Woman vs. the Machine: Jo Anne Simonby Theodore Hamm
Jo Anne Simon is one of seven candidates running for office in the 33rd City Council District, which runs from Greenpoint-Williamsburg along the Brooklyn waterfront through DUMBO and Brooklyn Heights, then spans Boerum Hill through northern Park Slope. In mid-August, Rail editor Theodore Hamm sat down with Simon at a café in Boerum Hill.
Rail: Tell us about your experience working on issues in the district, and how it might contrast with that of other candidates in the race?
Simon: I think that the defining element that’s different about me is that as a community and civic leader at the grassroots level—the neighborhood association and block level—for the past 15 to 20 years, I have been able to show positive results by bringing people together. I’ve taken on some issues that have been divisive and helped various constituents negotiate respectfully and effectively, such as in the case of the Gowanus Expressway Coalition or on various neighborhood zoning issues.
Rail: The Brooklyn Rail is based in Williamsburg-Greenpoint, an area that has been transformed completely by its rezoning (in 2005). Nowadays, it’s often referred to as the “new Miami”—shorthand for rampant condo development gone bust. What’s your position on what happened in 2005, and what should be done now?
Simon: : First of all, I think I’m the only candidate who testified during the City Council’s rezoning hearings. I did so in favor of the community board’s 197-a plan, which I thought was a much better plan. That plan reminded me of what I saw in the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning, where I helped bring together ten neighborhood organizations—many of which had never agreed on anything—to speak together with one voice. In both cases, the community’s plan accurately forecasted many of the problems to come in terms of the need for open space, the over-emphasis on residential growth, and so on. In Williamsburg, as in the Downtown plan, the rezoning was a very broad plan that really could not sustain itself. You can see this now by the speculative building, the buildings that aren’t completed, the ones they can’t sell and are making rentals—although at least they’re being rented—and by the empty buildings and vacant lots.
So step one is realizing that the Williamsburg rezoning isn’t what it was supposed to be, and seeing where there are ways to renegotiate. I am sympathetic to Assembly Member Hakeem Jeffries’ idea of converting some of the units to affordable housing, but I also think we should find ways to help developers build where they have started, so that we don’t have boarded-up, crime-infested places. There has to be a balance struck—for example, maybe the developers won’t go as high when they build. It’s a complicated issue, but the main thing is to make people in the community and the developers listen to each other.
Rail: And what about Atlantic Yards—have the opponents also been right in forecasting the problems with the project?
Simon: Yes, the community has been right: Atlantic Yards is fundamentally a flawed plan. It follows almost every failed urban design approach, cutting off streets from the surrounding neighborhoods and so on. Obviously the use of eminent domain for private enrichment is very, very bad public policy. The level of public subsidy is problematic—almost no arena has ever been built without public dollars. And the level of the affordability in the housing is too high: very few people from the area will be ever to come back to the new development, if and when it ever happens.
Rail: So should the project go forward? If not, how would you respond to those who say that by not doing so, we’re just left with a giant hole in the ground?
Simon: I didn’t want the project to go forward in the first place, and that hasn’t changed. But nobody who opposed this project wanted a giant hole in the ground. In fact, we warned against allowing demolition to occur ten years earlier than necessary, because there was never a real expectation that Phase Two of the project would begin in the next ten years. They started that demolition in order to gain site control and to create the perception that they had to build here. So the developer (Forest City Ratner) created blight, whereas the neighborhood surrounding the project had been bringing itself back without the need for public investment. Arenas do not stimulate the economy—we know this from other cities’ experiences. The kinds of jobs created are low-level and seasonal. And the infrastructure problems would be tremendous, especially since this is already the most congested area in Brooklyn.
One of the biggest problems of this whole issue has been the process. All members of the community were not part of the original planning, whereas there are a lot of good ideas in the UNITY plan and other proposals. So one of the main lessons is that you can do better planning if you invite everybody to the table. Right here at Hoyt-Schermerhorn, we created a viable example. When I became president of the Boerum Hill Association, the area had vacant lots full of drug dealing—but I made people talk, and we reached consensus principles. We made agreements between the community and three developers that were viable financially. The goal was 37.5% affordable housing, and it’s working.
Rail: What’s your position on the cleanup of the Gowanus Canal? Some of your opponents have criticized you for not taking a strong enough stand in favor of making it a Superfund site.
Simon: My position has always been that we need to take a look at this carefully, and to understand what Superfund is and isn’t. The Superfund program has a checkered past, and it’s not always a miracle cure. I have submitted comments in support of the designation as a Superfund site—because I think that ultimately the program has the necessary tools. But just having the tools won’t make it work. What’s important is that the city, state and federal government work together to ensure that both the uplands and the canal get cleaned up. The problem is that the pollutants are migrating between the two areas. But we need to look at the whole situation carefully and thoughtfully. I’ve heard people say “We don’t want a Love Canal,” but it’s not that kind of situation. There’s no question that it’s polluted. But the people who are now being skewered as pro-development are the people who made somebody pay attention to the pollution in the first place. The development is part of the incentive to get the Gowanus cleaned up. If the developers walk away, so will the federal government. So we don’t get anywhere by pitting one side against the other.
Rail: Let’s turn from the issues to the race itself. Why is the local Democratic Party machine against you? You are a district leader in the party—although you’ve clashed with the party’s boss, Assemblyman Vito Lopez.
Simon: This has always been a reform-minded district, which means that leaders from other districts don’t always agree with me—but that doesn’t quiet my voice or keep me from representing my constituents. My goal is not to simply antagonize the county leader (Lopez). But I was a district leader when he sought to become county leader, and he didn’t initially have the votes. I didn’t endear myself to him when I suggested that we all get together and talk about what we needed in a local party leader. Along with seven or eight others, I was outspoken against the process of his election—and since that time, I have abstained from voting for him. But even if that conflict had not happened, I never would have been a machine candidate anyway, because what I’m about is not machine politics. I come from a community that believes that everyone should have a voice, and that good government is about everyone working together. The machine believes in autocracy.
Rail: What is Vito Lopez’s interest in controlling this Council seat, via lining up support behind his staffer, Steve Levin? Does Lopez have an agenda for the district itself, or is it just party politics?
Simon: It’s a combination of things. His organization, the Ridgewood-Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, has a sole source, no-bid contract with the United Jewish Organizations to develop the Broadway Triangle. In addition to wanting to maintain that deal, Lopez is head of the Assembly’s housing committee—so I think he sees the possibility for a lot of development in the area, and he wants to control it.
Rail: As of his July Campaign Finance Board filings, Levin was second to you in money raised, but about 70% of his money had come from outside the district. And some of the main figures in the party are kicking in, with names like Recchia, Fidler and Sheinkopf on the list. So Lopez is mobilizing the machine—but the people giving money must have some interest in what happens in the district too, yes?
Simon: Yes, it’s not about party per se—it’s about bringing the forces of the party to bear in order to protect those other interests. But I have about twice the number of contributors than Levin, which speaks to my level of connection to the community. People who live in the district are supporting my campaign, which is not the case with Mr. Levin. And that’s because most people don’t know him. He’s a nice young man, but he hasn’t been involved. There’s very little overlap between Vito’s Assembly District and the 33rd Council District. So Levin has been a virtual non-entity. So standing up for me is standing up to Vito—and over one-third of the district leaders are doing so. Even though they may disagree with me on various issues, people know that I will represent my constituents.
Rail: Finally, let’s talk about your perspective as a female candidate. Similar to this one, in other races with multiple progressive candidates—the 39th Council District (for Bill de Blasio’s seat in Park Slope and Carroll Gardens), or for Public Advocate—there are no women, nor people of color, running. Does being a woman shape the perspective you would bring to the office?
Simon: Yes. The City Council needs to be more representative of the gender distribution of the city. Sixty percent of the city’s voters are women. The council has come a long way—there are many more women than before, but we’re still under-represented [note: 18 of 50 current Council Members are female]. I think that women approach problems differently and that they exercise power differently. For example, I could have lorded over the whole Hoyt-Schermerhorn planning process, but instead I made sure that there were representatives from every single constituency involved. I think that the community-based, networking approach is more common to women—and I plan to continue in that tradition if I am elected.