Kid Flight: The “Education Mayor” causes children to flee with parents in tow (part I)I asked activist and community organizer Phil DePaolo what drives his activism. He took a few moments, and then said: unfairness, lack of transparency. Phil is salt of the earth, the sort of guy who, if you lost your shirt, would give you the proverbial one off his back. Or at least find you cover. Now, after thirty years in the community, he’s leaving Williamsburg because, he says, the city schools are hopeless. Private school is out of his financial reach and he wants his two sons to have a good education.
He has fought City Hall and the power movers and shakers for the good of the little guy, endured scary subways, late nights on rough city streets, and shrugged it off, but now he has to think of the kids. That’s a pretty sad state of affairs, and a pretty big loss for the community. He’s not going far, 17 miles away to Port Washington, Long Island, where he says he’ll continue to sling his arrows, only from a safer distance. Asked what he’ll miss the most, he said, “When you live in a place for thirty years you make a lot of friends.”
I spoke with Phil recently, a week before he was due to leave the house he and his wife purchased back in 1999. He settled about the time arriving artists were doing the same, and then the hipsters came and then the money came, and now Williamsburg is known all over the world as the in place where the red carpet of gentrification continues to roll out. He never expected to leave the neighborhood.
As President of the New York Community Council, a city-based civic and social organization, Phil became the point man on changes threatening communities, educating citizens to get informed and fight back on local issues affecting their lives. He’s calmly philosophical about what most of us see as a radical change of address. Like so many in the community, I depend on Phil to define the issues, to get at the inside workings of city government, fill in the skinny on who is pulling what strings. Count on Phil as a rock, a neighborhood monument. I was tempted to feel a little sorry for myself in his kitchen, surrounded by moving boxes and a sense of finality. Okay, your kids, Phil, sure, but what about the rest of us left behind? “I’m moving,” he says, “but I don’t feel like I’m leaving.”
JSC—You’ve been dubbed “one of the ‘other’ mayors of Brooklyn.” How can you leave? PDP—Well—he says with his wry laugh—sometimes even mayors move on. Basically, it’s the kids and the educational system of the city that made me and my wife decide it’s time to move. You know, all the other stuff I’ve dealt with over the years I can live with and have accepted, but when it’s hurting your kids, and your kids are basically being used as props for the Mayor’s so-called policies of education reform, it’s not fair to them and it’s hurtful…
So you think education in New York City is hopeless? Yes! I feel at this time the system of education is in a pretty hopeless, dire state because of the formatting of an educational policy that’s based on test results and catering to teaching children to memorize answers to a test, rather than educate them. It’s happening to give principals additional merit pay based on the results of these tests, and to kick it down a little bit to the teachers, creating a lot of divisive policies that don’t make for a positive atmosphere for teachers and students. It’s all based on the propaganda of the Mayor as the so–called “education mayor.”
There have been some big losses in Brooklyn for people vs. power and money, like the closing of the People’s Firehouse, Atlantic Yards going more or less bust, CPCR’s New Domino winning all the zoning cookies. Can you point to a recent victory for the little guy? Victories in the Bloomberg Administration come very few and far between, and, sadly, a lot of the credit I get now is for accurately predicting what was going to happen years before… It’s not even that I predicted, I just educated myself, and spoke to activists in other communities citywide where these things had already happened: Hell’s Kitchen, Soho, Chelsea, and the Lower East Side where I lived before I came here, where Giuliani basically did urban clearance for so-called urban renewal. So, I’d already been through this. I knew the script of this movie and how it ended, and it usually wasn’t pleasant for existing residents or businesses. A lot of times they stick it out through the tough years in hopes of improving themselves when things get better. But as soon as things get better, more often than not, they’re shown the door, which is the issue of fairness, equity, and transparency which has spurred me many times to help people within the process.
Do you see what’s going on here now as an assault on middle class families? Yes, absolutely. Again, the policies of the Bloomberg Administration…you know he made a quote in a debate early on that this is an expensive city, always was and always will be. And that wasn’t very accurate, because, sure there are parts of Manhattan that have always been expensive, and always will be, but there were parts in the outer boroughs and upper regions that were always affordable. I was always able to find affordable places to live in the Lower East Side, and even when I came out here—the reason we bought the home I’m selling right now was because it was an affordable place to live at the time. So that quote was inaccurate in its description, but very accurate in the conception and interpretation of what Bloomberg foresees for New York. So what’s ‘gonna happen is the long time middle class residents get squeezed out and all you’re going to have left is very expensive housing, much of it subsidized with tax abatements, like the 421a. The classic example of change—re-zoning without planning is what I call it. And you’re already starting to see it happen here; you hear a lot of complaints in this neighborhood, and now it’s not just old time residents, it’s new people, young people that are moving here. And a lot of them are starting to have families now—which the city didn’t foresee—and they’re complaining about issues with overcrowding; not being able to get on the train in the morning, the parks, you know we’re underserved for open space; the schools.
Again, these were many things that I talked about during the process [of rezoning Greenpoint-Williamsburg] that weren’t looked at. You know, the city put out a report that enrollment in this district by 2012 was going to decrease by 34% because they thought rich folk weren’t going to put their kids in public school, they were going to put them in private schools, or send them somewhere else, and that didn’t happen because of the illusion that all these schools were performing at such a high level. But what is happening now, that I’ve seen, is that many affluent people are either trying to move their kids into more, what are called elite public schools, or they’re putting them into private. They are starting in some capacity, but, again, the schools are very crowded right now. The morale of the teachers is very low under this mayor, which affects their ability to teach…having a positive mental outlook when you’re constantly hammered by your principals that they better get these grades on that test. What kind of education are the kids getting? Is it rounded, is it a good curriculum? It’s, I need that merit pay and you better get these kids up to par and they better maintain the A rating that our school has. And that’s how the teachers are constantly being harped on by the administrative staffs of the schools. I have my kids in two different schools, and many teachers that I got to know told me, off the record—both schools—that that was the administrative message.
Will you stay tuned to issues here or take on the Port Washington pols? Well, that was kind of a quandary for me going forward, that I felt I would be close enough that I could, whenever needed, give testimony, advice with my knowledge to anyone who would still need it. I’m within a half hour of 34th Street. Most people have asked me to continue to do what I’m doing. Moving 17 miles away doesn’t diminish my capacity, and, again, my enthusiasm about issues that face Brooklyn and other parts of the city. I always tell people, I might have been born and raised in The Bronx, but Brooklyn is in my dna. I’ve lived my entire adult life here, so this is really— the place that I call home is Brooklyn. So even though I’m moving away, Brooklyn is a lot of who I am, so that’s not gonna change.
Your activism takes you all over the city? Yes. A lot of times it’s going out to different communities and meeting different groups and explaining process. What happens—and I’m sure you’ve seen it—a community will be told something is going to happen, that they want to change something in the neighborhood, and most of the people, through the not-for-profits in the neighborhood, go to a meeting in an auditorium or school building, wherever, and they have someone from City Planning there, and someone from hpd there, and they’ll get up and grab the mic [Phil does a monotonous buzz of incoherent words and figures] and they’ll do that for a half an hour very monotone, and that’s to lull people to sleep. That’s the theory, that most common people, if you start with the numbers and the charts and zoning texts, the average person thinks they’re hearing another language, and in that monotone within twenty minutes you start to see heads nodding, and that’s by design.
How do you counter that? What we do is go into a community before the meeting and lay out what they’re saying in very simple terms, with a sheet saying what the letters and numbers mean that they’re throwing out, that even a child could comprehend. It’s been very effective…We organize the communities, set up meetings, get translators…What the city loves [when pushing through change] is a low income community where most of them don’t even speak the language. And we get people ready. The city likes to play into, you know, they get the clergy or some not-for-profit in the community to tell the flock that something is good for them, and get them on board with it, and they don’t really know any better, they’re just being told by someone they respect that this is good, and that allows it to go forward. But, when you can effectively go into a community and, again, explain in a very simplified manner…but the city will never do that. The city doesn’t want you to understand what’s going down; they don’t want you to comprehend what is mostly really not very complicated. And that’s where we’ve been very effective, in countering that. Unfortunately in the last seven or eight years, under this divide and conquer tactic by the administration… I mean there are areas like the Lower East Side, where the people understand the mechanism because we explained it, but the politics take over anyway. Money gets thrown around and any logic gets clouded.
Is democracy becoming only a gesture, something to make people feel like they’ve done something? But it’s the power of the purse that really rules? This is something I’ve written about and publicly spoken about, because not only have I seen it here in Greenpoint-Williamsburg, but throughout the city—the whole flawed process of the Community Boards. And this is why I never joined the board, because of the process. I always thought the board should be picked by the community, not by the Borough President, not by the Council Member. Because what happens is you have Board members who might want to vote in one manner, but the person who appointed them to the board—whether the Borough President, the Council Member, or both—will basically tell the Board member how to vote.
An example is when I was working on the re-zoning for Yankee Stadium, the board, CB #4 in the Bronx, rejected the plan against the wishes of then Borough President Adolfo Carrion, who now works for President Obama. And he fired all the Board members that voted against him. They didn’t even have enough Board members to have a quorum. Or [what] happened with Atlantic Yards. When the Brooklyn Community Board #6 voted against the Atlantic Yards [Brooklyn Borough President] Marty Markowitz removed all the Board members who voted against the project. Jerry Armer, who was chairman of that Board for over twenty-five years, was removed. These were very justifiable examples to me of what’s wrong with the process.
You are an energetic, upbeat presence, an optimist because you keep getting up and going back to bat. Yet you have a pretty dim view of government and power as it’s used in the city. Are you pessimistic about the quality of life on the local level? That depends on the level of involvement of the people who move here. You know, if an issue arises in the neighborhood and there’s a meeting and you see the same twenty people you’ve seen for the last twenty years, then probably not much is going to change. But if the new residents take a stand, then things can happen, because what I learned, a lot of it from Norm Siegel, was, he would always tell me, if you’re going to fight an issue in a community, you better reflect the community, you better show the diversity of a community. That’s what I tried to do when we were doing our Greenpoint-Williamsburg re-zoning. I wanted to meet with all the art groups. I was told, “Oh, they don’t give a shit, they’re the reason this is happening.” And I go, “Nah, that’s not the reason. This is happening because we made this neighborhood nice on our own, and once you make something nice, they want to take it.”
You mean the real estate developers? Yeah. I think they [the artists] helped make it nice, and made it that I wanted to buy a house here when everyone thought I was out of my mind. So, I think we need to be inclusive, because that’s what the city hates. If we can make a reflection, if we can get the Polish people, the Hassidim, the Latinos, the artists, the old Italians, the hipsters, all of us showing up together saying, no, that resonates because there’s no splintering. We’re all here, we’re all saying, no.
Going forward, when you bring in a lot of wealth, it’s going to go one of two ways: either it’s going to become very passive or it might get so bad that they get pissed. People with money expect things. You know, if somebody gets sick and an ambulance doesn’t show up they’re not ‘gonna like that as much as a poor person. If there’s a fire and the closest firehouse is closed…if they want to put their kids in the so-called great city public schools and there’s thirty kids in kindergarten and the teacher is overwhelmed…you’re not going to be happy. But rich people have options, rich people can leave. People in lower incomes, in subsidized housing, or in a financial quandary in the middle—it’s a lot more difficult for them. Wealthy people get angry just like anyone else. And they might even expect more, and that might be a springboard of activity, but unfortunately as a society many people don’t get involved unless something really directly impacts them. There’s no passive activism because that, you know, let me help because it’s affecting something as a whole; it’s when the hammer hits you then it’s, “OH! This is bad, I better start doing something.” Which is fine in itself, but prevention is a lot better than worrying about a cure after it happens, and that’s unfortunately how we’ve proceeded the last twenty years, especially in this city. It’s been gentrification on steroids.
So when an issue comes about that impacts them are they [new people moving into Greenpoint-Williamsburg] going to get pissed off and say I want to get involved and go to bat and make a change in the neighborhood, or are they going to say I’m pissed off and I’m not happy about this issue and I’m going to sell my house or my condo and go somewhere else where the services are provided??That’s the million dollar question.
You don’t pin blame for gentrification on the artists, or even the hipsters? I think there’s always improper stigmas attached to a group of people, or collective, based on, “Oh, they’re artists! Or they’re this or they’re that.” I never buy into that. I always judge people by their actions or inactions, their character or lack of character.
The analogy I have to what we call hipsters or an art community, is that you have people and they’re somewhere and all of a sudden they’ll read this article about this great new art community in this part of Brooklyn, and they’ll say, “Damn, I’d like to see what that’s all about.” Part of it is to be connected with the show, and some of it is somebody wanting to be creative and contributing. So it’s a mixed bag. You’re ‘gonna have people here with good creative intentions, and you’re ‘gonna have people that are just here for the show.