Robin Le Baron in New York
August 10, 1996
"What is a Banana Kelly and what does it do?" people ask me when they hear where I'm working. On my first visit I left the mystery of the name for later, and concentrated on learning what Banana Kelly does.
At first glance Banana Kelly is understated. On my initial visit I found the main office a short walk from the subway, on a block that seemed to embody the contrasts between old and new South Bronx. Within the space of a hundred yards or so a newly renovated building of beige brick, an abandoned warehouse, a strip of lively but threadbare stores, a rubble-strewn vacant lot, and a cluster of the little Tudor-trim houses, their little yards ablaze with gladiola and marigolds, all rub shoulders with each other. Banana Kelly's main office occupies the ground floor and basement of the brick building, but only a stencil on the window beside the entrance alerts visitors to its presence.
The inside of the office is similarly without frills. A large room on the ground floor shared by about ten Banana Kelly staff made the strongest impression on me during that first visit. It's an entirely functional space - clutteredwith desks, filing cabinets, binders, reports, and other office paraphenalia - and it hums with muted energy. I watched people talking on phones, tapping away at computers, and engaging in animated but sotto voce conversations, and I wondered what they were working on.
I was there to meet Joe Hall, Banana Kelly's Executive Director, who struck me on first meeting as very calm and very competent. We sat down together, and, in answer to my questions, he outlined what Banana Kelly did.
The devastated local housing stock has been a central concern to Banana Kelly since its founding in 1977. Over its 19 years of existence, Banana Kelly has rehabilitated 2500 units of housing in the local communities of Longwood and Hunts Point. It still manages one thousand units in 41 building, while hundreds of the other units it rehabilitated have been converted into tenant cooperatives. Banana Kelly also runs a variety of other housing-related activities, notably a nationally-acclaimed program which assists owners in weatherizing their buildings.
The organization also provides services to the local community. Some of this work involves referring people to existing programs run by government agencies or other non-profit organizations. But Banana Kelly runs services of its own, such as its very successful after-school program for young children.
Perhaps most intriguingly, Banana Kelly is also actively engaged in economic development activities. Its largest venture to date is an ongoing project to build a large environmentally sustainable paper recycling mill in the South Bronx. It also assists local businesses by providing training and short- and medium-term credit.
Banana Kelly is not only for, but also of the local community. Over sixty per cent of its Board of Directors, and more that eighty-five per cent of its staff, live in the area. BK actively presses for community involvement; it requently holds meetings and planning sessions intended to allow residents of the area to air their views and help shape their collective future. It has also hired community trainers to facilitate tenant organizing in some of the buildings it manages, and tenant volunteers play a large role in providing certain sorts of services.
By the end of Joe's account I was hooked. What were Banana Kelly's secrets for accomplishing so much in an area that has become an international metaphor for urban blight? It seemed I might get a chance to learn. Banana Kelly was creating a web page for the internet, and they wanted someone to research and write about the organization. I had been searching for a community-based organization working with low-income housing, where I could live and do my dissertation research. And so I wound up working at Banana Kelly.