NEW YORK -- Bill Thompson lamented how gentrification has changed the ethnic makeup of Harlem as he strategized Wednesday how to maximize black voter turnout in the September mayoral primary.
Thompson, a former comptroller who is seeking the Democratic nomination, praised the drop in crime and rise in property values in Harlem and Bedford Stuyvesant, but told The Huffington Post that these neighborhoods are not necessarily better off because of gentrification.
“If you look at people being pushed out, if you look at people who are the backbone of the neighborhood, people who have been there for decades and kept Harlem strong while others weren’t here, then the answer is no,” Thompson said during a strategy meeting at the famed Sylvia's Restaurant in Harlem.
Thompson is the only black candidate in the Democratic field, but recent polls show him receiving only 22 percent of the African-American vote and trailing overall behind Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and Council Speaker Christine Quinn.
De Blasio's frequent campaigning with his wife, who is black, and the use of his son, Dante, in television ads have both drawn criticism from some who believe the efforts are meant to help De Blasio make inroads among black voters.
On Wednesday morning, Thompson worked with community heavyweights and Democratic Party leaders to hammer out a get-out-the-vote strategy in black neighborhoods that could catapult him to the front of the pack. On hand were former Gov. David Paterson, Rep. Gregory Meeks and Rep. Charlie Rangel, who met behind closed doors.
Census data maps show significant drops in the African-American population in traditional strongholds like Harlem and Central Brooklyn from 2000 to 2010. And between 2010 and 2011, the median housing prices in central Harlem jumped by over 18 percent, The New York Times reported.
According to data provided to HuffPost, Prime New York, a private company that analyzes the city's voting rolls, estimates that there are 893,567 African-Americans registered as Democratic voters in New York City, out of a total of 2,740,061 city Democrats.
Only 202,927 African-American Democrats are considered "likely" voters by Prime New York, because they've voted in at least one primary since 2009.
Former Gov. Paterson told HuffPost he thinks Thompson should treat African-Americans like a "consumer group" in order to win, capitalizing on some of the movements happening within the community. "It's a movement, and the way he can win is to catch the movement. The movement right now is stop-and-frisk. The movement right now is women, and minority-owned businesses, which he did a great job on as comptroller. He needs to advertise it. You find the issues that are movement issues -- Trayvon Martin is a movement issue," Paterson said.
Thompson has said he’d end racial profiling in the police department’s stop-and-frisk policy, but opposes a bill that would create an inspector general to oversee the NYPD and another that would allow alleged victims of racial bias to sue cops. A federal judge ruled last week that stop-and-frisk policies violated citizens’ rights, and appointed a monitor to correct the problems, a move Thompson supports.
Speaking on the changing landscape of the city, Thompson said that in neighborhoods like Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant, "people are being priced out of the neighborhoods ... and if we don’t build more affordable housing in those neighborhoods, people are going to continue to be priced out.”
Thompson’s plan to stem the steady flow of African-Americans out of these neighborhoods calls for building housing that's priced below market rates, he said.
Echoing Thompson’s feelings on gentrification, former Gov. David Paterson told HuffPost, “It’s very sad because the people who stayed here during the midst of poor housing, drugs, crime, unemployment, poor and inadequate health care facilities, and often a failed education system, now that the community is pulling itself together, they can’t afford to live here.”
Addressing issues specific to African-Americans in New York City, like gentrification, will be important if Thompson is to inspire the kind of support he did among blacks when he ran for mayor in 2009. That year, Thompson ran up huge margins in black and Hispanic neighborhoods, winning by a 3-to-1 margin in some districts. He beat Bloomberg handily in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and he won Harlem and East Harlem easily.
Today’s meeting could be the first step in that process, Rep. Charlie Rangel noted.
“Everyone made a contribution as to what they were doing and how we could do it collectively better,” Rangel said. “All we know is we have to energize our base, and that's that.”
Clarification: This article has been amended to reflect that Thompson was speaking broadly about neighborhood changes, and did not explicitly say how gentrification will impact his campaign.