By Carol Tannenhauser
It was the late 1970s, early 1980s, the dawn of the “crack era.”
“Crack was everywhere,” recalled Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, in a recent conversation in her office at 1 Centre Street. “Parents were dying left and right.”
Gale (which is what she prefers to be called) was living on 82nd Street at the time. “Of course on the West Side,” she said, as if anywhere else were impossible. An early feminist, she was president of the New York chapter of the National Women’s Political Caucus, founded by Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, Gloria Steinem and others, to encourage women to enter politics. She also sat on the boards of a drug treatment and a youth program.
“My husband and I were a certified foster-care family,” she said. “Sometimes crack-addicted parents would go through the programs and rather than put their kids into the official foster care program, I would take them, because, otherwise, it’s very hard to get your kids back. There were tons of kids coming through who were involved with the criminal justice system—or their parents were—and I would take those kids, too. Once you have foster-care kids, more show up. That’s how it works.”
In all, Gale and her husband Cal Snyder, an author, fostered 35 children. They are still in touch with most of them today.
“This went on from the late 1970s, all the way through the 80s and early 90s,” she explained. “We’d have two or three kids at a time. No babies; everyone was at least 10 years old and already in trouble. We had one kid whose parents thought he was gay, which he was, and they threw him out, so we took him, too. We took all different kinds of kids.”
Known to be praise-aversive, Gale shifted the focus of the conversation to how the experience rewarded her.
“All the challenges, the good and the bad, you learn a lot,” she said. “You learn about the traumas these kids go through. You learn to sleep with your pocketbook under your pillow, because otherwise it might be gone in the morning, and you learn how to be tough. As a result of that experience, I can handle anything. There’s nothing that bothers me.”
Except real estate developers.
“I’m involved in so many fights with them,” she sighed. “It makes my blood boil.”
Not surprising when you consider that one of her main responsibilities as Manhattan’s 27th Borough President is to weigh in on land-use matters.
“There’s only one issue in New York City that’s so challenging,” she contended. “It’s real estate, real estate, and real estate. The schools, you enjoy working on. Health care, you enjoy working on. You may disagree about how to get there, but we all want to be healthy and educated. The same with transportation; we all want to fix the subway. But with real estate, we don’t all want to have tall buildings with condos for people who don’t live here, but developers do. I fight every one, but it’s so hard.
“The owners tell me, ‘Gale, we’re gonna pay taxes. Don’t you want our money?’ My answer is, ‘We have a crisis of affordable housing, why don’t we treat it like a crisis? Why doesn’t every new building have affordable housing in it?’”
Affordable housing covers a broad range of income levels, she explained. Not only does it include housing for very poor and low-income people, but what she calls, “workforce housing.”
“Two cops, two teachers, two sanitation workers, two professionals, maybe, $100,000 to $120,000 household income. They’re being forced to move out. They can’t find anything. It’s either this gazillion-million-dollar level, or it’s a $40,000-income cap and they’re way in between. All I can do is fight it case by case.
She’s “disenchanted” with Mayor de Blasio.
”I thought that he would pay more attention to governing,” she said. “Some people don’t like government, they like politics. I like the government side. There’s a big difference. In good government, you pay attention to affordable housing, individual schools, what’s going on with the buses, people’s health care, sanitation, school lunches, rats! You have to take care of all that stuff of daily life. It’s sometimes boring and time consuming, but that’s governing.”
Consider the latest issue involving the contested skyscraper being built at 50 West 66th Street. Recently, the developer, Extell, has been granted variances from the Department of Buildings, allowing them to work on weekends and late into the night.
“People need to sleep,” Gale said, “but the mayor has continued the practice. It’s not just there, it’s all over the city. We write letters constantly about it and we get answers, but you still have to have somebody at the top who says, ‘No.’”
Next: Gale on retail vacancies, term limits, homelessness, the Upper West Side, and her plans for 2021.