Photo by Jason Bergman

Q&A: Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams

Q&A: Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams

In recent years, the office of Brooklyn borough president, which lacks significant legislative power, has been embodied in the form of a tireless advocate — and mascot, of sorts — of all things Brooklyn. But to Eric Adams, there’s more to the job description. The first African-American to hold the office, Adams, a former police officer and state senator, succeeded Marty Markowitz, who reigned for twelve years as Brooklyn’s cheerleader-in-chief, in January. Since then, Adams has sought to extend his reach as far as his home neighborhood of Brownsville, and to make “progressive” mean something to all 2.6 million Brooklynites.

We sat down with Adams to talk about his inaugural year, his initiatives thus far, and what he means by “Brooklyn fusion.”

How have the first nine months in office been?

Great! Exciting — more than I could’ve imagined. I’ve traveled extensively throughout my life, and I’ve learned that often times what you see in a picture, what’s advertised on the brochure, you get there and it’s sorta anticlimactic. You’d rather have let your imagination stay. But there are places that I’ve traveled to that have been more than what I expected. And that’s what Brooklyn is. You hear about Brooklyn and you think probably, “Let me pop into Williamsburg, or go to BAM.” Those are sort of our trademarks; you know, walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. But when you get here and you allow yourself to explore, it’s going to tap into all of six of your senses: the five that we know about, and the one that’s just gonna make you say, “Wow…” Every corner is something happening.

You’re a native of Brownsville. How did your childhood and upbringing affect your outlook? When you were elected borough president, it was almost like a full circle for you, no?

So true. Coming from Brownsville as a child, and then revisiting Brownsville and policing in many parts of Brooklyn, it gives me an opportunity to see what’s possible, and what we can become. Every neighborhood could become this cool and hip spot, and this full circle of now having an opportunity to really help develop some of the areas that are not yet developed yet, and are not filled with pedestrian malls, bike shares, boutiques, and restaurants. But we did a ribbon-cutting on Mother Gaston Boulevard [in Brownsville]; “MGB Pops” was the title that they used. And when you looked at what was there, you saw that all it has to do is cascade out slowly. It didn’t have a Williamsburg feel, or a Park Slope feel. It had a Brownsville feel to it. And that’s what it is we’re looking for. Each neighborhood bringing this level of newness but maintaining the flare of that community.

What have been the biggest challenges that you’ve already faced in office?

Having people break out of their silos. Having people understand that there is one Brooklyn, and one Brooklyn does not mean it is one community. It is all 51 of the communities, all eighteen of the community boards, all of the different neighborhoods together. And when I move around the borough, I have been consistent on that message, because a message like that can’t be given one time. It has to become part of the constant drumbeat that 47 percent of the borough speaks a language other than English at home; the drumbeat of visiting a mosque, a synagogue, a Baptist church, a Buddhist temple. I’ve said this constantly, and I’ve noticed that the eyes of people start to perk up as they say, “You know, you’re right.”

That the classroom is not in this building; it’s really on the streets of Brooklyn. If you really want to learn experience and want to sell this concept of this Brooklyn fusion, where we all fuse together and we don’t live life within the boundaries of a label, skim that clear and people will slowly get there, letting go of the past and embracing the future. Because it’s hard when you woke up every morning to someone who lived next door to you; who looked like you, ate the same food, sounded like you, dressed like you. You heard the same music coming out of their home. Now all of a sudden, you have a different neighborhood: the texture is different, the skintone is different, the music is different, the smell of the food is different. You begin to say, “Am I losing my community?” No, you’re gaining a new embrace. Now, getting there is not an easy task.

In addition to that idea of fusion, what would you say are the biggest issues facing Brooklyn right now?

They simmer below the radar because if you don’t look closely, you’ll miss it, and you’ll tend to believe all is well. You’ll leave the BAM theater after a good play, you’ll walk down the block and have a nice meal at a nice restaurant with a guy serving you. You’ll think all is great. Below the surface, outside of the niceties, there are some realities that we have to address. Twenty-five percent of the borough lives in poverty, and another 50 percent is one paycheck away. The displacement of longtime residents. The issue of crime. Our schools are failing. We have an increasing technology boom, yet young people are not ready to fill those tech jobs. STEM, to them, is not science, technology, engineering and math; it’s the tip of a marijuana joint. And as long as we’re having a problem in translating the success to Brooklyn throughout, those are the challenges we’re facing. Hate crime is on the increase. We just had an awful attack on a young woman as she walked down the block on Franklin Avenue and Prospect Place in Crown Heights — one of the new gentrified areas. She was brutally beat by three people over an iPhone.

I think that one of the challenges we’re having is having longtime residents being able to ride the wave of economics, employment, housing and educational opportunities. If we don’t address that, then we’re sitting on a powder keg, to be honest with you.

You ran on much more of a reform platform — let’s talk about stop-and-frisk, let’s talk about transparency, good government, and equitable growth for all. How has it been translating those promises into policy, and the reality of office?

The emergence of Brooklyn started with cycles. [Former Brooklyn Borough President] Howard Golden was the first to talk about building a hotel. People laughed at him when he talked about building a Marriott. How it did was really to lay the foundation; anytime you build a building, the first thing you want to have is a solid foundation. Borough President Golden really laid that foundation, and I don’t think he gets a lot of credit for doing so. Marty [Markowitz] came in and built on that foundation, adding new floors to the building, and talked about what we can do in Brooklyn. So now I have to come in and add my next floor. So when you look at it, I think it’s a transitional process; I always compare it to a sequel in a movie. Each sequel needs to be as good or better than the movie that preceded it. And that’s where we are now. My focus is not so much on the brick-and-mortar. It’s really people.

My legacy is that I built up Brooklynites. Part of the reform that I talked about is, how do we reform the lives of people? I don’t want to just wrap myself around this progressive title that seems to have become so chic and popular nowadays. If the progressive movement isn’t progressing the lives of everyday Brooklynites, it’s no longer sexy. It’s just another tag. I have to find a way to improve the lives of Brooklynites, and that’s what I’m doing. By holding financial literacy seminars to teach people how to manage their money. By doing projects like “It’s Not an Emergency,” which shows people how to stop using the emergency room as primary care. By having lecture series in senior centers to show seniors what services are available to them to improve their everyday living. We want to do real things that’s not as appealing as cutting ribbons at the Barclays Center, or being able to open another fancy restaurant. We want to touch real people in their neighborhoods in a very real way, to impact and be impactful on their lives.

You’re coming into this office at a critical time in the modern history of Brooklyn. What’s your vision for the borough by the end your term?

By the end of my term, I want to be identified, number one, as the technology borough president. That I gave Brooklynites a way to use technology to improve their lives in a real way. There’s a disconnect between the app that lets you order an Uber, and the app that will deal with the heating problem I have in my building. We met with a group of app developers yesterday that have devised an app and a system to determine if tenants are receiving an adequate amount of heat. Those are real changes in the lives of people. We’re rolling out in a few days a program that is going to allow schools in Brooklyn to have textbook-free classrooms, so they can have access to a wider range of books instead of being held prisoner to textbook manufacturers. Our technologies are changing everyday. We need a manner where we can stay on pace.

I want some clear development of housing: senior housing, new units of housing; all affordable. I would like to see the emergence of the housing stock and the employment stock to go to the non-traditional areas. The DUMBO of tomorrow is Brownsville, East New York, and other parts of Brooklyn. Great opportunities there. I would like to see the development of that area. What’s happening at the Gateway Center in East New York, how it’s driving up the quality of life in that area. I would like to see some of our main corridors have new housing stock, so people don’t have to leave the borough. I would like to see the borough became an artistic mecca, not only located in Downtown Brooklyn. I would like to see Bay Ridge have a place where they can have their artists go, as well as other parts of Brooklyn, and use art as a way of bringing us together. I would love the artistic energy of the borough to grow and blossom and fully come into its own. I think when you see that, that would be an indicator that we have reached a level to continue to grow and develop as a borough.

My legacy, I want people to look at where they were — if they were unemployed, if they were unsafe at home, if they were unable to go to college, if they were unable to embrace technology — and compare it four years or, God willing, eight years later, and see a qualitative difference in their lives. And say, “While he was borough president, I no longer was the person outside looking in. Now I’m part of the excitement that I’m hearing about — the greatness of Brooklyn.” Because there are many communities that, when you say how great Brooklyn is doing, say, “Where? I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m still hearing gun shots, I’m still smelling urine in my elevator, I’m still unsure about this job that I’ve sent out my thousandth resume to.” They still say, “I don’t see this greatness of Brooklyn.” I need for them to see the greatness of Brooklyn as well.

John Surico is Bklynr’s interviews editor. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Village Voice. He lives in Queens.

Jason Bergman is a freelance photographer and videographer. Originally from New Jersey, he now lives in Bushwick.

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Red Hook War Stories

The neighborhood is home to a community of veterans, young and old, who have vivid memories of the conflicts they faced outside Brooklyn — and within it. By Allison Geller. Photos by Anthony Rhoades