclosure by first discussing them and then physically representing them to form a human tableau. Ramos-Fermin photographed students’ poses and then used the pictures to make collages representing their initial impression of East New York.

The first few weeks of any urban investigation are also dedicated to building the students’ interviewing skills through role-playing and mini-lessons and to creating art projects that develop the students’ videography or photography skills, which they use to document the interviews.

Ramos-Fermin’s students, for example, have taken photographs and recorded their conversations with real estate brokers, community board members, and housing developers. By the end of the project, the group will compile recordings, interview transcriptions, students’ drawings, and photos to produce a mini-magazine and a podcast audio tour of East New York.

To get them thinking about the politics of urban development, Ramos-Fermin divided his students into groups, each one representing someone they’d interviewed, and then he asked the young investigators to draw a picture of that person’s vision of East New York in 2030, based on things that person had said. Afterward, they collectively discussed the different images that emerged from each group.

Until recently, CUP, which receives various federal and local arts grants, has focused its efforts on New York City, but the organization is developing free, downloadable curriculum so its model of local investigations can be conducted anywhere. “You can do an investigation any place where people live and where things change,” says CUP’s Valeria Mogilevich. “It’s fascinating to dig deeper to see how change happens and who is responsible for it.”

It’s a Wrap
On the day of their interview with David Brawley, Ramos-Fermin and his students arrive at the St. Paul Community Baptist Church in the late afternoon. After a few more minutes of strategizing in the church, the group is led to a well-appointed office behind the sanctuary.

Once seated around a table, the students begin peppering Brawley with questions: “How did your church become involved with the affordable-housing business?” “How is religion tied to the construction?” “Is it environmentally safe to live there because of its history as a landfill?”

“That was one of the toughest interviews I’ve had in a long time,” the pastor tells the group after the hour-long interview.

Out in front of the church, Gavin, a freshman, says he didn’t know what to expect when he joined the urban investigation, but he’s glad he did. “I just joined for the credits, but after a while, I started to see it was more of an educational experience,” he admits. “You learn a lot from the experience — more than from anything else.”

Bernice Yeung is a contributing editor for Edutopia.