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We Just Call Him Marty

"Wear it with pride," said Brooklyn's Borough President Marty Markowitz as he handed me a "Brooklyn" lapel pin. We both sat down in his spacious Borough Hall office, complete with lacquered wood floors and a chandelier.

Markowitz is a slight man with a gregarious and informal manner. Many who know the former state senator remark on his “endless energy,” or describe him as “never boring.”

During my recent visit, Markowitz also demonstrated his mastery of all things Brooklyn. I learned that the Brooklyn Bridge is 120-years-old, and the Williamsburg Bridge is 100-years-old. Markowitz mentioned that Yvette Jarvis, a councilwoman in Greece, is the first Brooklynite to win a political office outside of the United States. The Greek community in Bay Ridge recently hosted a party for Jarvis and invited African-American residents of the neighborhood. “That’s very Brooklyn,” he said.

Memories as Sweet as Mine

Markowitz has spent his entire life either living in or representing the borough. In 1946, he was born in Crown Heights in the predominantly Jewish neighborhood north of Lefferts Avenue. His mother, Dorothy, stayed home to raise Marty while his father, Robert, worked as a waiter at Sid’s, a kosher delicatessen on Empire Boulevard.

Though he was raised in poverty, Markowitz has fond memories of watching the Brooklyn Dodgers play at Ebbets Field and of skating at the Rollerdome. He said reminiscently, “One of my dreams is that somehow the memories of children growing up today could be as sweet as mine are.”

Few people get nostalgic about Brooklyn in the late 1960s and 70s, and Markowitz himself belonged to the generation that “didn’t leave.” After a failed bid for a City Council seat, Markowitz was elected in 1979 to the New York State Senate for the 20th Senatorial District, representing Flatbush and Leffert’s Gardens—his old neighborhood.

When I asked what was his greatest achievement during his senate career, Markowitz said, “Community service—I really believe that I bettered the lives of just about everyone who sought me out.” However, his legislative accomplishments while in Albany were few. He was not known as a public leader who took controversial stands, but rather as the guy who brought green bagels on St. Patrick’s Day.

Markowitz did organize one of the city’s largest and most popular free summer concert series in Flatbush and Brighton Breach, earning him the sobriquet “Senator Impresario.” He also stayed in office long enough that his district was redrawn twice, changes the racial and ethnic constituencies from predominantly Jewish and White to 65 percent Black, 19 percent White, and 13 percent Hispanic.

After an unsuccessful run in 1985 for borough president, or the office of “Mr. Brooklyn” as he called it, Markowitz ran again in 2001. This time would be especially tough. He was up against veteran City Councilman Ken Fisher, the son of Democratic National Convention delegate Harold Fisher, and Deputy Borough President Jeanette Gadson, an African American candidate who had been second-in-command to three-term Borough President Howard Golden.

Markowitz also faced the possibility that his past would be used against him. In 1988, he pleaded guilty to violating state election laws during a reelection campaign. The infraction concerned a failure to disclose information on contributors to his campaign. But the dated topic never came up.

Meanwhile, Markowitz ran an unconventional campaign, surprising people with his candor and unpredictability. At one point, according to the Village Voice, he told a crowd in Park Slope, “I’m Marty Markowitz. I’m running for Brooklyn borough president. Frankly, I’d rather be on a beach with a martini, but I’m glad to see you all anyway.

On Election Day, Markowitz captured 40 percent of the vote, besting Gadson’s 34 percent and Fisher’s 26 percent; Gadson and Fisher had divided both the North Brooklyn and African American votes. The unorthodox candidate won in part by his popular appeal, as illustrated by the 2,900 individual contributors to his campaign. Senator Impresario had become Mr. Brooklyn.

Within two weeks of taking office in 2002, Markowitz suffered his first setback. Eager to bring a new image to Borough Hall, he replaced two dozen paintings of the Founding Fathers, including a portrait of George Washington. When asked about the paintings, Markowitz said he took them down because he did not recognize the “dead white men.”

The offhand comments drew media attention away from Markowitz’s effusive optimism, which had brightly stood out against the post-September 11th gloom and the city’s deteriorating economy. An assistant at the Wall Street Journal wrote that Markowitz was “one of those modern-day politicians uneasy about the Founding Fathers,” waging a “not-so-covert assault on history.”

The answer to the negative press was one of the borough president’s first initiatives: Lighten Up, Brooklyn. In May of 2002, Markowitz put Brooklyn on a two-month diet to lose a total of 250 million pounds. He set up 120 weigh stations around Brooklyn to track weight loss. At the State of the Borough speech in January of this Year, the BP cheered Lorraine Salas, a Brooklyn resident who lost 25 pounds. Markowitz winced as he confessed he had lost 11 pounds but gained it all back.

The timing of the initiative was shrewd. Obesity was making headlines as a national epidemic, and the United States was named the fattest country in the world. The folksy program garnered unprecedented national and international media attention.

Some have criticized Markowitz for his showmanship, however. Last fall during a healthcare summit organized by his office, Markowitz made a brief appearance and quickly left for another engagement. City Commissioners, who were expected at the summit, did not show up at all. One participant told a local newspaper, “If [Markowitz] can’t get commissioners to come to Brooklyn to see about fixing something, I think it’s along the same track as [him] not being a serious person … I think nobody takes this Borough President seriously.”

When I asked Markowitz about this criticism, he snatched a copy of the Brooklyn Rail and held it up. “This is one way to reach people,” he said, “but there are other ways, like through their senses and their hearts.”

Other city officials are quick to vice their support of Markowitz. City Councilman David Yassky said, “I’m a big fan of the Borough President.” Yassky and Markowitz have worked together in the past on re-zoning projects in Williamsburg and downtown Brooklyn. When I asked if Markowitz is serious enough for the job, Yassky replied, “The Borough President’s job is not about passing legislation. It’s about setting a tone. Marty does that.”

Deputy Borough President Yvonne Graham, who has a background in nursing and public health, sees cunning in Markowitz’s approach. “The critical element of behavior change is to find a way to make it practical,” she said. She understood Lighten Up as a well-executed hook for other public health initiatives Markowitz helped to start, including blood drives and free screening tests for cancer and hypertension. Graham herself has coordinated regular meetings with heads of local hospitals and healthcare organizations to talk about priorities for Brooklyn.

Although no discretionary money from the borough president’s budget was allotted for public health, Graham said that Markowitz brought federal agencies to Brooklyn last October to talk about possible funding.

The Center of the Universe

Few have questioned Markowitz’s seriousness when it comes to boosting tourism. Carnival Corporation recently confirmed that discussions  are under way with Borough Hall and other city authorities to bring a Cunard cruise line to Brooklyn’s waterfront.

According to the company, Carnival is planning to dock the Queen Mary II, the longest ship in the world, in Brooklyn. Steve Coleman, a spokesperson for the Port Authority, said a port would be built at Pier 7, where the old Red Hook terminal used to be.

Joan Bartolomeo, President of the Brooklyn Economic Development Corporation, said that by brining a Carnival cruise line to Brooklyn, Markowitz is “making Brooklyn the center of the universe … as he should be.”

Bartolomeo explained that a cruse line is part of a broader development plan promoting tourism and business envisioned two years ago by a joint venture between the BEDC and Kingsborough Community College. The venture is currently raising money to restore and promote historical areas in Bedford-Stuyvesant and Red Hook.

Though a luxury cruise line in Brooklyn may seem like jarring juxtaposition, Markowitz believes the ships will bring people eager to explore, and spend money in, Brooklyn’s ethnic neighborhoods. “You have the world in Brooklyn … I could see passengers planning their day trip and checking off the ‘countries’ they want to visit: Poland, Russia, China … it’s all here,” he said.

While Markowitz was focused on tourism, I asked him about the dangers of gentrification, as more people are drawn to Brooklyn. Markowitz, who began his political career as head of the Flatbush Tenant’s Council, underscored the need for tax credits for property owners to keep old tenants and for rent protection to safeguard the middle class. “Gentrification is already going on. … But every effort must be made to preserve the wonderful economic mix here,” he said.

But the city’s economic strife continues to chafe at Markowitz’s plans for Brooklyn. In response to cutbacks outlined in Mayor Bloomberg’s executive budget plan, Markowitz issued a defiant statement, saying: “They say cut back, but we say fight back!”

Rather than closing fire stations and subway booths in Brooklyn and increasing taxes on hospitals and health care providers, Markowitz proposed real estate tax reform and a “modest surcharge” on the wealthy. He is passionately opposed to one aspect of the Mayor’s budget in particular: a plan placing tolls on all East River bridges.

Under the plan, drivers on the bridges would be charged one-way tolls $3.50 to $4.00 to travel into Manhattan. The plan projects annual revenues of $600 to $700 million.

Markowitz said that Brooklynites would have to pay the most, since three of the four East River bridges are in Brooklyn. “It’s wrong to disproportionately tax the people of one borough to pay for services used by all,” he wrote in a Daily News editorial. Markowitz also believes that bridge tolls would have a detrimental effect on the city’s economy because businesses will not want to pay higher operating costs and, thus, will move somewhere cheaper.

“Thousands and thousands” of people in Brooklyn need their car to get to work because mass transit options do not exist, Markowitz said. When I asked him why not advocate for more mass transit options, he replied, “I have a right to my opinion. I don’t have to change my opinion. [Bridge toll advocates] will get their chance to be heard. This is democracy!”

Later, Markowitz said he supports expanded express bus hours and more mass transit options. “Most Brooklynites are not affluent. They can’t afford $25 to park for a day,” he explained. I began to inquire about the “thousands” of Brooklyn drivers he mentioned earlier, when Markowitz quickly added: “This leads me to believe that [Brooklyn drivers] are going to many different places, not just Manhattan.”

Stephen O’Neill, a spokesperson for the Bridge Tolls Advocacy Projects, conceded that Brooklynites would pay a large portion of the East River tolls, but he said, “Markowitz’s advocacy is misplaced.” Citing figures from an MTA study, O’Neil said that only 4 percent of Brooklynites commute by car to Manhattan. O’Neil explained, “Most of the 4 percent are wealthy (in order to pay for parking in Manhattan they’d have to be) or are government workers who enjoy free parking as a job perk.”

He added that bridge tolls would actually benefit commercial drivers by clearing roadways with E-ZPass tolling technology. “The time savings for commercial vehicles will be grater than the dollar amount they pay in tolls,” he said.

Markowitz was dogged in his opposition to the tolls, however. “Not everyone has the ability, desire, or health to take his or her bicycle to work,” he said with a shrug.

The Spirit of Brooklyn

Since taking office last year, Markowitz has tried to get Brooklynites to lose weight, quit smoking, and be nice to each other. To enhance what he calls the “spirit of Brooklyn,” Markowitz has put on free concerts, thrown countless parties, and hosted an egg cream contest.

The BP assured me that his office takes on “serious” issues, too. Markowitz pledged that he would continue to dedicate $2 million of his capital budget to making housing more affordable. He has already lowered construction costs for about 557 units in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville, Ocean Hill, and Red Hook.

Many say that Markowitz has brought a whole new atmosphere to Brooklyn. After I inadvertently referred to the Borough President as Marty, Andy Ross, Borough Hall’s Director of Communications, said to me: “We just call him Marty. Marty this, or Marty that. People like him; they want to be near him” It is admittedly hard not to be at least amused by Markowitz when he says things like, “The egg cream and Brooklyn have always been entwined.”

The city’s $3.5 billion deficit and the sluggishness of the economy are daunting obstacles, but Markowitz considers them as he does most everything else; lightly.

As I was packing to leave, Markowitz perused a profile in the Rail of New York City Comptroller William Thompson. “Now there’s a serious politician,” he said. “Comptroller is a serious job, you know. But, do you think Bill Thompson can hold an egg cream contest? I don’t think so.”


Kevin Plumberg


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN-JUL 2003

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