Brooklyn native Mark Winston Griffith has been a community activist in Central Brooklyn since the early 1990s. Among other projects, he helped launch the Central Brooklyn Credit Union and the Central Brooklyn Partnership; and from 2005 to 2007, he was the co-director of the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project. Griffith is currently running for City Council office in the 36th District (which covers Bed Stuy through northern Crown Heights), a seat currently held by Al Vann. The Rail’s Nicholas Jahr recently sat down with Griffith to discuss the current economic crisis, the Atlantic Yards project, and Vann’s recent vote on behalf of extending his own term limits.
Nicholas Jahr (Rail): Two years ago, Bed-Stuy had one of the ten highest rates of subprime lending in the city, and in the 11233 zip code, which encompasses a large swath of the neighborhood. One in four borrowers with a subprime loan are in foreclosure, four times the national average. The Furman Center recently released data which shows a steep drop-off in both prime and subprime lending throughout the city, and both Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy have been hurt by that. What can be done to cope with this crisis?
Mark Winston Griffith: The City Council is somewhat restricted legislatively as far as what it can do. One of the things the City Council and the Mayor can do is what’s being done right now, which is to support initiatives like the Center for New York City Neighborhoods. And, on a very local level, they can help build capacity to do foreclosure prevention. Because the need far outstrips the capacity. If you look at a place like Central Brooklyn, you can count on one hand how many foreclosure prevention programs there are. And like you said, the numbers are so high.
Rail: Is the city’s role here primarily preventive, or are there measures the city can take to help people whose homes are in foreclosure?
Griffith: I think it’s both. What I like about the Center for New York City Neighborhoods is that it begins to have a conversation that includes all different levels. It includes community-based organizations, financial institutions, foundations, legal services—and it says that we can work together in a coordinated fashion to address this problem. I think that conversation has begun. I think the Center needs a lot more resources. I think the people who are on the ground doing this work need to have a lot more resources. And there need to be more of these organizations on the ground doing this work. A city councilperson needs to use the bully pulpit, and can’t just wait for the resources to come to him or her. He or she’s got to go to foundations, to banks, to private industry—to identify people who can build these community-based organizations. He or she has got to build the local infrastructure to deal with what I consider to be just one of the biggest threats to the financial and social health of our neighborhood. So I think the City Council could be doing more, particularly in Central Brooklyn.
So that’s one thing. There was also an effort some years ago to get the city to not invest in financial institutions that were doing predatory lending—it ended up failing because Mayor Bloomberg challenged the constitutionality of it. What was more disappointing than the fact that it lost constitutionally was that there was actually an effort by the mayor to squelch it. But I think we need to be more creative and think of what else a city can do. And there are some examples across the country, like getting the sheriff’s office to put a moratorium on evictions or local communities and municipalities that are buying property that’s in foreclosure and either reselling it or turning it into affordable housing. This way, you don’t have all this empty, abandoned property out there driving down prices and adding to neighborhood blight.
There needs to be more done to provide affordable housing in general. I think one of the lessons that we have to learn from this is that while homeownership is important, not everyone needs to be a homeowner right now. You’ve got to build towards it.
Rail: I’m wondering what you think of the Atlantic Yards project. The site is just outside your district and I know you’ve written a bit on the subject.
Griffith: What I don’t like about Atlantic Yards is that it didn’t start with a conversation. No one said, “We’ve got this land here that’s been underutilized, how do we fulfill its greatest potential? How do we build on it and develop it in a way that’s going to build the surrounding community, that is going to be respectful of the surrounding community, and is going to be healthy environmentally, physically, economically, and that’s going to include a lot of different people in the revitalization of this area?” It’s not just rich and upper middle class people that are involved, but middle income and lower income people. That was never the conversation. The conversation started with a private developer saying, “I want to be here. What does government have to do to make it possible for me to do it?” What was driving the conceptualization of it was not what was best for this neighborhood, but what was going to make the most money for this private developer. So, with Atlantic Yards, as with any development, the conversation can’t be driven and controlled and instigated by the developer.
Rail: So you’d work for a more community-driven planning and development process?
Griffith: Yes, even city-driven, even city and state-driven. It wasn’t like the city and state looked at this property and said, “Let’s go out there and get different bids from different developers, and let’s decide on the best plan.” Even if you look at something like the World Trade Center, and you look at how that occurred, that started from this idea that “we have to build this property, let’s get all these different competing ideas, let’s have a community-wide conversation.” People can complain about the integrity of that, but at least there was an attempt to have a broad conversation about what was best for this area. The city was never leading that conversation. And that, I think, was a big opportunity missed.
Now what you have here in Brooklyn is almost a lose-lose situation, in the sense that if Ratner is successful in realizing his vision, I think it’s going to have a serious negative effect on the area. If he’s not, and he goes through financial troubles and he ends up not building, and that area becomes even more blighted…I don’t think it necessarily was fully blighted before, but after he gets done knocking down everything, and making way for the development, if he doesn’t actually get to build, then it actually will be a blighted neighborhood.
Rail: Let’s discuss the Councilman who has represented the 36th for two terms now, Al Vann. Vann’s been a political fixture on this turf for literally decades. You’ve also spoken of your esteem for him; you said he was something of a hero to you when you were younger.
Griffith: And he still is. He always will be. I still have the greatest respect for him. And I’m not even going to suggest that he hasn’t exerted leadership on economic empowerment issues, because he has. But I think that over a period of time you start to run out of ideas. I think over a period of time, there’s a sort of self-dealing that goes on, a certain inwardness; the same people are involved. And the most critical thing for me about Al Vann is that there hasn’t been a lot of new leadership. Because leadership is not about one person dictating what is going on. It’s about people working on all levels. He’s been doing business in a certain way for all this time. And if this neighborhood is going to grow, if it’s going to evolve, then we need to introduce some new ideas, some new people, some new strategies into it. And quite frankly, I don’t see that happening. When you’ve done the same thing for such a long time, and you don’t actively try to bring in new ideas, then things get stilted, they calcify.
Rail: Vann essentially swapped seats with Annette Robinson, who landed his old Assembly seat. Now Vann has run up against term limits, but he voted against holding a public referendum on the question and then voted for the extension to three terms. What do you think about that vote?
Griffith: I think it was a telling and monumental betrayal of the interests of Central Brooklyn. I think—and this is what I was talking about—there’s a self-interest that comes with long-term incumbency. This goes beyond Al Vann. It’s just part of what occurs. Part of what keeps a neighborhood vibrant is not only new elected leadership, but also sending the message that when my community and the rest of the city votes for something, that we respect the will of the people. And I thought that’s what was ultimately disrespected. And I think that when he decided to do that, a lot of people were disappointed in him.
Rail: On the question of term limits more generally, it sounds like you’d be in favor. And if so, do you think it should be set at two or three terms?
Griffith: This wasn’t about term limits. It was about whether or not you respect the fact that people voted on this. It wasn’t about Michael Bloomberg. It wasn’t about any one individual. It’s about saying that this process is about more than the individual. So I don’t even have a problem with three terms, per se. And I am ambivalent about whether or not you should restrict people’s ability to vote people into office. But I think that the City Council, as you saw on this term limits extension, has shown the extent to which it is in many ways controlled by Bloomberg. The Council needs to do more to circumscribe his power, because at the point that you can essentially say that “I am so indispensable to this city that I will change the rules so that I get another four years,” you have to be very leery of the kind of power that that mayor is wielding.