A look back at the Brooklyn stories that shaped 2019
Dec 31, 2019 | 2473 views | 0 0 comments | 174 174 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Churro vendor arrests spark controversy, protests

Seeing churro vendors sell inside subway stations is such a common sight that it has become part of our lives.

That’s why New Yorkers were shocked to see a viral video of a churro vendor handcuffed in November inside the Broadway Junction station. The vendor, identified only as Elsa, was seen crying as four police officers surrounded her and confiscated her cart. She was later issued a civil summons.

The video sparked protests by elected officials, transit activist and street vendor advocates who seized the moment to demand that Governor Andrew Cuomo not hire 500 new transit officers. The MTA approved funding for the new cops anyway.

At the rallies, the Street Vendor Project highlighted the difficulties for vendors like Elsa, who are forced to sell their goods illegally because of a broken permit system. The group pressed on lawmakers to pass pending city and state legislation to lift the cap on permits, or remove the cap entirely.

NYPD Chief of Transit Edward Delatorre responded that Elsa had received ten summonses over the past six months, and that she was “briefly cuffed” only after she refused to comply with officers at the station.

Just days later, another churro vendor was handcuffed and given a summons at the Myrtle-Wyckoff station bordering Bushwick and Ridgewood, sparking yet another protest to denounce the crackdown.

“The churro ladies are not causing harm in our streets,” said Councilman Antonio Reynoso. “The churro vendors are more synonymous with New York, and more in our subway system, than Cuomo and de Blasio.”

Brooklyn tenants fight back against bad landlords

Tenant harassment and bad landlord behavior have become regular occurrences, particularly in north Brooklyn, where longtime residents are feeling the pressure to leave.

From Greenpoint and Williamsburg to the Broadway Triangle, rent-regulated tenants have been demanding repairs from their landlords all year.

On Thanksgiving Eve, for instance, a group of Bushwick residents were left in the cold. They faced stints with heat, gas or hot water for years.

Others like the tenants on Huron Street in Greenpoint had to deal with mold, constant leaks and vermin infestations regularly.

In all of the cases, the fed-up tenants decided to take action. They teamed up with attorneys to demand that a housing court-appointed administrator fix their homes.

Some have resulted in victories, like in the case of the residents at 374 Wallabout Street in the Broadway Triangle.

Rent-regulated tenants across the state also scored major wins with the passage of rent reforms in Albany. The package of laws ended vacancy decontrol, narrowed the preferential rent loophole and provided more protections against major capital improvements (MCI) increases, among other measures.

The tenant protections already seem to be working. According to reports, since the law took effect, landlords have tried to evict 35,000 fewer tenants compared to the same time last year.

While displacement will remain an issue in 2020, lawmakers and advocates alike will push for even greater measures to make sure tenants are protected from bad landlords.

Brooklyn faces crisis of cyclist deaths

In 2018, ten cyclists died on New York City’s streets. That number nearly tripled just a year later. Twenty-nine cyclists were killed in 2019, including 18 bikers in Brooklyn.

The deaths spiraled into a street safety crisis, prompting lawmakers to take action.

In July, Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled his new “Green Wave” plan to protect cyclists. The $58.4 million initiative commits the city for the first time to building out a citywide protected bike lane network. The mayor pledged to add 80 more miles by 2021.

The initiative also includes increased enforcement by the NYPD and more public education to change the behavior of drivers.

The city has already begun piloting “Green Wave” signal timing that gives cyclists a smoother ride with less stopping at interactions. Transportation officials committed to adding turn-calming treatments at 50 of the most high-crash intersections, and using more green paint and “bike boxes” so cyclists can be more visible to cars.

Not to be outdone, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson shepherded his streets master plan legislation through the City Council. The bill, now law, requires the Department of Transportation to install 50 new miles of protected bike lanes each year, starting in 2022.

Lawmakers hope these measures will curb the cyclist deaths that have become too frequent on New York City’s streets, particularly in growing parts of Brooklyn.

Lawmakers approve borough-based jails in effort to close Rikers

New York City is one step closer to closing the infamous jail complex at Rikers Island.

In October, the City Council voted 36-13 to approve an $8.7 billion plan to build four new borough-based jails, which are intended to replace the current facilities on Rikers by 2026.

In Downtown Brooklyn, the Brooklyn House of Detention at 275 Atlantic Avenue is slated for closure in January 2020. It will eventually be replaced by a new 29-story facility with the capacity for 886 beds.

The city’s jail population has declined from 11,000 in 2014 to about 7,000 today. City officials project that number will shrink to 3,300 by 2026. To ensure that the land on Rikers Island is never used as a jail again, the City Council also voted for a map change of the island.

Despite local opposition to the borough-based jail plan, including a vote against the plan by Community Board 2, Councilman Stephen Levin voted in favor of the plan.

All year long, advocates from the No New Jails coalition, made up of community groups against the jail plan, argued that the billions of dollars in the proposal should instead be directly invested into communities affected by the criminal justice system.

They also wanted the jail complex at Rikers Island to be closed immediately, rather than waiting for 2026.

In the end, lawmakers, including the mayor and City Council speaker, got their wish in what they hope to be a successful endeavor to close Rikers.

Cuomo calls an audible on L train tunnel project

Since 2016, Brooklyn commuters were bracing for a transit nightmare. The L train was scheduled to stop running from Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg to 8th Avenue in Manhattan.

The 15-month closure would have given the MTA enough time to repair the Canarsie tunnel, which was badly damaged by Superstorm Sandy.

The MTA, Department of Transportation and community members spent months coming up with alternative travel plans for the 225,000 riders who travel daily between the two boroughs.

Straphangers were expected to take other subway lines, buses, bikes and even the ferry.

Then Governor Andrew Cuomo swooped in to “save” the day.

In the early days of 2019, the governor announced that the L train shutdown is not happening. Instead, the MTA will employ a new plan, with a new design and new technology, to fix the Canarsie tunnel.

“With this design, it would not be necessary to close the L train tunnel at all, which would be a phenomenal benefit to the people of New York City,” Cuomo said. “It would be a major, major breakthrough.”

Work will only be done on nights and weekends, leaving weekday and rush hour commutes unaffected.

In October, Cuomo announced that the rehabilitation of the first tube of the L train tunnel was rehabilitated ahead of schedule.

The MTA now expects the entire L train project to be completed by April 2020, three months ahead of the projected 15 to 18-month timeline.

Measles outbreak strikes Brooklyn neighborhoods

Despite the United States declaring that it had eliminated measles from the country in 2000, the contagious disease made a comeback in 2019.

The city’s measles outbreak, which began in 2018, affected 654 people, most of whom lived in Brooklyn neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Borough Park.

Fifty-two people ended up in the hospital, including 16 admitted to intensive care due to measles complications.

Approximately 80 percent of the measles cases were diagnosed in people under 18 years of age. Seventy-three percent were unvaccinated.

The end the outbreak, the city spent more than $6 million and dedicated more than 500 staff members to the response effort.

City officials disseminated thousands of pro-vaccine booklets, conducted robocalls, sent letters to residents and published ads all over the city.

Health officials finally ruled the outbreak over on September 3, nearly five months after the city declared a public health emergency.

To stave off the contagious disease for good, health officials continue to urge residents to confirm that they are immune to measles by looking at their vaccination histories.

“Get vaccinated,” said Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, deputy commissioner for the Health Department. “It is safe and effective.”

Expert panel weighs options for BQE rehab project

After months of advocacy against the city’s plan to fix a crumbling portion of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, Brooklyn Heights residents received some welcome news in April.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the formation of an expert panel to evaluate all options to replace the aging highway from Atlantic Avenue to Sands Street.

That means City Hall would reconsider what it once thought was the best plan: temporarily converting the popular Brooklyn Heights Promenade into a six-lane highway while construction crews fix the BQE. Brooklyn residents overwhelmingly rejected that voice.

“We will be engaging in a transparent, collaborative process to find the best solution for one of the most critical transportation corridors in the nation,” de Blasio said.

The 1.5-mile section of the BQE features a triple cantilever, topped the promenade. Constructed in the 1950s, it only carried 50,000 vehicles a day.

Today, the highway carries more than 150,000 vehicles daily, including 15,000 trucks. City officials have determined that if the road is not rebuilt by 2026, they would have to place weight restrictions, diverting all trucks to local streets.

Several alternatives to the city’s plan have already been proposed. Comptroller Scott Stringer presented an idea to only rehab the lower level of the bridge, and making it a truck-only thruway. The remaining roadway would be converted into a linear park.

Another plan by the Brooklyn-based Marc Wouters Studios would have created a separate two-level temporary roadway parallel to the existing highway.

A third proposal, called the Tri-Line plan, would have turned the highway into a High Line-like green space.

The last option, presented by the design firm Bjarke Ingels Group, would have constructed an at-grade roadway along Brooklyn Bridge Park and covering it with a simple deck structure. The deck would then be a platform for new parkland.

It remains to be seen what the expert panel will decide next year.

Brooklyn CB1 in hot water for SUV purchase

The chair and district manager of Brooklyn Community Board 1 were roundly criticized in June after a reporter discovered that they spent $26,000 to purchase an SUV.

Elected officials, neighbors and board members lashed out at the CB1’s leadership for spending half of the $42,500 one-time budget boost on a 2018 Toyota RAV 4 Hybrid.

The board’s executive committee agreed to purchase the car to replace an old 2002 vehicle that was donated to CB1 by the New York State Power Authority.

Longtime district manager Gerald Esposito said at a committee meeting that month that the car was used for daily operations, such as investigating complaints and taking the chair of the board to meetings at Borough Hall.

CB1 Chair Dealice Fuller insisted that they went through the proper channels for approval.

“We followed the established protocol on spending this money,” she said. “We went to every agency we were supposed to.”

After the purchase was exposed, the City Council placed stricter rules on how community boards can spend their funds, according to reports.

Any purchase of $10,000 or more must now requires a full board vote.

Weeksville finally gets sustained city funding

In May, the Weeksville Heritage Center in Crown Heights was on the verge of closing due to lack of funding.

Rob Fields, the executive director of the historic cultural institution, sent out a message to supporters asking for help and donations. Less than three weeks after launching an online fundraising campaign, over 4,000 people donated $260,000 to save the site.

Local elected officials and community groups rallied in support of Weeksville, and argued that one-time donations were not enough. They wanted sustained city funding from the city.

To accomplish that goal, they wanted Weeksville to become a member of the Department of Cultural Affairs’s Cultural Institutions Group.

There are 33 members of the CIG, including five in Brooklyn. Each member is located on city-owned property, and receive significant capital and operation support to meet cost needs.

Their advocacy worked. In June, Weeksville was officially designated as a member of CIG, making it a regular line item in the city’s budget in 2020 and beyond.

Jumaane Williams wins 16-way race for public advocate

Coming off a strong performance in his longshot bid for lieutenant governor, Brooklyn Councilman Jumaane Williams entered the race for public advocate as a likely frontrunner.

The position next in line to the mayor was vacated by Letitia James, who was elected last year to become the state’s attorney attorney.

Sixteen candidates vied for the seat, ranging from high-profile politicians like former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito to little-known New Yorkers like Jared Rich.

When the special election arrived, just 9 percent of the city’s voters cast a ballot, meaning the race was decided by some 134,000 votes.

Williams emerged victorious with 33 percent of the vote. Queens Republican Councilman Eric Ulrich placed second with 19 percent, and Mark-Viverito settled for third with 11 percent.

While Williams, a favorite of the progressive movement, has repeatedly said he will not run for mayor in 2021, he is now the closest in line to running City Hall.

The question moving forward is, will he be content to remain as public advocate for the next four years, or will he use the seat to jumpstart a run for higher office?

Recall that James’s predecessor as public advocate was Bill de Blasio, who ran for mayor in 2013 and won. Will that be Williams’s fate in the near future?
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