City Council Forum: Rumble Uptown

Candidates at City Council Forum credit: Marina Ortiz
Candidates at City Council Forum
credit: Marina Ortiz

For some reason the New York Daily News mobile app went with this story about last night’s City Council forum on affordable housing, sponsored by East Harlem Preservation and JustPublics@365, as its lead this morning. The headline, “Ugly Council Debate Paints Melissa Mark-Viverito as a Gentrifier” seems designed to stir up some shock-value interest on another sleepy summer day near August’s end, but this sort of rowdy dialog up in District 8 is nothing new. Councilwoman Mark-Viverito has been living on the edge of the gentrification debate since early in her first term, and this night was just another of several community dust-ups during her tumultuous tenure.

I’ve been following the “Melissa Mark-Viverito: Millionaire Gentrifier or Fearless Anti-Gentrification Activist” controversy for several years now and tried to paint a picture of the daunting ambiguity around this issue in the documentary Whose Barrio, which I co-directed with Laura Rivera in 2008. (I’m currently streaming the doc for a limited time here.) The film depicts Councilwoman Mark-Viverito as a protector of the Spanish Harlem in our hearts, but also climaxes with a noisy battle that occurred in a town hall-style meeting about the E. 125th Street Project–which has since been slowed by the Great Recession–that showed there was considerable opposition to her vision from varied sectors of the community.

Last night at the forum–where I was one of two co-panelists (with Jeff Mays of asking questions–there was a lot of murmuring and heckling directed at Councilwoman Mark-Viverito, some of it coming from supporters of candidate Gwen Goodwin. Mark-Viverito sat patiently as she was accused of being a “millionaire” (a 2009 New York Post article named her as one of only City Council members with millionaire status, at the time worth $1.8 million). Daily News writer Simone Weichselbaum, who wrote the “Ugly” piece, had also recently broken the story that Mark-Viverito had received over $87,000 in matching funds from the Campaign Finance Board, despite having “raised more than $123,000 in private donations,” amounting to “nearly quadruple the amount in her rivals’ accounts.”

Mark Viverito was also accused by hecklers of taking money from large real estate developers, and when that question was asked during the lightning round, rather than answer it “yes” or “no,” she chose “not that I know of.” A brief scan of Mark-Viverito’s campaign finance disclosure, available here, shows that she has received donations from Kamal Haron of Artimus Construction ($250), Stephen J. Hayes, VP of The Carey Group ($300), Nicholas Lembo of Monadnock Construction ($1250), and Stephen Nislick, CEO of Edison Properties ($3250), a parking lot developer that may be hoping to profit from anti horse-carriage legislation by taking over stables vacated if the horse carriages are banned. Banning horse carriages is favored by Mark-Viverito, who co-sponsored legislation targeting it, as well as mayoral candidate Bill DeBlasio.

Of course, Mark-Viverito’s campaign disclosure lists many benign local and community organizations, as well as several personal acquaintances and even friends of mine. But as paltry as some of the real estate money is, it dwarfs the other candidates’ cache. The rest of the field was very eager to prioritize affordable housing, but their proposals didn’t seem fresh. Goodwin’s suggestions about creating affordable housing were quite progressive, proposing edgy, if unrealistic solutions like using eminent domain to seize warehoused apartments and finding a way to take “the profit” out of the housing market. At one point Goodwin went on a long diatribe essentially placing all the blame for the wave of gentrification the district has been plagued with over the last few years on Mark Viverito, which was punctuated by the loudest heckling of the evening.

One of the most contentious moments in the forum came late, when moderator Mireya Navarro (New York Times) asked whether the candidates favored 100% local placement in the P.S. 109 artist housing development. Candidates Ralina Cardona, Sean Gardner, and Tamika Humphries did not feel they could answer, and Mark Viverito said yes. Goodwin and her supporters turned this into another protest-fest, in which they accused the proposed artist housing of being a trojan horse that would allow non-residents to move in and further gentrify the neighborhood.

Further chaos ensued when Goodwin accused the local community group Community Voices Heard of being Mark Viverito supporters because they received funds appropriated for them through the Councilwoman’s budget. The Fiscal Year 2014 Expense Budget does list CVH as the recipients of $31,000 in appropriations through Mark-Viverito’s office, the largest from any single City Councilmember. The problem of how political loyalty is motivated by funding is an issue that isn’t limited to campaigns and electoral politics. In fact so many nonprofits are getting so much money from corporations that it would seem better for a democratic society if they got it from “progressive” politicians.

In the end, the game plan for elected officials is to see how much good they can do while working in a highly compromised environment. The question is, how much compromise can “the people” tolerate and still survive? There’s also the question of who are the gentrifiers? This article seems to make the case that many who call themselves anti-gentrification are gentrifiers themselves. If you live Uptown, you know. The next friend you have over with a sketchbook and pierced eyebrow will mark you with a scarlet gentrifying letter forever.

As for the rest of the field, there doesn’t seem to be much viable opposition to Mark Viverito. Ralina Cardona is earnest and principled, but her lack of experience and questionable endorsement from the tainted Maria del Carmen Arroyo raise red flags. She did come up with a new buzzword, “gentefication,” which was probably borrowed from this article about the same struggle out in LA. Tamika Edwards did not seem well prepared and drew titters when she suggested more SRO construction for the neighborhood. Sean Gardiner, also apparently gracious and principled, did not add much to the conversation. And Ed Santos, who was absent for most of the debate, drew scowls from the audience when he said that spending time in public housing made him “smell different.”

In the end, voters are going to have to decide whether Councilwoman Mark-Viverito is ultimately “on their side,” and that her considerable experience and high visibility will work for them. She did spend most of the time trying to build allegiance with audience members by attacking the last 20 years of Republican control of the mayoralty. She has endorsed DeBlasio, and if he manages to win, there may be some rewards trickling up to El Barrio/South Bronx. Hopefully there will be a reasonable amount of us left to take advantage of them.



14 thoughts on “City Council Forum: Rumble Uptown

  1. i will always remember the chamber meeting with Melissa Mark Viverito when she slammed the door on El Taller Boriqua, dissing the staff Marcos and Fernando who created and maintained the place for 30 year. Then she walked out without letting El Taller to defend it’s position. She was unbelievable crass and cold-hearted.

    1. Seems that it might be over the limit, which I see is $2750. However, this total came from three individual $1000 contributions, plus a $250 “receipt adjustment.” There may be a loophole here. If someone is aware of this, please comment.

  2. Gwen Goodwin? Again????
    Wsn’t she dropped from the ballot last time when she filed 900 signatures.
    What has she done over the last 4 years?
    If she’s the contender earning the most space, I can well-imagine last night’s circus!

  3. When you say: “In the end, the game plan for elected officials is to see how much good they can do while working in a highly compromised environment,” Melissa said that much on its compromising nature when she said “It is a multi-layer…” That environment is one of a government rigged for the corporate/financial class, as you have most likely noted, I am sure, in your blogs. The “environment” makes it difficult to be “pure” — reason why, I suppose, the word progressive is put in quotation marks. A candidate like Goodwin (that I question if she should be running in a district — that even now more than before, with its new boundaries, should be for a candidate of color) — can “sound good” as you noted. Es un mamay from the pulpit, but I wonder why you fail add that it was her orchestrating all the ruckus and chaos that was very disrespectful to say the least. If there is a good title for her cartoonish antics to be made into a movie it should be “Despicable Me, Goodwin”.

    And adding to your recognizing the compromising environment, “The question is, how much compromise can “the people” tolerate and still survive?” becomes a cultural political art of sorts. The system in its electoral process, really all the time, is asking “the people” to tolerate some more. But given those parameters, I would drop the quotation marks around progressive when it comes to acknowledging that Melissa does try to compromise little and has done more good.

    Otherwise, the call should be for abstention in a rigged system that will have the people rise if its economic crisis turns into a truly “I can’t take it no more,” collapse and hit the streets until a new truly democratic, equitable system is put in its place.

    1. Good points. I thought about the entre comillas. It could go either way. Tie goes to the runner? I can’t say all the dissent at this event was orchestrated by Goodwin, and even if it was, that doesn’t mean they are the only dissenters in the neighborhood. This wasn’t an easy one to write.

    2. A NYC victim of displacement Ed’s perspective is a “tad” subjective. He’s been taking pot shots at Melissa since she was elected. In his doc on the subject, he supports a so-called Zapatista movement composed of media pros from outside, and in no way acknowledged the work with low income tenants and workers in the district. District 8 has the highest number of public housing units in the City of New York. I am proud to have been part of that work as her Director of Constituent Services from 2004-2008. I’ve not seen a piece of his critical of any other elected and yet Melissa’s record shows her to be one of the most progressive members of the City Council. No se por que ella tiene que carga la culpa de lo que otros le hacen a nuestra gente! His cultural offerings are great, though!

      1. It’s true I was displaced from Brooklyn but Councilwoman Mark Viverito had nothing to with it. I wouldn’t characterize what I have written about Councilman Mark Viverito as “taking pot shots.” I am not affiliated with or have not stated any support of Movement for Justice in El Barrio, I merely included them in the documentary that I co-directed with Laura Rivera. They were not the only group to oppose Councilwoman Mark Viverito in the film. Councilwoman Mark Viverito has about three times as much time devoted to her comments and actions in this doc, which included her point of view about how she approached legislation around the East 125th Street project, as well as her general concern about gentrification. In effect, she got the last word. There is a long list of elected officials, some of whom are no longer living, that I have criticized in the 20 plus years I have been working as a journalist. My coverage of Councilwoman Mark Viverito’s involvement in changing the management of the community space at the Julia de Burgos Cultural Center in the Daily News in the fall of 2010 was objective and everyone was quoted accurately. In the story I published in City Limits last year about the fact that there’s never been a Latino mayor in New York, I wrote that Councilwoman Mark Viverito was one of the three most promising Latino politicians in the city as far as electability to higher office like the mayoralty. I also wrote about her support of local activists over her concerns about the Fresh Direct relocation to the South Bronx, a move that has since been approved by the Mayor.

  4. P.S. 109 and her subsidized home are the same developers. Congressman Rangel got the heat for 30,000 summer home in DR but not here with 3 Million in her asserts. Covello Senior Center, Julia de Durgos given to outsiders, 1,000,000 dollars for murals and no garbage bags or repairs for Public Housing. No Puerto Rican/Latino endorsement and forget being Speaker, that goes to Inez Dickens. Who runs el Barrio on her watch? 1199, Hispanic Federation, Coka Cola and corporate developers. The game is rigged.

  5. Shame on you!!! Get your facts straight! Disinformation is not empowerment. For starters:
    1) The developers are not the same
    2) The villa earned Charlie a load of cash for which he did not pay taxes. Here’s the link to the article
    3a) Covello Center contract is not settled, read here:
    b) Julia de Burgos management was changed to another local consortium. Many knew it was necessary.
    c) $1,000,000.00 for murals??? Paquete!!! No garbage bags for NYCHA??? Mas paquetes!!

    So you want to concede the Speakership to one of the key figures in the gentrification an displacement of the people of Harlem? No lo puedo creer! Get a grip…

    Melissa is the best member of the Council and El Barrio-East Harlem There’s a word for thisis damn proud to have sent her there along with our neighbors in Manhattan Valley and the South Bronx. She is such a threat to the hustlers they broke up her district at the expense of her constituency.

    Alas there are those of us threatened when one of our own is doing good that we will cut off our nose to spite our face and rush to embrace/suport any ‘good-win’ but the “best-win”!! It’s documented in Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

  6. Operation Fight Back are the developers of PS 109 and Melissa East 111 Street home. Lillian (Coka Cola) Rodriguez assumed control of Julia de Burgos while director of the Hispanic Federation. Los Murales Que Hablan used artist outside the community.

    Where was Melissa when they tossed the Dir. Of Museo del Barrio for not plucking her eye brows? She was nowhere to be found when they shut down Raizes from Boys Habor and no help to La Casa PR being forced to move out.

    I recently saw her in West Harlem when they killed a transgender and remembered the days when you and Melissa publicly apposed Harlem United on East 116 street because you didn’t want “those peope” Gay people strutting up and down the block. She was communiting from her apartment in the Village at that time. This is “One of Your Own?”

    Calling Ed Morales a Victim of Displacement is low. He is ONE OF OUR OWN . You who own a brownstone and house in PR want to preach on Public Housing? Please drive by those projects I grew up in and see the garbage yourself. Better yet, ask Margarita Lopez and the Church of Scientology in East Harlem to donate garbage bags.

    Who are the Hustlers? Melissa never got along well with Black folks in her own community and has no Black Elected official supporting her. She lost those blocks due to her inability to work with People of Color or the indigenous Newyorican of El Barrio, like Yolanda Sanchez who helped you back in the day.

    What will be your legacy Gloria once Melissa is gone? Who will teach our children of the struggles in El Barrio? Abre los Ojo and count how many of “YOUR OWN PEOPLE” are left.

  7. Ed I am the only person you left out when talking about viable candidates running against Melissa Mark Viverito.. So let me tell you I am. Hard to believe your ok with a multimillionaire gentrifier being the coucil women.

  8. I’m rather disappointed at the suggestion that our candidate forum was just an ugly ruckus. In fact, it was the most comprehensive and substantive dialogue about affordable housing EVER in East Harlem. Yes, there were moments (even minutes) of disruption, but it was also an unprecedented conversation about critical issues such as tenant rights, NYCHA’s “infill” plan, homelessness, community land trusts, and the preservation and creation of permanently affordable housing in District 8. You can watch the forum here:

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