District 8: Who Owns El Barrio?

The 8th Council District, represented by CM Melissa Mark-Viverito, was recently reshaped drastically to straddle equally East Harlem and the South Bronx, cutting out Manhattan Valley and Central Park.  The net effect of this restructuring was to cut approximately 20,000 white non-Hispanics out of the district while capturing about the same number of Hispanics on the other side.

This move, long desired by the Puerto Rican-born CM Mark-Viverito, reflects the transition of Manhattan Valley from being part of south Harlem into part of the Upper West Side: the neighborhood since 2000 has become substantially more white and Asian, and quite substantially less black and Latino.  In incorporating all of Mott Haven and part of the East Bronx up to Highbridge, the CM looks to garner support among her base, but bears the risk of having to appeal to tens of thousands of new district residents who have not yet succumbed to her electoral charms.

Indeed, for a two-term incumbent, Mark-Viverito faces a crowded campaign field.  Some of her opponents are hoping to exploit her lower profile among Bronx voters, but are also aware of the fact that the CM is not especially popular or beloved by her constituents.  Her 2005 election was extremely close, and she won in 2009 with only 45% of the vote—not the worst showing that year by an incumbent, but close to the worst for an incumbent not hampered by allegations of corruption or senility

City Council Watch spoke to three primary challengers for the 8th CD seat, and reached out to several others.  Ed Santos, born in Detroit, is a former math teacher and member of the local community board in East Harlem.  His parents are Filipino immigrants and his mother is a nanny.  Santos stresses his experience as a community builder and his work to create a liquor license subcommittee for CB 11. 

As a teacher, Santos believes he has a unique perspective on the educational needs of the district, and also cites his “humble upbringing” as the child of the working class, specifically contrasting his background to that of the incumbent, who had a privileged youth as the daughter of a successful doctor.  He accuses CM Mark-Viverito of hypocrisy for having voted against the term limit extension five years ago, only to seek a third term herself.  Ed Santos has done a respectable job raising campaign money, and with matching funds he should have the resources to conduct a vigorous operation, despite CM Mark-Viverito’s union-stuffed war chest.

Ariel Guerrero is a son of the Bronx and a Fordham graduate, now living in El Barrio, who characterizes himself as “a community guy.”  A former administrator for the East Harlem Tutorial Program, Guerrero describes an “absolute disconnect between leadership and the community,” citing high rates of asthma and unemployment with “not enough being done” in the last eight years to justify a third term for the incumbent. 

Guerrero is also of Filipino extraction (and Puerto Rican and Polish, he added), and made some sensible comments about affordable housing.  He explained that when white people move into East Harlem, “it is because they have been priced out of other communities,” and it is not an insidious process or invasion. "I am very, very careful about using the word 'gentrification.'"  The solution to the housing problem is more housing, and Guerrero hopes to promote development with “private-public partnerships,” saying perhaps over-optimistically that the 80-20 standard should give way to a 60-40 market rate-to-affordable housing ratio.

Gwen Goodwin is a longtime East Harlem activist who ran against Melissa Mark-Viverito in 2009, winning 1200 votes.  She claims that this year her apartment has been carved out of the 8th District, and the redistricting map appears to support her assertion: there is a little notch around her block that puts her in the 5th District.  Goodwin helped save PS 109 from destruction in the 1990s, and waged a single-handed fight against the School Construction Authority to force them to replace the roof after tearing it off, and succeeded in having the building landmarked.

PS 109, built in 1900 by Charles Snyder, was left empty for years, declared an eyesore, and then sold by the DOE for $1 to a community group chosen by Mark-Viverito to handle its renovation as condos for artists, in conjunction with a well-heeled Minnesota organization called Artspace.  CM Mark-Viverito campaigned against returning the building to use as a school, supporting the City’s insistence that East Harlem’s schools are underutilized, a claim that has been countered and refuted by many advocacy groups.  Leonie Haimson, founder of Class Size Matters, points out that PS 109 is large enough to be turned into a high school, and notes that “half of the city’s kids attend overcrowded high schools.”

Gwen Goodwin sees CM Mark-Viverito as engaged in a wide conspiracy, along with Mayor Bloomberg, first to depopulate and then to raze East Harlem, replacing the existing buildings with luxury condominiums.  This kind of extreme characterization, while more than a little implausible, does reflect the perfervid intensity in which the housing debate takes place in El Barrio.  And Melissa Mark-Viverito’s preference for an exciting arts community over another public school does make one wonder what her vision for New York really is.

All of CM Mark-Viverito’s opponents raise the matter of her personal wealth as a factor in the campaign, claiming that her privileged background makes it difficult for her to relate to the needs of her mostly-poor constituency.  But how rich is she, and does it in fact matter?  The CM’s financial disclosures indicate that she has partial interest in a number of properties in Puerto Rico which put her net worth in the $1-2 million range.  She has an annuity that appears to give her some additional income.  Her father, who owned a plane, founded a hospital that was later sold to a large conglomerate, and there are rumors in the East Harlem community that her family possesses wealth in the hundreds of millions of dollars. 

There have been extremely wealthy liberals and radicals, of course, and being rich does not make you evil.  It does, however, leave you open to the charge of hypocrisy.   As the Co-chair of the Council’s Progressive Caucus, Melissa Mark-Viverito has built a reputation as possibly the most liberal council member.  Her protests against the bombing of Vieques (just off the coast of Ceiba, where she co-owns seven acres of undeveloped land), her advocacy for the release of FALN member Oscar Lopez Rivera (currently serving 70 years for seditious conspiracy), her trumpeting of the Occupy cause, etc etc, have established Mark-Viverito as a staunch leftist in the activist tradition.

But when we hear the CM loudly proclaiming her membership in the 99% against the millionaires who run the country, it sounds like she is laying it on a bit thick.  Even if she doesn’t stand to inherit tens of millions of dollars, and can only hope to retire on a paltry 4 or 5 million, wouldn’t that nevertheless put her in the top 2 or 3 percent of the country, if not the top 1?  The public loves a poor politician who rises above squalor, and a rich politician who has the common touch.  But someone who pretends to be what she isn't deserves all the opprobrium she gets.