Column, Politics

That Crazy World of Politics, by George Fiala

City Council Race

Carlos Menchaca pulled off a stunning upset in 2013 – a political novice beating a seasoned incumbent in the 38 Congressional District (Red Hook, Sunset Park).

At the time, we thought he was just trying to cash in on the goodwill he made in the neighborhood during Hurricane Sandy. He was sent here by his boss Christine Quinn to serve as the eyes of the City Council during the aftermath of the storm and turned out to be effective at bringing city services to the neighborhood.

Cynics that we are, we endorsed his seasoned opponent and were shocked on election night.

During the three and a half years since, we have seen him work tirelessly to continue the efforts he began during Sandy. He has become an effective advocate for the community – more so than many representatives of other districts.

However, his advocacy for his constituents has at times rattled the status quo – especially the real estate interests that continually seek to take advantage of communities in search of profits.

That alone is a strong rationale for his continued representation of both Red Hook and Sunset Park – two communities that are fighting a battle to not go the way of Williamsburg.

His enemies are not limited to real estate developers. He has had brush-ins with the NYC Economic Development Corporation by forcing them to cede some of their power on the waterfront to community interests.

His denial of the Oxford Nursing Home in their quest to build a giant nursing home in the middle of Red Hook alienated a healthcare union as well as some in the Chasidic community.

His friendship with Linda Sansour and support of minority rights in Israel has further soured his relationship with some in the Jewish community.

Finally, his perhaps unwise last-minute decision to support Ceasar Zuniga in his 2014 challenge to long-term Assemblymember (now Assistant Speaker) Felix Ortiz poisoned a relationship with the Red Hook/Sunset Park state representative that never was promising in the first place.

The grapevine says that Ortiz will mount a challenge to Menchaca in this year’s citycouncil race which culminates in the September primary. No doubt hordes of cash will descend upon Ortiz from all Menchaca’s enemies cited above, plus all the friends that Ortiz has made in his twenty-plus years in the Assembly.

It promises to be a hard-fought campaign.

BQX Redux

Red Hook was home to two major discussions about the mayor’s proposal to run a streetcar alongside a large part of the Brooklyn Queens waterfront, including Red Hook.

This Brooklyn Queens Connector (BQX) proposal is the brainchild of real estate developers with projects along the suddenly desirable waterfront. It is to be funded by bonds backed by future projected increases in property values along the route.

Mayor De Blasio announced the program with great fanfare – obscuring the real estate angle by appearing with the Red Hook Initiative’s Jill Eisenhard and the two Red Hook Houses TA Presidents, Lillie Marshall and Frances Brown, in a huge press spectacle at Pioneer Works last year.

On first glance, who would be against such an attractive project? Renderings of sleek modern trolley’s gliding passengers up and down Brooklyn and Queens are certainly appealing – and all at the cost of a subway fare!

On the other hand, Red Hookers from both the Front and the Back have expressed very real concerns.

At last month’s Red Hook Civic Association meeting, which took place as usual at P.S. 15, John McGettrick presented BQX Executive Director Ya-Ting Liu for a question and answer session.

One of Liu’s responsibilities is to build bridges in the communities that would be served by the trolley. She has held public and private meetings with stakeholders promoting the idea that the city desperately needs improved transportation infrastructure, and that this trolley is one of the answers.

She has faced tough questions in Sunset Park and Brooklyn Heights – and this night was no different. McGettrick himself pointed out that a $300,000 trolley study six years ago determined that Red Hook streets were unsuitable for a trolley route, and wondered why this would come up again so soon.

Local businesswoman Mary Dudine-Kyle was so frustrated by some of Liu’s answers that she walked out.

John Battis disputed Liu’s claim that trolleys lift people out of poverty. He called her use of a Harvard study “disingenuous.”

Liu’s claim that the city-built trolley system would interface with the state’s MTA run subway system was met with disbelief. “Not while De Blasio and Cuomo are in charge,” someone shouted out. Lack of this cooperation would lead to a two fare transit – something few lower-income workers would be able to pay.

Karen Blondel’s statement that this trolley does not fit into residents’ view of Red Hook was met with enthusiastic applause from the audience. “It scares the crap out of me,” she said.

It seemed that only two of more than twenty attendees were BQX supporters. Those two were joined by long-time trolley enthusiast Bob Diamond, who attempted to support Liu on the technical side. Diamond is the person responsible for the disused trolley that now sits behind Fairway.

Other attendees brought up issues with resiliency, Red Hook’s soil composition, existing congestion, doubts as to the viability of a rail system sharing the streets with trucks, cars and pedestrians, and a suspicion that the whole plan is meant to “Williamsburg” the entire waterfront – driving away businesses and residents who have stuck out the various ups and downs of the neighborhood.

The very last questioner had perhaps the most important query of all – would Ya-Ting Liu go back to her committee and tell them the results of the evening – that Red Hook is not interested? Or was this community listening session simply pro-forma? Liu’s equivocating response to that one was the least convincing of all. While Liu said that she would bring back everything she had heard at the meeting, she left the impression that Red Hook would get the trolley regardless.

So on the south end of the waterfront at least, the mayor and his real-estate friends will have some work to do on a project that they might have thought would be a no-brainer.

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