Brian Lehrer: Brian Lehrer on WNYC. We are getting tantalizingly close to the end of our year-long series 51 Council Members in 52 Weeks in which we've been inviting the elected official from every neighborhood of New York City in this year when most of the council is new because of term limits and its majority female for the first time ever. The districts are numbered by borough, just to review, with the first 10 in Manhattan, then eighth in the Bronx, then numbers 19 through 32 in Queens, that's 14 districts because Queens has that many people.
The next 16 in Brooklyn, the most populous borough, and now we arrive on Staten Island, which being the least populous borough has just three of the 51 council members.
With us now from District 49 is council member Kamillah Hanks. She represents the North Shore of Staten Island where the ferry docks and the neighborhoods closest to there. A much more diverse part of Staten Island than what your stereotype of Staten Island might be if you live elsewhere and yes, she's a Staten Island Democrat if you thought that didn't exist.
This district includes the neighborhoods of, are you ready, in alphabetical order, Arlington, Clifton, Clove Lakes, Concord, Elm Park, Graniteville, Livingston, Mariners Harbor, New Brighton, Port Richmond, Randall Manor, Rosebank, St. George, Snug Harbor, Silver Lake, Stapleton, Sunnyside, West Brighton and Tompkinsville. I didn't memorize those. They're listed on the City Council's website.
The council members bio page says Kamillah Hanks is a native Staten Islander and proud mother of four who has been a leader and advocate for smart growth and positive economic development in the North Shore of Staten Island for nearly two decades. Councilmember Hanks, good to have you on WNYC. Thank you for joining 51 Council Members in 52 Weeks.
Kamillah Hanks: Thank you so much. I'm so excited to be here and good morning to you. Thanks. We're the fabulous 49, so I was listening to all of the other districts and saying yes, we have to represent Staten Island and there are Democrats and it is diverse.
Brian Lehrer: Absolutely. I usually ask people in this series to represent by describing where they grew up, and how they first got interested in politics. What are those for you?
Kamillah Hanks: I was born in 1972 in Park Hill, which is very close to Stapleton, not too far from the water. My path to public service really began on a hyper level. I think unlike many of my other colleagues, politics wasn't what I really sought out to do. I worked in corporate, marketing, public relations, and then went to my own public relations job, my own company, doing not-for-profit for local not-for-profits, one of which was the Downtown Staten Island Council, which was really marketing and promoting a district.
I think that that's where the bug of understanding politics came in. I started on a very hyper level at that point. It's about 20 years ago. My goal from the beginning was to really be a problem solver in my community. I wasn't particularly looking for running for office, and so really coming from the world of economic development and small business, and the world of youth engagement and community work, I founded the Historic Tap and Park Community Partnership in 2012.
That was to encourage the economic development, cultural development engagement on a site-specific, which is Stapleton, which is the neighborhood in which I bought my home at 27, and raise my four kids, but you feel like things are missing. That's what it was always about for me, like building capacity on a local level, seeing what improvements can be made to their neighborhood, their community and street. That's how I got into politics.
Running for office was a culmination of all of those things, and being able to then say, all of my diverse interactions, whether they are personal or professional, just made me really, I think, perfect for this place in time in Staten Island, which is very unique but even in the North Shore, which I call it the forgotten district in the forgotten borough, and really understanding on the ground what needs to be done, has made this really-- The privilege to be representing the neighborhood in which I was born and raised. I went to public school. I raised my children here, and so it's really very much a privilege.
Brian Lehrer: Listeners, we open the phones for anybody from the North Shore of Staten Island, first priority in the forgotten 49. We haven't forgotten you in our 51 Council Members in 52 Weeks series, and you can call in and say or ask whatever you want of your city council member Kamillah Hanks, 212-433-WNYC, 212-433-9692 or tweet @BrianLehrer.
For everyone else, we ask everyone in this series to describe the district demographically, and who lives there, and how that has changed over time. This might even be more interesting than most of the other ones we've done for a lot of the listeners because frankly, so few people, even if they live within the city limits ever really go to Staten Island if they don't live there.
Kamillah Hanks: Well, Staten Island is one of the most beautiful places to grow up. North Shore has an incredibly diverse population. It's really a microcosm of the city and the United States, to be honest. We have the largest Sri Lankan community outside of Sri Lanka. We have Trinidadians, Liberians, Russians, Eastern Europeans, Ukrainians, Albanians. The neighborhood Park Hill in which I grew up in is now known as Little Liberia. Not only is it diverse through folks, it's also economically diverse.
It's also geographically diverse. We have a waterfront. We have high hills. It's just simply standing alone one of the most beautiful-- Very much a district of small business owners, many mom-and-pop shops to keep our local economy thriving. Like I said, not for profits. Staten Island as a whole is like a union town. Not that it's different in our district, but there are many union blue-collar workers that are living and working here. The 49th District is also home to many of Staten Island's cultural icons including Snug Harbor, Staten Island Museum, Staten Island FerryHawk stadium, Alice Austen House, and much, much more, and of course, the iconic ferry.
Brian Lehrer: Of course. I did a promo just before you came on for a segment that we're going to do tomorrow on the year in hate in 2022, all kinds of hate that unfortunately found a lot of expression this year. The first two calls that have come in are relevant to that in your district on Staten Island. Let's talk to Dan on Staten Island. You're on WNYC. Hi, Dan.
Kamillah Hanks: Hi, Dan.
Dan: Hi. How are you? I really do agree with you about the district and Staten Island. All the things that you said. It is really beautiful place with lots of wonderful cultural destinations that a lot of people don't get out to, and a lot of small businesses, and a lot of different people, and I love that, but I was really upset this weekend when the beautiful Snug Harbor, as you just name checked, with the Staten Island Children's Museum on it had a drag story hour that was heavily protested by right-wing protesters, including the local sort of flag-painting savant Scott LoBaido.
I haven't heard any of my elected officials, including you, have any comment about that? I didn't see you there, and I just would really like to have my elected officials say something about an event that had some Proud Boys and other right-wing people intimidating children and families.
Brian Lehrer: Dan, thank you. Are you aware of the incident Councilmember?
Kamillah Hanks: Of course, I am. I'm actually really happy you asked the question because I was not there because we're talking about LGBTQ hate and how this is a scourge on not only Staten Island, but the entire New York City proper. I was on the council trip to Israel, and we were dealing with and going over anti-semitism, and really looking at how that affects New York City as well. We did express our support for the LBGTQ community. While I was gone, my staff, we did issue a statement.
You can leave your information, and we'll screenshot the comment and the statement that we made, but our office has an incredible close relationship with the Pride Center of Staten Island and supporting their efforts and their programming outreach, but what most people don't know is that I'm the mom of a trans child, and so this issue is especially personal to me.
Hatred and harassment do not belong anywhere on our island, particularly not at a fun optional event at a local cultural, which incidentally, I grew up in Snug Harbor taking art lessons from the time I was a young. I was eight years old until I got into LaGuardia Music and Art. All of these institutions, because I'm born and raised here, it's extremely personal to me that this saddened me and my colleagues, to be honest, but many of us were on this trip so we could not be there.
The Drag Queen Story Hour teaches children literacy in a creative out-of-the-box way, and this particular event on Staten Island, children's Museum on Saturday gave parents a choice on whether or not they want to bring their children. Having said that, the fact that people will come outside of their neighborhoods in which they're very proud of, and coming to a district where we celebrate diversity. We are very vocal about antisemitism, LGBTQ, and of course as an African American, racism.
This district even if you are marching in the St. Patrick's State parade, the entire Forest Avenue has the pride flags up. We're working to make sure that's an inclusive space. Even though I wasn't physically there, our office is constantly working with the district attorney and working with our colleagues in City Hall and in Staten Island to make sure that we're doing everything we can to address hate wherever it's found.
Brian Lehrer: Dan, you can leave your information if you want, with our producer as the Councilmember said she would screenshot that for you, and I'm going to take one more call on this topic. Allison, also calling in on this. Allison, you're on WNYC. Thank you for calling and did you hear the Councilmember's last answer?
Kamillah Hanks: Hey, Allison.
Kamillah Hanks: How are you?
Allison: Thank you so much for-- I'm good. How are you? I had a question that was-- Sorry, if it sounds like I'm in a wind tunnel. I had a question that was in line with the last caller question there.
Kamillah Hanks: She's coming in and out a little bit. I'm sorry. Can you just repeat from the beginning? I really want to make sure your important question is heard.
Brian Lehrer: Yes, the wind tunnel is really harming the sound quality. People are having a hard time understanding you. Can I ask you what you would like to see the Councilmember or the government do about these protests and presence of the Proud Boys as you were going to cite, and as the previous caller cited outside the Children's Museum there with the Drag Queen Story Hour, what would you like to see the government do?
Allison: I know on a local basis a lot of us had contacted your office in order to either have a sit-down or have a plan of action in place, and just an immediate, a lot of us would really like you to stop following Scott LoBaido on Instagram.
Kamillah Hanks: Got it.
Allison: We know he's a powerful figure in our community, but he's the one that brought the Proud Boys to our door and he's the one that has a history of doxing activists and queer people on this island, and he's a threat to us, but really we just want an action in place to make us feel safe.
Brian Lehrer: Allison, thank you.
Kamillah Hanks: To make it what?
Brian Lehrer: To make us feel safe, she said.
Kamillah Hanks: Just to go back again, I'm born and raised on Staten Island and it's interesting that I've known Scott LoBaido before the insanity and before we become very social media savvy, and so it was probably something I followed a long time ago, and I read all of my social media comments and I did read the comments asking me not to follow and I'll just not follow him. I understand the significance and the symbolism of that, but I also think that many of these things need to happen at a round table.
Because living in New York, and especially after coming back from Israel and understanding the complex complicated issues surrounding identity, surrounding morality, all of these things, and we all have to live in this planet. Forget about Staten Island, but just this planet and that we just don't talk to each other anymore. We don't try to understand. This was an event that was quite innocuous and there was no reason for that to happen.
There are greater things like public safety. There are infrastructure issues. There are so many things that we should all be paying attention to that we just don't pay attention to, and I think that social media and the media of itself has made it [unintelligible 00:15:28]. It means a lot to the LGBTQ community and communities that are looking very closely to our electives, who they follow, who they block.
There are certain people I would love to block, but they're not necessarily, it's hard for us to do that actually. Not saying it's hard, but often we are not allowed because we're public figures to block, unfollow people, and you can look that up, but it is an issue, but I think on Instagram it's something that can be done, but on Twitter, I don't believe, we can just block people and it's been a point of contention for who and what it means to be a public figure in relationship to social media.
I think that to call the office and find out what my position is is very important as well, and so we will further this conversation on what that means as a public figure and making sure that my constituency feels like I have their back on this. It's something that I think we should chat offline as well. I think this is the first of many conversations that need to be had.
Brian Lehrer: 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 in our 51 Council Members in 52 Weeks series. We're up to district 49 with Councilmember Kamillah Hanks from the North Shore of Staten Island. Jason on that North Shore in St. George, you're on WNYC. Hi, Jason.
Jason: Oh, hi Brian.
Kamillah Hanks: Hi, Jason.
Jason: Hi, Ms. Hanks. I'm thrilled to have you as my council person.
Kamillah Hanks: Oh, thank you.
Brian Lehrer: You want to bring up an issue of waterfront development, right?
Jason: Yes, the abandoned wheel project. The bankrupt Empire outlet mall.
Brian Lehrer: The wheel is going to be that giant Ferris wheel that people may have heard about. Go ahead.
Jason: Yes, and the parking structure that was built and then abandoned behind the wheel, and basically waterfront assets. I've been a St. George resident for 20 years and I used to enjoy the waterfront. Some people would call it underdeveloped, but it was a nice place to walk, and we're short on parkland in the district, and so it's a nice place to hang out and now it's just a bunch of abandoned or dying structures. Hundreds of millions of dollars went into these, a lot of it is public money, tax money, and honestly your predecessor the Borough President, I have not been able to get answers as to what the plan is to take care of these things.
Brian Lehrer: Jason, I'm going to leave it there for time. We hear you loud and clear, and Councilmember, I did see in the notes that your office gave us for this segment that the three big-picture priorities that you listed were waterfront access, capacity building, and public safety and community courts. Waterfront access and waterfront development as Jason brings it up.
Kamillah Hanks: I'm so happy again, you asked this question. From day one we've made it clear that addressing the issues facing the North Shore waterfront was the top priority for my office. It's something that I campaigned on to deliver a North Shore master plan in collaboration with our resident, and it really reflects a vision of a vibrant North Shore community. Our work has further underscored the necessity to go back to the root of all these projects, giving the North Shore residents access to the waterfront.
As Jason said, our community has faced one disappointment after another when it comes to the waterfront. The North Shore has potential in the world to be a highly coveted place in the city, and we look at it and say, "Well, what happened?" We came into office in January, but it literally took months to just untangle the different city agencies so let me just answer your question really quickly.
First of all, with the wheel, the wheel project also is under EDC which is New York City Economic Development Corporation. Of course, it went belly up and they are looking to see if there can be an investor that will actually finish what they started. They want to finish what they started but I have to say that one of the things that I'm most proud of is that I have a really great working relationship with the Borough President and I have a very good working relationship with the speaker and the Mayor and my Staten Island delegation, albeit bipartisan but these are not bipartisan, these are not partisan issues.
Now I'm hoping in January they will open that up to say, "Okay, what else to be put here?" Brutalist architecture that is the wall that covers our beautiful waterfront is just a tragedy. Earlier this month, I welcomed the Deputy Mayor of Economic Development, Workforce Development, Mayor Springer, and various other city agency commissioners so for the first time, you had the Commissioner of City planning, the commissioner of DEP, you had the Commissioner of Economic Development and the commissioner of Parks and the Department of Transportation all came. We rented a bus and we showed them.
I'm like, "You have to see it. It's like the matrix. You have to see it to really understand how this has been so defunct. Why can't we have a waterfront like Brooklyn?" That all comes from political will I believe. We took them and we have our dossier, and many of these articles on our progress is on SI live. We have been working very closely with SI live to end the St. George Civic Association.
If you want to join the St. George Civic or even attend a meeting, I think it's a third Tuesday or Wednesday of each month, a lot of those updates are done very site specific within those civics, whichever development we really are very site-specific. Walkthrough came after months of trying to understand the current status of these projects in the waterfront. We did a major pushback on Lighthouse Point. We made them go through the borough board process.
I think that a lot of the city of New York in different administrations have been telling us what time of day it is and it took a bit of time to say, "You are not going to decide our future and we have not been able to have access to our waterfront." The waterfront that my father would take me to go fishing on when I was eight years old is no longer accessible to folks who are living here now and it's causing a great exodus.
You can tell by my voice how passionate I am about it, but I'll tell you that a lot of things will be announced in the very near future. We are going to, again, we were working with some of the highest levels of the administration to really have eyes on what they're talking about. Development does what they do, the city agencies or EDC, which is not a city agency does what they do, but they go home.
Brian Lehrer: Yes.
Kamillah Hanks: [chuckle]
Brian Lehrer: I'm going to jump in because we're running out of time. Obviously, such a central issue for you and for the district, and Jason, thank you for the question that touched off that response. I know you got to go in a minute. I'm going to combine our usual two closing questions in this series into one. What's the number one reason that constituents call your office or contact your office since you got sworn in and what did you bring us for show and tell?
Kamillah Hanks: Okay, so listen, advocacy is one thing, but constituents call for bread-and-butter issues. I call them the four points of council work which is safety, sanitation, schools, and speeding. That's that, and mainly the Department of Sanitation. We get those calls and my show and tell is I'm really proud to announce that Concord High School, we completed with 2.7 million to complete their culinary kitchen, which I'm really big on workforce development that will help train chefs of the future.
I'm also very excited to be working with the Richmond County DA's office to bring Staten Island's first community court. We're the only ones that do not have one. For the sake of time, you'll hear me on the campaign trail to talk about the other really great [laughs] things that we're doing in the district.
Brian Lehrer: All right. Concord High School and that's it with City Councilmember Kamillah Hanks from District 49 on the North Shore of Staten Island in our Series 51 Council Members in 52 weeks. Thanks so much for coming on, Councilmember. I really appreciate it.
Kamillah Hanks: Thank you so much. It was been a pleasure. Thank you.
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