Brian Lehrer: Brian Lehrer on WNYC. Here we are on December 1st, and so we are in the home stretch now of our year long series 51 Council Members in 52 Weeks in which we have invited every New York City councilmember representing every neighborhood in New York City. We were making sure to touch every neighborhood of New York City this year through their 51 elected representatives on city council. We are up to district 47 of those 51, consisting of Bensonhurst, Coney Island, Gravesend, and Seagate with Councilmember Ari Kagan who joins us now. Councilmember, welcome to WNYC.
Ari Kagan: Thank you for inviting me. Good morning.
Brian Lehrer: We're generally beginning by inviting the council members to tell our listeners a little bit about yourself. Where'd you grow up? What's your connection to the district that you represent, and what got you into politics in the first place?
Ari Kagan: Thank you so much for this opportunity. I grew up in Minsk, Belarus. I came to America as a Jewish refugee in 1993. I am journalist by trade. I work most of my life as journalist, but at some point of my life, as you can imagine, it was impossible for me to write anything I wanted. In New York City, I had the chance to use opportunities and to pursue my American dream. I worked on several ethnic media outlets: radio, TV, newspapers, Russian language.
I lived in South Brooklyn for almost 30 years. I held people after 9/11, during Superstorm Sandy, and of course, during the pandemic. I became active in civic and political life very early. I was member of several civic organizations and community groups, and I ran for political office before. Then I worked for two years for Councilmember Mark Treyger and last year, I was elected to New York City Council from this beautiful, amazing district in Southern Brooklyn that I have known and worked for for many years.
Again, during Superstorm Sandy, especially during the pandemic. Now, I'm proud to represent a very diverse district in Southern Brooklyn, working every day to make life easier and to improve quality of life for Southern Brooklyn communities.
Brian Lehrer: So you were a journalist, you say, and you even hosted a radio show, huh?
Ari Kagan: Correct. Yes.
Brian Lehrer: So I can't get away with anything with you because you know all the tricks?
Ari Kagan: Listen, I'm journalist by trade. What can I tell you? I love journalists and I love journalism. Helping communities, by the way, it's very similar because you are talking about problems, you're talking about solutions. They are doing investigations. You are part of the state of mind how to help people, how to make our life better.
Brian Lehrer: Thank you. Do you have an impression? This is not what I was going to ask you next. As a former journalist and with your experience in Belarus, and comparing that to here as you just did, what do you think about the media in New York in general? If that's not too broad a question.
Ari Kagan: It's a very vibrant world, the capital of the world. I believe more and more especially elected officials in government realize the power of ethnic and community media because I was one of the people who was involved this Independent Press Association of New York. I believe it's important to recognize that New York City has a very vibrant media market, and we cannot ignore any longer ethnic and community media bloggers, websites.
Again, it's not just New York Times or CNN. Yes, it's a media capital of the world as well, but I believe we have a very big diversity of the media. In terms of comparison to Belarus, there is no comparison. Here, you can criticize anything you want and you still you'll be on air. Over there, if you criticize president, that you'll be your last appearance on the radio.
Brian Lehrer: Well, now I'd like to invite you as we do with all the members of council to describe your district. You certainly have already expressed your affection for your South Brooklyn district: Bensonhurst, Coney Island, Gravesend, Seagate. How would you describe it? Who lives there demographically? What's it like for people who don't spend much time down there?
Ari Kagan: First of all, it's amazing diverse district. It includes Seagate, Coney Island, Warbasse, Beach Haven, Gravesend, Bensonhurst, Bath Beach, parts of Homecrest. It's a very diverse district. We have African-American community, especially in Coney Island and Marlboro Houses. We have Sephardic Jewish community in Gravesend. Italian-American community and Asian-American community and Russian-speaking community, both in Bensonhurst and Coney Island and Warbasse.
We have large Pakistani-American community, Hispanic Americans, so it's entire United Nations. If you come to 47th District, you see the beauty of New York City, and everybody wants public safety. Everybody wants affordable housing. Everybody wants fixed boardwalk, famous landmark, but broken Coney Island boardwalk. Everybody wants to raise their families, quality education, and of course, clean and safe streets.
Brian Lehrer: I don't know how much of our previous segment with Public Advocate Jumaane Williams you heard, or the callers on the mayor's plan to involuntarily commit more people perceived to have serious mental health issues. I see that you have generally commended it as an initial response. Give us your reaction.
Ari Kagan: It's not a total fix of the problem. New York City today has so many issues, so many crisis at the same time. Mental health crisis, homelessness crisis, public safety crisis, and I can go on and on and on. Of course, it's a short term fix. The long term fix would be much better, of course to have affordable housing, to have many more mental health services.
Right now, I don't think we have enough staff, enough mental health clinics, enough services that are really needed. We definitely have affordable housing crisis. It's a short term fix because very often we see people on the street or on a subway that, in my opinion, do not belong to the streets or the subway. They need help. They need all kinds of help, mental health services, treatment, permanent housing, social services.
Unfortunately, today it's a full blown crisis and it's a short term fix. I commend the mayor for even trying to fix something. Again, it's not a long term solution because even if person involuntarily will be committed to the hospital, that's only up to 72 hours. Again, the long term solutions require much more efforts; affordable housing, mental health services, social services. It requires much more money, much more work, much more social workers, much more mental health clinics and so on. Much more affordable housing bill, though we're trying against city council, but we are still not even close to the goal.
Brian Lehrer: By the way, listeners, we could take some phone calls for City Councilmember Ari Kagan from District 47. Anybody from the district? First priority, hello, Bensonhurst, Coney Island, Gravesend, Seagate. He mentioned Bath Beach and some of the other neighborhoods down there. 212-433-WNYC, 212-433-9692, or tweet @Brian Lehrer. Councilmember, well, you were just talking about your support for what the mayor announced. I believe you've characterized yourself as a strong supporter of the NYPD.
I saw an article in the New York Post today-- obviously a news organization that strongly supports the NYPD as they see it, that said a lot of police officers feel like they were blindsided by the mayor's plan. That there wasn't coordination with the NYPD and sometimes police officers' position on this is, just like the advocates say on on the other side, "We don't want this responsibility necessarily. We don't want to be the ones intervening first with every mental health crisis. There should be more of a ramped up clinician's response team, public health professionals response team that doesn't even include the police."
I don't know if you saw that article in the Post about NYPD members feeling blindsided. What's your general take on use of the police for this?
Ari Kagan: Police officers are between rock and hard place because at one hand, they're like ICE and boots on the ground. They see what's going on around. When I go on by Park Lane, I see mentally ill homeless individual in the middle of Park Lane and Bensonhurst basically clearly mentally ill endangering himself and drivers and everybody around. By the time you call social workers or any mental health professionals, he would be killed or [unintelligible 00:10:06] will be big car accident. The natural reaction of myself is like I see police officers standing [unintelligible 00:10:13]. I say police help, like it's dangerous situation. Sometimes it's inevitable, but of course, police cannot be the solution for every problem of the society. We have a lot of issues in our society and police cannot resolve everything, but it should be coordinated response. It's not just police officers, of course. It's also, as I mentioned, mental health professionals and social workers and mental health clinics and everything else.
Every time I work together with Breaking Ground, for example, I ask the representatives to come and to work with homeless individuals. So far, at least in my district, I did not see much of a success when they're coming. Of course, police officers cannot replace these professionals. Again, it should be coordinated response. The only solution I see is, again, threefold is like affordable housing, much more mental health services, definitely, absolutely, and all kinds of treatment options and social services of course.
It requires a lot of money and coordinated teams. Police officers are on the frontline of every issue, not just this one and sometimes, it's just inevitable. I just described the situation where individual could be in danger and everybody else could be in danger. The only help can come, in my case, what I just described is from police officers.
Brian Lehrer: We'll continue in a minute. We have to take a short break. When we come back, I want to ask you, what's the number one reason that constituents in your district contact your office? We've been asking every councilmember in this series that question and some of the answers have been surprising. Also, I'm going to ask you if you feel betrayed by some of your colleagues because it looks like the redistricting that's going to take effect next year may box you out of a city council seat of the ability to run for reelection. We'll talk about that with Councilmember Ari Kagan, 212-433-WNYC. Stay with us.
Brian Lehrer: Brian Lehrer on WNYC. A few more minutes with City Councilmember Ari Kagan from District 47 in our 51 Council Members in 52 Weeks year long series. It's December, we're in the home stretch, district 47, which happens to be in South Brooklyn covering as we've been saying, Bensonhurst, Coney Island, Gravesend, Seagate, and around there. Let's take a phone call for the councilman and it is Rob in Coney Island. You're on WNYC. Hi, Rob.
Rob: Hi. Good morning. Brian, just before I ask the councilman the question, let me just give a quick background regarding the Coney Island boardwalk, which next year will be 100 years old, and which the councilman has mentioned is one of the major issues out here, that is the repair of the Coney Island boardwalk. Since 2010, there's been a fight out here to keep the Coney Island boardwalk a true boardwalk with boards in it, not concrete as the Parks Department plan has been.
To that end, that's included two lawsuits, over 3,000 signatures on an online petition, various rallies, some of which the councilman was previously at and in support of. There are two reasons largely that the community wants a true boardwalk made with boards, that is aesthetics. It's much nicer to run or walk on a boardwalk and so forth, but perhaps more importantly, safety. That is in Hurricane Sandy, we saw the impact of storm surge on-- there's two small sections, one at the very beginning of Brighton Beach and the other at the extreme end of the Coney Island section of the boardwalk, that in 2010 was done in concrete before the community really had any input by the Parks Department.
Just as an aside, what's destroyed the Coney Island boardwalk has not been people walking on it. It's been very heavy vehicles over the course of decades, which the community has fought against from the Parks Department. Anyway, to get to the question, why is the councilman supporting a plan that includes the use of concrete and not boards, boards of any kind whether wood or some composite, when that has been shown in Hurricane Sandy in those two sections that are concrete to exacerbate, facilitate, the impact-
Brian Lehrer: Got it, Rob. Got it. Thank you very much. Interesting to get a question about the Coney Island boardwalk, which of course, is beloved far and wide not just by people who live in the neighborhood. Councilmember, I guess there are different points of view on this. What's your position?
Ari Kagan: Thank you, Brian. Thank you, I believe, Robert asked a question. Very important question. It's one of my major priorities that I wrote and talked as a journalist. Talking about aesthetics, today aesthetics are horrible. It's like instead of celebrating upcoming 100 years anniversary of our landmark and famous boardwalk, we are not celebrating anything because millions of dollars in lawsuits against city of New York from victims of the boardwalk, they're breaking their legs and breaking everything.
Holes, nails, everything is broken. Talking about safety, the only safe areas today of the boardwalk are exactly the areas the listener was just talking about. It's on between Coney Island [unintelligible 00:15:59] and 15th Street and it's end of the Boardwalk on West 37th Street. There's the only safe areas today where people can actually walk, including people with disabilities. I strongly believe that it should be fixed.
It should be a restored glory of the boardwalk. It should include all kinds of materials, not just wood, because from practical point of view, from financial point of view, from safety point of view, from aesthetics point of view, from every point of view, that's the only way to go. I strongly believe that proof is just like if you just go there and see today, different areas of the boardwalk, the only areas people feel safe are the areas that are not from wood. Everywhere else is completely broken and holes and nails.
I agree that we should not use heavy vehicles. At my public hearing as a chair of Waterfront Committee, I asked Park, and I demanded not to use heavy vehicles by parks, by police. I would always encourage they use light vehicles, not heavy vehicles on the boardwalk. I brought New York City Parks commissioner and commissioner of a newly created Office of Climate and Environmental Justice to the boardwalk.
I managed to to attract even bigger attention to the terrible conditions of the boardwalk. As a result, mayor ask federal government for significant allocations, hundreds of millions of dollars to restore the boardwalk. In my opinion, moving forward, the only solution is to fix it and using all any possible materials just to make it safe. Right now, in the boardwalk, definitely there is no board and there is no walk. It's very dangerous to walk there, and all boards are broken. That's the only solution right now,, practical.
Also, talking about environmental groups and everybody else are against woodcutting forests, especially in Amazon and everywhere else, we cannot cut forests and it's a lose lost proposition anyway.
Brian Lehrer: He was talking about as an alternative though, composite boards. I guess that means maybe they're plastic or artificial, I don't know, but they would still be slats.
Ari Kagan: I would agree with plastic option as well. Again, any situation, any material is better than status quo is completely, absolutely unacceptable.
Brian Lehrer: All right, boardwalk without boards, a contentious issue in Coney Island. This is WNYC FM, HD and AM New York, WNJT-FM 88.1 Trenton, WNJP 88.5 Sussex, WNJY 89.3 Netcong, and WNJO 90.3 Toms River. We are New York and New Jersey Public Radio and live streaming at wnyc.org. Finishing up with City Councilmember Ari Kagan from Coney Island and thereabouts in South Brooklyn. Councilmember, what is the number one reason that constituents contact your office since you got sworn in on January 1st?
Ari Kagan: Thank you for this question. I would say it's, of course, everything depends on the neighborhood we are talking about. We're getting everyday complaints from NYCHA residents about conditions of their apartments and their buildings. It's one of the major priorities of my work. I introduced resolution bill trying to make NYCHA more accountable. I had multiple meetings where I brought [unintelligible 00:19:25] to Coney Island to make sure that NYCHA doesn't treat NYCHA tenants as a second class citizens.
Outside of NYCHA questions, we're getting complaints about everything from broken pipes and the cars use fake plates, and of course sanitation questions. All range of issues. Housing, police, sanitation is very serious issue. 86th Street in Bensonhurst where it's a ongoing issue, people feel that they cannot walk on a sidewalk on 86th Street and we brought sanitation commissioner to 86th Street so she would witness the conditions over there that is totally unacceptable as well.
Brian Lehrer: Let me ask you about the redistricting that's going to affect City Council for next year. There was a story on the news site, City & State, in September, as these maps were about to be released with a very blunt headline. The headline was Ari Kagan may be getting screwed by New York City Council redistricting. It went on to describe the likely new district, which would cut your district in two. One to be represented likely by Councilmember Justin Brannan, the other created as a largely new Asian-American majority district stretching from Sunset Park to Gravesend. How did that turn out and do you feel you got screwed by the redistricting commission?
Ari Kagan: Thank you for this question, Brian. First of all, district was not cut in two pieces, it was cut in five pieces. I strongly objected to this plan. I strongly believe that it was totally unfair, and I'm not talking about myself, I'm talking about almost 180,000 people who I represent in City Council. Again, several neighborhoods in my district were cut in a few pieces. I have of Warbasse houses, three buildings out of five were put on 48 council district and two left in my district.
Gravesend and Homecrest were cut out, Bensonhurst was cut out. The Bay Ridge was connected to Coney Island part through five and a half miles panel like current map of the new district reminds me that fish or lizard. That was totally inconsistent with any criteria of New York City Charter. I believe commission completely ignored hundreds of letters from community leaders, elected officials, residents who were protested. I hosted rally against it, but commission ignored all of this and I believe it was totally unfair to residents of Southern Brooklyn.
Any new councilmember will have a tough time to represent this district because now it's very long and it represents very distant communities like Bay Ridge and Coney Island.
Brian Lehrer: Are you going to run in a primary and try to keep your seat?
Ari Kagan: Anybody who knows me know the answer. Definitely, I'm planning to run for reelection. That's not even a discussion. I'm not planning to abandon my district, I will never abandon my community. I love Southern Brooklyn and I will definitely run for reelection.
Brian Lehrer: Last question, councilmember. The last question we ask everybody in this series, did you bring a show and tell item for us? Something from your district that a lot of people not from there might not know about, but you'd like them to know about?
Ari Kagan: I did not bring pizza from L&B Spumoni Gardens. Everybody knows this location in Gravesend and just amazing pizzeria, I believe the most famous in New York City probably, but I didn't bring this piece of pizza.
Brian Lehrer: Okay. We will take that as a tip.
Ari Kagan: L&B Spumoni Gardens, everybody love them.
Brian Lehrer: We will put that on our maps and on our to-do lists for when we head down there next. City Councilmember Ari Kagan from District 47 in our series 51 Council members in 52 weeks. Thanks so much for joining. We appreciate it.
Ari Kagan: Thank you for this opportunity.
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