It was a cold day when Gale Brewer arrived at the French Roast on Broadway and 85th Street to talk with me last week about her return to her old City Council seat in District 6 after eight years as Manhattan’s Borough President. Brewer was term-limited from her BP post and replaces Helen Rosenthal who served the district for the last eight years. I have known Brewer since she was Council Member Ruth Messinger’s chief of staff in the late 1970s, and have closely followed her career in public service.
Gale was often my “go to” person when I worked as executive director at Goddard Riverside Community Center. She always held my feet to the fire, occasionally castigating me for not going to enough community meetings. She is relentless in her love for the West Side, tenacious in her drive to improve the quality of services in her community and not shy to let others know how she stands on the issues. If you need help with a government agency or official, the mantra has always been, “Go see Gale!”
But I was curious to know what it was like for her to be back at the City Council. It’s not often that one returns to a former job. We are programmed to move on and seek out new opportunities – not look back.
The day we met, she had just spent nearly two hours at an outdoor press conference in East Harlem at the memorial for Yao Pan Ma, a beloved community resident who died on December 31 after a brutal beating in April that is being prosecuted as a hate crime.
I asked Brewer to start by talking about the memorial, since she was clearly very moved by the turnout for Mr. Ma.
Mr. Ma’s killing had been all over news. It was a huge turnout today – well over 100 people and many elected officials. To the credit of the community, they really came together to support his wife. The family had been living in Chinatown. They had to leave that apartment many years ago because of a fire and settled in East Harlem. There’s a huge Asian community now in East Harlem. They moved into Wagner houses and then this happened. He was literally collecting cans to make ends meet for the rent when he was killed. As awful as his murder was, the Black and Asian communities in East Harlem have been working together to deal with this type of hate violence.
What about what happened with Michelle Go, who was pushed onto the subway tracks and killed – another person of Asian descent.
It was awful. She was a West Sider who lived on West 72th Street. By chance, this morning I had breakfast with a woman who serves on the board of a senior center. She was on the Junior League board with Michelle and said she had a real interest in programs dealing with the mentally ill. Michelle was also a major player at Deloitte. I went to the vigil in Times Square. Her Deloitte partners spoke glowingly about her. If you could say there was a perfect person, Ms. Go was it.
This was a horrific incident that has many people worried about riding the subways. How do we deal with the issue of public safety and the mentally ill?
I’m going to ask you that. You’re the expert. There is no easy answer to this and everybody calls me when they see a homeless person on the street. The gentleman, if you can call him that, who pushed Ms. Go had been hospitalized a few months ago. His sister begged the hospital to keep him. They didn’t listen to this family member. There is something wrong when not even a family member, who knows the person better than anyone, can’t convince the hospital that the person needs to stay there. The families need to be listened to. Also, if you do manage to get someone off the street, where do they go? That is a problem.
Gale, let me shift gears for a moment. I am curious how you got into the political arena and what drives you to work so hard on behalf of your community and the city at large.
I first became involved in politics through the national women’s political caucus in the seventies. It was the world of Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem and Shirley Chisholm. They were the founders of that organization. We helped women get elected. I worked for Mary Anne Krupsak who was Lieutenant Governor and then went to work for Ruth Messinger. I also did a little private sector work along the way. I was Mayor David Dinkins’s representative in Washington and that taught me a lot. I’ve always worked hard. I don’t really know how else to do it. As BP, I worked seven days a week for eight years, only taking three days off. That was hard. Unlike you, I’m afraid to miss a meeting.
The job of a City Council member is very different than that of BP. How will your years representing the entire borough affect your being back in the Council?
I am so very excited to be back in the City Council. I’ll tell you why. Don’t get me wrong. I was lucky and blessed to be borough president. We did great work. I had seventy staff people including two deputy borough presidents, and they were very diverse. We also opened a storefront on 125th Street and that was a big deal.
As BP, you deal with a lot of land-use issues. You also do a tremendous amount of handholding with the community boards. You appoint 1000 people every year – school boards, hospital boards, cultural boards, community boards, solid-waste advisory board. We trained these groups in technology, land use and parliamentary procedure; we wrote a lot of reports. We did all these new things in the BP’s office and (I think) we set the bar very high.
However, what’s missing is the real ability to affect changes in policy which is what I love doing. When I get to the City Council (which hasn’t officially started yet) there are thirty-six different committees, and I can ask questions about housing, public safety and health care that you don’t get to do as BP. [As BP], you’re a leader for the borough and a champion for the borough, but you don’t get involved with the city budget. You’re not a decision-maker. I’m on the leadership team and was appointed head of the Oversight and Investigation Committee. That’s a big deal!
Tell me more about the leadership team and what you plan to focus on as chair of the Oversight Committee.
I ran for Speaker only because I thought I had more experience, but I’m happy that Adrienne Adams got it. She was the person I would have picked. She was actually at JP Morgan and then was head of her community board. She’s my kind of person. We get along well. She put me on her leadership team, which in the City Council I never was on before. The good news is that when I was running for Speaker I met personally with every one of the 51 Council members.
It’s really weird but they all think of me as this icon. However, I have a lot to learn from the other members. There are a lot of smart people there – lawyers, nurses, Columbia and Harvard graduates. I have a different background.
So long story short, it gives me the platform now to try to promote the changes that I want to see happen. Let’s figure out how to get people off the streets and into some kind of shelter; let’s convert the hotels into housing. Let’s do all these things that I’ve been dying to do, but just [couldn’t] do as BP.
What about the new mayor?
I am very hopeful and trust that Adams will listen to the people he has appointed. To his credit, he’s had a Zoom meeting with each elected official where we could ask any question we wanted. De Blasio never did that. He didn’t communicate with the other elected officials. So now in the City Council, I can play an important role overseeing what city government does and how the city agencies can be more effective.
Thinking locally, how has the district changed since you last served here? This is not the same West Side as years ago. It seems more gentrified and less progressive.
As you say, there are two kinds of people here. There are the “old” West Siders who are very progressive and want to know what’s going on nationally as well as locally. But then there are many people who care as much about the neighborhood and become involved with issues like the Lucerne Hotel where the city brought in 283 homeless people.
Talk more about the Lucerne.
It was not Project Renewal’s fault. They had no services and everybody was up in arms about men hanging out in the parks and on buildings’ stoops. It was terrible, and that image never went away even when they had services. But it is was an example of the city doing something “stupid.” DHS should know that it doesn’t work to simply open a shelter without consulting with the community.
What will you do differently?
As their City Council member I will meet with all those folks. I have known some of them for a long time. It’s not like the people who protested the siting of the shelter or were supportive of the use of the Lucerne are new to the neighborhood. We will have to work together. I don’t need to tell you how hard this issue is. I’m going to try to work with the cops, social service agencies and different neighborhood groups – everybody – to come up with solutions. We all know that what’s needed are more mental health services and more housing. I’ve been hearing about this for a year. We have to actually do it.
What are some of the other issues you’re concerned about?
There are so many issues on the West Side to deal with – from scaffolding laws to parks to making the UWS more age-friendly. There there are also the public schools. Despite everybody talking about health care, vacant stores and the like, I actually think the schools have the most problems. The schools in our district are pretty good, but there are real problems citywide. There used to be 1.1 million children in the public schools. Now there are 886,000 and not all of the students that left are pandemic-related. They went to parochial schools, they went to charter schools or they went to private schools. Even here, the same thing happened. PS 87 (on West 78th Street) alone is missing 125 families.
So the answer to your question is you have to worry about the public schools because they’re going to lose funding and we need to get some of these families back as well as attract new families. Citywide, there are thousands of kids who never went to school for two years. And nobody is talking about that. What I am saying is that education with (along with child care) is a big issue. There is so much confusion. Am I supposed to get tested today? Will my child’s classroom be open? No one can seem to figure out what to do. There are so many mixed messages.
At PS 163, for example, one day they had forty-five teachers out. Oh my God. The principals are barely hanging on. They are also trying to figure out to how to deal with remote learning. To answer the question – I’m going to work on the school issue.
You’ve worked over the years on addressing the issue of vacant storefronts and supporting small, local businesses. What are your plans for dealing with this?
I have always supported some type of commercial rent control. I don’t know whether this City Council is going to support commercial rent regulation or something like that. Having so many vacancies makes it harder. Victoria Secret across the street just went out and so did the 7-11. But now we have a dark store problem. Have you heard about this? There is a dark store on 88th Street. They’re terrible. These are pop-ups like JOKR, Gorilla, other DCs (distribution centers) that are controlled by hedge funds, companies in Germany, Silicon Valley and Wall Street. They are really warehouses and I don’t think they are legal. They are hurting our small businesses. I am one of the few elected officials fighting the city agencies on this. This is definitely something I want to continue working on. That and helicopters – people hate the helicopters!
Tell me your thinking about the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and the recent fire?
In this area you’ve got Wise Towers. The fire at 133 West 90th Street was horrible. Let me backtrack. One of the other things we did in the BP’s office was organize a task force to look at the shifting of NYCHA management to private entities through HUD’s rental assistance demonstration (RAD) program. We brought together the head of NYCHA, the First Deputy Mayor and tenant groups. There are places where the refinancing and transfer to private management have worked. At Fulton Houses in Chelsea, for example, the project is phenomenal. You can find tenants who are able to tell you all about the buildings’ finances and the renovation. At Wise Towers, however, it is a disaster. The tenants want NYCHA back. They even selected a social services agency, CLOTH, that is not from the community and is getting $900,000 but what kind of services are the tenants getting? There isn’t any communication. I hear about leaks in the buildings all the time. We have to do something about that.
What future plans do you have?
Because of the recent census, I’ll have to run again in two years and then run for another four-year term. I can do eight years, but I’m no spring chicken. I don’t think I can do 52 years in government like Richard Gottfried. He was 20-something when he was first elected and he looks the same now. He was on Zoom the other day and said that he didn’t think Gale Brewer likes government as much as he did. We all laughed.
What message do you want to send to your West Side constituents?
I am thrilled to be back in the City Council, especially in the district that I have always loved so much. I now get to work on citywide as well as the local issues that I am passionate about. Some people say they get into government because they want to be a community organizer. It’s not me. I want government to work and do “good” for the community. I know that it can. Finally, I just love the office we are in on Columbus Avenue. I developed that office. You know my friends helped me build it. I just had it painted by a professional painter friend of mine and we’re getting the floors redone. It will be opened shortly so please come and visit.
This interview has been edited and condensed for space.
Stephan Russo is a West Side Spirit contributor. He served as the Executive Director of Goddard Riverside Community Center from 1998-2017.
“[Being back in the City Council] gives me the platform now to try to promote the changes that I want to see happen. Let’s figure out how to get people off the streets and into some kind of shelter; let’s convert the hotels into housing.” City Council Member Gale Brewer