Harry DeRienzo, Leon Potts and Mildred Valez coalesced to renovate three buildings at 936, 940 and 944 Kelly Street. The group formed the Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association, Inc., using the nickname for the crescent-shaped section of Kelly Street where their first renovation project was located. The group "liberated" these three abandoned buildings and returned them to habitability using funds from a Self Help Neighborhood Award Program grant and with "sweat equity" labor volunteered in return for co-op ownership of the renovated building (DeRienzo 2008, 16).
Leon Potts involvement with the group was spurred by his ownership of the six buildings immediately to the south of the Banana Kelly buildings. Potts relatives, many of whom lived these buildings, constituted the core of the Kelly Street volunteers (DeRienzo 2008, 34).
The gentleman seated on the sidewalk in front of 936 Kelly is Robert Foster, a lifelong resident of the neighborhood who was one of the original Banana Kelly homesteaders. Retired from Verizon, he was planning on selling his place and moving "down south." However, his plans were being delayed by the remarkable failure of the NYC Department of Buildings to issue a certificate of occupancy, 32 years after the building had been rescued.
Although there were Irish immigrants in this area in the early 20th century, Kelly Street is actually named after Samuel Kelly, who owned a farm in the area in the 19th century. Emporis is ambiguous on the age of the buildings on this block, giving them ages that range from 1907 to 1928 even though the common styling of the buildings implies that they were constructed simultaneously.
The success of the Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association resulted in its transformation from a volunteer effort into comparatively large funded organization controlling around 1,000 units by the mid 1990s. These changes resulted in the loss of many of the qualities (and personnel) that made the group unique and further problems with mismanagement and corruption nearly destroyed the organization in the final years of the 20th century. In 2002, the organization went through a major reorganization that returned it (and its 23 buildings) to solvency and viability by 2007 (DeRienzo 2008, 212).
Harold DeRienzo described his experience with Banana Kelly in his excellent 2008 book The Concept of Community: Lessons from the Bronx (Milan: IPOC di Pietro Condemi).
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