Featured LNP Partner: CPO and Harlem OneStop

An interview with Yuien Chin, Executive Director, Hamilton Heights-West Harlem Community Preservation Organization and Harlem OneStop

January 23, 2023

Edited Lightly for Clarity

Spencer Williams: Thank you again, Yuien, for agreeing to do this interview. I’m really excited to bring your experience and expertise to the people that follow LNP and MAS. I think if you could start by telling us who you are, what role you have and how you came to that work.

Yuien Chin: Well, thank you for including me in this series of interviews and feedback from the community that LNP has engaged, and I hope that you know, whatever I have to say will benefit the process and will help me to learn more about you know leadership and the process of advocacy work, I mean it never stops, right.

It’s ongoing, there’s always something to learn, but a little bit about who I am. I live in Harlem, as you know, and have been resident for the past 20-25 years or so.

I moved here from midtown Manhattan and moved into a neighborhood that I had no idea existed north of 59th street {Chuckles],but happened to be invited up here to a social gathering and that was it, you know it was love, at first sight.

And I mean I was really swayed by the beauty of the architecture and just the kind of quiet, you know, peaceful environment which was really amazing considering that it was close to midtown, and also because I had been in midtown for I would say a good 10-15 years and had not ventured up north to Harlem, not because there was-it was not an interest-but because of time, and also my social life was in midtown. And then there was, at the time, that was in the mid to late 80s, Harlem wasn’t the best of places right, in the 70s, so I think I may have ventured twice to East Harlem and only because I didn’t know, I was naïve [laughs]. So, I went on my own for photography class, and it was just you know, taking pictures walking, just being in the moment, so it wasn’t until years after, “oh my God, I was in that place [laughs]. I didn’t realize how many safety issues that neighborhood had,” but, in any case, I found myself in Harlem in the late 80s and fell in love with it, with the architecture and the people, and I ended up purchasing a home here in Hamilton heights and settled in and everything was just great. [I] met a lot of people, my neighbors interestingly enough, most of the people that I met and most of the homeowners at that time were either seniors or single African American women caught up in restoring or renovating their homes. So, it was a wonderful cadre of likeminded people, you know, in terms of, “what type of building is this? Where can we get the best craftsman to do our floor?” so it was a community of sharing information and dumpster diving [laughs]for architectural elements to replace the pieces that were missing in our homes. It was a wonderful time and so that went on for some years, and then two things happened: an incident on my block which unbeknownst to the community was one in a series of attacks, it was appalling that no one knew about it, it wasn’t publicized by the by the local law enforcement nor was it publicized in local media, so we were really appalled by that. And a group of us got together and decided that we had to put it on blast, so we organized an emergency community meeting, which was probably the first at that time in recent memory, you know, but we organized this meeting at a local church, and we invited all the elected officials, the agencies, the law enforcement, the precincts and organizations, anyone who could provide some support in resolving the situation. We also divided into teams, went out flyering the district, the cars, the gates, the doors, and looking back, it was a really well coordinated effort, which resulted in a huge turnout and all the elected there from the Congressman down to the district leaders, and that was my introduction to any kind of advocacy work, because you know, being from Jamaica (and)living in midtown when you have your next-door neighbor, I mean what’s advocacy, you know. So, you know, you live your life and you go on, right? So, this was a huge experience for me, and an eye opener and it was also exhilarating for all of us, and it demonstrated the power of coalitions and working together, and speaking in in one voice to achieve the desired outcome, right?

Yuien Chin, Executive Director, The Hamilton Heights-West Harlem Community Preservation Organization and Harlem OneStop.

So, that was 1 incident that kind of sparked it, and that was also the start of the West Harlem Community Preservation Organization.

And then the other thing that connected me to advocacy work was, at the same time I got involved with the Hamilton Heights Homeowners Association and also served as one of its presidents over the years that I was involved, and that’s where I got involved with historic preservation. It was there that, you know, I kind of got more in tune with the buildings and the built environment, and also became aware of this sense of place, and how special and unique it was. And then in terms of the local history, I mean that was really ignited and awakened by colleagues or new friends at the time. Two in particular: one was Michael Henry Adams who I owe a lot to because if it weren’t for him I wouldn’t be here today doing this work, but he really opened my eyes to the local history and the historic preservation.

He and another person who is now deceased, Carolyn Kent, who was very active in Morningside Heights and was the chair of the community board landmarks committee and that’s how my interest in preservation began.

Spencer Williams: And between the preservation corps and Harlem One Stop there’s a lot about recognizing history but also keeping it alive. What or who would you say that you’re primarily advocating for in the work that you do?

Yuien Chin: I would say that I’m advocating for the Community, you know, and I guess myself because I’m a part of the community.

Spencer Williams: Yeah, absolutely.

Yuien Chin: [Laughs] But, overall, I advocate on issues that I think will improve the community’s, my community’s, quality of life. And, also promote, you know, a livable neighborhood.

For example, protecting the historic character, it’s very important to the community. So, having established that, you know, I turned to whatever available tools there are to achieve the outcome that we desire. And although, you know, there is criticism inside the community and outside the community, you know, we’re not opposed, the community is not opposed to new development, and we acknowledge that community to grow, right, and thrive, one has to accept new development. But what we ask is that new development be contextually appropriate in height and also placement, and more importantly support and enhance the community’s infrastructure. It’s the same with starting a Harlem One Stop, I mean, I advocate for the arts, but I’m not an arts practitioner, but the community and I benefit from the works of the local creative community. And combined, both are at the intersection of what Harlem is about and you’re telling the story, right? And especially for the historic preservation aspect of it, we are what’s here for the time that we’re on this earth, you know, so we all have a responsibility to take care of her our environment and make sure that people who contributed to the development of this community and to American history, speaking about African American contributions, that that is somewhat preserved, and the ideal thing would be to have tangible sites or monuments, you know, to these people, but unfortunately it’s not possible. And so, we tried to codify it or two to commemorate it in our programming and other things that will keep the story alive.

Spencer Williams: Yeah. I’m curious in your two decades plus of living in that neighborhood, how has your definition of community sort of expanded?

You’ve talked a lot about your entry into the neighborhood as this intergenerational, community elders, a bunch of new people, new homeowners, a lot of interesting intergenerational issues. Can you talk about how your definition of community continues to shift as the neighborhood changes.

Yuien Chin: Yeah. The community continues to shift and also its boundaries are, you know, depending on the issue also shift and disappear sometimes, you know [laughs].

When advocating for any issue, I mean, I reach as far and as wide as possible to bring in the expertise and the knowledge and the experience to get me where we want to be, you know, and everyone has a place, everyone contributes, so that is the wonder of advocacy work, how it all comes together in the very end.

Spencer Williams: In many ways, in many ways you’re speaking to, the community is sort of defined by the issue, right, and so your ability to be an effective advocate is to say that “this issue isn’t just about Hamilton Heights it’s about all of northern Manhattan,” or “it is a cultural issue and should have, by nature, more voices being a part of that conversation.”

Yuien Chin: Yes, because some of these issues are national, you know, the disruption of neighborhoods by gentrification, the disparities in neighborhoods of color, and a pandemic demonstrated that, right? It’s across the board, so your community base and reference, you know, the stronger you are, right? Because my experience here might benefit some other group in I don’t know where who are at the place where I started right? They know what they want but they don’t know how to get there, and that is the value of the L and P program. Because as you engage with these groups who are not familiar and don’t know the steps, you’re providing a framework or a point of reference within which everyone learns, right? So, the idea of community depends on what you’re talking about.

An event organized by Harlem OneStop.

Spencer Williams: Yeah. I’m curious, what’s the biggest struggle that you’re facing now in the work and in the neighborhood? There’s certainly a lot of pandemic response. I remember when we were working together, there was a lot of focus on the business district. I’m sure that there’s been increased vacancy as a result of the last couple of years and number of street projects and removal of parking and safety issues that are going on but, what would you say that your biggest struggle that you’re tackling now is?

Yuien Chin: There’s two things, two levels. I mean there is the internal organization so not enough capacity or resources, you know, there is that struggle. And then there are the external struggles as you just said, especially now with the pandemic, you know, everyone is at a critical moment where most people are suffering from hardships and stress and are struggling to protect themselves from external forces such as you know, home, job, health and financial insecurities just to name a few. So, they’re not necessarily ready to connect because you’re dealing with all these issues and although they might support-for example, the West Harlem district that we’re working on, pre-pandemic they may come out and help with flyering or getting involved with some aspect of pushing that project forward, but they just don’t have the time, right, they can’t be fully engaged. But technology has been a savior, and in terms of disseminating of information and getting feedback here in the voice and building a voice, but that personal connection, which is very important, in advocacy work is very difficult to engage. In terms of the business sector, we continue to work with the local businesses and the pandemic, on top of the existing challenges such as that language barrier, you know, the tendency for ethnic groups, in this case the Latino community to work within their group and before listening, or even getting involved, although there are programs that are to their benefit, right, and will have to stabilize their business, it’s still at this time, it is the times that made it more difficult, you know, to connect.

But still we continue because we’re committed to the effort and a recent grant last year, I don’t know I guess you could say that it was recent, we got a grant from SBS which allowed us, it was a strategic grant, strategic initiative grant, which, the objective was to connect businesses to resources, free resources, and that was also an eye opener as to the internal operations of the small businesses and what they have, what their challenges are. It’s not just about rent hardship, you know, there’s utilities hardship, but some of the restaurants, it’s been difficult and probably still is for them to find qualified workers.

It’s just a very unsettling time, so we do whatever we can to alleviate some of those pressures.

Spencer Williams: Yeah. It’s a really difficult thing to build a sort of cross-cultural intergenerational community space. When I think of the work that you all do, a lot of it is hyper-social, right, it is passing out flyers, it is… A lot of what you talked about earlier with the strength of connections and social networks, they were really your pathways. Because you knew those homeowners’ association you are in community with those folks, then because you were invited into a party in a space, those are the ways in which you found yourself in conversation and in proximity to the people who shared interest, values, challenges, concerns. And so that’s really helpful to hear that a lot of those sort of same things, the flyering, the talking to people on the street, being on the stoops, having a physical presence in the neighborhood that’s visible, you know, sort of move beyond technology but are aided by technology certainly.

Yuien Chin: Y, ah aided by technology, but it’s not a replacement, you know, that personal connection and especially the Latino community they don’t necessarily want to, or they don’t necessarily join a zoom call. And they don’t necessarily read their emails. They do a lot of business and communication on their mobile device and WhatsApp is the preferred method of communication, so there are different levels, as you know. And then with the newcomers that come in everything is listserv within their group so although you have a very diverse community and at the surface it works well and people get along, when you really delve down deeper in terms of communicating it’s very difficult because these groups are segregated, and they may come together on an issue, but once that’s over then they retreat to their silos.

Spencer Williams: Very interesting to think of people being in proximity, but not in the same place in that way so that you’re engaging one group on Facebook and one group through your newsletter and one group in person but trying to really come together. I’m curious if you can point to something that you feel like was markedly improved by your participation in it, and sort of what the difference that either the preservation corps or Harlem One Stop sort of made in getting something done or making progress in a particular area.

Yuien Chin: Made it better? Hmmm.

Spencer Williams: Or different, or easier.

Yuien Chin: In terms of historic preservation, it made the neighborhood better because we kind of brought relief that at least in my lifetime and years to come, that because of the designation the neighborhood would more than likely remain the same. I can’t say in perpetuity because we might have a mayor that comes in and just everything is reverted, but rest assured that now, we can say that the preservation has stabilized the neighborhood in terms of development and that any changes, there’s a framework within which new development would have to be presented and developed, and that preservation has given the opportunity to explore creative options and strategies that that could bring some economic benefits to the neighborhood such as tourism, you know, and also small businesses. I think it encourages entrepreneurship and investment in the community by the residents.

I would say high percentage of the small businesses and restaurants along our commercial corridors are people who have lived in the neighborhood for quite some time or are people who have recently moved and have lived here for the last 10 years or so and decided that this is their home, and they want to invest in their community and contribute to the economics of their neighborhood, and that’s great. I mean, it excites me whenever I see that happen, and I do whatever I can to support them, you know, through Harlem One Stop, and amplify their presence and all of that, but in terms of Harlem One Stop, I think I made the access to the cultural landscape much better because when Harlem One Stop was first started, there was no comprehensive or centralized listing of the cultural landscape in Upper Manhattan, and you know, I couldn’t understand why there wasn’t one, right? So, and that goes back to…what my next project might be, because I’m constantly walking around and constantly observing I listen, I have conversations, and I see where there is a need for something and, if possible and I can do it, you know, then I do it. And that was the case with Harlem One Stop.

You know I said we need something to tell people that not only does this neighborhood have a wonderful history, but the contemporary landscape is even more exciting, there are all these cultural organizations here, you know, interpreting the history and moving it forward-the music, the dance, all the arts legacy that came before us, and someone needs to know about it but there was no place for that to happen until we introduced Harlem One Stop and that I think has made the cultural landscape better here and it supports the small organizations and individual artists who might not have the marketing budget. Everything we do is free. That, I think, if I were to answer that question, even more so than the historic preservation, which I’m very proud of, but I think Harlem One Stop is really a much-needed niche.

Spencer Williams: Yeah, that’s really fantastic to hear the story of creating something out of a need, but also having demonstrated that you can designate and landmark neighborhood, then to go and expand like, this is also important because you’ve done it before, so you’ve sort of given yourself your own proof of concept. And that way of like, this is possible here because we did it, let’s go do it again.

Yuien Chin: It intersects, you know. We do neighborhood tours, they’re thematic tours, and it’s drawn from the research that has come out of the designation, you know, of the neighborhood and wanting to share that and re-engage community residents, as well as visitors to the area.

Spencer Williams: So, given all of that, is there anything that you wish that you knew before you started in this work?

Yuien Chin: Yeah. I don’t really spend a lot of time on regrets [laughs]. You know, it is what it is. I keep moving forward. But the one thing maybe, the time that it takes, you know. And the test of one’s patience, but I don’t know that it would have changed my mind, and it would just have made me less, it would have relieved the stress a bit more, you know. And worry that I set up all these expectations, and you know will I, will I… you begin to question yourself when something takes so long, and you know that you’ve done as much as you can [laughs].

You know the older you get and the more you do it, you just get to the point where you have to accept that work within the system because there’s some things you can change about the system, but even if you brought about change it’s not going to change overnight the system, it still has to go through that cycle, right? So, that’s about it. I mean I don’t have too many regrets.

Spencer Williams: There are a great many number of things that I used to think of as a long time that I now think of as very short [laughs] in my advocacy life of just like, “oh that was only four years as opposed to a decade, that was really quick, we really worked hard to get that there.”

Yuien Chin: The thing is, you know, once it’s over with, then you know, it’s a moment to celebrate and say, “gosh, you know, it really it was worth it,” and if you’re not successful just move on and say that you did the best you could. Not let it inhibit you from trying the next thing. Just learn from that experience and move on. Every experience is a teaching tool.

Spencer Williams: Earlier, you talked a little bit about some community members who had sort of really anchored the work. Are there any leaders that you look to historically or people that you’re looking to now for inspiration on how to be a leader in your community?

Yuien Chin: I think we talked about this before, and it all depends on the issue, and those leaders’ or advisors’ support can be found, you know, anywhere, not necessarily in the community. And that’s how I operate, I mean you know, I’m constantly talking to people. But Michael has always been there, you know, even now. He’ll call me at one o’clock in the morning, or if I’m working on something I’m calling him at 12 o’clock at night, he’s always been there and he’s an unsung hero here in Harlem. I mean, he’s devoted his entire life to historic preservation and preserving the history and the contributions of not only African Americans, but anyone who contributed to what Harlem was and is now. I mean he’s just incredible, so he continues to be a very important mentor and provides a tremendous amount of guidance to what I do. He provides a framework and I execute you know. He puts ideas in my head and makes me think outside of the box with the information that he gives me, and I set out to execute it.

It’s the same with any other issue, you know. I’m never the smartest person in the room, but, as I say, I tried to be in a room with the smartest people that I can pull together [laughs]. I get attached to people who are well versed and are experts in whatever issue that I am trying to advocate on and it’s important for any advocate to really, not hear but really listen and learn and be clear on what their objectives are in terms of the issue that you’re advocating on and also to be able to convey that objective to those groups and individuals that you’re working with.

And also, it’s important to stay focused, but at the same time be flexible, because you don’t want to, what is the saying? You don’t want to win the war but lose the battle?

Spencer Williams: Win the battle but lose the war.

Yuien Chin: [Laughs] You’re so rigid in your thinking, so focused on one thing, but then you’re blind to all the other benefits and advantages and other creative ways that you can navigate the process and still get to where you want to be.

Spencer Williams: Could you talk a little bit more about the difference between listening and hearing? What would be an example of each in your experience?

Yuien Chin: Well, someone may be speaking about whatever the subject may be, and I could just be listening and I’m that moment, and you’re hearing, you’re listening, to the information and you’re hearing the information, but you’re not actively engaged with that information, you know, and you’re not, when I really listen I am learning at the same time, I’m thinking, “well how does this sync up with what I’m doing? What are the possibilities based on this information that I can take something that I’m working on to the next step?” What am I lacking, what do I need to do?” This person has given me all this information, but that person across the room can also fill in some of the gaps that I’m experiencing in this project, you know, you’re constantly evaluating what you have in front of you and what you need to get. If I’m listening, well, I’m in the moment and I’m hearing but I’m not really engaged, I mean, it’s interesting, but you know, I’m not paying any information to the nuances of that argument that is really being presented to me, I think I understand when I really don’t understand, you know [laughs].

Spencer Williams: Yeah. Having, listening to you then as a deeper form of having heard and internalized the information, a willingness to be changed by it, right? And also, to be humbled by it, right, because then, you talked about the curiosity to go have another conversation, to sort of say what else don’t I know, which is, I think, a good measure of the quality of listening. I have one more question that we’ve touched on a bunch throughout this interview, but as New York City is constantly changing and evolving, what’s one aspect of your neighborhood’s culture that you want to hold onto?

Yuien Chin: Well, it’s obvious from my work [laughs]. I want to do as much as I can to preserve the built environment of my neighborhood. That brings me a lot of pressure, you know, being able to walk around this wonderful neighborhood and these turn of the century row houses and to imagine what and who have walked these the streets and avenues, you know, and just still always fascinated by these homes. And they’re not just structures, they represent lives, they represent on some level the people who lived here, and it never ceases to amaze me. And that’s why when I hear something being threatened with demolition it really affects me to the to the point of, there is just no explanation why I should be internalizing this. It’s always like they’re my children, you know.

But I really love this neighborhood and I will do whatever I can within my power as a steward for my environment, you know, we all need to decide in our lives what’s important to us and work hard to protect it, and this is how I feel about the neighborhood and I’m excited by the possibilities, that’s why I’m trying to do this place making, there’s just so many things that hinges on historic preservation, there’s just so many directions that one could go, and that excites me. Right now, I’m trying to establish an artisan market, I’m doing all these things that bring out the village feel of this area and make space for people to connect. That social interaction is so important to public spaces and it’s good for the neighborhood, right? So that’s why I do the public events pre-Covid, and now I’m sorry to see the DOT Weekend Walks, our programs, end, and they’ve got this open street thing that really don’t work the same way, because they’re allowing neighborhoods to close off streets, but at the same time they’re encouraging people to bring programming in which defeats the whole purpose, you know, I want to activate public space for the neighborhood by the neighborhood And so, that’s all the thinking behind my madness [laughs].

Spencer Williams: Well, I guess is there anything else you would like to share that we didn’t touch on in our conversation today?

Yuien Chin: Well, I think we talked about our advocacy work and making connections and building communities and relationships and coalescing and collaborating to achieve one’s objective, but I think one important thing that I may leave with you is don’t burn bridges [laughs]. Don’t burn bridges.

So that’s it for me. I had one experience with that and that was a learning point. You never know when you will have to come back to people and you might be angry things turn out the way it did and you’re disappointed because someone didn’t do what they were supposed to do or promise to do, and you have may overly and forcefully over articulated that position which doesn’t make for a good relationship [laughs].

Don’t burn bridges, because you never know when you have to go back.

Spencer Williams: very, very, very sage advice good advice. Wonderful. Well thanks again!

Yuien Chin: Thank you.

guide leads a tour group and holds a Municipal Art Society of New York sign

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