Majora Carter embraces the idea of “self-gentrification” in her native South Bronx. She founded a park in a spot slated to become a waste-transfer facility. She’s hired local gamers to test software and provide customer service for major tech outfits. And now she’s opened the first boutique coffee shop in Hunts Point, a marginalized neighborhood that, once upon a time, she swore she would leave forever.Download episode
Rebecca Sheir has been a host and reporter on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace, Here and Now, The Splendid Table, and the Alaska Public Radio Network. Follow her on Twitter.
Rebecca Sheir: Standing on the intersection of Garrison Avenue and Hunts Point Avenue.
Not too long ago, I took the New York subway up to Hunts Point, in the South Bronx.
If you look around, on one corner you see Bronx Glass and Lights Auto Glass, uh, Check-Cashing, Free Money Orders, a beauty parlor, I do believe? Chinese food, pharmacy, Four Stars Bodega, lots of graffiti.
From this corner you’ll also see the Bruckner Expressway: an elevated, pedal-to-the-metal thoroughfare cutting Hunts Point off from the rest of the borough.
And the highway right here, the expressway.
Hunts Point is New York City’s “least promising place to grow up”... at least, that’s according to a public-policy research group called the Citizens Committee for Children of New York. Nearly a third of families here squeak by on less than $15,000 a year. And the New York Police Department ranks the Hunts Point neighborhood among the city’s worst when it comes to crime. But if you wander a few blocks away from the clatter of the Bruckner Expressway, and walk through the door of 866 Hunts Point Ave.
Sheir: How’s it going?
Majora Carter: Hello!
Sheir: Good to see you!
Carter: Good to see you, too!
Sheir: All those despairing statistics seem a little bit less overwhelming.
Sheir: So, show me around!
Carter: Yeah, yeah, yeah! Welcome, this is our coffee shop. What you’re looking at is exposed brick walls, you know, a couple of areas for seating, and our fabulous kick-ass espresso machine, and uh, yeah, we can brew a mean cup of coffee and pull an awesome shot.
Sheir: This is Hunts Point native, and resident, Majora Carter. Majora recently opened this quiet, cozy outpost of a Manhattan chain known as Birch Coffee. It’s the only specialty-coffee spot in the area, and that’s a fact not lost on Majora’s customers the morning I swing by.
Carter: Is this your first time here?
Woman 1: Yes, she brought me over. She brought coffee today.
Carter: I’ve seen you before. Awesome.
Woman 2: We’re all supporting the business.
Carter: Thank you.
Woman 2: The coffee is good enough to come back.
Carter: Yay! Thank you for supporting local, seriously, because I’m from literally around the corner.
Woman 2: All right! And I’m glad you did open it up in here.
Woman 2: There’s no coffee shops around. I don’t want to mention the DD or the ST, so you good. My money’s on you.
Carter: Thank you. Awesome. Thank you so much.
Sheir: DD, by the way, and ST—what Majora’s customer is talking about here are Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks. The closest Dunkin’ is about a mile away; the closest Starbucks is about three. But here in Hunts Point, Birch Coffee isn’t Majora’s only enterprise. Because Majora Carter, well, she’s a big deal. As head of a for-profit consultancy called the Majora Carter Group, she created Startup Box: a company that hires local gamers to test software and provide customer service for some pretty major tech outfits.
Majora also founded Hunts Point Riverside Park. You’ll find this popular and picturesque spot on a sliver of land the city and state had wanted to use for a waste-transfer station: basically, an intermediate dumping area for trash.
And Majora isn’t done yet—not by a stretch. Next, she and her group plan to start a restaurant incubator in an old Amtrak station near the expressway. It would be a place for local chefs to test out their dreams before betting big on a brick-and-mortar establishment.
And Majora is doing all of this in a marginalized neighborhood that, once upon a time, she swore she would leave forever.
I’m Rebecca Sheir, and from Slate magazine, this is Placemakers: stories about the spaces we inhabit, and the people who shape them.
Now, if the name “Majora Carter” rings a few bells, well, she’s been called one of the nation’s “100 Most Intriguing Entrepreneurs.” She’s received a Macarthur genius grant. And she’s nabbed awards from everyone from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to the National Building Museum.
Her work transforming her old neighborhood of Hunts Point has been groundbreaking in so many ways. I wanted to sit down with her and hear her story, away from the coffee shop and the grind of the espresso machine.
So, we got together at the Slate studios. That’s where Majora told me about her upbringing. Her mother, it turns out, was a housewife who raised 10 kids and took care of various other youngsters in Hunts Point. And Majora’s dad, who was a couple of decades older than her mom, was a retired janitor.
Carter: But for most of my life with him, he actually was a gambler. [Laughs.] A compulsive one. There were times of feast, never quite famine, because my mom was awesome and knew how to stretch a dollar. But yeah, it was an interesting life.
Sheir: Were you aware of what your dad was doing?
Carter: Yeah. Oh yeah. There was moments when—and you know, you could tell. It was about what we were able to eat. We had a huge family; I was the youngest of 10. And again, there were all these other people who were always in our house and depending on how well he was doing at the track, there was beans and rice. Or it was like really good stuff. Like meat [laughs] at a meal, which was awesome, as opposed to the rather occasional piece of food or piece of meat that we would have.
And it was like my mother who would like say that she was working on her figure if things were kind of tough. And she’d go, “I’m working on my figure, so I don’t need to eat tonight.” That kind of stuff. Yeah.
Sheir: So, paint more of a picture of Hunts Point. What was it like when you were growing up?
Carter: I was born in 1966 so I grew up in the ’70s. And that was the initial era of what was commonly known at the time as “the Bronx is burning.” Where it was actually a lot more profitable for a home owner or in particular a commercial property owner, to have their building torched. To commit arson, because there wasn’t any kind of financial support coming, whether through loans or any other kind of financing.
And so I grew up in that era where landlords were doing this all the time. And so, the Bronx in particular, mostly because of the fires, we lost about 60 percent of our population during that time. Because with these buildings going up in flames, some people definitely died, but most folks just literally had no place to go.
You know, I remember being very, very keenly aware of it when I became 7 years old. That summer, the beginning of the summer, both apartment buildings at either end of my block burned down, and at the end of the summer, my brother was killed, in the drug wars. And it was just like, this is what the South Bronx was. Even though it was weird because I felt very protected. Like I never felt like anything could ever come. Any harm could ever come to me because there was people like my family and other families like it who were left behind as a result of all this.
But yeah, I wasn’t blind! [Laughs.] But it certainly made me go, “I need to get out of here.” Then after that my dog died, and it was just like, “Oh no, I hate this place and I want to go.” I started planning my escape with education.
Sheir: So when did you leave home for the first time?
Carter: First time was college. Again, starting at 7 years old, planning my escape. I already knew I was smart like that, everybody told me I was smart. And it was true, I loved learning and I knew that if I got myself into a great high school like the Bronx High School of Science, then that would get me into what I called a “name college.”
And so I did; I got myself into Wesleyan University. And that’s the first time I left. And I remember I got a ride up from one of my cousins who lived in Connecticut. And I sat in the back seat of a station wagon and I watched my house sort of fade into the distance as we moved up the highway and then got into Connecticut. And I was like, “I’m still looking back, but I really shouldn’t be because I’m out of here and I don’t ever need to go back.”
Sheir: And yet you did return.
Carter: I did return. I did return. But not because I wanted to. I was broke and I was starting graduate school. And I needed a cheap place to stay, and I went to NYU. That’s why I went back home. And at that point, the fires were done, most of the housing was rebuilt, but it was still this community. We were taught, the smart, hard-working kids were taught to measure success by how far we got away from our community. It was expected that a kid like me with my reading scores and my math scores, it was expected that I would grow up and quote-unquote “be somebody.”
They were like, “Oh, you’re going to grow up and get out of here.” I was like, “You bet your bippy I am!” [Laughs.] I did. But I came home only out of duress, and it did. It felt like such a defeat.
And it was kind of crazy, because, again, the housing was rebuilt, but there really wasn’t anything in the neighborhood to want to keep me there at all. I felt like culturally that there was nothing we had in common. I was interested in the arts, and I was interested in coffee shops.[Laughs.] I was interested in communing with nature. I just didn’t feel like there was anything there for me.
And what was interesting was that through some of the work that I did, I ended up getting a job through an AmeriCorps program that was teaching writing to different organizations in the Bronx. And so I got, all the different writers were put together in a room to talk shop about what we did. And one of them happened to be this guy named Steven Sapp. He was a poet who was working on developing this project in the Bronx, this arts and youth development organization.
And I was like, “Oh.” Every time he talked about it I was like, “Wow, that sounds so cool.” It’s like this whole community of artists and it turns out it was two blocks from my house. That I was walking by it every single day and never stopped in because I’d leave the house so early in the morning, like six o’clock before they were open because I was like, “I don’t even want to be here when the neighborhood starts to wake up.” So I was gone before it did. And then I realized, “Oh my gosh, this is an amazing place.” And so I got to know him; I actually got myself essentially interned there for a long time. And really just fell in love with the arts community that was in the Bronx that kind of converged at this place because there wasn’t many other places for them to go.
Sheir: So, the arts were sort of the gateway to take you back to your neighborhood and feel invested in it.
Carter: I fit right in and I loved it. And that’s when I discovered that the city and the state were planning on building this huge waste facility on our waterfront, and that the South Bronx had already handled an enormous part of that as well. We had already handled, at that point, I think, about 40 percent of the city’s commercial waste, and 100 percent of the Bronx’s waste at the time. And I thought, “Oh my gosh, I can pretend that I don’t see this and no one would blame me. But I could also decide to stay and do something about it.”
’Cause there I was, at that point I was invested in the community. And granted, it was through the arts, and even though I knew that all the arts in the world wasn’t going to save our community from this attack that the city and the state in their infinite wisdom had decided, “Oh, they won’t notice another huge amount of waste being dumped on them.” But I knew that there had to be another kind of concerted effort to make it happen, so I decided to stay.
Sheir: There’s a term that you’ve used in your work that I want to ask you about: self-gentrifying? What does that mean to you, and while we are talking about it, what does gentrification mean to you? How would you define that?
Carter: I think typically it means that there is an act of when folks from the outside, outside developers come into a local community, buy up all the property, and push poor people out, and displace them. And then suddenly the neighborhood becomes a great place to live and the creative class is there, and yada, yada, yada.
And so there is really no room in there. One thing that we do know for sure is that neighborhood does get, quote-unquote, “better.” The schools get better, the parks get better, or they get parks. They get the kind of economic developments that many people in those communities couldn’t even dream of having in those neighborhoods beforehand.
And I met the president of a university called Johnson C. Smith University, which is a historically black college down in Charlotte, North Carolina. President Carter, actually, was his name. No relation, but he used the term self-gentrification to describe their approach to development that was going to be inclusive of the incredibly poor community that was right next to the university. Because he wanted to do this thing where everyone was included. And he is like, “Yeah, we are going to self-gentrify the development that we are doing because we are making sure that there is local job creation and business development for the folks that live in this historically poor community right next door.”
And I was like, “Self-gentrification.” So I didn’t make it up, I’m just following another Carter’s lead. But I love that idea. It was development that was by them and for them, that included the university as well as the town next door. And I thought, “Oh my gosh, that is so cool. And why can’t we do that in other parts of the country? Why can’t we do that in my community, and other communities everywhere? Why is it there is this thing that people in low-status communities don’t like or deserve nice things? They do!”
You know, I personally think that gentrification happens long before you start seeing white people in formerly people-of-color neighborhoods. It starts happening when we start telling the young, hard-working, quote-unquote “smart” kids that they need to measure success by how far they get away from our communities.
Sheir: Like what you were told.
Carter: Yes, exactly, because it teaches us to not see value in it. So that when the time comes when others are looking at our community, and going, “Oh, that’s a development opportunity.” We are the first ones to say, “Oh, sure. I’ll sell it to you for next to nothing because you must be stupid if you see any value in this.” Whereas they are thinking about the long game. And instead, we are thinking about, “We just need to get out of this place because it’s so horrible.”
And that is a problem for us and it’s something that I have absolutely dedicated my life’s work to. In showing, how do you essentially reduce brain drain. Because that’s what it is. I mean, we just built a coffee shop in our community, as a way to reduce that brain drain. Because we’ve done hundreds and hundreds of surveys where we’ve asked people, “What kind of stuff do you want to see in your community? What would keep you from leaving?”
And people were like, “Well, it’d be kind of nice to have a place that’s not a dingy community center, because that seems like that’s all we have around here.” It’s just like, “Yeah, nobody wants to go to those things anyway.” And they don’t, as evidenced by their numbers. And so we built this beautiful little coffee shop.
And it’s just been wonderful to see folks come in. On some level, many people would say, “Oh my gosh, I don’t feel like I’m in the Bronx.” “Oh my gosh, I didn’t expect to see something so nice here.”
And I’m like, “Why do we not expect to see nice things here? Why? No.” so we challenge that notion, and our goal is to really export this model. The South Bronx really is my research and development lab. But it’s in part because it’s easy to walk to wherever I want to go. [Laughs.] But the other thing is that I really do feel that if we can prove out these models here, they will work everywhere. Because believe me, we’ve got a lot that’s working against us to push these things forward.
Sheir: So, what’s “working against” Majora’s efforts? After the break, we’ll find out.
Sheir: From Slate magazine, it’s Placemakers. I’m Rebecca Sheir.
Carter: Hi there! Como esta?
Man: Good morning!
Sheir: We’re back at Birch Coffee, in the South Bronx, with Majora Carter. If you pull up a chair at one of the three or four tables in this cozy space, you can sip your favorite espresso drink, nibble on a pastry from a trendy bakery in Brooklyn, and, as Majora explains to a customer the morning I stop by.
Carter: Have you had the teas here?
Woman: [Giggles.] No.
Sheir: Savor a mug of specialty herbal tea.
Carter: The toasted almond is—it’s got real pieces of toasted almond and apple and it is yummy, and it looks really beautiful; it is literally pink. If you wanna taste, if you wanna try that? We could just give you a taste, to see if you like it.
Sheir: But as Majora will tell you, this coffee shop in the Bronx’s Hunts Point neighborhood is about way more than artisanal scones and “yummy” hot beverages.
Carter: We really wanted to create this ambiance here that when you walked in, you were immediately welcomed and appreciated, and we’re going to be offered some of the best coffee New York City has to offer with a smile and with love. That really what we do. Our partner, one of their taglines is “Birch Loves You.” It was something that really attracted us to them was just that level of customer service. Sometimes people in our communities are not necessarily known for—the merchants are not necessarily known for being the best in customer service. We wanted to create an atmosphere in which that was expected here in our community. We’re really excited about that.
Sheir: But the thing is, not everybody in Hunts Point is as “excited” about Majora’s work there. She talked more about that in Slate’s studio.
Carter: So I was going downtown early one morning, and I noticed on this mural, that actually I’d done, that somebody had plastered a sticker on it. And the sticker said a quote which was attributed to me and it was my quote, which is: “I believe that the approach we are doing is self-gentrification.” Which of course I stand behind, because that is what I do. But they had attributed the quote to me as “Majora Carter, local sellout.” And also “hashtag Columbus Syndrome.” [Laughs.]
And at first I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is horrible. Like, why would someone say that?” Then I realized, I was like, “Oh, well they are not a student of history because I guess they don’t know that I’m from literally this neighborhood, one, so I’m hardly Columbus, kids.
Oh, and the thing is, there was also a coffee cup, an icon of a coffee cup on it. So clearly it was a smack against me and building this coffee shop as like this great gentrifier that’s coming from outside the neighborhood to do this.
And I thought, “Really? You are spending all of your time running around making stickers.” And it was actually a very nicely designed sticker. I was pretty impressed. Um, but it was like, really? Instead of having a conversation with me, you are going to just try to hide behind a sticker. And then they of course wouldn’t talk to me after that.
Sheir: You know who they are?
Carter: Yeah, totally. [Laughs.]
Sheir: I want to talk about something that came up before this interview when we were arranging things. Your communication staff said you’d be more than happy to talk with us, we could talk with you, we were thrilled. But, there was a particular condition that was set. There were certain words that we could not use when describing you.
And I want to read this list and ask you why you feel these words don’t fit Majora Carter. So, here we go. “Fight, justice, struggle, tireless, thankless, activist, activism, racist, racism, environmentalist, environmentalism.” Given who you are and what you do, why do you feel these words are inappropriate?
Carter: Uh, “inappropriate” would be the wrong word. But it’s sort of in part the way that I’ve been treated by the social justice activist community. And many of them have remained silent, even though there have been very public attacks against me, incredibly public.
Sheir: More so than a sticker on a mural?
Carter: Oh gosh, yeah. A yearlong social media campaign, where it was just like, “Majora is a sell-out,” blah blah blah. It was just kind of like, well, if this is what you think of me, I don’t want to be in your club. I really don’t. I have no interest in it, and also, I really don’t want to be associated, you know, with a group of people who are only pushing to fight against something and not for something. I do want to be known as different. Period. And I believe in the self-determination of all people and if that’s the way people want to define themselves, so be it.
But I’ve also known in the line of work that I’ve decided to put myself in, which is about development, I can’t be those things because people will not take me seriously. And it’s tough enough for me to be a black woman, doing what I’m doing and to be kind of lumped into folks that are generally known to not do much of anything. Those are the words that describe them.
Sheir: So, words like fight and struggle—those could be nouns or verbs—what would you switch them with? What would be more apropos for what you are doing?
Carter: Build. [Laughs.] Transform. Love. These are words I use all the time as we speak about community building and even real estate development because these are the kind of communities, like, we want to show you don’t have to move out of your neighborhood to live in a better one. And when people think about living in a neighborhood, they are not thinking about fight—the community of their dreams, they are not fighting in it, they are not struggling in it. It’s not, “Oh, I gotta put on my armor.” All the time. I don’t want to live like that. I don’t.
I know of a few people who love living like that, but they don’t speak to me. They cross to the other side of the street, literally, when they see me coming. And I’m like, “OK, the sidewalk isn’t big enough for the both of us. You may move because I’m not going anywhere.” [Laughs.]
Sheir: So you don’t feel personal hurt anymore when people treat you like that? In your own neighborhood where you grew up?
Carter: Oh, of course I do! I’m human. I literally have—and again, believe me, it’s not many. It really isn’t. It’s a handful of folks. I mean, I know their names. I’ve tried to reach out to them, they refuse to speak to me.
And at some point I hope that they find enough love and courage in their own hearts where they can actually not just see me, they need to see themselves and wonder why they act like this. Because I have plenty of love. Believe me, all I had to do was open that coffee shop! [Laughs.]
Sheir: Majora, what do you want your legacy to be?
Carter: Mmmm. I want to be known as someone who got caught trying. Yup. Trying to make communities that didn’t think much of themselves see themselves as fabulous, powerful, beautiful, loving, kind, members of this world. That’s what I want people to say about me.
Sheir: And chances are they will. Now, I’m not going to call Majora Carter a “fighter” or an “activist.” I’m not going to talk about her “struggle” for “justice.” But the Majora I spoke with is a passionate person, a dedicated person. And, yeah, so maybe she’s gone from being a local, grassroots figure to kind of a rock star. And maybe not everyone is thrilled about that.
But in a neighborhood so often known for poverty and crime—in a place that was literally on fire just a few decades back—Majora Carter is a hometown girl who’s trying to prove that Hunts Point can be something. Something more. Even if, back in the day, it was a place she wanted nothing to do with.
Placemakers is a production of Slate magazine and is produced by Mia Lobel, Dianna Douglas, and Michael Vuolo, and edited by Julia Barton. Our researcher is Matthew Schwartz. Eric Shimelonis does our mixing and musical scoring. Our theme was composed by Robin Hilton. Steve Lickteig is our executive producer. I’m Rebecca Sheir.
For more information about today’s show and other episodes of Placemakers, go to Slate.com/placemakers. You can drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow us on Twitter; our handle is @SlatePlacemaker. And if you like what you’re hearing, please give us a review or rating on iTunes. It really does help.
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Carter: Why can’t we be ahead of the game, as opposed to just assuming, “ Oh, gentrification just happens.” You know it’s not like, “Oh, white people and doggie day cares are coming!” It’s not true. It’s not true.