By Gus Saltonstall
New York City Councilmember Gale Brewer is an Upper West Side staple. She has represented the 6th district for 13 of the past 21 years and won her most recent election with 87 percent of the vote. In an eight-year hiatus from the Council, she served two terms as Manhattan Borough President. Her latest challenger for the Council seat is Republican Diane di Stasio, whom the West Side Rag interviewed last week.
The Rag continues its coverage of the upcoming November 7 general election in the following conversation with Councilmember Brewer. It has been condensed and edited for clarity.
West Side Rag: What would you say is the single most pressing issue currently facing the Upper West Side?
Gale Brewer: It depends who you are. If you’re a parent of children in school, it’s schools. If you’re a senior, it’s getting around: the buses have to come, the stores have to be accessible, your senior center has to be open and have activities. If you live in a NYCHA [New York City Housing Authority] development, it’s making sure NYCHA repairs are being made. If you are none of the above, you might be concerned about the quality of life, meaning e-bikes, people with mental-health challenges, graffiti, and you’re also concerned about vacant stores. If you’re a young person trying to find an apartment, that’s a challenge. People have specific interests depending on what they’re coming from. Everybody wants transportation. Everybody wants public safety.
WSR: On the subject of public safety, more major crime statistics are down on the Upper West Side and citywide this year than not, but a sense of elevated anxiety surrounding safety remains. Why is that and how are you working to make people feel safer on the Upper West Side?
GB: The problem with crime statistics being down slightly is that mental health issues don’t seem to register on the crime reports. I go to all the 20th, 24th, and Central Park precinct meetings, and yes, the commanding officers generally say crime is down and they give the seven categories. The problem is mental health is not on there. Somebody who is wandering around…sometimes standing in front of a business, sometimes screaming profanities…those aren’t going to register and that’s a problem…I would love to have more social workers working with the cops such as in the B-HEARD program in Harlem.
Outside of that, my office answers complaints [about homeless people], and we try to get Goddard Riverside’s outreach team to help. On a citywide level, we need more beds at Bellevue and at local hospitals that focus on mental illness. I’ve been to Riker’s Island many time and that’s not the place for them.
I supported the safe haven on 83rd Street, which I know was very controversial. But to the best of my knowledge, we have not had any problems since people have moved in. And it does take people right off the streets, if they will go. We have [formed] a community advisory task force, which has been briefed by Breaking Ground — the safe haven’s provider. I’ve personally helped bring homeless people who have come to my office to 83rd Street. These people would not have had a place to go outside of the streets if it were not for this safe haven.
WSR: Similar to some temporary homeless shelters during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, a few temporary facilities for migrant housing were opened on very short notice from the city on the Upper West Side. As the crisis continues to develop, what do you see as your role and the Upper West Side’s role in the situation?
GB: We have six or seven hotels with migrants in the district. The ones that were most challenging were the ones with single adults. Those were originally on 85th Street and 70th Street. It is really difficult for singles to be in the neighborhood. I was instrumental in getting those hotels changed to families. So now, all the migrant hotels on the Upper West Side are for families. It makes a huge difference. Families have to pay attention to their kids, and it gives them less time to be out in the neighborhood. And we can help with the support they need with education, legal work, and language learning.
It wasn’t great with the individuals, to be honest with you. We’re very different than the Midtown situation where there are very few people living there, or Randall’s Island, where definitely nobody lives there. I think with families, it’s a better mix because people really want their kids to succeed. Those two hotels were the only ones my office heard about. The other ones in the neighborhood were all families and very quiet.
WSR: The shelter conversation is one that leads into the permanent affordable housing subject. You’ve talked for a long time about the need to build more affordable housing in the district, and that’s connected to your recent opposition to the incoming 59th Street homeless shelter. How are you looking to create new affordable units on the Upper West Side?
GB: We’re one of those neighborhoods that is overbuilt. Let me give you an example. Who knows how long these migrant families at 70th or 85th Streets are going to be here. The buildings are owned by a for-profit music school [American Musical and Dramatic Academy] that has basically moved their students downtown permanently. If I had my way, once the migrants move on, and they will, those buildings should be purchased by a nonprofit — Goddard Riverside or West Side Federation for Senior and Supportive Housing, any of those. And they should become permanent housing. Make them Single Room Occupancy (SRO) housing. For seniors in particular, it works really well.
We don’t have a lot of land available. Wherever there is an SRO available to purchase, I want a nonprofit to do it. There are other SROs that all of a sudden become available and the city needs to help us purchase these buildings. I wish I could tell you about other ongoing large projects that would provide permanent housing. At the Amsterdam Houses we have 40 empty apartments that I’ve been pushing at every possible discussion with the NYCHA commissioner to say please focus on fixing up the affordable vacant housing.
WSR: Along with housing, street safety continues to be a major issue on the Upper West Side. The Department of Transportation (DOT) is putting together new regulations for the permanent Outdoor Dining program. Locals talk a lot about how busy Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues have become with the motorized vehicles, the bikes, the outdoor dining, and the cars. What do you see as the right solution to keep our streets safe as they are getting increasingly crowded?
GB: Columbus Avenue is really a challenge but there is a pilot program going on. The Department of Transportation is working with the Columbus Avenue BID, because you’ve got the bike lane, you’ve got the delivery people, you got the outdoor cafes, and sometimes there’s only one lane down the avenue. We do need something different in terms of what the streets look like in places like that. You’ve got 18 wheelers as well as all the delivery trucks, Fresh Direct and Amazon. So let’s see what [DOT] comes up with.
In terms of outdoor dining. I supported the bill that passed in the City Council. I think the current structures have to be taken down, that’s for sure. They’re only going to be up from April to November. Additionally, fewer will be up because they will now be charged money. The restaurants will have to scale their outdoor structures, you can’t take up the entire block. Table and chairs will have to be on the pavement, you can have some type of barricade but it won’t look like a house. So people will find fewer structures and they will be less obtrusive and up for a shorter time.
WSR: What accomplishment from your most recent term would you cite as a job well done?
GB: I’d say a couple of things. We have given the schools a great deal of funding. In Riverside Park, I got $63 million for the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, and we got millions more for playground upgrades.
We’re trying to manage the migrant crisis. I support migrants. However, people have to know the rules of the neighborhood. We have parents organizing to work with the migrants, who are helping all of the schools that have migrants. That’s a task force we’ve helped foster on the issue.
I’m also proud of the work we’ve done just generally in NYCHA. In one development, we’ve hired three people, who have support through funding to go door to door, trying to get people jobs, making sure the kids have things to do, supporting the basketball activities.
We’re also always proud of the constituents’ service. People rely on our offices in ways you couldn’t even imagine.
And the fact that we have a really good staff at City Hall for the Investigation and Oversight Committee. It’s not a usual legislative committee. We do tons of investigations. I’m proud because this type of staffing has not existed at the Council level for a very long time.
WSR: How much do you rely on the Upper West Side being a Democratic district when it comes to the general election?
GB: In my case, I think it is a little different, because people do know me, both as a borough president and through our constituent services. We try really hard to answer almost every question at the district office. For me, I’m sure there are lots of Republicans and lots of Independents in the district, people do come up to me, between the e-bikes and the mental-health issues on the street, saying that they feel scared, I do hear that a lot, but people at least seem to know we’re trying.
It’s not just that the Upper West Side is Democratic, it’s that people know we’re giving it our best effort, trying to solve some of these problems, even when they’re not all solvable, but people respect the effort.
WSR: Anything else you would say to the voter?
GB: That we will continue to work as hard as we are now, and that we love ideas on how we could improve the neighborhood, and we appreciate criticism as well as compliments, we like both. There are very challenging problems that I would like to address, and I hope that my long experience will help move them along. I can, at least, get some traction on these issues…not that I’m special, but I think the traction that I have from my past is helpful. I find it when I’m speaking to my colleagues, talking to city agencies, people are very generous with their time, and I think it’s because of my knowledge of how the agencies work and having a good relationship with them — then getting them to do what they’re supposed to do. I have the knowledge of what the agency can or cannot do.
It’s just faster with my experience. People want results. People want government to be responsive and I try to make it responsive. That’s why I run. Government is paid for by the taxpayers, and it should be responsive to them, but it’s often not — so I try to make it responsive.
The general election is on November 7. For everything you need to know to vote, from registering (online) to casting your ballot, check the New York State Board of Elections website here.
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