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Energetic Councilwoman James took a break from her jam-packed schedule to speak with Ariana Speyer in her Fort Greene office.
ARIANA: You represent an area that has seen an influx of artists in recent years.
LETITIA: Yes, but Fort Greene, which is part of my district, has always been a cultural mecca. Richard Wright was born right here, and Walt Whitman lived here. Basquiat grew up in the community. Plus we've got all the great cultural institutions the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Brooklyn Museum, the Botanical Gardens. It's a magnificent area.
ARIANA: What are the particular concerns that the artists in your district bring to you?
LETITIA: Their primary need is the same as that of all my constituents housing, housing, and more housing! The median income of the residents in my district artists included is between twenty and thirty thousand dollars a year. The artists talk about the need for more affordable live-work spaces within that range.
ARIANA: : Some artists have gone to the Brooklyn Navy Yards which border DUMBO and South Williamsburg for affordable spaces.
LETITIA: A number of artists have converted lofts in the Navy Yards legally and otherwise. But the Navy Yards are still home to a number of industrial businesses furniture manufacturers, shipbuilders, electronics distributors, to name just a few. It's important that we maintain those industrial jobs. We have to do a balancing act the concerns of the artists, the residents in the area, and the industrial workers have to be addressed in cooperation with one another.
ARIANA: Wealthier people are moving into areas like Williamsburg and changing the face of the neighborhood rents are increasing and older residents are being pushed out.
LETITIA: I'm fighting to increase the amount of affordable housing in my district. My primary concern is not looking out for rich people they don't need my help. But the majority of New Yorkers spend fifty percent of their income on rent. Those people are my base.
ARIANA: The current plan to develop the Williamsburg waterfront promises tax-cuts to developers who assign twenty-five percent of their proposed residential units to low- to moderate-income housing.
LETITIA: That's just not enough. We have to make sure that forty percent of all new housing is affordable for current residents of the district. Politics is the art of negotiation.
ARIANA: And then there's Bruce Ratner's plan for a new basketball arena on Atlantic Avenue in central Brooklyn. It seems that the community has had no say in the decisions about that project.
LETITIA: Yes. My number one objection to Ratner's Atlantic Yards project is the process, which has been horrible. The City and New York State are basically laying out a sweetheart deal in a Memorandum of Understanding. Bruce Ratner will get acres of city-owned streets and city-owned property for a dollar. Plus, he'll get millions of New York City dollars in all kinds of subsidies and tax exemptions.
ARIANA: Ratner says that he has committed fifty percent of his proposed Atlantic Yards residential towers to affordable housing.
LETITIA: Sure, Ratner sets aside fifty percent of the units to make them affordable, based on some formula he concocted wonderful! But it's not in the Memorandum of Understanding between Ratner, the City, and the State.
ARIANA: So it's just talk.
LETITIA: At this point, it's just pie in the sky as far as I'm concerned. Even The Daily News noted that the residential units will only be completed two years after the arena is built. The arena is the priority, and the housing will come later. Will there be housing if the economy goes bust? What happens if we can't get all the subsidies needed to fund the affordable housing? The plan should be subject to the Uniform Land Review Procedure Act, in which the City Council, the Community Boards, and the Borough President hold hearings to review the project, and look at the design guidelines, the density, and the impact on the community.
ARIANA: Why hasn't that happened?
LETITIA: It's complicated. The Atlantic Yards site includes MTA property, which is state-owned. Because New York State owns the land, they want it to be a state development they don't want the city involved. But the MTA owns only eleven out of the twenty-four acres of land addressed by Ratner's proposal. The other thirteen acres are a combination of private property, and city-owned streets and land. The project should not be entirely dominated by the interests of New York State it should be a response to the interests of all the parties involved.
ARIANA: A lot of people think that Bloomberg has fostered a pro-business atmosphere that puts the needs of big-money interests ahead of residents and neighborhoods.
LETITIA: The Atlantic Yards is part of his big Olympic dream or in my case, a nightmare. The Mayor and I had a meeting about one of this project's potential side effects huge traffic problems in the district. He said, "Traffic is good." I asked, "For whom? Do you want traffic on the East Side where all you rich people live?" He said, "Oh Tish, you're just anti-development." And I said, "No I'm not, Mr. Mayor. As the kids say, 'don't believe the hype.'"
ARIANA: So, you're not against the idea of development in Brooklyn?
LETITIA: I want to build! I'm with you, Mr. Mayor. But Ratner is proposing seventeen towers ranging in height from one hundred-and-ten feet to six hundred-and-twenty feet. That's going to be a wall of skyscrapers, cutting off Prospect Heights from Fort Greene and Clinton Hill. Ratner's buildings are going to divide my district and destroy the character of this community.
ARIANA: That's just what happened with the urban renewal projects in the '60s.
LETITIA: This project will come down to five white men in a room Ratner, the Governor, the Mayor, the Majority Leader Joe Bruno, and the State Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver. I have the utmost respect for Speaker Shelly Silver. He understands the needs of working-class people. But he will have more leverage on this project in my district than I do. I'm trying to exert whatever influence I can.
ARIANA: Before you were elected to the City Council, you worked as a public defender for the Legal Aid Society, and as Assistant Attorney General in Brooklyn. I guess that's where you get your fighting spirit.
LETITIA: It is. I loved the courtroom. When I worked in District Attorney Robert Morgenthau's office, I was constantly rallying the women and minority D.A.s. I used to call little receptions, like, "Let's meet at two o'clock and discuss work conditions." People used to say, "Look out! Tish is here, and she's trouble."
ARIANA: You were elected to the City Council under unusual circumstances. In July 2003, your predecessor on the Council, James Davis, was shot and killed in the City Council Chamber. Two years earlier, you had lost to Davis for the Council seat in the Democratic primary. Then after his death, you defeated Davis's brother Geoffrey in the 2003 general election.
LETITIA: When James Davis died, I was shocked everybody was. My heart goes out to his family. Initially, I didn't even consider running. But there was a groundswell of community support. I'd be sitting on my stoop at home, and people would walk past with petitions to put Tish James on the ballot. I was like, "I'm not running!" And they'd say, "Oh yes you are." It was a block-by-block grassroots organization that propelled me to victory.
ARIANA: And you ran as a third party candidate.
LETITIA: Because the Democratic primaries had already happened, my supporters in the community enlisted the Working Families Party to get me on the ballot.
ARIANA: There's a lot to accomplish in your district.
LETITIA: I go home most nights at ten or eleven o'clock. I'm out and about at every town hall and community meeting. My staff gets mad at me because we're always working.
ARIANA: Besides the development controversy, what's the first thing on your list of priorities?
LETITIA: We really need to provide people with jobs. We've got a serious problem in our inner cities. The Community Service Society says that in the greater New York City area, forty-eight percent of black men are unemployed. But the developers are going around central Brooklyn, hypnotizing people into thinking that huge developments will be a panacea for all their problems "There'll be thousands of jobs! Letitia James doesn't know what she's talking about!" And people are going for it. I understand. Lord knows I understand! But the mechanical trades union will get the vast majority of those construction jobs and they have never opened their doors to people of color.
ARIANA: You're saying that these projects really won't provide jobs for your constituents.
LETITIA: The union workers come from Connecticut and New Jersey. They don't come from Brooklyn public housing. And the permanent positions that the development will create will be low-wage jobs. Yes, people will accept low-wage jobs. A job is a job is a job. It's better than being on public assistance. But we have to find a solution that will address the community's long-term needs.