Years After Fleeing Violence, Man Returns to Harlem to Make a Difference

HARLEM — Brian Benjamin was only 4 years old when his mom chose to move out of their apartment on 147th Street and Amsterdam Avenue to escape ongoing neighborhood violence.

His journey has since taken him to Brooklyn, Queens Village, Brown University and Harvard, but Harlem always stuck with him.

“My mother left in 1980,” Benjamin, now 39, said. “When she left, she never thought there’d be any chance her son would want to come back.”

Benjamin is now the business development director for Genesis, the Harlem construction giant that has become a model for providing affordable housing for the community while also creating jobs for young adults.

Genesis’ hiring strategies are somewhat unique. For its construction projects, the company specifically seeks to employ 22 to 27-year-old males who, in many cases, have veered off course in their lives.

“These are young kids who don’t have their GEDs, drop out of school,” Benjamin said.

“It’s make-or-break time for them. Some of the kids we hire have criminal records. It’s not looking too good for them. We’re trying to be uplifting.”  

The company was recently praised by Mayor Bill de Blasio for its efforts in helping him get closer to his goal of building and preserving 200,000 units of affordable housing across the city by 2024.

“We wanted to show you all what you're going to see a lot more of — affordable housing preserved in our communities, helping people stay in the neighborhoods they love and where they can afford," the mayor said outside a Genesis building on 127th Street, near Lenox Avenue, last month.

“I think we have to be serious about the fact that this is tough work to take a dilapidated building and make it good for people again," de Blasio said.

Genesis, which was founded in 2004 by former investment banker and Harvard grad Karim Hutson, closed on a 28-building and 358-residential-unit affordable housing project in Harlem last summer.

Benjamin said the company is hoping to expand into increasingly gentrified neighborhoods in the outer boroughs in the coming years.

He said the projects are mutually beneficial because they reward longtime neighborhood residents while also putting money in the pockets of young people.

“Only rich people would be living in Manhattan if you didn’t have these sorts of initiatives,” he said.

“It’s great that Harlem’s transformed, but you want to make sure the folks who have been there can stay there.”

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