By Stephen Witt
A bedrock Bed-Stuy grassroots community organization vowed this week to continue fighting the recent eviction from their Restoration Plaza office space amid rumors that the complex will be turned into a high-end hotel.
Meanwhile, the ongoing dispute between the two entities – both created as vital community resources- has civic leader sources questioning how does the increasingly gentrifying neighborhood both protect and grow the black professional and middle class while at the same time continue to advocate for the many local residents facing severe economic hardships.
“The Committee to Honor Black Heroes represents the DNA of the community that made the creation of Restoration possible,” said one source that like several sources spoken to for this story requested anonymity lest they get caught in the crossfire between the two sides in the dispute. “I understand the need to expand and do a hotel, but losing a root organization is a high price.”
The Committee to Honor Black Heroes (CHBH), which was founded by Sonny Carson, a community activist, Korean War veteran and neighborhood leader, was locked out of their offices by marshals on Feb. 19 following a lengthy landlord-tenant dispute.
Carson was one of the original board members that played an instrumental role in the creation of Restoration Plaza through a federally orchestrated public-private partnership brokered by U.S. Senator Bobby Kennedy in 1967. Restoration’s original mandate held that local grassroots activists, policymakers and corporate entities work together to build the community.
As part of the deal, Carson was given an office space in the basement of Restoration Plaza to house CHBH. After his death, Ali Lamont became the CHBH Chief Executive Officer and the office was moved up to the fourth floor, where it signed a lease to pay a nominal rent.
The office has long been a central location for grassroots advocacy to those struggling under economic hardship in the community. It also houses a unique and heart-wrenching historical photo and art collection depicting the horrors and aftermath of African-American slavery and segregation. This collection allegedly remains in the locked office.
Lamont is continuing to work on behalf of disenfranchised residents out of a temporary office on Macon Street and is continuing to fight the eviction with plans on taking the matter to federal court.
“I love everybody here, but I don’t love everybody’s politics,” said Lamont. “I want everybody to stay here and build the community. These developers are not God.”
Officials from the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation did not respond to several phone calls and e-mails at press time.
According to Restoration’s Web site, a majority of the board of directors have close ties to investment banks and Wall Street. At one time, Restoration controlled thousands of units of affordable housing in Central Brooklyn, but in recent years has sold and/or divested from many of these properties. At the same time, they have picked up lucrative contracts from the city and nonprofit organizations tied to Wall Street for workforce development and other social programs. Despite these programs, unemployment in Central Brooklyn remains extremely high – well exceeding the city, state and country’s unemployment rate.
The eviction is one of several at the Restoration Plaza complex located at 1368 Fulton, further fueling rumors that the board is looking to clear out tenants to make way for the first black-owned hotel in the borough.
“I’ve seen a lot of things changing in the last six or seven years,” said one former tenant source. “I heard through the grapevine that they want all the people out of the building and to turn it into a hotel. Several tenants including Con Ed, clothing stores and others have moved out and the space has never been reoccupied.”
Another source long active in the black community said they understand the importance of a black-owned hotel and when it comes to community development “more is better” but the source also had empathy for the CHBH fight to stay at Restoration.
“Sonny Carson was an ex-board member and they (CHBH) want to continue to facilitate for people in this community,” said the source.
“I was a college student when Restoration opened 40-plus years ago and its purpose was to centralize help for the community.”