“This is the first Mayor in history to have a town hall in this community,” said City Council Member David Greenfield, welcoming Mayor Bill de Blasio to the District 44 town hall on Tuesday night. “Ask the Mayor questions that they don’t ask on CNN.”
During the three-hour event at Boro Park’s FDR High School, the Mayor, Greenfield, and city officials sat in the hot seat, addressing a broad range of hyper-local concerns from sanitation to Section 8 housing, to a packed house of more than 600 residents (with 100 more in an overflow room).
Greenfield touted achievements like allieviating sanitation truck traffic, adding security fleets for Yeshivas and private schools; and introduced a pre-pay parking meter system on the weekly Jewish holiday, Shabbos. De Blasio championed the “lowest unemployment rate in 40 years”, his Pre-K program, and other campaigns during his tenure.
Audience members scribbled their questions onto cards collected by the Mayor’s staff, but at the event Greenfield called on people, unscreened, who asked the politicians to address issues like:
- sidewalk use, “storefronts are expanding onto the sidewalks,” said a resident;
- affordable housing, “In this district is we have no available land, vacant or city-owned,” said Greenfield;
- illegal home conversions, (“We struggle to get access to those buildings,” said a city official working to obtain more access warrants with 140 new inspectors)
- the opioid crisis and human trafficking, (“It’s happening right here,” said Rose, the mother of a missing woman)
- along with a myriad of traffic problems and issues relating to the area’s many Yeshivas.
Others in the district’s immigrant communities said they’re worried about immigration fraud and ICE officials on the street (with sometimes inflated rumors), and securing regulations for the taxi industry — where working immigrants have been struggling.
“Taxi medallion drivers are losing their homes and incomes,” driver Nino Hervias told BKLYNER. “We’ve invested our whole lives into this business. We’re talking about our survival.”
Vision Zero vs. ‘Raise the speed on Ocean Parkway’
“The bible says, ‘Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone,'” began the Mayor, treading lightly in response to a supporter of the controversial bill to raise the speed from 25mph to 30mph. The speed limit was lowered to 25mph in 2014 by de Blasio’s safety initiative, Vision Zero.
The topic has been divisive in various neighborhoods stretching the length of the boro’s long, state-run road, but tonight the loudest voices came from the contingent of Orthodox Jewish men gathered on one side of the room, many of whom vocally expressed support for the 30mph bump.
“I, too, have driven my car too fast on Ocean Parkway,” de Blasio said. “But when we developed the concept of Vision Zero it was not a popularity contest. It was because the number of people being killed in traffic accidents in the city was almost as many as the number of people being murdered in the city each year.”
“The problem is speed cameras,” Greenfield piped in, garnering cheers. He noted that the cameras penalize “regular people” driving with the flow of traffic, albeit over the speed limit.
“The speed cameras are not for revenue, they are to reduce fatalities,” said de Blasio, to a rush of angered and disbelieving groans.
DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, who got a lot of mic-time throughout the evening, said that the cameras have contributed to the overall 22 percent decrease in traffic fatalities since Vision Zero began.
But, she reminded residents that Ocean Parkway is a state road, and deflected some anger away from Vision Zero by reminding people that it was the State that greenlighted the new right-and-left turn bans earlier this year.
“The State made those changes without the city’s authorization,” said the Mayor.
“It’s a route that a lot of people use, and it’s a road where a lot of people live, and we’re trying to balance the needs of both,” said Trottenberg, who announced a plan to improve the timing of lights to ease the flow of traffic.
Accusations of unfair bias from all sides
Some in the audience were visibly upset at what they called biased treatment favoring the Orthodox Jewish community during the town hall.
“He’s favoring this side. It shouldn’t be like that,” griped one resident. Another woman, who had her hand raised for more than an hour, left agitated at 9pm. “I have to get up for work tomorrow.”
Two 50-year Bensonhurst residents, who grew up in the neighborhood “back when it was still Italian”, slammed Greenfield after the meeting. “This event was completely biased,” said the commenter who wished to remain anonymous. “Our public leader is drawing lines in the sand. Everyone in here felt it, and it makes me sick.”
But there were accusations of unfair bias from both sides of the room. “There are over 100,000 kids that go to yeshivas in NYC…but Yeshivas feel like second-class citizens,” said one commenter, calling it unfair that non-profit private schools pay water meters and are subject to tax lien sales. “We feel the city looks at Yeshivas differently than public schools.”
Throughout the Q & A session, politicians fielded several other questions exclusive to Yeshivas, on priority 5 vouchers, pre-K entitlements, rezoning, sanitation pickups, non-profit status, and more.
Divisiveness in the room peaked when one resident, who identified himself as from an old Brooklyn Jewish family, broached a touchy sanitation subject.
“Why doesn’t the city enforce the 15 health codes, animal cruelty laws, and slaughterhouse regulations all violated when 60,000 chickens are slaughtered on public streets?” he said, referring to a ritual leading up to a Jewish holiday, long decried by animal activists.
An initial cheer was immediately dampened by voracious booing from one side of the room, punctuated by the impassioned cry from one man who lifted up his jacket and yelled “Anti-semite! Anti-semite!”
This was a perfect moment for the Mayor’s diplomatic catchphrase of the evening, about his administration’s effort to strike a balance between the sometimes competing needs of different community members. “I believe fundamentally in the notion that we respect every faith, and also respect people who choose not to follow that faith,” he said.
Greenfield, putting on his law professor cap, responded by quoting the First Amendment of the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
As the three-hour mark approached, Greenfield took only category-based questions, with no statements or backstories attached. But one woman, who identified herself as an RN and Jewish, tried to return the conversation to a public health concern.
“How are slaughterhouses permitted…” she started.
“That’s not a housing question, but it’s a good attempt though,” Greenfield cut in. “Does anyone else have a housing related question?”
“…within 1,500 feet of a residential area?” she called out over his protests. “It’s illegal, according to agriculture and markets law. And the law trumps the Constitution.”
But this caught Greenfield’s attention.
“No, actually, the Constitution trumps all other laws. That’s why they call it the Constitution of the United States of America,” he called back.
Missed the town hall? Watch the full livestream from the Mayor’s office here.