Elana Levin, 25, has a passion for organizing -- organizing people to empower their lives through collective action against powerful, often impersonal, interests. By day she works as a union labor organizer. But just about every moment of this energetic, creative and politically engaged individual’s spare time in 2005 – nights, weekends, lunch breaks even -- has been spent on other NYC issues. For over a year she has been spending an ever increasing amount of time as a "Williamsburg Warrior" opposing the Bloomberg Administration’s rezoning plans for Williamsburg / Greenpoint. The plan, opponents believe, threatens to eradicate skilled jobs, reduce quality of life, and force life long residents from the very neighborhoods they have nurtured and built for much if not all of their lives.
Gothamist recently spoke with Elana to discuss efforts by a broad partnership of arts and activism groups -- The Creative Industries Coalition -- against the Bloomberg Plan and for an alternative plan the local community itself has proposed.
You’re involved with efforts to fight the City’s rezoning plans in Williamsburg / Greenpoint. Why are you opposing the plan?
It’s incorrect to say we are opposed to the City’s plan. We ARE the city. It is the Mayor’s plan that is opposed to the city! The mayor’s cronies are on a rampage to turn radical, unique, magical New York into a luxury bedroom community of chain stores and conformity.
Ten years ago this community asked the Department of City Planning to rezone our formerly industrial waterfront. Community members, with the help of urban planning experts, drew up a plan for what would make for a livable and workable Brooklyn. The plan was visionary but economically sound. So what did the Mayor do? He threw it in the trash. The administration refuses to acknowledge our right to decide what happens to the place we live. It is undemocratic and it’s just plain shortsighted urban planning.
At the heart of it is a question of values. The people here value their neighbors, diversity and the long-term sustainability of the local economy. The developers value quick profit and will vampirically suck the life out of NYC, turning it into a bedroom community and playground for the super rich.
Could you give us an overview of what some of the central points of contention are with the Bloomberg plan?
These are the main issues as set out by the North Brooklyn Alliance (an omnibus group of 40+ community organizations ranging from Neighbors Against Garbage to the local Catholic diocese):
- No guaranteed affordable housing -- incentives are not guarantees -- and no anti-harassment protections for current residents. Can you say landlords gone wild?!
- No net increase in public park space -- the city says we are supposed to have a living room’s worth of parkland per person, but in the Bloomberg plan each Williamsburg resident gets a bathtub plus toilet’s worth of space.
- Functionally privatizing the waterfront by making it a front yard to the luxury condos. The developers will put up riverside walkways from each building to the water. This encourages restricting access to the waterfront to daylight hours.
- Twenty-two high-rise luxury residential towers will be built, some as tall as 40-stories high. That’s higher than the Williamsburg Bridge and not at all compatible with the low-rise and low-density makeup of the existing neighborhoods. These will be a wall of tall buildings dividing the community.
- The population of the district will increase by 25% (40,000 new higher-income residents) without adequate infrastructure, like, say, reopening the firehouse Bloomberg closed. Their transportation plan amounts to widening the stairwell at the Bedford Avenue L train by 3 feet. I mean I already almost fall into the train tracks from overcrowding during my commute! Private water taxis will be made available to waterfront residents.
- It puts around 4,000 skilled industrial jobs at risk (furniture making, set construction etc.) plus more creative economy jobs when artists get forced out.
You claim 4000 local jobs will be eradicated in the affected neighborhoods? How was this figure arrived at?
Over 4,000 jobs in more than 250 companies that will be put at risk by the rezoning. You see the land would be rezoned "MX" meaning Mixed Use. That sounds great but developers can charge much more per square foot of residential space than they can per square foot of industrial space. The leases of these businesses won’t be renewed by their landlords. That way, landlords can price gouge apartment tenants and kick the manufacturers out.
This number of jobs was agreed on by the industrial retention advocates, namely Neighbors Against Garbage’s tireless 2004 door-to-door survey over the past eight months of over 80 companies on the Northside and New York Industrial Retention Network, NAG, and GMDC's outreach activities in Greenpoint and Williamsburg
How does that figure square with estimates that the plan will bring 40,000 + people into the neighborhoods in question? Wouldn’t common sense dictate that such an increase in population density would bring in additional demand for goods and services that would more than make up for losses in the industrial sector?
It’s a question of the quality of jobs. The jobs we have now are good paying, skilled jobs doing art handling, lighting fabrication, metal work etc. These jobs would be replaced by low paying "service industry" jobs, which in this case means Starbucks. The chain stores that would invade are not an adequate replacement for skilled trades jobs and creative jobs.
New York used to be a city where things were made. Its slowly becoming a place where people live, work on Wall Street and buy Gap t-shirts. That’s bad because it increases the gap between rich and poor. The poor work at the Starbucks and the rich work in real estate but what happens to the middle class when the manufacturing jobs leave? What happens to the creative class? The world-renowned galleries here would close under Bloomberg’s plan. There goes our local tourism and there goes one more of the things that make New York, New York.
The local community has proposed an alternative plan. Could you tell us how this plan proposes to redress some of the perceived injustices of the City’s plan?
A leading urban planning group, the Municipal Arts Society shows that our plan is economically viable. The Community Plan:
- Guarantees 40% affordable housing on the waterfront (not off site so the area becomes racially segregated). It is defined as housing affordable to the average income of long-time neighborhood residents, around $27,000 a year.
- Significantly increases parks and open spaces (so we won’t have one of the highest asthma rates in the country anymore) .
- Creates public access and waterfront promenade, developed comprehensively (it’s the people’s waterfront after all).
- Imposes height restrictions and maintains the neighborhood character that makes Williamsburg so desirable to live in and do commerce in in the first place.
- Preserves a mixed-use neighborhood and creates appropriate job development
- Protects thousands of jobs in small business (and keeping the height down is part of that)
This past Saturday you helped organize a "Paula Revere" rally, featuring a colonial clad woman on a galloping horse crying out "The Developers are Coming! The Developers are coming!" Do you see such street theater as an effective political tactic?
Street theater works in two ways. First is, you produce your own news. A big, confusing, abstract issue like the Williamsburg one is hard to handle as a story. Street theater turns a whole mess of information into an event and turns it into a spectacle too cool looking for people to ignore.
Secondly, street theater also gets people to participate who wouldn’t have been involved otherwise. How many arts collectives knew what Inclusionary Zoning was before the Williamsburg Warriors started dressing up like 70’s cult flick "The Warriors" and spreading the word? Now if you walk down Bedford and ask if people know about the invasion of the skyscrapers most everyone answers "yes".
I’ve been having a Paul Revere year. Now is the time to call the Minutemen and Minutewomen of NYC and the whole world to action against their aggressors. I believe in street theater. I’m one of the founders of a political street theater group called Greene Dragon. We did our own Paula Revere’s Ride to warn NYC that "the Republican’s are coming! The Republican’s are coming!" during the GOP invasion of NYC (i.e. the Republican National Convention).
Ever think about the Boston Tea Party as America’s first great act of street theater? Guys dressed up as Indians dumping tea off a ship. They knew that the importers would just import more tea, that wasn’t the point. The point was rousing people to action.
Has it been difficult to mobilize the community to get involved in the fight against the plan?
It’s complicated. The Latino population has long been mobilized; they have kickass groups like Mobilization Against Displacement, El Puente and Save Our Southside (they even booted City Planning off the podium at a hearing! BADASS!)
The people who’ve been fighting this fight for over 10 years are tired. Rightfully so. They’ve been doing civil disobedience to get our firehouse reopened, the People’s Firehouse Engine 212 has been in and out of action since the 1970’s… People get burned out. I think the injection of new blood that the Creative Industries Coalition provides is essential to the continuing struggle. I think it showed people that they weren’t alone in caring about their community and that young people could pick up the torch of their groundbreaking work.
The challenge with young people is that many don’t know what a Community Board is let alone who their Councilman is. So the issue becomes mostly about education and empowerment Once you explain that -- like Beka from Not An Alternative says, "what’s happening here in Williamsburg is like the negative effects of globalism but on a local scale" -- those kids get it.
For the less overtly political people we say "Williamsburg rocks, lets make sure it stays that way" and Eve and Siri of the Warriors have done an astounding job mobilizing the "party kids" that way. Then you have to explain to people that the things they do can make a difference. People are so disempowered by the political system, but on the local level, where so many of us share the same progressive values… if we all work together we can achieve things.
What other methods are you employing in your battle?
We combine street tactics like costumed rallies with inside bargaining and lobbying. You need to do the rabble rousing in order to get the meetings and you need to get the meetings in order to influence the policy.
Most importantly, we helped to mobilize over 200 people to come to the City Council hearing on April 4th. We made all the local news outlets. There were so many people that they wouldn’t let us all in! We held a rally out front and community members gave over 8 hours of testimony. It was the most diverse crew ever -- the Latino Community, the Polish-American Community, the bohemian community all there, together! For so many, especially the hipsters this was their first time ever at the City Council let alone they first time they testified before the council. That is an important experience for anyone and very empowering.
I’ve also been registering voters to vote in the Democratic primary. Its not that I love the Democrats; its that being a registered Democrat is the only way you can vote in NYC. See, we have a close primary system where you must be in a political party to vote in the primary election. Whoever wins the Democratic Primary in NYC wins the general election (the mayor’s race being the exception). So many young people let their understandable contempt for the party establishment keep them from doing the main thing they can do to change that establishment -- vote!
Democracy for NYC, Howard Dean’s group does great education and outreach work on this issue.
From a practical standpoint, what will need to happen for the Community to achieve its desired goals?
The City Council Sub-committee on Zoning and Franchises voted yesterday. There are 4 members on the sub-committee, including Tony Avella (chair of the sub-committee, though he just got removed for political reasons), David Yassky (our local council-person), and Gifford Miller (the chair of the overall city council). In sub-committee, they will review and make changes to the 9 sections of the Bloomberg plan. Check www.northbrooklynalliance.org and www.communityplan.org for updates.
Then the Committee on Land Use alters the plan. The Chair of the committee is Melinda Katz. It will move through this stage quickly but here is where the changes we demand should be made.
Then, the overall City Council votes on the city plan. There are 51 members from all 5 boroughs, and the chair is Speaker Gifford Miller.
We want the committees to change the Bloomberg plan radically enough that it resembles the Community Plan. If adequate changes are made then zoning will pass and there will be dancing in the streets. If they don’t make adequate changes then we will push the City Council to have a "no" vote. If it gets a "no" vote the plan gets scrapped and we get to start anew.
The next time around, the Dept. of City Planning should actually read our Community Plan before acting unilaterally. The waterfront is only going to get developed once. We need to take the time to get it right the first time or else we are stuck with it.
What’s been your greatest frustration as a community organizer?
Aside from the general frustrations all organizers face, public apathy, people claiming helplessness or "I support you but I won’t do anything about it". When all someone does is be a passive consumer of commercial culture you lose your alliances with your neighbors and the people of the world at large. You stop feeling the need to fight for their rights; you even stop caring about your own rights
People in America are too isolated. Most people don't even know their neighbors anymore. But in NYC where we all live on top of each other, literally, it should be much easier connecting folks to one another. I guess that’s just one of my things -- connecting people and issues; to get people connected to each other so we can advocate and WIN things like affordable housing for different income brackets, more parks so people aren't sick from the pollution, better jobs, etc."
Aside from all that my frustration is with the political machine that makes getting any change in NYC so damn hard. Everyone should read that Harpers article by Christopher Ketcham, "Meet The New Boss: Man Vs. Machine Politics in Brooklyn."
Do you ever have moments when you feel like your efforts are just so much spitting into the wind? That the City will force through the current plan no matter what the community does?
Parks Commissioner/eminent domain demagogue Robert Moses once had a plan to put a freeway through Washington Square Park. He was at the peak of his power, yet it was defeated almost single-handedly by community activist turned Urbanist Guru Jane Jacobs along with the support of the tenacious people of Greenwich Village,
Look, I’m not delusional but people have won before. Simply by getting all these people from distinct micro-cultures here united we will be a stronger community in the future. In the fight to get Williamsburg a better rezoning plan we've gotten hipsters and artists who had been largely apolitical together with young anti-globalization or anti-Bush activists AND the area's Latino, Polish and Italian communities.
We know each other now. We see the commonalities in our concerns. The next time the powers that be try to mess with us, we will be even better prepared to kick their asses…
So there have been certainly been some positive moments…
Last Sunday I had one of the greatest "this is why we live in Brooklyn" moments ever. To bring attention to the rezoning fight and reconnect the community here to OUR waterfront we held a parade and street party. It started at Grand Street park (currently the only water access point in Williamsburg). Families were making kites and people were getting into their costumes. We started marching down Bedford ave, lead by the marching band of city magic, the soundtrack of what makes New York unique, The Hungry Marching Band and their baton twirlers as people in flower costumes "fought" against people in dressed up as evil skyscrapers.
I was doing my usual job, handing out flyers and as we walked, random people joined in. We turned and entered this plot of land on the waterfront and I saw people carrying gardening supplies and art supplies and flags onto the lot and Brooklyn’s official marching band of the revolution, The Rude Mechanical Orchestra started to play. That’s when I had that "this is why we live in Brooklyn moment". That sentiment is a lot of what motivates me to spend all my free time working on these issues. This is what we have to protect.
The Creative Industries Coalition was formed specifically to address the rezoning plan. Do you foresee this alliance expanding its mission to address other social issues?
I foresee the Creative Industries Coalition continuing. We are engaging in long-term movement building here in Williamsburg. That was our main intent. 1/3rd of the city’s garbage is processed through Greenpoint. That’s why asthma and lupus are so high there. But it is no mystery why some communities don’t get garbage dumped on them -- they are organized!
How are you feeding your soul when not engaged in your political activities? Any time left over to actually put food in your mouth?
It’s interesting because I have the day job that I love and worked hard to get and it’s a "fighting for justice" job that empowers people to fight against "the bosses" And then I do my extra-curricular activism -- right now the Williamsburg stuff. So this really is my life right now.
But I always make sure to do the amazing things that are unique to NYC like Coney Island (which I just learned is also threatened by developers) and the free outdoor movie screenings in summer. I go to see the Hungry March Band or Rude Mechanical Orchestra a lot. I go to Rubulad and Jeff Stark list type events as much as possible. I like to go to the Rec Center and lift heavy objects over my head repeatedly while listening to The Stooges on my walkman. Actually I am a huge music geek of High Fidelity proportions. The Rolling Stones are my favorite band ever. And The Kinks.
When I actually get food into my mouth its usually at my friends’ art collective’s BBQs at The Bunker. Phil is the best cook ever.
Have you found any inspiration in past or present New Yorkers?
My favorite New Yorker alive right now might be Norman Siegel, candidate for Public Advocate, lawyer of the people, and former Executive Director the NYCLU. We need to support his campaign. Oh and I love Reverend Billy!
My favorite fictional New Yorker is probably Peter Parker, Spider Man. "with great power also must come great responsibility" quoth great New Yorker Stan Lee. He wrote that as a caption on a story panel in first issue of Spider Man comics. Profound.
You're in a time machine that can take you back in time. What day in NYC history would you go back to?
We didn’t exactly have a Paris, May ‘68 here but that would have been my favorite if it happened. Maybe the Great Transit Strike of 1966?
But you know, I think I was in NYC during some of the greatest days in its history. Take the protest at the RNC. That’s something future generations will say "what did you do during the RNC 2004?" and I’ll have a damn good answer: "In colonial meets glam-rock attire re-enacting Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River to reclaim NYC from the British. Except we were aboard the Staten Island Ferry staging a battle to Reclaim NYC from the Republicans"
If you could change just one thing about New York City, what would it be?
If I could change one thing about New York I would change the way money from developers corrupts and controls all local politics. It feeds the local political machines and lines the pockets of the developers who want to steal our homes away. We need a real democracy.
Photo by Phillip Anderson
Interview by Raphie Frank em>