The Color of David Yassky’s Skin: The citizens of Brooklyn’s 11th Congressional District, no doubt, have many pressing concerns. But in the race to succeed retiring Rep. Major Owens, these have all been overshadowed by a single issue: melanin.
Opponents of City Councilman David Yassky, the Democratic primary field’s only white candidate, suggest that he has no business running in the majority-black congressional district. City Councilwoman Yvette Clarke has called Yassky’s candidacy “provocative, to say the least.” But she has been subtle compared to fellow contender Chris Owens, whose father just so happens to be the incumbent (and whose mother just so happens to be white). “David played the race card when he entered the race,” Owens said, according to BKLYN magazine. “I don’t know how someone can call himself progressive and say with a straight face that he’s running in a Voting Rights district for Congress.” The field’s remaining candidate, State Senator Carl Andrews, to his credit, doesn’t seem to have made an issue of Yassky’s race, although that hasn’t stopped one of his leading backers from doing so. Therefore, it’s not surprising—though it’s still, in a certain respect, shocking—that when Yassky was excluded from a candidates’ forum at a local church solely because of his race, none of his fellow candidates raised their voices in protest.
The race has sparked a lively debate about the meaning of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the landmark legislation under which the 11th Congressional District’s boundaries were drawn to empower black voters. But empower them to do what? Was the act about giving minority voters the power to elect the officials they feel will best represent them—in the process guaranteeing minority candidates a fair shot at elected office? Or does it demand that voters preemptively veto candidates who don’t share their skin color—much as white voters so often have done to black candidates?
Endorsing the latter view would hardly seem to be in the best interest of black aspirants to elected office, since African-Americans are, after all, a minority in the vast majority of the nation’s congressional districts. Nevertheless, this seems to be the principle embraced by many local pols. In a now-infamous e-mail to fellow black elected officials, City Councilman Al Vann wrote, “we are in peril of losing a ‘Voting Rights’ district, the 11th Congressional District, as a result of the well financed candidacy of Council Member David Yassky, a white individual.”
The contest also has drawn the attention of noted racial conciliator the Rev. Al Sharpton. “The issue here,” the reverend wrote in a recent Daily News opinion article, “is not whether the white candidate is good or bad.” Instead, for Sharpton, the issue is electing a black legislator to represent the district—period. To that end, he urged the three African-American contenders to “unite around a consensus candidate,” lest they split the black vote. But which of the three deserves the seat? That doesn’t seem to matter as much. For Sharpton, apparently, black candidates are interchangeable. All that matters is the color of their skin. Is that really what the civil rights movement was all about?
The Content of David Yassky’s Character: David Yassky’s critics may be fixated on his skin color, but it’s not for lack of better things to criticize him about.
For starters, there’s Yassky’s curious behavior on the single biggest development issue facing Brooklyn: Bruce Ratner’s mammoth Atlantic Yards project. While neighborhood activists and many of his fellow local elected officials have been out raising hell, Yassky has been quiet as a mouse. When Yassky has voiced an opinion, he has supported the basic idea of the project, while expressing concern about its scale and its impact on traffic and infrastructure. Pressed by The Brooklynite for more specifics, Yassky’s office said the councilman “would like to see a reduction of total size by more than a third. As part of this reduction, he would also like to see the taller buildings halved in size.” This is all well and good, but it’s not very helpful if he’s not vocal about it. If this project is to be stopped or significantly scaled back, it won’t be because a City Councilman has a nice set of opinions about it.
Part of the reason Yassky has been so quiet on Atlantic Yards is that he has tried to play both sides of the issue. This became clear when he personally requested $3 million in city funds for Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development, a Ratner-funded “community” group, to initiate local workforce development programming. But what makes Build—a group best known for its single-minded devotion to shilling on behalf of Bruce Ratner—uniquely qualified to run job-training programs? One need not be a cynic to note that Yassky’s request came only days after he was endorsed by Build’s president, James Caldwell.
It wouldn’t be the first time that politics has trumped principle for Yassky. In the 2005 race for Kings County district attorney, Yassky endorsed State Senator John Sampson, the only candidate rated “not qualified” by the city bar association. Political observers generally viewed Sampson as a proxy for then county Democratic boss (and now convicted felon) Clarence Norman, who was being prosecuted by sitting D.A. Charles Hynes, amidst a wider probe into corruption in the party clubhouses and the county courthouses. The New York Times called Sampson’s campaign “an audacious attempt by the Democratic machine to derail Mr. Hynes’s continuing political corruption investigation.” Many saw in Yassky’s endorsement of Sampson’s unsuccessful candidacy a bid to curry favor with the corrupt party machine in advance of his congressional run. Yassky, a former law professor, certainly can’t claim not to have known any better.
Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe: For all of David Yassky’s failings—and they are far from trivial—he does have considerable virtues. He has an impressive record of accomplishment in his brief time on the council, including praiseworthy efforts to retain industrial jobs and preserve Red Hook as a working port. And of all the field’s candidates, Yassky has by far the most thoughtful position statements on the issues he would be working on as a congressman. (Although it’s worth noting that, alone among the candidates, Yassky’s Web site omits his views on the single most important issue of the day: the war in Iraq. Is this yet another instance—a la Atlantic Yards—of Yassky trying to be all things to all people?)
Yassky’s opponents, comfortably ensconced in glass houses of their own making, are hardly in a position to throw stones. Carl Andrews and Yvette Clarke both have been supportive of Ratner’s Atlantic Yards monstrosity. And Andrews—an unrepentant, longtime friend of Clarence Norman—is unlikely to make an issue of Yassky’s alliance of expediency with the Brooklyn Democratic machine’s preferred candidate for D.A.
Indeed, only Chris Owens has been consistently outspoken in opposition to Atlantic Yards. He also forcefully raises the issue of local judicial corruption and has publicly confronted Yassky about his endorsement of Sampson. Still, Owens is far from a perfect candidate.
Owens has been unabashed in his race-baiting of Yassky (an activity that his dad, Rep. Major Owens, has indulged in with equal gusto, threatening at one point, according to The New York Sun, that if Democrats don’t help stop Yassky, he’ll turn to the Republicans for assistance). And while Owens the Younger may be the race’s most principled candidate, his principles, as advertised on his campaign Web site, often seem to be borrowed from the wild margins of the far-left: Owens demands an immediate withdrawal of American troops from Iraq (consequences be damned, apparently) and lavishly praises antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan (who opposes not only the Iraq war, but also the Afghanistan war, and has called President Bush “the biggest terrorist in the world”). Owens also offers up a sweeping call for “a total amnesty for all undocumented foreign nationals currently residing in the United States.” Apparently, he would then immediately further reward them with the franchise, as he wants to extend the right to vote in local elections to non-citizens.
It is indeed a crowded field vying to represent the 11th Congressional District. If only it included a progressive candidate who consistently demonstrated both intelligence and integrity. Perhaps then there would be more interesting things to discuss than the color of David Yassky’s skin.
High-Rise Hubris: Brooklyn is backwards. And nobody is more retrograde than those Brooklynites who love the borough’s low-rise charm and are interested in preserving it. Or at least that’s what the muckety-mucks would have us believe.
According to the Downtown Brooklyn Star, Senator Charles Schumer derided Brooklynites opposed to development projects, like Atlantic Yards, as part of “the culture of inertia, this small group of self-appointed people.” The New York Times has editorialized that the transformation of Brooklyn’s low-rise skyline into a “thicket of skyscrapers” is “almost inevitable,” and that the Atlantic Yards development is good for Brooklyn, insofar as it “furthers the prospect that it will may yet [sic] emerge from the shadow of its smaller sister, Manhattan.”
The most self-serving rhetoric in this vein, however, has come from Bruce Ratner’s pet starchitect, Frank Gehry. Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project—16 towers and an arena—is, according to the Municipal Art Society, equivalent in square footage to three Empire State Buildings or 23 Williamsburgh Savings Bank towers. Up until now, the closest Gehry has come to building something of this scale is a trio of sad-looking office towers in Dusseldorf. But that hasn’t stopped him from lashing out at Brooklynites who have the audacity to speak out against the gargantuan art project he wants to inflict upon us. “They should’ve been picketing Henry Ford,” Gehry said. “There is progress everywhere.”
Perhaps for their next act, Schumer, Gehry, and the Times will lecture Parisians on why they need more skyscrapers in the heart of their own dense but historic low-rise city. After all, there’s no standing in the way of progress!
Brooklyn Brew-haha: Opponents of the Atlantic Yards development—apparently operating on the principle that, when it comes to fighting Bruce Ratner, extremism is no vice and moderation no virtue—launched a boycott of Brooklyn Brewery earlier this year. The boycott was sparked by brewery owner Steve Hindy’s enthusiastic endorsement of Ratner’s plans for Prospect Heights, an embrace critics quite reasonably attributed to his desire to sell his suds in the project’s proposed basketball arena.
Of course, reasonable Brooklynites—and brewers—can and do differ on the future of Atlantic Yards, which is why making the issue a libationary litmus test seems a tad excessive. But if anyone is entitled to be angry at Brooklyn Brewery, it’s Frank Yost, the owner of Freddy’s Bar and Backroom, a beloved neighborhood tavern and unpretentious cultural center that would be torn down to make room for Ratner’s forest of skyscrapers.
So when Freddy’s removed Brooklyn Lager from its tap, Hindy could have shown some compassion for an endangered local drinking institution that’s served more than a few of his company’s beers over the years. Instead, he responded with extreme callousness, heartlessly ridiculing Freddy’s for replacing his lager with a “generic” Canadian beer.
“I’m very sorry to hear that Freddy’s thinks that selling a beer owned by the biggest beer conglomerate in the world is better for them and their community than Brooklyn Lager,” Hindy told The Brooklyn Papers.
And so while the boycott at first seemed like overkill, all of a sudden Brooklyn Brewery’s tasty lager became a little harder to swallow.
Make the Road By Exaggerating: This past December, The New York Times published a full-page paid advertisement from a group with the urgent-sounding name “The World Can’t Wait.” The ad recited a familiar litany of complaints about the Bush administration’s policies—some valid, others less so, all articulated in the shrillest language its authors could muster. This riot act was capped by the attention-grabbing statement, “People look at all this and think of Hitler—and they are right to do so.” It goes on to accuse Bush of trying to remake society “in a fascist way” and proceeds to lash out at Democrats, “who tell us to seek common ground with fascists and religious fanatics.”
Now, it’s hard to think of enough bad words to describe our current president. But “Hitler” and “fascist” don’t happen to be two of them. Indeed, the ad’s language borders on incitement to violence. (After all, what means wouldn’t be justified in the name of stopping the next Hitler?)
Signatories to this wild screed included Howard Zinn, Cornel West, Gore Vidal, and other well-known intellectuals admired by the sort of people who tend to mistake smug self-righteousness for critical thinking. No surprises there. These same “thinkers” all signed onto a 2002 petition of a similar flavor (this one from a group called “Not In Our Name”) that attacked America’s post-9/11 foreign policies but couldn’t, in its 1,000-plus words, bring itself to use the word “terrorism,” or any variation thereof (except once, in scare quotes, to lament that “Groups are declared ‘terrorist’ at the stroke of a presidential pen”). Tellingly, the Not in Our Name ad—which is cited by The World Can’t Wait as an inspiration for its own efforts—described the September 11 terrorist attacks simply as “horrific events,” before quickly redirecting readers’ attentions to “similar scenes in Baghdad, Panama City, and, a generation ago, Vietnam.”
Beyond the usual suspects, one of the more than 200 signatories to the World Can’t Wait ad broke my heart: Make the Road By Walking, a dynamic Bushwick activist group whose two co-founders were the subjects of a glowing profile in The Brooklynite’s Fall 2005 issue. It’s a shame, because when it’s not signing onto inane political manifestos, Make the Road does some great work empowering residents of one of Brooklyn’s most impoverished neighborhoods.
Alas, Make the Road’s embrace of such facile politics is by no means an anomaly in the world of progressive activism. And this sad fact only begs a larger question: Why is it that so many people with so much passion for effecting positive social change, people with such big hearts, are unable to find room in their bodies for equally large brains?
Imams Against Legos: In the 1990s, Brooklyn earned a reputation as a hotbed of Islamic extremism—and the Al-Farooq mosque on Atlantic Avenue in Boerum Hill was one of the epicenters. In 1990, it famously provided a pulpit to Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind Egyptian militant later convicted of conspiring to blow up various New York City landmarks. Then there was the 1999 fundraising visit by a radical Yemeni sheik who was convicted last year by a Brooklyn jury on charges of providing material support to Al Qaeda and Hamas.
This past February, amidst the worldwide orgy of violence that accompanied a Danish newspaper’s publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, Al-Farooq’s imam seized the occasion to show that extremism remains alive and well on Atlantic Avenue. The Christian Science Monitor reported that Al-Farooq’s Imam Abdul Ghani Radwan was joining other area clerics in urging Muslims to boycott Danish goods. “Muslims want no connections with such people,” he said. (“Such people” presumably meaning citizens of a country that happens to have a free press.)
Why a religious leader would call for a boycott of Havarti cheese and Legos simply because some newspaper decided to publish a few cartoons that he found offensive is beyond comprehension. Though, admittedly, it would be nice if Imam Radwan were so offended by this column that he decides to boycott Brooklyn and take his extremism elsewhere.
Tribeca Is a Place in…:, BKLYN, the glossy quarterly known for its hard-hitting cover stories on home furnishings and kayaking in Brooklyn, is going through some tough times. Citing “cash flow problems,” it has suspended publication, at least until the fall. If it folds, I won’t shed too many tears. For one thing, BKLYN has always had a curious sense of geography. “Do you live in Central Brooklyn or Lower Manhattan?” its Web site asks. “You’re a prime candidate to receive BKLYN magazine.” In other words, if you live in Tribeca, Greenwich Village, or SoHo, you’re just the sort of reader BKLYN is looking for. But what if you live in Bensonhurst, Canarsie, or Bushwick? What’s the name of the magazine again?
We Came, We Saw…: BKLYN’s sense of geography isn’t the only thing that’s askew. Let’s look at Brooklyn demography, as seen through the eyes of BKLYN publisher Joseph McCarthy (who is not now, nor has he ever been, a member of the United States Senate from the great state of Wisconsin). In promotional materials posted on BKLYN’s Web site, McCarthy waxes eloquently about Brooklyn and his magazine’s target audience. And who are BKLYN’s readers? Well, they haven’t been here in the borough for very long, but thank heaven they’re here now. McCarthy writes:
“Our readers are young, energetic, and bold. Brooklyn may be the hottest place in the New York area right now, but when many of them moved here, it wasn’t. They have made it what it is, and they’ve brought along their friends: young people, young marrieds, professionals in two-income families, and empty-nesters with incomes to spare.
“As they’ve flooded in, the historic brownstone communities have grown together. These are the neighborhoods you’ve been hearing about: Park Slope, Boerum Hill, Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, and Carroll Gardens. Now they are knit together by Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, and Prospect Heights, and fortified by DUMBO, Ditmas Park, Flatbush, and Gowanus. More recently, Sunset Park, Williamsburg, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Bay Ridge have joined in.”
How nice of you to join us, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Bay Ridge. Welcome to Brooklyn!
Speaking of Struggling Brooklyn Magazines…: You’re now reading The Brooklynite’s final issue. Having published two print issues in 2005 (both of which are now online) and this abbreviated Web edition, The Brooklynite is folding because it failed to generate sufficient advertising revenues to sustain itself.
When I started The Brooklynite a little more than a year ago, my aim was to fill a niche that I felt no other publication was filling: I wanted to create a lively and accessible magazine that would provide a venue for top-notch journalism on the issues facing Brooklynites of all stripes—a magazine that wouldn’t be afraid to pick a fight or two (or three or four) on behalf of our beloved borough and its citizens.
Readers can judge for themselves how well the magazine achieved these aims. I can only say that I am proud of what The Brooklynite accomplished in its brief existence—thanks to its stellar cast of writers, photographers, and graphic designers. But I’m also a little sad to have to let The Brooklynite go.
True, there’s plenty of fine journalism being done about Brooklyn. The Times, the Sun, the Daily News, the Village Voice, and New York magazine all regularly feature great Brooklyn coverage. Meanwhile, a revitalized Brooklyn Papers, a shining constellation of excellent borough blogs, and a handful of scrappy local and ethnic print publications (from Williamsburg’s Block magazine to the Prospect Heights-based Haitian Times), suggest that we may be on the cusp of a new golden age for Brooklyn journalism. But I still believe Brooklyn deserves—and would be well served by—a great magazine to call its own.
The Brooklynite isn’t the first attempt at a Brooklyn magazine—and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Indeed, Brooklyn’s very high-profile renaissance—with its skyrocketing real estate values and cool cultural ferment—virtually guarantees this. The borough’s growing population of affluent and youthful trendsetters has the potential to make advertisers salivate.
But along with Brooklyn’s new publishing promise comes a dangerous editorial temptation. The temptation is to treat the borough’s gentrified and gentrifying neighborhoods—and particularly their cool and well-to-do residents—not as parts of Brooklyn’s greater whole, but as its sum total. (I’m reminded of the publicist who wrote to me, “Wine is so Brooklyn!”)
The brownstone buyers and bohemians who are flocking to Brooklyn have enriched the borough with their talents and tastes. But Brooklyn is so much more. It is also the native Brooklynites who link the borough with its past—and are equal partners in charting its future. And it is the countless immigrants from all over the world who, as much as any other newcomers, are transforming the borough in profound ways. Park Slope, Dumbo, and Williamsburg aren’t the only neighborhoods with stories worth telling. That’s why the magazine that Brooklyn deserves will have interests that are wider than its bottom line.
Daniel Treiman is the editor of The Brooklynite. He is now in search of more gainful employment.