Twelve of Brooklyn’s 16 councilmembers are term-limited, and the number of individuals running for office is massive. One of those term-limited is Council Woman Laurie Cumbo who represents District 35— which encompasses Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Crown Heights, Prospect Heights, Bedford Stuyvesant.
Earlier this year, Crown Heights resident Curtis Harris, an accountant and community leader, announced his run for the office. Harris was born in Brownsville, raised in Clinton Hill, and now lives in Crown Heights. He is a CUNY graduate and a recently retired Corporate Supervising Accountant with more than forty years of experience. He was a member of Community Board 8 for six years, where he served on various committees.
Harris is currently the Executive Director of Green Earth Poets Cafe, a non-profit organization that helps young people find their voice using poetry and theater performing, as well as increasing literacy in at-risk youth. Since the pandemic, he has also been volunteering his time at Clinton Hill Fort Greene (CHFG) Mutual Aid group. We spoke to him yesterday and will be speaking to others in the upcoming days. Some answers have been slightly edited.
Why did you decide to run now, especially during a pandemic?
I am running for City Council because I am frustrated with the decisions that have been made and opportunities that have been missed. And I’m running because I am hopeful and know our community can do better. As a member of the Community Board 8 Housing and Land Use Committee for over 7 years, I was frustrated by developers that had an open invitation and dominance in our district to build unaffordable housing displacing many long term residents and unleashing illegal and unethical practices on tenants and residents.
How have you spent the pandemic? What has it been like for you?
In the beginning, I was working from home like many people. However, on April 30, I retired as a successful corporate management accountant after over 40 years of service and really began to focus on serving the community and being of help any way I could. I have been active volunteering at the Crown Heights Jewish Community Food pantry helping to package and distribute food to food-insecure people on Wednesdays, I have also taken an active role in helping to beautify Fort Green and Prospect Heights parks by volunteering to help clean these places. I
also am currently the Executive Director of Green Earth Poets Cafe a performing arts organization and have curated and sponsored poetry writing workshops for senior citizens using call conferencing. We conducted these workshops in Brooklyn and Queens where we taught poetry writing and published the work of these seniors. Once per week our team would visit these seniors at their homes, bring them a continental breakfast, and just check on them because this pandemic has left many people isolated.
What have you seen? Have you seen a change in your district? What does your district need, come coronavirus recovery?
The 35th Council District is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis. Rent has gone up 20% or more in parts of Central Brooklyn, which has also suffered a net loss of over 5,000 rent-stabilized apartments. For middle-class and working families it’s becoming impossible to have a home to call their own.
Now as a result of this pandemic many residents have become housing insecure and are living with the threat of eviction as a result of joblessness due to this pandemic. Our district needs rent relief and eviction prevention both residential and commercial, for now, we are experiencing the second wave of the pandemic and our elected officials must make COVID-19 relief a priority. Our district’s businesses need additional support and relief and should reasonably expect to receive it.
Transportation is a huge issue in the district. Our streets aren’t safe. How will you make them safer?
As a driver on public streets, I have seen for myself how dangerous streets can be for other drivers, pedestrians, and bikers. Many people seem to be in a rush and need to become more conscious of others and their right of way. As a City Council Member, I will address transportation safety issues as the priority it is by bringing to light the problems, examining current laws and strengthening them where needed, and discovering opportunities educating the public on our responsibility to each other for safe and responsible travel.
Do we need more bike lanes? Do we need Citi Bikes?
One of the problems many constituents have expressed to me was the lack of parking spaces in the district. I encourage bike riding to reduce our carbon footprint but where these Citi Bike docking stations are located reduces the number of available parking spaces for vehicles. We do need additional bike lanes to help prevent bikers and drivers from getting into accidents. I ideally would like to see more Citi Bike docking stations on sidewalks and not on the streets.
What three issues you will prioritize once elected and why?
The top three issues I will prioritize once elected is housing eviction prevention and relief. Our homelessness population pre-COVID-19 is at alarming rates with over 90,000 people living in homeless shelters. A second priority will be making sure people who are hungry are fed and have the resources to live. A roof over your head with nothing to eat is useless. Finally, we must prioritize healthcare for those who are without. Among the many disparities, this pandemic has shined a light on is the lack of affordable healthcare especially in the Black and Brown community.
How will you compare to the previous leadership?
With all respect due to the current Council Member, she has been supported by real estate special interest and has catered to this group with very little resistance. I am not against development per se but believe in this pandemic environment with our City facing a $9B budget deficit we must be focused on providing for the many and not for a few.
How do you differ from your opponents?
I differ from my opponents in a number of major ways. I am a financial professional who knows how to look at the bottom line to see if a policy or program makes economic sense and due to our current budget deficit of $9B, our city will need this expertise. I am also the Executive Director of a nonprofit Performing Arts organization and will always fight for the creative and performing arts. Our district is home to the Brooklyn Museum, the Barclays Center, Brooklyn Academy of Music, BRIC, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Afro-Punk at Commodore Barry Park, the International African Arts Festival, and the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza to name just a few of the major arts and culture institutions. I am the Arts and Culture candidate running in this race in the 35th CD and will always promote, advance, and secure the arts.
Housing, homelessness, and education are big issues in the district. How will you address them?
This will be my main priority on day one due to the devastating effects of this pandemic.
How will you address policing?
Policing is a very serious issue, for I believe the NYC budget did not go far enough in reducing the NYPD budget. However, we must reimagine policing, by increasing community involvement and establishing real accountability. During this pandemic, we witnessed many actions by the police that would be deemed abuse and not protecting and serving. However, police do have a role to play in any civilized society, now that we see what many are capable of we must revisit this conversation on effective policing.
What are you most proud of? What do you do in your free time?
What I am most proud of are my six children who have developed a spirit of service and love for their fellow man. We are Christians and believe that to whom much is given, much is required. In my free time, I play chess with my sons, support my children at their basketball games, curate poetry slams with my performing arts organization, and roller skate.
What is your favorite part of your district?
I have no one favorite part of my district, for each has its beauty and potential. Fort Greene, Crown Heights, Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights, and Bedford Stuyvesant each hold a special place within me. This is similar to you asking me which of my children do I love more. I love them all equally, yet differently, but equally.