Gotham Gazette

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Creating a Truly Age-Friendly NYC

BdB seniors visit via CAU

Mayor de Blasio visits older New Yorkers (photo: @mayorsCAU)

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the International Day of Older Persons, established by the United Nations General Assembly to both raise awareness of issues affecting older people and commemorate the contributions that they have made to society.

Here in New York City, there's a lot to appreciate.

Older people have helped make New York City the incredible place it is today. They built our infrastructure, led social justice movements, made major advances in health care and technology, and fueled our thriving economy.

Mayor Bill de Blasio's platform for social justice and equity, including plans for improving pedestrian safety, increasing the affordable housing stock, facilitating access to the Internet, and renovating the city's parks, has the potential to improve older people's quality of life if they are effectively consulted and considered.
The mayor's recent reconstitution and convening of the Age-friendly NYC Commission to identify and address areas where additional work is needed across the public and private sectors is another step in the right direction. Age-friendly NYC is a one-of-a-kind public-private partnership between the Mayor's Office, the New York City Council, and The New York Academy of Medicine, of which NYAM and AARP are commission members.

About 1.4 million of New York City's 8.4 million residents are 60 or older. That's one in six people. By 2030, this population will grow to one in every five, and older people will outnumber school-aged children. This will be one of the most diverse groups of older people in the world (over half of all older New Yorkers were born outside of the United States).

Healthy, active, and engaged older people are assets to city life. They work, loyally support local businesses, care for spouses and grandchildren, and give back through high rates of volunteerism. The city, in turn, has a great deal to offer older residents, as it does for people of all ages: vibrant neighborhoods, great public transportation, walkability, shopping and commerce, rich cultural institutions, and high-quality health care and social services.

Yet, New York City can be a challenging place for older people to live. Expenses are high, and the poverty rate among older people is nearly 20 percent — significantly higher than the national average. Finding affordable and accessible housing is difficult, with two in every three people over 70 paying more than 30 percent of their income in rent. In many neighborhoods, older people restrict their activities because of crime and safety concerns, as well as difficulty getting around. This can lead to social isolation which is associated with poor health.

In fact, a recent AARP survey of New York City voters shows even more concern about affording rent and mortgage payments among the up-and-coming older New Yorkers – Generation X (64%) – than among Baby Boomers (59%), with even higher numbers of African-American (74%) and Hispanic (70%) Gen Xers and Baby Boomers concerned. And a majority of both generations also worries about being able to pay utility bills, with African-Americans' and Hispanics' concerns again higher.

A separate AARP survey of New York City adults 50 and older found that 90 percent want to stay in their homes as they age and 73 percent say promoting age-friendly living should be a top or high priority for elected officials. Sometimes simple low- or no-cost solutions, such as the strategic placement of a bench or the use of school buses to transport older people to grocery stores during school hours, can make older people's lives easier, fuller, and more satisfying. Age-friendly NYC is dedicated to doing just that — creating a New York City where people of all ages can live, work, and thrive.

Since its inception in 2008, some of the improvements made by Age-friendly NYC include a reduction in senior pedestrian fatalities, increased walkability through the addition of public seating, new programming for older people at parks, educational and cultural institutions, and a better consumer experience offered by many local businesses. We've also worked closely with architects, urban planners, librarians, small business owners, and lawyers, just to name a few, to raise awareness of age-related issues within their respective fields.

We are making great progress, but there is still much work to be done to protect the rights and meet the needs of older people, who often report feeling left out or experiencing age discrimination where they live and work. If we are lucky, we will all be old one day, and we will want to continue enjoying everything we've always loved about our city — exercising in the park, shopping at favorite stores, going to concerts, museums, and theaters, and socializing with family and friends. Today, on the International Day of Older Persons, let's recognize the strength of older people and commit to making New York City a place where people of all ages feel included and valued.

by Lindsay Goldman and Beth Finkel

Lindsay Goldman, LMSW, is Deputy Director, Healthy Aging, The New York Academy of Medicine
Beth Finkel, MSW, is New York State Director, AARP

Read more about Age-friendly NYC here

*note: this column has been updated from its original version to include more information from recent surveys

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Why Arts Educators Support Computer Science

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Mayor de Blasio at a school visit (photo: Rob Bennett for the Mayor's Office)

Advocates for arts education support Mayor Bill de Blasio's proposal to expand access to computer science in city schools. Surprised? You shouldn't be.

Learning to code flexes many of the same creative and problem-solving muscles as participating in the visual and performing arts. In the arts and in computer science students often start with a blank slate and build something from nothing. The tools may be different, but the process of exploration, experimentation, and critical reflection is the same.

Fluency with technology is essential to many applied forms of 21st century art-making: music composition and production, graphic design and architecture, filmmaking, and animation. The earlier students become comfortable with advanced tools, the easier it becomes for them to translate the sounds and pictures of their imagination into tangible media: art.

Mayor de Blasio highlights the doors of opportunity in the technology sector. Openings in the creative industries (which thrive in New York City, the cultural capital of the world) increasingly require computer credentials. As artistically-minded students graduate into the working world, mastery of content-creating tools can be a prerequisite for making a living.

Most importantly, any step to de-emphasize rote, test-focused learning, and toward education of the whole child is entirely welcome. Well-taught computer science curriculum moves in the right direction, teaching students to think, engage, and create.

It's no coincidence that one of the school leaders cited for driving computer science in the schools - Ramon Gonzalez, the superstar principal of MS 223 in the Bronx - has also been a leader in integrating arts education throughout his curriculum.

In fact, the connections between computer science and arts education are driving the "STEM to STEAM" movement, which includes "arts" in the typical science, technology, engineering, and math acronym. Accordingly, The Center for Arts Education has developed curricula that address these connections.

To be sure, those who understand the essential role of arts education would be gravely disappointed if computer science electives pushed out required arts education courses. But, the mayor and schools Chancellor Carmen Farina have demonstrated a strong commitment to expanding access to arts education. Last year, the mayor and the City Council agreed to a historic four-year, $92-million expansion in funding for arts education that is already impacting the lives and educational opportunities of thousands of New York City students.

Some have noted the shortage of credentialed computer science teachers. That's a valid point—and makes the ten-year phase-in period of the de Blasio proposal look wise. We see a similar deficit in the supply of arts teachers. It's a topic for another day, but soon: re-invigorating the city's pipeline of credentialed instructors is essential.

Proponents of computer science instruction and arts education may seem like odd bedfellows, but we are joined in our commitment to teaching the whole child and preparing every child in every school for success in college, career, and life.

As Mayor de Blasio recently laid out his new education plans at Bronx Latin High School, he noted that computer science develops communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking - the very same 21st century skills that quality arts education develops.

Lori Sherman is Deputy Director of The Center for Arts Education, a leading arts education provider and advocate. On Twitter @centerforartsed.

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A True, New NYCHA Development Plan

NYCHA Chair Olatoye

NYCHA Chair Olatoye, the author, at a NextGen meeting (via NYCHA on flickr)

Public housing has been an integral feature of New York City life since Fiorello La Guardia opened the doors of First Houses eighty years ago, and roughly five percent of the city's population lives in public housing today. As a landlord, NYCHA manages buildings, but our real service is to people— the 615,000 residents who live in our developments and our Section 8 voucher holders.

We are doing everything we can to ensure the long-term survival and health of public housing in New York City. This includes new, creative solutions to major challenges.

We face immense financial obstacles as NYCHA struggles to repair and maintain our buildings and grounds. We can no longer delay making difficult, critical choices about how we operate, how we are financed, and how we rebuild and rehabilitate our 328 developments. To avoid the fate of other housing authorities across the country, NYCHA must find innovative solutions to maintain and improve our properties.

Due in part to federal and state disinvestment, the city is investing more than ever to craft solutions that bring about real change. We are doing this because we recognize the simple truth that we have an ethical responsibility to provide and sustain affordable housing for our city's low-income populations.

Today, just 18 percent of the land on NYCHA's 328 developments is used to house residents. Using some of that land to develop new mixed-income housing can generate significant funds benefiting local and citywide NYCHA residents, as well as those in the surrounding community. We call these developments NextGen Neighborhoods because they provide the funding we need to create the safe, clean, connected communities that we envision in our ten-year strategic plan, NextGeneration NYCHA.

This isn't the first time NYCHA has proposed developing market-rate housing on our properties, but it is the first time resident engagement has been made integral to the process. And the first time an administration has pledged to ensure that just as many units of affordable housing are built as market rate housing.

This 50/50 model will ensure a significant percentage of the proceeds from the affordable and market-rate buildings will be provided to each development for residents to invest back into building new kitchens, fixing the root causes of leakage, and other priorities. The remaining funds will be funneled by NYCHA into making improvements across NYCHA's portfolio.

Our strategic plan aims to preserve this precious resource of public housing for the next generation of New Yorkers. NextGen Neighborhoods is just one of the fifteen initiatives we outlined in the plan to rebuild and repair our properties and sustain NYCHA for the long term.

[Related: Another Way of Looking at NYCHA Infill Development]

The funds we generate through NextGen Neighborhoods will be added to those generated from other strategies— such as our parking initiative, our commercial initiative, and our preservation initiative. None of these strategies work in a vacuum, they all work together as a comprehensive plan to get NYCHA's financial health in order, create more affordable housing, and invest in the Housing Authority and in the future of our city.

I've been clear that upon moving into this position, Mayor de Blasio charged me with the task of resetting the Authority's relationship with residents. We cannot do business as usual with our city's public housing, and expect to see substantive and lasting change.

Our new plan is not the infill proposal put forth by the previous administration— this is NYCHA working together with residents, with community members and advocates, and with elected officials to support the creation of mixed-income affordable housing on NYCHA property.

This is not privatization, but aggressive preservation— a strategy that is smart for residents and surrounding communities as well as NYCHA. We can generate money to repair and upgrade our developments while adding to the city's affordable housing stock, attracting new stores and services to neighborhoods, and producing income that can help NYCHA residents in other parts of New York. NYCHA will not compromise the rights of public housing tenants, unfairly evict tenants, or convert public housing units to market rate housing. We're in the business of housing people.

This is NYCHA moving forward, instead of maintaining the status quo. There is no better way to serve our residents.

Shola Olatoye is Chair of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), landlord to over 600,000 residents of traditional public housing and Section 8 programs. She is on Twitter at @SholaOlatoye.

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Renew the Land and Water Conservation Fund for the Benefit of all New Yorkers

bikes trails river

(photo: @PTNY)

What do Manhattan's Riverbank State Park track, the playgrounds of P.S. 40, 100, 140, and 192, Clay Pit Ponds State Park, the Rockaway and Coney Island Boardwalks, and Battery Park all have in common?

All were established or built through funding from the national Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). Nearly all New Yorkers have benefitted in some way from the LWCF's innovative conservation projects.

For over 50 years, the LWCF has protected, renovated, updated, and improved New York's parks and greenspaces for the benefit of New Yorkers. This conservation fund is much more than a rural land purchasing program. The LWCF has funded approximately $44 million worth of projects in New York City alone over the past half century.

Despite the undeniable success of the LWCF, the fund will expire on September 30 if Congress does not pass legislation to reauthorize it. Over its entire history, the LWCF has never once lapsed in authorization. The 114th Congress should not allow a lapse in the LWCF to be a part of its legacy.

Established under President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, the LWCF began as an innovative way to acquire or develop recreational resources for a growing American population. Upon signing the bill (the same day he signed the Wilderness Act into law), President Johnson called the LWCF a responsible way to "acquire on a pay-as-you-go basis the outdoor recreation lands that tomorrow's Americans will require."

The LWCF has given New Yorkers city and school playgrounds, pools, park roads and restrooms, ballfields, and bandstands in all five boroughs. The LWCF's redevelopment of park and playground facilities maintains recreation infrastructure to ensure it is safe for all of New York's children.
LWCF funding has also allowed for the acquisition of new greenspaces – a significant challenge in a city as dense as New York. LWCF moneys funded the purchase of land that is now Roberto Clemente State Park in the Bronx, as well as the small but important floodplains of Udall's Cove and Ravine in Queens.

New parkland acquisitions like these ensure that New York City has green infrastructure that improves resiliency in the face of severe storms, floods, and rising sea levels.

The LWCF is rightly characterized as America's most important conservation program. The LWCF is unique in its flexibility and results, but more important it is unique in structure and purpose: it uses no taxpayer funds, but rather is funded through a small percentage of revenue from oil and gas leases that allow drilling of publicly-owned resources on the Outer Continental Shelf. The LWCF is a grand bargain between resource extraction and resource protection, struck on behalf of the American people, and one that they overwhelmingly support.

Reauthorizing the LWCF is a no-brainer for New Yorkers, since it costs them nothing. Continuing to fund the LWCF is a bipartisan issue that all New Yorkers can get behind. We can continue to fund our playgrounds, ballfields, and green infrastructure without reinventing the wheel legislatively. Congress simply needs to reauthorize the LWCF and allow it to begin a new half century of conservation success.

by Robin Dropkin, Executive Director, Parks & Trails New York. On Twitter @PTNY.

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Time for Real Reform to Curb Police Brutality

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Commissioner Bratton (photo: @NYPDnews)

James Blake's treatment by NYPD officer James Frascatore was appalling, and only reinforces the need for substantive reforms that have yet to be acted on by Mayor de Blasio, Commissioner Bratton, and the New York City Council.

While the incident may have been shocking to some, it was unsurprising to those of us living in black and Latino neighborhoods throughout our city. And if it hadn't happened to a tennis celebrity with a Harvard pedigree, it may have never come to public light, with Officer Frascatore spared the same scrutiny.

For those of us working towards constructive changes that eliminate police abuse and brutality, James Blake was sadly just the latest incident of police brutality.

The reality is that some officers too often abuse the power they wield in communities. Whether it's excessive use of force, violation of basic rights, or disrespectful conduct, these transgressions occur on a regular basis.

Yet, the mayor and police commissioner have balked at addressing the issue of abusive policing head on with action, while paying some rhetorical service redirecting public attention from real accountability.

Neither their vague neighborhood-policing plan – without comprehensive community engagement – nor their commitment to provide new training to officers will address this systemic problem. Commissioner Bratton's latest announcement about enforcement of the NYPD's minor rules on officers also won't impact the failure to hold them accountable for violating their primary oath to protect and serve.

Until departmental policy and the fundamental nature of police-civilian encounters are changed, abuses will continue unchecked.

Beyond the New Yorkers, such as Eric Garner, who have been killed by police in an unjust or questionable manner during the two years of the de Blasio administration, many other troubling non-fatal incidents have come to light: the police officer who punched a teenager unconscious in Clinton Hill, the NYPD officer who shoved two women, one of whom was five-months pregnant, and the most recent piling on and punching of a man in a Brooklyn Target.

That's just a small sample of incidents known to the public.

The fact that Officer Frascatore is the subject of four lawsuits for excessive force during false arrests and five Civilian Complaint Review Board complaints in only four years in the department demonstrates that the problem isn't training or neighborhood policing; it's the lack of accountability for officers who conduct themselves in this way. Paid suspensions or moving someone around within the department is not enough.

Officer Daniel Pantaleo – who placed Eric Garner in a chokehold – similarly had provoked multiple lawsuits. As long as officers see no real consequence for conduct like this, we will not see change.

The problem is historic and systemic, which is why we called for Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner Bratton to implement zero tolerance for police brutality in our end of 2013 transition report, Safety & Civil Rights for All New Yorkers: The Mayor's First 100 Days. That would mean that there is no place in the NYPD for officers who brutalize civilians.

The fact that neither Frascatore nor any of the officers on the scene identified themselves as police or showed their badges speaks to a chronic problem that New Yorkers face when interacting with officers.

As Mr. Blake so aptly explained, had he actually defended himself from someone in plain clothes who never identified as law enforcement seemingly assaulting him, the incident could have escalated and he could have ended up seriously injured or worse.

There are solutions to these systemic problems. De Blasio and Bratton must get serious about police brutality by enacting a strict policy that removes officers who brutalize civilians from the department. The New York City Council must also pass the Right to Know Act, which would require officers to identify themselves to civilians and to explain the reason for law enforcement activity.

If Officer Frascatore had taken these simple steps, the whole despicable incident might have been avoided. And if these simple steps, or real consequences for not taking them, become law, other incidents like this can be avoided as well.

Winston-Griffith is the executive director of Brooklyn Movement Center, which is a member of Communities United for Police Reform.

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Pope Francis' Green New York

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Pope Francis (photo via The Vatican on flickr)

Nothing Pope Francis does is by accident.

Read the schedule of the Pope's visit here and you'll see Pope Francis' view of New York City as a home to millions and a seat of international influence. In addition to connecting personally with New Yorkers, he'll leverage New York's status as an iconic global city to reinforce his papal priorities: climate change and poverty.

The People's Pontiff will visit an East Harlem grade school that is teaching students to be stewards of the earth. He'll greet thousands of New Yorkers in a drive through Central Park, New York's green heart where 400,000 people took their first steps in the largest-ever march for climate action. And he'll deliver the opening speech at the United Nations' Summit on Sustainable Development Goals, where world leaders will try to ramp-up global efforts to ensure that poor nations are lifted up and our resources and planet are protected through investing in renewable energy.

The Pope's visit to New York comes almost exactly on the anniversary of the historic 2014 People's Climate March, which transformed the way the American public, lawmakers, and world leaders understand climate change. No longer an abstract scientific phenomenon, climate change became an immediate threat to our people and our children.

World leaders jolted to action. In the year since the march, countries have been working diligently to reach an international climate agreement curbing the planet's dangerous warming. The United States and China agreed to reduce the carbon emissions that are driving climate change. President Obama announced limits on pollution from power plants and drilling. New York State mapped out a plan to get halve our energy from renewable sources within 15 years, and New York City committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent in the next 15 years.

We've continued the momentum of the march by organizing the People's Climate Movement. Strengthening the ties between labor, faith, indigenous, and green groups, we're holding a National Day of Action on October 14. It will be an opportunity for those who have heard the Pope's call to push for big, meaningful solutions - like a global climate deal in Paris in December.

Pope Francis deepened the global climate policy discussion, penning an Encyclical articulating the moral crisis of climate change - that the poorest countries and communities who have contributed the least to climate change are the most vulnerable to its most dangerous effects.

The evidence is in the communities that have yet to recover from Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, the high rates of asthma in the South Bronx, the Native Alaskan villages that are sinking into the once-frozen Arctic Ocean, and the farmers in California's Central Valley whose fields are parched to the point of cracking, to name only a few.

Pope Francis speaks about interconnectedness and brotherhood. Seemingly divided by political boundaries, we are connected by the natural world. We are not separated by oceans - there is no greater unifying challenge than rising seas.

Pope Francis is using the world's brightest spotlight to lift up the lives of people threatened by climate change, and to hold institutions accountable to their responsibilities. Long after His Holiness' visit, we'll be working to realize the changes he calls for here in New York, and across the country. We can get it done, but it won't be a walk in the park.

Eddie Bautista is the Executive Director of the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance and an organizer of the People's Climate Movement.

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Latest Prison Sentencing Recalls History of Legislative Corruption and Achievement

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US Attorney Preet Bharara prosecutes corruption (photo via

Ex-Queens Assemblymember William Scarborough is the latest New York State legislator to be convicted of corruption. Scarborough, a lawmaker for two decades, filed 174 phony travel vouchers between 2009 and 2012 to receive more than $54,000 in unwarranted per diems. He put in for travel reimbursements on some days when he was at home in his district, not in or in transit to Albany.

Scarborough resigned his Assembly seat after being indicted last spring. He was sentenced to 13 months in federal prison for his crimes. He also received a year on state charges for misuse of campaign funds, which will be served at the same time as his federal incarceration.

But at his sentencing, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas A. McAvoy was almost apologetic for imposing the prison term. "I think essentially you're a good, decent human being who just made a mistake...a good representative of the people," he told Scarborough.

Since 1999, more than 30 state lawmakers have been forced from office due to ethical misconduct or conviction for crimes. Earlier this year, the Speaker of the Assembly and the Majority Leader of the Senate were both indicted and forced from their leadership posts.

But Judge McAvoy's comments remind us of how complicated New York politics can be. Scarborough was both a good representative of the people in his district and also a crook. New York is a politically complicated place. Appearances can be deceiving. Sometimes, legislative corruption and progressive legislation exist side by side.

Albany politics from a century or so ago provides some useful comparisons and insights.

History books often focus on corruption in the legislature in the last years of the 19th century and the opening years of the 20th, including corporations influencing legislators to secure beneficial legislation and political "bosses" unresponsive to the people heading both parties.

Senate Majority Leader Jotham Allds resigned in disgrace in 1910 after it was revealed that he had taken a bribe to kill a legislative proposal when he had been in the Assembly years earlier.

Governor William Sulzer was impeached and removed from office in 1913 for misuse of campaign funds. Legislative investigations and newspaper revelations turned out other instances of influence peddling, misuse of state funds, or other misconduct.

But during the same time period, from the late 1890s to about 1914, under governors, legislative leaders, and political bosses from both parties, the state legislature passed progressive legislation that surpassed any other state.

On the Republican side, governor Charles Evans Hughes (1907-1910) was one of the most progressive governors in the nation. He set a high tone for ethical government, reminding his fellow New Yorkers in his inaugural address that "We subordinate individual caprice to defined duty."

On the Democratic side, as historian Terry Golway demonstrates in his book "Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics," Tammany Hall, often pilloried as the embodiment of corruption, quietly backed reform measures that benefitted its urban constituency. Two Tammany Democrats destined for future greatness rose to leadership positions-- Senator Robert Wagner became Majority Leader and Assemblymember Alfred E. Smith became Assembly Majority Leader in 1911 and moved up to Speaker in 1913. Wagner later went on to a distinguished career as U.S. Senator, and Smith later became one of New York's most effective governors.

For instance, the legislature passed the state's first gun control legislation, in 1911, sponsored by a Tammany stalwart and sometime scoundrel, Assemblymember Timothy Sullivan.

It created the first state labor department in the nation.

Legislation placed severe restrictions on child labor in 1903. The legislation was quietly championed by one of New York's least remembered governors, Republican Benjamin B. Odell (1901-1905).

In the wake of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York in 1911, the legislature passed a suite of industrial fire and safety regulations that made New York the model for the rest of the nation. Wagner and Smith headed the legislative commission that investigated factory working conditions after the fire, shaped the legislation, and shepherded it through the legislature.

In 1910, New York passed the nation's first workers' compensation law, guaranteeing partial wages and support for medical expenses to workers injured on the job in a range of occupations.

Another law unified state education oversight through creation of the State Education Department.

A law was passed establishing the Health Department with broad responsibilities for public health.

Legislation was enacted that set standards prohibiting the construction of overcrowded tenement buildings and requiring adequate ventilation and fire safeguards in housing construction.

A law was passed that established the Public Service Commission to regulate railroads and other public utilities.

The legislature created a state highway commission, launching the state's 20th century road building.

The legislature also passed the state's first direct primary law.

Insurance and banking regulations were enacted or substantially strengthened.

Corrupt practices were rampant in the legislature in that era. Sometimes, there was political logrolling and occasionally do-over's. For instance, the worker's compensation law was declared unconstitutional in 1911 by the State Court of Appeals. Within two years, however, the legislature passed and voters ratified an amendment to the constitution which made it acceptable.

These accomplishments reflect the progressive spirit of the times: negotiation and pragmatic compromise between the two political parties, keep government responsive, reform it to meet real problems, use government to keep New York in the forefront of the nation on social and economic reforms. Looking back over New York State's long history, legislative accomplishments and unethical behavior sometimes seem to flourish almost side by side.

Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne is the author of the book The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State's History, published in 2015 by SUNY Press.

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Charting the Path for Immigrant Advocacy, Together

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(photo: Make the Road NY)

Serious moments call for serious discussion, and action. And so it is with immigration politics in our country today.

Three years after President Obama's deferred action for DREAMers, two years after the Senate's passage of a comprehensive immigration reform bill, and one year after the President's announcement of deferred action for parents of US citizen children and others, the movement for immigrant justice has clearly won tremendous victories.

At the same time, we continue to confront intransigence in Congress, roadblocks to immigration relief, and now a Republican presidential primary that has fueled a host of cynical anti-immigrant rhetoric.

This moment clearly calls for action—as immigrant groups around the country continue to mobilize against anti-immigrant forces and advocate for sensible federal, state, and local immigration policies—but it also warrants reflection.

And that's why, this year, New Yorkers should be extremely excited that we're hosting the National Immigrant Integration Conference (NIIC,, the country's largest annual conference dedicated to discussions about how to enrich our democracy by welcoming and integrating immigrants into the fabric of our nation.

To be held at the Brooklyn Marriott from December 13-15, the NIIC will bring together immigrant leaders and advocates from across the country to discuss issues like the implementation of deferred action, how to ensure workplace justice and workforce development for immigrant workers, and where our immigrant rights struggles fit into the landscape of other social movements.

And there's simply no better place to have these discussions than New York. With roughly 3 million immigrants representing nearly 40 percent of the population, 45 percent of the workforce, and 49 percent of small business owners, immigrants are an essential part of our city's dynamic economy and culture.

And, in recent years, New York City has been at the forefront of path-breaking immigrant integration policy victories, including guaranteeing language access in the provision of government services, removing immigration enforcement from Rikers Island, crafting a universal public defender program for immigrants facing deportation, and creating a municipal identification program that is open to people regardless of immigration status.

These examples offer important lessons for other parts of our nation, just as New York can continue to learn from developments throughout the country. And that's why immigrant New Yorkers and those working with our communities should be sure to join us for the NIIC, which will be co-hosted by the National Partnership for New Americans and the New York Immigration Coalition, along with Make the Road New York and the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.

As we move into 2016, when immigration will continue to be at the forefront of our national discussion, it's vital that our communities come together to chart our course forward. But, to do that most effectively, we need everyone in the same room together.

Javier H. Valdés is the Co-Executive Director of Make the Road New York, the largest grassroots community organization in New York offering services and organizing the immigrant community, and a member of the Fairness Coalition of Queens. On Twitter: @maketheroadny.

For more information and to register for NIIC, go to

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Mayor's Needed Computer Science Plan Holds Great Promise

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De Blasio giving his education speech (photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office)


When Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Wednesday that the city will invest $81 million to ensure all New York City students have access to computer science classes, he took a major step towards preparing those students for the high-tech world of work they will eventually enter.

It is a long-needed commitment – enhanced by philanthropic support – to bring quality STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) coursework to every neighborhood and every student in the city. The mayor is right to be critical of our current education system where only five percent of public school students now get access to computer science. As the mayor said, "too many students are learning to type instead of learning to code."

At Brooklyn Tech High School, the commitment to creating the future leadership of computer science and programming was on display this month when four Brooklyn Tech students won one of the top prizes in the recent PennApps hackathon in Philadelphia. The students finished third in the world's largest such annual competition, which this year drew more than 2,000 participants on teams from 147 colleges and graduate schools from 11 countries and 24 states.

The success of the four Tech students – senior Mary Karroge and juniors Ben Spiegel, August Trollback and Kevin Zhang – underscores the commitment Brooklyn Tech has made to computer science. The students won for developing a coding system called SemQuery, which uses structure and semantics instead of conventional textual searches that enhances flexibility by enabling users to construct more efficient, accurate, and language agnostic queries than the current textual or regex-based searches.

If you ask me to explain in detail what the students presented, I would be stuck going beyond the buzzwords. I was a chemical engineering major at Tech, but that was in the 1960s, a time when we still used slide rules and carbon paper, and sometimes even counted on our fingers.

But their recent win at a worldwide college level hackathon shows how important and relevant Brooklyn Tech remains today to advancing the education of our city's students coming from working class, immigrant, and poor families. Most of Tech's students qualify for free or subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.

As proud as we are of our Tech students – who benefit from the most rigorous and challenging STEM-based curriculum in the city and beyond – we know that there are talented students across the city in every neighborhood that will benefit from the program announced by Mayor de Blasio.

Many other elements in the program the mayor announced show that commitment, which is consistent with his earlier expansion of universal pre-kindergarten programs to make New York City kids the best prepared for the future. Insisting that every child be offered algebra – the precursor of all advanced mathematical, technical and scientific education – by the ninth grade is essential as well.

The city must go further, to insist that every district and neighborhood in the city include the kind of gifted-and-talented programs in elementary schools that allow students from every ethnic and racial background, and from every economic background, to succeed on the Specialized High School Admissions Test used for entrance to the city's eight most competitive high schools and to succeed in those schools' demanding curriculum.

But it is still the case that your chances of educational success are too closely correlated with the neighborhood you grow up in, an utterly unacceptable circumstance that hobbles chances to attack the persistent social and economic inequality the mayor has committed his administration to attacking.

(I would be remiss if I did not point out, though, that the city once again has provided only 87 percent of the funding Brooklyn Tech is entitled to under allocation formulas, continuing to shortchange talented working class students from all over the city who deserve the full support to which they are entitled.)

Still, the commitments announced by the mayor to ensure that all students get the opportunity to succeed in a quality STEM-based curriculum is a critical step in closing the digital divide. We all benefit if it succeeds.

Larry Cary is the President of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The LaGuardia VaporTrain?

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Cuomo & Biden announce LAG plan (image: Office of the Governor - Kevin P. Coughlin)

In Silicon Valley, the technology industry regularly releases new hardware and software to eager customers. Tech companies are also known for announcing vaporware; products that receive a great deal of favorable publicity but are never actually manufactured or officially canceled. In New York, we've been hearing praise for something along those lines, a project that we refer to as the LaGuardia VaporTrain.

Since Vice President Joe Biden's remarks last year that LaGuardia Airport is reminiscent of "a third-world country," there has been a great deal of coverage of its proposed overhaul. In January, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that a new $450 million Air-Train would connect LaGuardia with both the 7-train subway line and the Long Island Rail Road in Willets Point next to Citi Field.

This summer, Biden and Cuomo said that as part of a $4 billion overhaul, LaGuardia will essentially be torn down and rebuilt. A new central terminal will be constructed and two miles of new taxiways will lead to shorter and fewer gate delays. The governor said "best of all, it's not a plan, it's not a sketch, it's not a dream, it's not a's actually happening."

The media has been reporting that the metropolitan area's third busiest airport is finally going to get what Newark and JFK already have: a connection to the region's rail system. But, reporters haven't been reading the fine print.

When the governor and vice president announced the $4 billion project for the new and improved LaGuardia, it did not include any funding for the AirTrain. Instead, the state's documents indicate that the AirTrain will be designed to incorporate a future AirTrain terminal. That's a little bit of wishful thinking, like saying that the garage in your new home will be designed to accommodate a Ferrari.

State officials have not released any AirTrain details that would allow us to determine whether the proposal is a good or a bad idea. However, there are some good reasons to be skeptical about it.

The Project Will Be Expensive and Offer Limited Benefits
Considering the costs of other recent transportation projects in the region, a LaGuardia AirTrain will certainly cost more than $450 million. The project will include two airport stations and an elevated rail line to connect them. The Port Authority will need to install tracks, signals, and systems for power and communications. It will also need to purchase AirTrain vehicles and then construct a maintenance facility at or near the airport to maintain them. Although MTA chairman Thomas Prendergast doesn't like to second guess the governor in public, he did tell state legislators that the project would probably cost more than the governor's estimate.

The benefits of the project are questionable. For most travelers, taking the AirTrain will not be faster than the buses, shuttles, and taxis that currently serve LaGuardia. Travelers heading to Manhattan on the 7 train will have to first stop in Queens at 111 Street, 103 Street, Junction Boulevard, 90 Street, 82 Street, 74 Street, 69 Street, 61 Street, 52 Street, 46 Street, 40 Street, 33 Street, Queensboro Plaza, Court Square, Hunters Point, and Vernon Boulevard.

The express train on the 7 line, which runs during non-peak periods, isn't much faster. It stops at six stops before reaching Manhattan. Another weakness with the project is that once air travelers do reach Manhattan, many of them will have to transfer for another train at Grand Central or Times Square to reach their final destinations.

While a taxi ride from LaGuardia to midtown Manhattan typically takes 20 to 35 minutes, a train will take much longer. Just the portion of the trip on the 7 line will take 25 to 30 minutes. It is possible, though, that during especially bad traffic, people with final destinations in Times Square or the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center would find the AirTrain to be faster.

Although the 7 travels through some wonderful neighborhoods, most air travelers are not likely to find the trip very pleasant. The 7 is one of the nation's most crowded subway lines and when travelers do get off the subway in Manhattan, they will have to navigate stations with multiple levels that were not designed for people carrying luggage.

The other option for LaGuardia's AirTrain passengers will be the Long Island Rail Road at Willets Point. But, that may not offer a faster trip than the subway. Although the railroad trip is less than 20 minutes to Penn Station, service on the LIRR branch that serves Willets Points runs only every half-hour during off-peak periods. That is much less frequent than the service the railroad provides for JFK AirTrain customers at Jamaica Station, a location where multiple LIRR lines meet.

When travelers choose whether or not they will use the AirTrain (if it is actually built), they will consider travel costs as well as time and comfort. Assuming that the fares are similar to those for other airport customers in the New York area, the LaGuardia AirTrain connection using the railroad will cost between $11 and $13.25 in today's dollars. That is similar to the $13 cost of a shuttle bus, but more than the $2.75 it now costs travelers who access the airport via a subway and an MTA bus.

If the AirTrain does not offer a savings in time, comfort or cost, it is unlikely to attract a large number of airport customers. LaGuardia's proximity to Manhattan -- it is only 4 miles away -- tends to attract business travelers who will prefer paying for a $31 taxi ride that gets them to their destinations faster and less frazzled.

Someone Has to Pay for It
The money to build and operate a new AirTrain has to come from somewhere. The transportation agencies do not have enough resources to pay for the projects already in their pipelines, let alone a new one. That means they have two choices. Either postpone another project or find additional revenues such as by raising tolls, airline fees, or increasing the subway and PATH fares.

The Port Authority could postpone its fledgling plans to fix another critical entry to the city – the 42 Street Bus Terminal – which serves about three times as many daily passengers as LaGuardia. Elected officials will need to consider which is a higher priority: providing a new rail service that would be used by several thousand daily air travelers or improving the bus terminal which is used by over 230,000 weekday passengers.

Setbacks for Previous Plans
Cuomo's plan for an AirTrain is not the first plan for a rail connection to LaGuardia and may not be the last. In 1994, the director of the Port Authority airport access program said about a rail connection to LaGuardia, "The AirTrain is going to get built." He explained "No one thinks you can build anything like this in New York anymore. But they're wrong."

In 1994, the AirTrain was planned to extend from LaGuardia to the Queensboro Bridge where it would cross the East River on the 59 Street Bridge. That idea died because former Mayor Rudy Giuliani was suspicious of any Port Authority idea and because he didn't think it made sense to take a lane away from cars and trucks on the bridge.

Instead, Giuliani preferred extending the subway line (what is now the N train) to LaGuardia Airport. He wanted travelers to be able to take a train directly from the airport to Midtown and Lower Manhattan destinations without having to transfer trains. Transportation planners refer to this as a "one-seat ride."

But Giuliani's idea died because residents in Astoria, where the subway line currently terminates, came out in force against it. The speaker of the New York City Council at the time, Peter Vallone Sr., just so happened to come from that neighborhood.

Before the governor and the transportation agencies make any decisions about LaGuardia, we hope they provide the public with detailed cost estimates, anticipated ridership numbers, expected travel times, and a financial plan. Right now, we can't tell you whether or not it makes sense for the Port Authority and the MTA to build it, but we can tell you that we're hoping to learn more - much more - about it.

by Philip M. Plotch and Nicholas D. Bloom

Plotch is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Masters in Public Administration program at Saint Peter's University in Jersey City. He is the former director of World Trade Center Redevelopment and Special Projects for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, and the former manager of planning for New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority. He is the author of Politics Across the Hudson: The Tappan Zee Megaproject.

Bloom is associate professor at the New York Institute of Technology where he is also Chair of Urban Administration and Interdisciplinary Studies. He has written many books including The Metropolitan Airport: JFK International and Modern New York and the forthcoming edited collection from Princeton University Press, Affordable Housing in New York: The People, Places, and Policies That Transformed a City.

A Fall Agenda for the City Council Veterans Committee

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CM Ulrich presents veteran Robinson Arana with a proclamation (photo: @eric_ulrich) 


A year ago I wrote a column on issues the New York City Council Veterans Committee should consider holding hearings to address. It was an ambitious agenda, and many in the veterans community were still in a honeymoon phase with the newly structured committee and weren’t sure what to fully expect.

However, under the leadership of the chair, Council Member Eric Ulrich, the committee continued its serious and straightforward approach toward issues of importance to the city’s military veterans. This resulted in not only renewed optimism and increased participation from the community, it led to a number of bills signed into law and saw a city budget for the new 2016 fiscal year that contains an additional $2.9 million toward veteran services.

As we rapidly approach the Council committee’s first fall hearing this week, it’s time again to set a fall agenda. Suggestions, in no particular order:

Veterans Legal Task Force: With the creation of Veterans Courts across the country over the past decade, one of the major problems in the city has been the disparity of how veterans are treated in the criminal justice system depending on what borough they live in or where they happen to be arrested.  This is a major issue, especially in Manhattan – the only borough that currently doesn’t have a Veterans Court.

Last February, the Veterans Committee, along with the Committee on Courts and Legal Services, held an oversight hearing on Veterans Treatment Courts. As a result, Council Members Ulrich and Rory Lancman proposed legislation calling for the creation of a Veterans Legal Task Force to study veterans’ access to legal services and resources within the city’s criminal justice system. That bill (Intro. 793) is scheduled to be the focus of the committee’s first hearing on Friday and is an excellent topic to start the new legislative session.

Mental Health: In May and June the committee held hearings that touched upon mental health issues.  In both instances, Commissioner Loree Sutton, head of the Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs, highlighted MOVA’s partnership with New York City First Lady Chirlane McCray, who over the past several months has been meeting with city service providers, non-profit organizations, and advocates in preparation to unveil her “mental health roadmap” sometime this fall.  

As part of those meetings, the First Lady visited local VA hospitals, met with veteran advocates in the arts space, and sat down with the wives of senior military officials during Fleet Week. The administration has not been forthcoming on what the roadmap may look like for veterans and the community awaits its release this fall. When the report is unveiled, the Council committee should consider holding a hearing with city agencies, non-profits, veteran service organizations, and mental health advocates to discuss how feasible the plan is and if there are any areas for veterans that can be improved upon.

[Related: McCray Set to Unveil 'Mental Health Roadmap,' Signature De Blasio Plan]

Veteran Homelessness: During his January State of the City address, Mayor de Blasio promised to end veteran homelessness in New York City by the end of the year. This was an ambitious goal, but as of July the City appeared to be on track to reach it.

Unfortunately, a recent New York Daily News report states that it is now unlikely veteran homelessness in the city will be ended this year - but it should be acknowledged that huge gains have been made toward reaching “functional zero.” In 2013, there were 3,000 veterans in shelters and over 300 on the streets. Today, there are roughly 950 veterans in shelters and fewer than 20 on the streets. That is a precipitous drop by any measure.

The committee has not had a hearing on homeless veterans since November of 2011 and this would be an opportune time to hear from the administration regarding what steps it’s taking to get to functional zero; how it's working with the VA; and to solicit thoughts and ideas from non-profits, advocates, and the public.

Veteran Vendors: It’s been thirty-four years since the city capped the number of street-vending permits, creating a black market that allows permit holders, some whom don’t even reside in the city, to renew them every two years at regulated prices and then rent them out for much higher prices to vendors who then masquerade as independent contractors.

Recently, the City reduced the amounts on some fines, however, disputes between street vendors, BIDs, and brick-and-mortar businesses has made vending inefficient and sometimes dangerous. After years of complaining from all sides, Crain's New York Business reported that there is a move in the City Council to create legislation that will address these issues.

When this legislation is finally introduced (presumably this fall), military veterans who are vendors will also need to have their voices heard regarding how the legislation will affect them. Therefore, the committee should consider holding a joint hearing with the Consumer Affairs Committee to solicit input and feedback from veterans on this legislation.

Intro. 314: Last September Council Member Ulrich held a hearing on Intro. 314 - a bill that would change the Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs (MOVA) into a separate department, outside of the mayor’s office but still under the mayor’s purview. This bill would expand the office's capabilities while also making it easier for Council members to obtain funding for local veteran providers in the boroughs directly through MOVA, instead of through other city agencies that are unfamiliar with these groups.

Currently, the legislation has enough votes to make it out of committee and then, in all likelihood, the full Council. However, there must first be compromise between the de Blasio administration and the Council as this bill would require many changes regarding oversight, budgeting, mission, and even place in the City Charter. Nevertheless, this is an important piece of legislation for the veterans community and a follow-up hearing and vote to finally move it out of committee should be held.

Lastly, the committee should consider follow-up hearings with the city Department of Small Business Services on its report recommendations and progress on a pilot program regarding city contracts for veteran-owned businesses; as well as a hearing on veterans and legal issues such as Family and Housing Courts.

Like last year, I am recommending a fairly hefty agenda and it won’t all happen this month. However, if Council Member Ulrich and committee members continue to approach veterans issues with the due diligence they’ve shown over the past year; the coming months will be as successful as the past year. I look forward to following and participating in the committee’s work.

Joe Bello served 11 years in the U.S. Navy/Naval Reserve and has been a veteran’s advocate in New York City for two decades. He is a member of the City’s Veterans Advisory Board and the founder of NY MetroVets.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.