“Outright robbery,” says Pastor James David Manning about the building being renovated across the street from his Harlem church at Lenox Avenue and 123rd Street.
That was his reaction, he says, when he learned from one of his parishioners that the rent for a studio in the building will cost $2,500.
He remembers a time, 20 years ago, when the same building housed a crack den and he watched dead bodies being pulled out of its basement. His church, Atlah Ministries, provided survivors of the place a meal. “We’d have to Lysol down the whole place,” he recalls. “That’s how bad they stunk.”
But times have changed, and Harlem is being transformed. What bothers Manning, however, is that his church and its parishioners, after years of helping out during the dark days, are being passed over and pushed out by gentrification. The “indigenous people” of Harlem, as Manning puts it, are being priced out by projects like Columbia University’s slow but steady crawl north.
“They are investing in property, but not investing in the people,” he says.
Manning has come up with a way to fight back, taking a page, unsurprisingly, from the Bible itself. The prophet Elijah, Manning points out, ushered in a three-and-a-half-year drought in Israel with the words “No Dew, Nor Rain.” And using those words as a rallying cry, Manning is attempting to bring another sort of drought to Harlem.
In a 23-page pamphlet that he’s titled “How to No Dew, Nor Rain,” he’s asking all Harlem residents to boycott businesses within a drought zone from 110th to 155th streets, from one side of the island to the other, for 1,260 days, the same duration of Elijah’s drought. He hopes to bring developers and landlords to their knees in “an economic tribulation,” he says.
Although his 600-member congregation has signed on, there aren’t enough copies of the pamphlet to go around and they’ve had to share. He’s counting on word of mouth to reach the rest of the local populace. Businesses that want to escape the boycott can call the church and ask for exemptions. Atlah gives them “No Dew, Nor Rain” safe-shopping decals to place in their storefronts. Other businesses are exempt: beauty shops, funeral homes, laundromats, and private schools. “The last thing we’d want to do is disrupt education,” says Manning, who runs a couple of private schools in the neighborhood.
As for his own everyday purchases, like groceries, Manning says he uses Fresh Direct. But for his parishioners without Internet access, hewing to the boycott has meant taking bus rides south to stores outside the boundaries of the drought zone. “It’s time-consuming,” says Esther Bennett, an elder of the church, “but we are making allowances. There will be rewards.”
Among the local grocery stores that will be immune to Manning’s boycott, however, is the new one planned for a brownstone that was recently purchased.
Its name will be Atlah Superior Grocery, and Manning hopes to open it soon.