Devoting a Martin Luther King Day speech in Harlem to telling people to go back to where they come from was a curious decision by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who all but turned into a one-man lightning rod after his appearance at Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.
Speaking about gentrification, Adams let loose on newcomers who – in his mind – aren’t interested in saying hello to their neighbors or supporting longtime local businesses.
“Go back to Iowa,’’ Adams said. “You go back to Ohio. New York City belongs to the people that was here and made New York City what it is.”
But following Adams’ pretzel logic would take us back to the original “people that was here” – the Lenapes, the Native Americans who lived in what is now Manhattan and were forcefully evicted by Dutch settlers almost 500 years ago. The Dutch later lost out to the British, who then lost out to angry colonists – until cycle of cycle of displacement gets you to Eric Adams.
A Brooklyn state Senator for six years, Adams’ district included Crown Heights, Brownsville, and East Flatbush – neighborhoods that have seen a remarkable amount of change since the 1930s.
Brownsville was once filled with Jewish immigrants from Europe, but the neighborhood eventually became the home of tens of thousands of African-Americans, many of whom were part of the historic Great Migration from the South.
Undoubtedly, some of those newcomers were told to go back to where they came from. Many longtime residents moved away out of fear or racism. And some stayed.
New York neighborhoods don’t belong to anyone; they’re often dominated by one group of newcomers, only to be replaced by another one. Change can be good – and it can also be a little scary.
Tackling gentrification is a worthwhile battle cry, but not at the expense of people who have come to New York City from all over the world to pursue their dreams. Some of those dreamers have even gone on to lead the city. Since the city’s unification in 1898, only ten of the city’s 19 elected mayors were actually born here. That fact is something that Adams hopefully will remember as his own bid for mayor continues to take shape.
I might allow the Lenapes for wishing everyone would go back to where they came from. But no one else – including Eric Adams – should get a pass.