Lincoln Restler, a district leader in North Brooklyn, strikes one as a go-getting and earnest young man with an objective. While his look might approximate a young Al Franken, Restler’s demeanor is much more charming. Restler seems ubiquitous as of late in the 50th District (which spans Greenpoint/Williamsburg to Fort Greene/Clinton Hill), and his name seems to come up often when talking to people about local—and even micro-local—issues. I encountered him in person in July as he was going door to door on my block in Williamsburg asking people, “What issues are important to you?”
Last month I sat down with Lincoln in a newish Greenpoint café to discuss the changes in Brooklyn and what our elected officials can accomplish. I should also note that this conversation took place before news of the scandals surrounding Brooklyn Democratic Party boss (and Restler’s nemesis) Vito Lopez made headlines.
Williams Cole (Rail): So, first of all, you’re a relatively young guy to be involved in politics.
Lincoln Restler: Although hairs are graying, I don’t know if you might be able to notice that. [Both laugh.]
Rail: Must come from being in politics. But what motivated you to get involved so enthusiastically at, one could say, a relatively young age?
Restler: Well, I originally got locally involved in the Obama campaign during the primary against Hilary Clinton, and I was blown away by meeting hundreds of Brooklynites who had never done anything political before, but were inspired to give money, make phone calls, knock on doors, and pass out leaflets on street corners in support of this campaign. I was blown away by the sense of possibility and the feeling of ownership that people had in that campaign. And we did better in Brooklyn for Barack Obama than we did any other county in the state against the sitting senator for New York. So, as that campaign kind of came to an end, my friends and I asked the question: how could we maintain this? How could we sustain the engagement of the general younger generation of Brooklynites to make a difference in the political process?
Rail: So what was your impression of local politics in Brooklyn?
Restler: I grew up in Brooklyn and, in the back of my mind, I knew there was some kind of old machine that ran politics but didn’t really know all that much about it. So we began doing our homework. And I was sincerely shocked to find out that three of the last four leaders of the Brooklyn Democratic Party had been indicted on charges of corruption. And so my colleagues and I met with the current party boss [Vito Lopez] and we suggested half a dozen ways that we would like to become more involved locally in the political process. He not so politely said “no” to each of them and then encouraged us to join the community board. That’s fine—I served on a community board for five years and believe that that’s an important arena for advocacy and local activism. But he discouraged us explicitly from engaging in the local political process. Well, that actually strengthened our resolve to do something about it.
Rail: In the last decade or more the terrain of Brooklyn has radically changed. What does that mean for creating a new Brooklyn Democratic party?
Restler: Brooklyn is the capital of a nationwide creative economy I would say, if not globally. We have become a global destination for folks in the arts and other creative communities. And in many ways our local economy is surging and booming. Neighborhoods are being revitalized across the borough. There are certainly many challenges and problems with the way the gentrification has unfolded that I am very concerned about. But it’s hard to believe that, as you see all of these changes and advancements and progress in Brooklyn, you still have a political machine out of another era! That is stuck in a different time. I believe that this new Brooklyn deserves a new Democratic Party that is aligned with the values of contemporary Brooklynites. And I also think that among lifelong residents, multi-generational residents, and newer residents, few among us have any faith or belief in the machine.
Rail: Let’s talk about the 2005 rezoning of Williamsburg/Greenpoint? How do you think the promises have panned out?
Restler: I won’t mince words. I would describe the rezoning as an unmitigated disaster. I would say that it was shoved down the throats of this community and the only promises that have been kept are the ones made to the big developers. From a planning perspective it’s logical to me to have some development along the waterfront, insuring that there is access for the public. But having dense, 30-, 40-story developments all throughout the Northside and Greenpoint waterfront, without making any investments to expand the infrastructure of our community, is dangerous. And our area in North Brooklyn has grown in population more than any other part of the borough in the last decade. Our trains are beyond capacity. Our mass transit is beyond capacity. Our sewer systems, block after block, cannot handle the growth and population.
Rail: Okay, but how do we ameliorate the situation as it stands now? The economy has tanked and the administration is hardly attentive to these issues.
Restler: Right. Frankly, I think that the ambition of this mayor as it relates to development has been to build as quickly and humongously as possible. And that is not changing over the next 16 months that he has remaining in his term. Our hope for a better day lies in the next administration. But also I think that we need to be very thoughtful and strategic about how we can advocate for more responsible development and working to preserve the affordability of the community. Because the issue that I’m most upset about, that I’m most moved by, is displacement. Every day a life-long resident of Greenpoint or Williamsburg is forced out of the community, unable to continue living here. And you know, it’s the people of the neighborhood who “transformed” the area into a global destination. And it’s the people of the neighborhood that should have the right to call it home.
So there are three main ways that I think we need to be much more aggressively tackling the issues. One is preserving the existing affordable housing stock we have. I’ve been working to raise private funds from foundations to support our tenant services groups so we can educate and empower tenants to know their rights. Along these lines, we can keep the rent-stabilized and rent-subsidized housing that we have and also provide free legal representation in housing courts against landlords who are harassing their tenants unlawfully. Secondly, we need to be much more proactive in terms of building new affordable housing for the community. Whenever a new affordable housing workshop comes online, I’ll help neighborhood groups get the word out and make sure the neighborhood residents get assistance in completing those applications correctly to give them their best shot of accessing that housing. And thirdly, and this is an area where we really need to improve a great deal, is local hiring. We’ve seen so many new businesses, from light manufacturing to retail, open up in Williamsburg and Greenpoint over the last decade. And that’s great; we welcome them, but it’s imperative that we make sure that they provide local residents with first crack at the jobs. Because if we can do a better job of insuring that neighborhood residents have decent jobs, then they will have the resources to stay in the neighborhood. It’s that simple.
Rail: Have you had any success on the jobs front?
Restler: Yes, and one that I’m really proud of is down in the Fort Greene portion of my district. We helped attract a new Red Apple supermarket to an area on Myrtle across the street from two large public housing developments where there had been no supermarket for about five years and folks were really struggling. We not only brought in a quality affordable supermarket, but the store’s operator agreed to interview neighborhood residents first. And so we set up a day for résumés to be reviewed and interviews to be conducted. 90 percent of the people hired at that supermarket live in Fort Greene, mostly in public housing. And you know, it’s a model that should be the standard practice. We need to work more collaboratively with merchant associations and work with business owners to facilitate and support their efforts to hire locally.
Rail: What are some of your other main issues?
Restler: I’ve been an outspoken advocate to improve mass transit in the community. I helped lead the successful effort to make sure that the M.T.A. did not cut the G train route. And I fought for many of the bus restorations that will take effect in January. Additionally, I’ve been focused on trying to create more green space in the community. I’ve worked with different city agencies to convert unutilized vacant lots into community gardens in Greenpoint and down in Clinton Hill. And I worked with a farmer’s market group to bring new markets to Greenpoint and Williamsburg. And I see it as the responsibility of any elected official or community leader to promote our public schools. We have a variety of new charter schools coming into the area that have significant resources to promote and market themselves. But we need to use our platforms as leaders in the community to promote the successes of our neighborhood public schools.
Rail: Great. When is the election?
Restler: Thursday, September 13!