Depending on your perspective, the walk that Sheena Wright
takes to her office each day on Harlem's commercial corridor, 125th
Street, represents progress or the death of a community. The abandoned lots that were once weed-filled eyesores now house condominiums and retail chains. Of course, many longtime Harlemites are hard pressed to afford skyrocketing rents.
A soft-spoken woman with bronze dreadlocks and generous eyes, Wright, 39, is CEO of the Abyssinian Development Corporation
, the community development wing of Harlem's historic Abyssinian Baptist Church
. Initially born of a deep-seated need for basic amenities, ADC has changed as much as Harlem itself since it was founded 20 years ago.
"In the beginning, we were focused on your basic fundamental needs – food, shelter, clothing," Wright says of early projects, which included a homeless shelter and tenant block associations. In the late-'80s, Harlem was ground zero for a massive crack epidemic, and just about every building in Central Harlem was abandoned. "It looked like Beirut," Wright adds.
Today, the neighborhood's mostly black and Hispanic community has morphed into a place where wine bars, upscale grocery stores and million-dollar brownstones peacefully coexist with hair emporiums, chicken shacks and bodegas. ADC has played a major role in the development of Harlem, yet its road map has evolved.
"As we moved on, we said, 'Okay, our strategy is not just going to be about crisis today and how do we plug the dike on these crushing social issues, but we've got to think about tomorrow,'" says Wright.
The primary focus of tomorrow, ADC concluded, is home ownership for Harlem residents, stability for the neighborhood's senior citizens and education for its children. Since its inception, ADC has opened a state-of-the-art high school in Harlem, developed over 176 home ownership units, provided over 1000 affordable rental units, broken ground on major commercial property, as well as brokered Harlem's first major chain grocery store. This is in addition to work around literacy, foreclosure prevention and job readiness.
A double Ivy Leaguer who cut her teeth at several white-shoe law firms before heading to the nonprofit world, Wright has the disposition and the chops to make it work. Like most thoughtful people, she asks the hard questions about the future of Harlem: What is the continued evolution of the community? How do we preserve affordable housing? As these new cultures, ethnic groups and classes come into the community, how do we evolve in a healthy and holistic way? Is it okay that Harlem used to be this black cultural capital? Is there something valuable and important in that?
With an operating budget of more than $10 million a year (and armed with the credo "Believe, Build and Empower"), ADC is a 130-person corporation that, incidentally, owns some of the most prime real estate in Harlem, including more than a few properties on 125th Street. Wright confirms that ADC gets about half of its revenues from real estate investment profits and the rest from grants and fundraisers. But is there ever a conflict being on both sides of the real estate fence – developer and advocate?
"I would say there's definitely some healthy tension, but we are community developers," Wright emphasizes. "Most real estate developers have a business structure. They think about that building and how much money it's going to make. Our bottom line is not how much money did we make, but how the community develops...and sometimes you lose."
And sometimes you win. Take Don Lee and Joan Griffith-Lee. They did not live in Harlem but heard about ADC's Displacement Prevention Program when they were facing foreclosure on their Staten Island home. The Lees, married with two children, were six months behind on their mortgage.
"It was about 2 o'clock in the morning, and I was online, because we were trying to figure out what to do because we were headed into foreclosure status," recalls Joan Griffith-Lee.
"We went in and met with [ADC Homeowner Counselor Andrea Britton] and from day one – from the very first day – she started working on our behalf. She told us what we needed to do, what paperwork we needed to bring to her the next time. She started making phone calls, started making contacts. She was incredible. We were just at the right place at the right time and everything got done."
"Thank God it was a very successful experience," agrees Don Lee. "You just don't get that all the time especially in a crisis. Losing your home is a very big deal. We were certainly blessed to meet the right people at the right time."
Dr. Calvin O. Butts, pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church, where community and political activism runs as rich as communal wine, is chairman of the ADC board. Butts leverages the 200-year-old church's strong political and community relationships, as well as his deep ties to national and local luminaries, to raise money and awareness for the development corporation.
"Day in and out, ADC works thoughtfully, passionately and tirelessly to advance the cultural and socioeconomic renewal of Harlem through comprehensive community development," says Rev. Butts. "In order to successfully improve the quality of life in Harlem or any community, it is imperative to engage all facets of living, from education and job creation to homeownership and governance."
Moving forward, Wright says that Abyssinian is looking to longer-term investment in the community, primarily through education. ADC was instrumental, for example, in opening the $37.5 million Thurgood Marshall Academy – the first high school to open in Harlem in 50 years. Students at Thurgood Marshall consistently outperform their public school peers. Within the next year, TMA, which currently begins at seventh grade, will include a lower school, which will then complete the pipeline of education from K-12.
"We're going to have a big groundbreaking ceremony for the school. And that will be a big lightening rod for the discussion around public education and what the future holds for Harlem," says Wright.
In another interesting wrinkle, the real estate bust of 2009 may present a real opportunity for ADC to expand on its work. Those same developers who went hog wild buying up much of Harlem when the real estate market was booming are now a bit more humbled.
"So those big developers were coming in, having decided they were the masters of the universe," says Wright wryly. "They kicked out a lot of the small businesses, and now the buildings are just vacant. But it's an opportunity for developers like ours, if we can come in -- if we have the resources and the financing -- for middle-income families to buy some of these properties where the prices have gone significantly down.
"We need to have this long-term vision," confirms the ever-strategic CEO. "We've just been so focused on the current battle in front of us. And not appreciating that other people have long term plans for our community. So we have to be focused on the future, too."