By Carol Tannenhauser
Gale Brewer’s decision to enter the race for her old City Council seat creates a challenge for her competitors—name recognition alone puts Brewer, the current Borough President, at the front of the field. An Upper West Sider for nearly 50 years, she also happens to be enormously popular here—she won her 2009 race with more than 80% of the vote.
But this is a different time and election. New York City primaries will now use ranked-choice voting—a system that allows candidates to team up to improve their odds. Two of Brewer’s opponents already have. There are new issues now too, like the controversy over the use of The Lucerne Hotel as a temporary shelter. Brewer and other officials have tried to mediate the dispute, with mixed results. “I talked to and have respect for both sides,” Brewer said, in a recent phone interview with WSR. “It’s not easy to bring them together.”
Brewer, 69, is the first of six District 6 City Council candidates whose ideas and agendas we will present over the next few weeks (in alphabetical order), in advance of the June 22nd Democratic primary. Known for her boundless energy, she has spent more than three decades in public service—from 2002 to 2013 as the City Council member from District 6, representing most of the UWS. We asked her about the issues facing the neighborhood today—and why and how she wants to take them on in what would be her fourth term on the Council.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
West Side Rag: Why did you decide to run for your old City Council seat?
Gale Brewer: Because I know there are ways that we can make government work better for the people. People are concerned about public safety, affordable housing, small businesses, homelessness, not to mention health care during this god-awful pandemic. Right now, I think government is too lackadaisical; it’s not focused on central services. People need a clear notion of what they’re paying for in terms of their government services. They expect their local officials to be responsive to them. I’m known for constituent work. Constituent work means people calling or walking into a community office, with every kind of school problem, housing problem, healthcare problem, they’re not getting food, they can’t figure out Access-A-Ride, and someone is there to help them. You’re supposed to do that! We’d have an office open six or seven days a week, with a staff that knows these issues.
WSR: One issue on the Upper West Side is street homelessness. How do you feel about the disbanding of the NYPD homeless outreach unit?
GB: I knew them very well, the officers, and they were actually quite upset, because they loved their jobs. The unit was disbanded maybe a year ago now, and the new system is not clear to me, that’s for sure. The problem in February, 2021 is that it’s hard to know who’s in charge. If you call the cops, they understandably will say they’re not, but the public is still going to call them. I don’t think it’s been handled well, to be honest. We need more mental health services on the street and, of course, more housing.
WSR: That brings us to affordable housing. It also seems to use an arcane system, with a small percentage of available units being won in a lottery.
GB: It’s terrible. What the mayor came up with is not a great program. It’s called Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH). On 96th Street there are two buildings being built. The first has one, ridiculous, affordable unit—and look at what they’re building: that big monster building where the Chase Bank used to be. If they don’t require city input they can do what they want, as long as they stay in the zoning.
The old Mitchell-Lama program was the best housing program we’ve ever had in the City of New York. We should think about why that program was so successful. It had both Section 8 people with low incomes, and middle-income residents. Maybe after the pandemic, there might be some interest in trying to recreate it.
This is why I think I could be good at this job: I know what doesn’t work—and I know that there are ways that we can make government work better for people. One thing I can do as a council member is not repeat some of the mistakes of the past.
WSR: What about the argument that it’s time for new leadership?
GB: There will be a lot of new leadership in the City Council—35 new members out of 51. New people are always welcome and I’m all for new ideas. But somebody has to implement these ideas, whether they’re about scaffolding, affordable housing, schools, parks, open space, environmental justice—the list is pretty long. I’ve been doing this for many years. I’ve seen what’s not happening. I don’t want to keep doing what doesn’t work. We don’t have to start fresh. We can say, ‘Okay this is what we want to get done.’
WSR: On schools, what’s your position on the elimination of the current Gifted & Talented program?
GB: The challenge is keeping children in public schools when you have an exodus due to the pandemic. It’s hard when this mayor and chancellor keep changing the rules. I want families to stay in the public schools, so I’m generally supportive of a diverse G & T, but it needs to be diverse. I’m also very supportive of magnet schools, where you have a focus, like dual language at P.S. 84, or art at P.S. 75.
WSR: Retail vacancies?
WSR: Everybody hates them, but what specifically can we do about them?
GB: I’ll tell you some good news. As borough president, I passed a law in 2019 requiring every owner of every building, by the end of this February, to tell the Department of Finance if they have a retail vacancy and the square footage. Where are they? Are they where there’s a BID? Are they under scaffolding? That gives us the data. Then you have to figure out what you’re going to do with these vacancies. How do we make sure local stores come in and not have these big chains reappear? On the West Side, I passed another law when I was in the council saying storefronts can only be 40-feet long on Amsterdam and Columbus, and banks can only be 25-feet long on Broadway and Amsterdam. Existing spaces are grandfathered in, and supermarkets are exempt.
The issue is what do we want in the neighborhood? Grocery stores, grocery stores, for sure! We could also sit down and figure out something entrepreneurial. Rents are very low right now. Nobody ever says to the entrepreneurial community, let’s talk about space. You can figure out what to do with it once you have the data. You can’t make policy without data.
Next: The newest candidate, Maria Danzilo.