Inside Melba’s, a restaurant in Harlem, such city notables as Kenneth J. Knuckles (Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone), C. Virginia Fields (former Manhattan Borough president), Hazel Dukes (NAACP) and Lloyd Williams (Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce) recently crammed together for a re-election fundraiser for Councilwoman Inez Dickens. Outside, an angry crowd chanted derisions at the attendees, calling them “sellouts” for supporting Dickens. The crowd, under the banner of the Coalition to Save Harlem, was upset that she had voted to approve the rezoning of 125th Street, Harlem’s main thoroughfare, to allow for more commercial and residential development.
Caught between the accolades inside the restaurant and the protests on the outside is nothing new for Dickens, who has earned praise for successfully negotiating treacherous terrain. But even for a seasoned politician with deep roots in Harlem, hearing the boisterous dissenters must have been disheartening. “A few of those outside have rejected my plan,” Dickens told her supporters. “But when I was elected I promised I would do the best I can to preserve our community. I wanted to ensure our community was protected.”
Williams thereupon snatched the microphone and led a rousing cheer for the councilwoman. “We are the choir you’re preaching to and we are here to support you,” he declared. It was time to move on, Dickens continued, to deal with pressing problems, such as drugs and violence that threaten the lives of many Harlem residents.
Born and raised in Harlem, the daughter of Lloyd Dickens, one of the community’s foremost pioneering political and business leaders, Dickens knows that politics is the art of compromise. Compromise certainly was at the heart of her vote of the rezoning measure and it was delivered only after she thoroughly examined what the City Planning Commission had proposed and offered her own modifications.
Affordable housing was among her key concerns. While her modification called for much more than the original plan — an unprecedented 46 percent of all new housing to be income targeted — there are reports that the percentage remains only 5 percent. “It’s forty-six percent,” says Lynnette Velasco, Dickens’s chief of staff, contesting the reports circulated by the Coalition to Save Harlem. Velasco also took exception to statements that Dickens had not met the activists’ demand of restricting building heights to 130 feet. “She has set the building heights restrictions in Central Harlem to nothing taller than 195 feet on the north side of 125th Street and 160 feet on the south side of the street,” she says.
The tension surrounding rezoning has tended to obscure community improvements authored by Dickens, including her focus on public-health issues relating to childhood obesity, the early onset of adult diabetes in children, women’s health and preventive-health measures. With only two terms under her belt, Dickens has secured money for a million-dollar podiatric, public-health initiative. From her Web site, we learn that she was able to secure funding for public- health programs, such as the Hip Hop Stroke/Greater Harlem Health Revival Initiative, a public-health partnership with Harlem Hospital and Abyssinian Baptist Church; the Northern Manhattan Perinatal Partnership; Harlem United Community AIDS Center; and the Harlem Hospital Horizon Art Clinic.
Dickens’s passion for educational development extends beyond kindergarten through the 12th grade to college. She has earmarked funds to establish a Center for the Study of Harlem, another example of her intent to protect the community she loves.
As disgruntled Harlemites ponder the fate of the legendary community, it’s hard to believe they are worried about Dickens putting her “cherished Harlem” up for sale. “I love Harlem and I am here to make sure its legacy and cultural contributions are preserved,” Dickens has said on more than one occasion. Chances are the time will come when the Coalition to Save Harlem will see that in Dickens they have an ally, not an enemy.
By Herb Boyd