From the sea of people who packed the PS 139 auditorium for a town hall hosted by Borough President Eric Adams and the Flatbush Development Corporation Thursday night came a flood of stories: of being robbed at gunpoint, of feeling unsafe and vulnerable, of both wanting and not wanting more police, of gentrification, of affordable housing, of battling to hold onto the apartments in which people have lived for decades, of anger and sadness and frustration and hope.
At the gathering, which Adams and the FDC held in direct response to a series of armed robberies in the community, neighbors spoke of their businesses being targeted, of shootings, of wanting safer streets. They spoke of high incarceration rates and the need to provide opportunities to neighbors when they return home from prison. Of trusting and distrusting the police. Of wanting to believe that, in their home, they would be safe: from robberies and shootings and being displaced.
It was an evening of more unresolved issues than resolved ones – but, as one neighbor said, it was the community at its best.
“Folks showed up. A lot of folks showed up – and deeply care about things and have the courage to talk about them,” said Rev. Carmen Mason-Browne, whose daughter, Kari Browne, owns Lark Café (1007 Church Avenue), where an armed gunman recently stole laptops from a writers’ group.
“These are markers of a healthy community,” Mason-Browne continued. “Apathetic communities don’t show up. I celebrate that – that’s not always what happens in communities.”
A number of those who spoke at the town hall addressed the recent crime, including Tom Valentino, a 50-year resident of South Midwood and the assistant general manager for the Flatbush Food Co-op, and Anya Shiferson, one of the Mimi’s Hummus employees held up at gunpoint at the end of October.
“I’d like to know what has emboldened the criminals to go back to crime that we haven’t seen since the ’90s?” Valentino asked.
“During the holiday season, you always have people who will come out and commit crimes,” Adams said. “The economy is not doing so well – 25 percent of this borough is still living in poverty, and our unemployment is in double digits.”
Shiferson, meanwhile, discussed the emotional fallout that has happened in the wake of the armed robbery at Mimi’s.
“Our employees feel extremely unsafe now,” Shiferson said. “Walking home, we all feel the need to have our boyfriends or girlfriends or friends walk us home.”
Shiferson, whose last night as a waitress at Mimi’s was the one during which they were robbed, went on to say that while “I appreciate all the police officers I’ve been seeing in the neighborhood, the fact is around Cortelyou and Argyle we’ve had, for the past 30 years, murders, stabbings, shootings. I can’t tell you how many drugs you can buy just standing there. Why don’t we have cameras there?”
This sparked conversation from Councilman Mathieu Eugene; members of the 70th Precinct – including Lieutenant Jackie Bourne, who noted that Deputy Inspector Richard DiBlasio, commanding officer of the 70th Precinct, was unable to attend the town hall because of an emergency; and Assemblyman Jim Brennan.
“I’ve met with my staff to see if we can purchase cameras,” Eugene said. “After the meeting at Lea, we want to find out how many cameras you need and where they’re going to be… We have to work together with the police department.”
After Eugene mentioned that the process to purchase a camera would be a lengthy one, Shiferson asked if there was a more expedient way to purchase and install cameras.
“I want it happening,” she said. “I know 100 percent after the new year, when all the crime goes down, we won’t see all the police. When are these actions going to happen? Because we can talk about this until the cows come home.”
Responding that he has no money available for cameras now, Eugene stressed that he would need to wait until the next budget cycle to consider funding one, or more – after which Bourne added that she wasn’t sure that the NYPD would be able to fund a camera in the area.
“The cameras are very expensive,” Bourne said. “And this is done through an agency in the police department that deals with finances, so I can’t speak on their behalf.”
Meanwhile, Adams noted that a private security company, SW24, offers cameras that private citizens can purchase, but which are monitored by the NYPD. And Brennan and Assemblywoman Rhoda Jacobs, who’s about to be replaced by Assemblywoman-elect Rodneyse Bichotte, said they are looking into funding for additional lighting in the neighborhood.
In addition to cameras, others said they wanted to be able to better communicate with police, as well as see more officers in the area.
“I’m a merchant on Cortelyou for 61 years,” said Gabe Carugno, who owns Gabe’s Camera City on Cortelyou. “I’ve seen it all. But lately the hornets nest has been hit. As far as the 70th Precinct is concerned, I have wonderful respect for them… Whenever we had a problem with customers or break-ins, we had [an officer’s] number, and he’d follow through. When he left for another precinct, we had Alicia [another officer]. Whatever you wanted, she could do for you. But right now it seems we don’t have the one-on-one with the 70th Precinct for some reason. We used to have a list of names to call, but that list is maybe 10, 15 years old. I myself have called the 70th Precinct, and you just can’t get through.”
Bourne said she would connect Carugno with Officer Galindo, who works with merchants on Cortelyou, and noted that he could also reach out to the precinct’s Community Affairs Office by calling 718-851-5557.
Sarah Garvey, another neighbor, rattled off a long list of crimes that have occurred in the neighborhood in less than a year, including muggings and shootings, and stressed that she, and other neighbors, can feel unsafe, particularly when walking home from the subway at night.
“Where are all these officers you claim are out there?” Garvey asked, referring to an earlier statement by Bourne that the precinct has “flooded the streets” with officers following the robberies. “…We deserve experienced law enforcement officials we can see every day.”
“We do have a lot of plain clothes officers in the area,” Bourne said. DiBlasio, the commanding officer of the 70th Precinct, also said at a community council meeting Wednesday night that additional officers have been patrolling Cortelyou, Newkirk Plaza, and the western end of Church Avenue following the armed robberies.
Many other speakers disagreed that more of a police presence was the way to go.
“I’ve been talking to my neighbors about these issues, and the big common thread I’m hearing from people is everybody wants to feel safe in their neighborhoods, but we’re not all on the same page,” a neighbor named Sullivan said. “I’m hearing from a lot of neighbors that when they see more visible policing on the streets, that makes them feel less safe. The NYPD has a bad track record, especially when it comes to racial profiling.
“When we get those extra officers, what that ends up creating is a lot of people getting harassed for minding their own business,” Sullivan continued. “I’m not interested in seeing something that’ll make a lot of my neighbors feel less safe and some of my neighbors feel more safe.”
Gabrielle Radeka said “there are more insidious crimes happening here” than solely the armed robberies.
“I’m concerned about the growing inequality in our neighborhood that leads to this kind of crime,” she said. “We’re concerned because gentrification is a complicated thing. When gentrification spikes, people get pissed off and want to take back what is theirs… We need to reframe what community development looks like.
“How can we make Cortelyou Road and Ditmas Park a neighborhood that isn’t turned into what is happening in a lot of Brooklyn?” Radeka continued.
Simone Gamble echoed Radeka’s sentiment.
“A lot of what has happened has been economic crimes,” Gamble said. “Police do not stop economic crimes. Instead of more police, we need to think about ways to increase jobs and economic opportunities.”
A number of residents reiterated Radeka’s and Gamble’s point, saying that longtime residents are facing an overwhelming lack of affordable housing, as well as spiking rents and landlords who are attempting to push them out in order to offer their units at a higher price.
“There’s going to be a major fight in 2015 in Albany – there’s a major battle going on next year that is going to deal with our rent laws – they’re about to sunset,” Adams said in reference to the state rent and eviction-protection laws that will expire on June 15, 2015 unless they are renewed by lawmakers in Albany. “The Republican-controlled Senate – they don’t have to vote against them, they just don’t have to bring them to the floor. If that happens, all these rent-controlled apartments will go to market rent.”
“There needs to be a major mobilization of tenants,” Adams continued. “We need to get the governor involved. We need to re-energize all our renters and push to make sure we protect our rent laws… We need to stop turning a blind eye to the harassment of tenants. We need to start criminalizing our landlords who target tenants… I’m hoping all our [district attorneys] start to push and criminalize this.”
Longtime neighbor Alicia Boyd further stressed the pressure residents are feeling in the wake of increased rents and unscrupulous landlords attempting to evict them.
“As we come into poor or moderate income homes and we gentrify them, we expect the existing people not to react or not to be afraid or not to resort to violence because that’s all they’re given,” Boyd said. “When you come into a community and you decide you want to take it, be prepared for people to fight back. We need to be conscious of that. It’s starting to boil over. There are signs inside the train stations telling people to leave… We have two groups here – we have the gentrifiers and the people who’ve been here, but we’re not talking to each other. We’re talking at each other.”
“We are in court being pushed out,” Boyd continued. “Do you know what it’s like to live on an $18,000 income and have a child?… The gentrifiers are coming in, and they’re telling us to step aside – we will not step aside. Let’s talk about what’s here: gentrification coming into our communities, and our communities fighting back. We need to have a serious, honest dialogue. We have to start somewhere. Let’s start really talking about coming together.”
Equality for Flatbush, a grassroots anti-gentrification organization, released an extensive statement about the town hall that mirrored speakers like Boyd, Radeka, and Gamble.
From the statement (you can see the entire message here):
We, too, are concerned about the recent armed robberies of Ditmas Park businesses and community members. As community residents, we understand that people are scared. It is an incredibly traumatic experience to be robbed or attacked. The underlying issue with these robberies is about the economic divide in our society, and increasingly highlighted in our community because of gentrification.
Equality for Flatbush defines gentrification as the deliberate pricing out of low-to-middle income residents from neighborhoods by corporations, real estate developers, and landlords in favor of renting, selling, and catering to people of higher and/or more flexible incomes. We see gentrification as an intersectional issue that is deeply connected to the ways that race, class, gender, sexuality, gender identity, age, ability, nation of origin, immigration status, physical and mental capacity, and other characteristics that impact individuals and our communities. For example we know, from first-hand experience, that the same unscrupulous property owners who use tactics to force long-time older tenants of color out of their rent-stabilized apartments will illegally overcharge incoming younger white tenants for the same apartment. For this very reason, we believe all of us, long-time and new residents, communities of color and white communities, low-income and middle-class people have a stake in the urgent struggle to fight gentrification and save affordable housing in Brooklyn.
As Gamble said, another neighbor, José, whose family has lived in the area for 22 years, stressed that there needs to be more economic opportunities for individuals in the area – particularly those returning from prison. If neighbors were able to access affordable housing and good-paying jobs, he noted, recidivism rates could plummet.
“Our solution should not be put more people in jail, but give them more opportunities when they get out,” he said.
And Philippe Jean, who owns Jr. Bella’s Pizza on Coney Island Avenue, too said, “I don’t think more cops are the answer.”
Instead, Jean said he’d like to see more of a focus on community outreach.
“I have a mentoring program – two hours every Sunday I’m teaching kids about restaurant skills,” he said.
Another business owner, Kari Browne, from Lark Café, addressed the complexities of the changing neighborhood.
“What happened to us was a crime that hit a lot of us personally, and it’s been very difficult,” Browne said in reference to the armed robbery at her café. “This issue is a difficult one, and it’s a complex one. I’m a minority woman-owned business. The folks I employ are young people from the neighborhood. I employ a lot of people of color as well. The folks who were robbed on Thursday was a women’s writers group who were all of color – all of them. I don’t think it’s so simple to say this is a black and white issue… but a lot of people are affected. It’s not as simple to say that this is simply because of gentrification.”
At the end of the meeting, Adams and Councilman Jumaane Williams said there must continue to be a dialogue about the issues raised Thursday night.
“We need to follow up and talk about how we do some community healing,” Adams said. “…I’d like to come back and sit down and talk about how do we live like neighbors here. How do we organize together to save our housing?”
“When we focus on the police department as the only people responsible for public safety, we run into a problem,” Williams added. “There are other services the community needs that will help… It’s fine to have extra police, and it’ll help in the short term, but you can’t be committed to that strategy. With the borough president’s leadership, let’s have a comprehensive discussion. Cameras don’t stop crime – they help solve it afterward.
“There should be discussion about where police are deployed and strategies being used – but also what services are being offered to the community as a whole,” Williams continued.
If neighbors would like to either follow up, or get involved, with this discussion, Adams said you may contact his office, which can be reached by calling 718-802-3700.