A Whiter Shade of Harlem

They're building again in America's black mecca—but not necessarily with black labor

But in challenging New York's commercial sector, politicians and activists may be wading into a pool that's much deeper than race. New York, like many cities, offers tax breaks to developers who choose to invest here, under the theory that development will create jobs. Yet according to Bettina Damiani, project director for Good Jobs New York, the "tax break equals new gig" formula is an unproven theorem—for workers of any race.

"Corporations continue to get tax breaks, but there's never been a promise to make sure New York City gets jobs," says Damiani. While various nonprofits and government entities may secure promises of jobs, Damiani says the city does an "embarrassingly bad job" of reporting growth generated by tax subsidies. "We did a report earlier in the year, and what we found was the agreements between the city and corporations were so weak that we actually lose jobs," Damiani says.

That's bad news for any worker, but it's particularly bad for those at the bottom of the social hierarchy—workers of color—many of whom are dogged by past encounters with the criminal justice system. Miguel Cardova, of the Lower East Side, worked as a cab dispatcher until 9-11 decimated his employer's bottom line. The 30-year-old was laid off and has struggled to find employment since then, mainly because of a prior drug conviction. "It's hard for a person like myself, as an ex-offender," says Cardova, who has three children and is in a job training program in East Harlem. "People don't want to deal with anyone with a record."

Even without a rap sheet, Cardova says, it's generally hard for black and Latino males to find work. "I used to work a mail-room job for a company that made college textbooks," says Cardova. "There were lots of Hispanics and blacks in there. But when the company moved, you know who went with them."

People in Harlem hope that as companies migrate north, the jobs will come with them. "We're saying, if you were doing a development in Italy, you would hire Italians," Williams argues. "Yes, you would seek the most qualified Italians, but you would hire Italians. We're saying, if you want to do development in Harlem, you need to hire Harlemites."

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