Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics



Ending Hunger by Supporting Food Pantries and Making Sure They Aren’t the Only Option

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Free food offerings (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

Even before the COVID-19 crisis, far too many of our neighbors didn’t know where their next meal would come from. Today, the number of food-insecure New Yorkers stands at a staggering 1.6 million people. In the Bronx, 24% of residents—including children, seniors, and working families—are impacted. While it is crucial to continue supporting the civic sector, which includes community-based organizations, faith partners, and food pantries, we must also ensure that these essential partners are not the first and only line of defense against hunger.

To make it easier for New Yorkers, especially seniors, to follow the public health guidance of remaining at home and maintaining social distance, the City established a suite of programs to address the food access challenges presented by the pandemic. GetFoodNYC’s Emergency Home Food Delivery program has delivered more than 65 million meals to date, and Grab & Go operations at Department of Education sites have distributed a similar number, no questions asked, through community hub sites as well as to families whose children are enrolled in blended and remote learning.

Tens of millions of dollars in City funds have been distributed directly to food pantries to ensure that resources get to the people and places where they are most needed. And now, pantries are receiving fresh produce, including produce grown in the region, to support the health of New Yorkers, as well as the livelihoods of our regional farm economy. The City has distributed over 2.2 million pounds of produce to pantries so far, with more on the way.

Even with these supplemental efforts, food pantries - essential to the communities they serve - have been stretched to the max. Some have even had to close their doors as a result of their dependence on the older adult volunteers who have traditionally contributed to their operation. At the same time, many more have expanded their efforts to feed the staggering lines that form in the early hours of the days, and the two of us joined one such operation last week to distribute Thanksgiving meals at the Bronx’s Mitchel Houses. 

Despite these incredible efforts, though, the network of pantries across the city was simply not built to handle a crisis of this scale. In order to provide solutions for the growing numbers of food insecure New Yorkers, one thing is clear: we’ve got to go beyond pantries.

According to a recent report by Columbia University, only one in four people who face food hardships actually turn to pantries. Who are these food insecure New Yorkers? Look around: school children, college students, working adults and families, seniors living on a fixed income. The face of hunger in the City of New York is diverse. If we are to truly address food insecurity in this city, we need to make it easier for people to get food where they are: in their local bodegas or grocery stores or on their way to work, and prepared food as well as groceries.

For the last four years, the City has fought hard to protect our safety net of Federal Food Assistance Programs, the legal designation for pantries at the federal level, from being systematically eroded by the Trump Administration. Now, we must work to reverse the damage that has been done by changes like the Public Charge Rule, which would deny green cards to immigrants who use SNAP or other public benefits, and go even further to make food assistance accessible to anyone in need.

The SNAP program – formerly known as Food Stamps – brings revenues of over $2 billion to New York City, yet only three retailers are authorized to accept online payments (two of which are the corporate behemoths Amazon and Walmart). This city is made up of tens of thousands of small food businesses and independent retailers. We must empower them to accept online SNAP now, which would offer more options to New Yorkers and new revenue opportunities for small or struggling businesses. SNAP benefits overall must be increased. More health insurers need to incentivize and subsidize the cost of healthy foods.

More than anything, we need solutions that don’t just address the need for a meal tonight. We need to fix the system that makes food insecurity possible in the first place and this starts with paying people living wages, destigmatizing food assistance, and providing more options. Our pantries are doing incredible work, and charitable food is an important short-term fix, but it is problematic to rely on charities alone, particularly when government can, and must, do so much more to address this issue. 

Kate MacKenzie is the Director of the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy and Ruben Diaz, Jr. is the Bronx Borough President. On Twitter @nycfood & @rubediazjr.

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Light the Way to Diwali in New York City

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2019 Diwali at Gracie Mansion; Ramdat Singh's sign: “Add Diwali to the School calendar NOW!!!”

Each year, thousands of Indo-Caribbean and South Asian immigrant families celebrate Diwali in New York City. Also known as Deepavali, or the Festival of Lights, Diwali is an ancient holiday celebrated by multiple faiths, including Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, and some Buddhists, dating back more than 2,500 years. Through migration, immigrants have abundantly permeated this spiritual triumph of “good over evil, light over darkness, and knowledge over ignorance” in the United States.

However, in New York City, students, teachers, and administrators within the Department of Education are often forced to choose between their faith on one hand and their education and jobs on the other to observe Diwali at home with their family. This is because the mayor and Department of Education have refused to make Diwali a school holiday.

There are approximately 330,000 South Asians living in New York City, representing 4% of the city's population. In The Newest New Yorkers (2013 edition) from the city Department of Planning, it states that “three of the top 10 countries from which foreign-born New Yorkers trace their birth recognize Diwali as a national holiday: Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and India,” said Richard David.

Among the ongoing and colliding struggles of the Black Lives Matter movement and faith communities for equitable recognition through protest and resistance in the most culturally diverse city, this also directly impacts low-income and working-class documented and undocumented immigrant families, people in interfaith relationships, multi-racial families, and the diverse composition of the LGBTQ+ community. 

Diwali is celebrated around the world, and its observance remains alive in spite of colonization, indentureship, and immigration. Surviving decades of displacement, class struggles, ancestral traumas, and harm, the Indian diaspora have used their bodies, voices, music, and other interdisciplinary mediums to preserve religious traditions and culture, including Diwali.

For Hindus, Diwali is the biggest holiday on the calendar; think of it as the “Christmas for Hindus.” While it holds different meanings depending on the region of the Indian Subcontinent, Diwali, a lunar holiday, is celebrated in the United States every year around the end of October or the beginning of November. Many Hindus recognize Diwali as a day celebrating the return of Lord Ram of Ayodhya, his wife Sita, and his brother Lakshman after 14 years of exile. Ram is viewed as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, the protector of the universe. Sita is considered to be an incarnation of Lakshmi, the goddess of light and prosperity. For Hindus of Western and Southern India and the diaspora, Diwali symbolizes Lord Krishna’s defeat of the demon Narakasura, freeing 16,000 imprisoned girls.

According to Sikh history, Bandi Chhor Divas commemorates Guru Hargobind’s release from prison by the Mughal Emperor Jahangir and his return to Amritstar. Identical to Diwali, the Bandi Chhor Divas observance includes the lighting of homes and Gurdwaras, gift exchange, sweets, and family time. “In Jainism, Diwali commemorates the anniversary of Lord Mahavir‘s attainment of moksha, or freedom from the cycle of reincarnation, in 527 B.C.E. Lord Mahavir was the 24th and last Thirtankar of Jainism and revitalized the religion as it is today,” said Nikhil Bumb.

For some Buddhists, Diwali, also known as Ashok VijayaDashami, honors Emperor Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism. From fighting for social justice and gender equity to ending trafficking, incarceration, and bigotry, Diwali represents the fight against oppression we’ve experienced in 2020 and the victory of light over darkness, coincidentally an ode to the healing our country and city desperately needs right now.

Since the early 2000s, advocates, faith leaders, and community organizers throughout New York City have navigated the complex political landscape to demand Diwali be adopted to the Department of Education’s school calendar. Another year and another Diwali celebration has just passed. Still, advocates are mobilizing and renewing the call for the New York City Council to affirm its support for a Diwali school holiday by passing a resolution and the mayor to declare Diwali a public school holiday in the city.

This year, Diwali was on November 14, and the de Blasio administration was silent on this issue. Amidst the global COVD-19 pandemic and the Trump administration’s relentless attacks on Black and brown immigrants, New York City has proven to be a sanctuary city for all. Throughout the city, Diwali celebrations went virtual to keep marginalized communities safe and to stop the spread of the coronavirus. However, these celebrations have also mirrored the disappointment knowing elected officials have refused to acknowledge this 20-year call to action, an act which in of itself can be deemed discriminatory and anti-immigrant. 

In 2018, Resolution 0146 was introduced to the New York City Council by Council Member Daniel Dromm to “call upon the New York City Department of Education to establish Diwali as an official holiday for NYC public school students.” On February 26, 2020, the City Council’s Education Committee adopted the Resolution, but it remains stalled for passage by the entire Council. The Resolution has a supermajority co-sponsorship with 37 members of the 51-seat chamber. Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Council Members Ydanis Rodriguez, Bill Perkins, Mark Gjonaj, Vanessa Gibson, Mathieu Eugene, Farrah Louis, Alan Maisel, Chaim Deutsh, Steven Matteo, and Joseph Borrelli have not signaled support for the Resolution. However, Public Advocate Jumanne Williams, a former Council member, is a proud co-sponsor for the Resolution and has always been an advocate for inclusivity in New York City. 

Speaker Johnson, as an openly-gay, HIV-positive person, has built a political career based on equality and respect. This is why we are calling on him to reaffirm those values by bringing Resolution 146 to a vote before the end of the year.

New York City is home to both the largest South Asian and Indo-Caribbean (Guyanese, Trinidadian, Jamaican, Surinamese, etc.) diasporic populations, a contributor to the city’s economy, and language and cultural diversity, and a growing political power machine as seen with the recent elections of Zohran Mamdani and Jenifer Rajkumar to the State Assembly. In New York City, Diwali celebrations have emerged for decades throughout the five boroughs. In the Bronx, the Vishnu Mandir, which was established in 1996, creates spaces for Hindu devotees in the Bronx to take refuge in spiritual consciousness and participate in Diwali celebrations. Since 2013, the South Asian community has organized the annual “Diwali in Times Square” to convene the South Asian Hindu city diaspora. In Richmond Hill, Queens, the holiday season is kicked off with the Diwali Motorcade - a tradition that began in Guyana, migrated to New York City by Indo-Caribbeans, and sustained by the Divya Jyoti Association.

The New York City Council typically hosts an annual Diwali event, with cultural performances and proclamations, in the Council Chambers at City Hall. Respectively, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens Borough Presidents host their observance, with prayers, diya lighting, music, and dance. Stepping up to affirm inclusivity in the Bronx, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. issued a proclamation on November 14, designating “Diwali Week in the Bronx.”

Since Bill de Blasio became Mayor, he has hosted an annual Diwali event at Gracie mansion. At the 2019 Diwali event at Gracie Mansion, the Mayor proclaimed that “this is about respect for one of the great faiths of this Earth.” The program included live entertainment, an opening prayer by an Indo-Caribbean Hindu Priest, and honoring the accomplishments of 30 Rock actor Malik Pancholy.

While the Mayor delivered his remarks, he did not expect to be greeted by Ramdat Singh, an educator and Hindu Bronx resident, who proudly held a sign silently, protesting the mayor’s inaction on Diwali as a school holiday. Security quickly aborted Singh’s civil disobedience and they escorted him out of Gracie Mansion. The queer political organizer and public school teacher regularly chooses between practicing his religion and ensuring his students get a quality education. To be transparent, Singh faithfully takes a religious observance day, but this means his students lose a day of instruction. 

The mayor and City Council members avidly reaffirm to New Yorkers that the city’s legislative priorities are rooted in equity for all. Yet, only certain major religions get a school holiday for their main cultural festivals. Currently, the school calendar includes observance for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover, Christmas, Easter, Eid al Adha, Eid al Fitr, and the Lunar New Year. Students and teachers of Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism faiths should not have to choose between practicing their religion and getting an education. 

Since the formation of the Caribbean Equality Project (CEP) in 2015, the immigrant rights Caribbean LGBTQ organization has relentlessly advocated for inclusive and affirming religious spaces in New York City. From breaking barriers at the historic 2015 Diwali Motorcade and becoming the first Caribbean-oriented LGBTQ organization to wave the rainbow flag at the 2016 28th Annual Phagwah Parade in Queens to co-hosting the annual Brooklyn Diwali celebration at Brooklyn Borough Hall, CEP’s transnational culture-shifting activism is building on the legacy of grassroots organizations leading collective liberation movements in New York City. Joining a growing coalition of community organizers, faith-based institutions, and community-based organizations, CEP’s mobilization around the Diwali City Council Resolution 146 adds a queer lens to intersectional demand for the Council and mayor to end its cycle of performativity and tokenization of Diwali for political gain.

In New York City, queer and trans people of various nationalities, ethnicities, and faiths celebrate Diwali, a neglected nuance within LGBTQ and immigrant rights movements, especially as racial injustice and police brutality were amplified amid the pandemic. As thousands of homes lit up to celebrate Diwali, this spiritual significance of “victory of light over darkness” is symbolized by the transition of our new President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Devi Harris, a daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants. In many ways, the Hindu, Sikh, Jain, and Buddhist communities are asking the elected officials in New York City for one simple thing: to spend Diwali at home in prayer and celebration with their family.

If you agree with us that Diwali should become a school holiday in New York City and our communities receive the recognition they deserve, please contact the City Council speaker and the mayor. Diwali represents liberation, and together, we can liberate those who celebrate this special holiday for so many New Yorkers. Together, we can light the way to a Diwali holiday in New York City.

Mohamed Q. Amin is a queer Indo-Caribbean and Muslim immigrant and LGBTQ rights activist in New York City, and the Founder and Executive Director of the Caribbean Equality Project. @MohamedQAmin @CaribEquality

Ramdat Singh is a queer, Hindu, Guyanese, public school teacher living in the Bronx, a UFT member, and Director of Civic Engagement for the Caribbean Equality Project and a citywide Political Organizer. @RamdatSinghNYC

Pratima Doobay is a queer, Guyanese, Hindu Pandita living in Brooklyn, and facilitates faith-based discussions and mediations through Shridevi Arts. @KuShriDoobs

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Key Protections for Black, Brown, Immigrant, and Poor New Yorkers Await Governor Cuomo’s Signature

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Gov. Cuomo signing legislation (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)

This summer, New Yorkers statewide simultaneously reckoned with the new reality of COVID-19 and the persistent reality of systemic racist violence. The state Legislature heard the calls from millions in the streets and passed vital legislation during an emergency session that protects the communities most vulnerable to these twin threats. 

The State Senate and Assembly passed bills that would keep ICE out of New York’s courts and their eyes off COVID-19 contact-tracing information, a bill that would end the practice of suspending a driver’s license over traffic fines, and another that would move incarcerated parents to a prison closer to their children. 

Together these four bills provide urgent protections to Black, brown, immigrant, and poor  communities that have been hardest hit by this economic and health crisis. 

But while the Legislature took decisive action this summer, we are still waiting on action from Governor Cuomo. Now, four months after the bills passed, he has not signed them into law. Our communities can wait no longer. 

Immediate action by the governor is even more critical as we face a second wave of COVID-19. Communities of color and immigrant New Yorkers continue to be disproportionately impacted by the virus and the ongoing economic fallout. We need to protect the rights of all New Yorkers—public health depends on it.

The Protect Our Courts Act would ensure equal access for immigrants to state courts by preventing warrantless arrests by ICE targeting people simply attending court. As we celebrate essential workers—many of whom are immigrants—we must provide protections for immigrant New Yorkers traveling to, from, or attending court. ICE’s practices before and during the pandemic show that they have little regard for public safety—COVID-19 rates have exploded at detention centers across the state and the country.  

Contact tracing remains an important public health tool for stopping the spread of COVID-19 and keeping New Yorkers safe. But our current contact-tracing efforts are failing, in part because New Yorkers are rightfully concerned that our information will not be kept confidential. The solution awaits the governor’s signature. The Contact Tracing Confidentiality Act would prohibit police or immigration enforcement from having access to contact tracing information and ensure that contact tracing information cannot be used against us in court or administrative proceedings. It would also protect the confidentiality of contact tracing data and limit its use to public health purposes.

Essential workers have been called to the frontlines, but they are also one of the populations most at risk for traffic debt. The Driver’s License Suspension Reform Act would end New York’s cruel practice of suspending a person’s driver’s license if they cannot afford a traffic ticket, a practice that disproportionately impacts Black and brown New York communities—which, not coincidentally, are the communities hardest hit by COVID-19.

The pandemic has placed a huge strain on families with incarcerated loved ones, and visiting is hard enough without travelling hundreds of miles. The Proximity Bill would require the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) to move incarcerated parents to the New York State prison closest to their children after security level, health, and programming needs are met.

New Yorkers face a winter of tough choices. Governor Cuomo, though, has an easy one before him: sign these bills the Legislature passed months ago or do nothing and withhold protections from Black, Brown, poor, and immigrant communities, who have been the hardest hit by the health and economic fallout of the pandemic. 

Governor Cuomo's support for essential workers and communities of color on these issues is long overdue. All he needs to do is pick up his pen.

Marvin Mayfield is the Statewide Organizer at Center for Community Alternatives. Alice Fontier is the Managing Director at the Neighborhood Defender Services of Harlem. Whitney Hollins is an advisor to the New York Initiative for Children of Incarcerated Parents. Mizue Aizeki is the Interim Executive Director of the Immigrant Defense Project. Antonya Jeffrey is the New York State Deputy Director for the Fines and Fees Justice Center.

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For the Entire Metro Region, We Must Do Everything We Can to Avoid Another Broad Economic Shutdown

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Steve Bellone, the author/left, at a local business (photo: @SteveBellone)

To say that 2020 has been a rough year for New Yorkers would be the understatement of the century. COVID-19 hit us like a mack truck, with the greater New York City metropolitan area suffering the worst.

Working with Governor Cuomo, we quickly sprang into action to flatten the curve and save lives with a shutdown. But it did not come without a steep toll on our economy and small businesses. After months of strict shutdown rules, New Yorkers finally began to see a light at the end of the tunnel when many of our businesses that had been previously shut down were allowed to open their doors once again.

In Suffolk County, we worked tirelessly to give our businesses both large and small support and guidance to allow them to safely reopen. As a bedroom community of New York City whose economy is inextricably linked to the five boroughs, I was encouraged when the city turned a corner and clear progress was being made to return toward a sense of normalcy, albeit a new normal. Employers were given confidence that they could begin planning again for the future.

Now, as we head into a second covid wave, compounded by the winter months and flu season, we must stay laser-focused on curbing the spread. In what is a small silver lining of this entire ordeal, we can confidently say that we have learned a lot over these last eight months and are more equipped than ever to keep New Yorkers safe, while also protecting their livelihoods and the economy that we rely on to fund our critical services.

Governor Cuomo’s micro-cluster approach is a sound one that will help nip spikes in the bud before they become unmanageable, and will allow us to avoid the devastation of another blanket shutdown. The governor was right when he initially acknowledged that the business community isn’t contributing to the spread of the virus. Businesses, and the retail industry in particular, have taken a lead in enacting safety protocols to protect both consumers and employees. Even before many governments across the country required it, indoor retail locations took proactive steps to require masks on their premises, implement stringent cleaning protocols, and prominently place social distancing guidelines throughout stores. These are responsible solutions that have been proven to work and effectively curb the spread of the virus.

The effects of another blanket shutdown in New York City would be felt across our entire region. Businesses across the five boroughs not only impact the city, but our entire metropolitan region and the whole state, helping to provide tax revenue and employment to millions of New Yorkers. At a time when many jobs have been slow to return to New York, indoor shopping malls, retail stores, and other businesses provide a critical source of income for struggling families.

Additionally, the decisions around what businesses can remain open should be based on the safety protocols they have in place, not what items they sell. We learned over the course of the shutdown months that the distinctions of “essential” and “nonessential” businesses are artificial, as New Yorkers should be the deciders of what is essential for their family, and every single job and business matters to the people who rely on them. We must prioritize the notion that all work is essential and do everything in our power to allow people to work safely.

Whether it’s a retail store, your neighborhood restaurant, or any other service industry, all of our businesses contribute to the fabric of our society and employ our fellow New Yorkers. It’s incumbent on us as leaders to keep New Yorkers safe while ensuring that our economy can stay open and afloat.

New York City’s success is critical to all of our success, and it is my hope that Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo can work together on a plan to stamp down covid spikes and avoid a blanket shutdown until we can get a vaccine distributed. Both Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio have an immense opportunity to spearhead New York City’s economic revival and they would be right to take it.

Steve Bellone is the Suffolk County Executive. On Twitter @SteveBellone.

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Keeping Apart, Staying Connected, and Giving Thanks on This Very Different Thanksgiving

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Chirlane McCray, the author, thanking health care workers (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

This Thanksgiving will be unlike any other. The empty chairs at our tables are a stark reminder of lives lost, personal caution we must take, and the advisories to limit travel to control the spread of the coronavirus. Amid the rising virus toll and deep divisions symbolized by an electoral map of red states and blue states we still crave connection.

New Yorkers have something in common with those in every single state: the pain all humans suffer through sickness, isolation, death, economic distress, and socio-political upheaval. This year has been a powerful reminder of the need for emotional healing, as well as policies and a national mandate to prioritize behavioral health care. The past few months have also brought an equally powerful realization of how much we need each other.

Let us make this Thanksgiving a day to exercise gratitude for the many ways we have survived the long days and nights of 2020. From health-care workers saving lives to the teachers returning to classrooms amid uncertainty, our fellow Americans have had our backs. 

Here in New York, anyone needing support can find it 24/7, in over 200 languages through our NYC Well helpline at 1-888-NYC-Well. You can talk, text “well” to 65173, or visit  The city has also gathered resources and holiday advice at one accessible website

On the precipice of a dark winter, we will have to lean on one another for sustenance, for survival, for joy. We must connect to each other and what keeps us whole. Think about it. Do we care about the political affiliations of our teachers, our doctors, those working in food pantries or delivering the mail?  

No matter how they voted, everyone is under pressure. Seventy-six percent of Democrats and 67 percent of Republicans found the election significantly stressful, according to a recent American Psychological Association poll. New research suggests that almost one out of five COVID-19 patients are diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder within 90 days of a virus diagnosis. More than 12 million of us have tested positive for the coronavirus.

With the virus raging and the country in the midst of a political transition, our streets and our airwaves are far from quiet. Protestors continue to march against racial injustice. Some of our fellow citizens, including our current president, have raised their voices to question the election results, despite no evidence supporting that claim.

As an African American woman in her sixties, who has lived through many iterations of social justice movements, I am not naïve about the country’s continued need for change or the political struggles ahead. As a mental health care advocate and the First Lady of New York City, I sit at the juncture of the political and the personal. Those two worlds both overlap and collide. 

But this Thanksgiving, I hope others can bow their heads, as I will, to express gratitude for the high turnout for this presidential election, which one expert has suggested could well be the highest in over a century. People risked their health to stand in long lines to vote and exercise rights that cannot be taken for granted. 

This Thanksgiving, these many months of social distancing should only sharpen our awareness of the importance of our families, our neighbors, and our loved ones. Maybe instead of talking about politics and voting at our gatherings we can find ways to talk about our feelings, our hopes and dreams, and our fondest memories of times we have been together. 

Voting for president is just one expression of civic engagement. What do we know about politics closer to home? Who is our local councilperson? What about the school board? In a time of enormous need, there is so much we can do to help and show true citizenship. Volunteers are needed for seniors and for children, in animal shelters and in food lines. We can honor those we have lost by expanding our social circles and reaching out to friends and relatives in distant places. 

It is amazing what can be achieved when people go through tremendous pain and make it to the other side. Let us pledge to be civil in our disagreements, to push for continued progress, and to be grateful for what we have. 

Chirlane McCray is First Lady of New York City. On Twitter @NYCFirstLady.

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We’re Not All The Same: Rethinking ‘The Latino Vote’

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City Council Member Francisco Moya, the author (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

How many more elections until incumbents and newcomers in races across the country realize that we are not all the same?

“Speaking” the language or being designated Latino/Hispanic does not translate to our larger population sharing the same story or weighing issues with the same values.

According to Pew Research, a record 32 million Hispanics were projected to be eligible to vote in the United States in 2020, making up 13% of all eligible voters in the country. This is a growing population from all walks of life, of different races and ethnicities, with different religious beliefs, multigenerational, monolingual, bilingual, trilingual—and the list goes on.

And while Latinos voted for Biden by a +43-point margin according to the American Election Eve 2020 Survey, campaigns need to stop taking our votes for granted or assume that we are a bloc.

I urge candidates in electoral races across the country to not generalize the Latino population and not assume they will automatically have our vote.

First, to truly discern the communities that exist within our larger population, meet us where we are by diversifying your campaign teams, partnering with groups that are on the ground, and understanding the issues that are a priority. Do this across each pocket of our country.

One clear lesson from this year’s election is the Herculean effort by Latino-led organizations and community activists around the country—from Make the Road NY to LUCHA in Arizona and Mi Familia Vota across battleground states like Nevada—to educate and mobilize voters in the Latino electorate. This was evident in the results we saw in swing states from the top to the bottom of the ballot.

Take for instance here in New York. Many of us that grew up or live in New York City, specifically in Queens, are afforded the opportunity to interact with the different communities that represent us, appreciate the intricacies of our cultures, and experience the inequities. Much of what you’re reading about who makes up “the Latino vote” around the country—the Ecuadorian, Puerto Rican, or Dominican voter in New York; the Cuban, Puerto Rican, or Colombian voter in Miami; the Mexican or Salvadorian voter in Los Angeles or Texas—is to some extent reflected here, in New York City, from neighborhood to neighborhood.

There is so much to learn and know about our diverse communities, but you have to try.

Second, double down on the issues. According to Pew Research, the economy, health care, and COVID-19 response are top issues for Latino voters. Not surprising. My City Council district was the epicenter of the epicenter of the novel coronavirus outbreak, and we saw firsthand the disproportionate health and economic impact on Latinos. This has been of great concern among those who lost loved ones, lost income, who have small businesses, and who have to put food on the table for their families.

Jobs and the economy have been focus issues on both sides of the political aisle. In Florida and Texas, like elsewhere, voters had legitimate economic concerns related to keeping small businesses afloat, saving jobs, food insecurity, and loss of personal wealth. For Puerto Ricans, the second largest population within the Hispanic eligible voter population in Florida, the economic crisis and the devastation in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria were prevalent concerns. Trump’s campaign doubled down on the American Dream vs. a socialist nightmare, and clearer economic messaging alongside disinformation helped make headway with capturing part of the Latino vote including Cuban Americans.

Which brings me to the next point: invest time and resources to appropriately engage voters in the Latino electorate that span generations, experiences, and consumption habits. The young Latino that just turned 18, the naturalized citizen, the first-generation citizen, the voter whose family has been in the U.S. for generations. Each of their stories, where they live, and how they consume information will unequivocally vary, and will determine who they support.

Address early and at every turn, and at a community level, the issues that are concerning voters in the Latino electorate. If a voter is concerned about keeping their small business afloat, show how you’re addressing that. For example, I introduced legislation to cap delivery app fees to protect mom and pop shops during the pandemic. If worker protections are a priority, address that (after all, Florida resoundingly supported a $15 minimum wage despite its presidential vote going for Trump). I’m proud to have championed worker protections, from construction sites to nail salons, and will continue to do so because these are issues important to my constituents and New Yorkers across the city. They are also important to working people across the country.

Engage different communities often and consistently, and factor in groups that are relatively new to voting in the United States.

The issues that we in the larger Latino community are prioritizing are not simply “Latino issues,” but they impact our population the most, which we’ve seen exacerbated by this pandemic. Races across the country not only need to have the communities within our larger voting bloc represented, there also has to be a real commitment to reducing racial and ethnic inequalities.

As we go into the races being waged next year, voters in the Latino electorate will be key deciding factors in choosing the next Mayor of New York City, and the election of Governors in New Jersey and Virginia—all three of which include the multiplicity of our population.

The Latino electorate is heterogeneous in composition and united in power so don’t ghost us until the eve of the next election—whether mayoral, gubernatorial, presidential, or otherwise. Court us early and don’t make promises you can’t keep.

City Council Member Francisco Moya represents the New York City Council’s 21st District, which encompasses East Elmhurst, LeFrak City, parts of Jackson Heights, and his native Corona. He chairs the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises and is vice co-chair of the Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus (BLAC). On Twitter @FranciscoMoyaNY.

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Letter to the Editor: Flushing Waterfront Follies

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The current site of the proposed Special Flushing Waterfront District

To The Editor:

In “Separating Fact and Fiction About the Special Flushing Waterfront District,” published earlier this week and in part an apparent response to my criticism of the Special Flushing Waterfront District (SFWD) in these pages, the property owners and applicants of the SFWD make one fact crystal clear, and that is that the developers do not represent community interests.

The developers continue to exaggerate the magnanimity of the proposed open space and waterfront access, which are the primary public benefits of the SFWD given the paltry number of proposed affordable housing units.

In a recent study based on information provided by the developers’ environmental assessment statement, the Municipal Art Society (MAS) produced illustrations depicting minimal public space and a diminished pedestrian experience due to the massive building base walls of SFWD’s proposed towers.  Rather than the 6.6 acres of public open space as the developers claim, the MAS found the SFWD will create “just over three acres of new open space”.  Moreover, MAS concluded, “only 0.3 percent of the open space under the proposal is being provided voluntarily.”

The SFWD applicants’ disdain for advocates, who argue that private developers seeking relief from land use regulations should provide public benefit to the surrounding community, extends to elected officials. It is hard to ignore the developers’ sarcastic instruction to those who “want to advance more affordable housing” to contact City Council Member Francisco Moya. Moya, chair of the Zoning Subcommittee, was featured prominently in several articles admonishing the developers for not doing enough to address the city’s acute affordable housing crisis.

Moya and 11 of his colleagues clearly heard and agree with community concerns, as shown in an official statement issued the evening before a scheduled Zoning Subcommittee vote on the SFWD was postponed. The statement noted that the SFWD “ignores the real, urgent needs of the Flushing community” and approval of an “application without deep community benefits” would be “irresponsible” and “a grave mistake."

Rather than heed the advice of these elected officials, the developers wrote an opinion piece that sought to malign “the opposition,” including the MinKwon Center for Community Action, a nationally recognized, Flushing-based immigrant rights and social justice organization. The developers’ warning that the MinKwon Center is not “the town crier of Flushing,” however, fails to diminish the city-wide mobilizations its organizers helped to catalyze to counter the fiction that the proposed SFWD will benefit Flushing’s working class community.

Tarry Hum
Professor and Chair of the Urban Studies Department, Queens College, City University of New York. On Twitter @TarryHum.

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Bike Culture is Vital and Here to Stay; Now Let’s Make New York a Bike City for All

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Mayor de Blasio on a CitiBike (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

New York City is a Bike City in disguise. Bicycles are part of city culture, whether we recognize it or not. Let’s give bike culture its rightful place by building safe, protected streets. Now.

Becoming a Bike City is not taboo. It is not radical. It is about necessity and safety -- for essential delivery workers, for commuters, and, increasingly, for students traveling to and from school, sometimes on their own bikes and sometimes on their parents’. Bike culture supports our economy and our working class. It helps our environment. It supports equity, inclusiveness, and accessibility. This is New York City, and we need options.

There is no denying that bike culture surged in 2020 and the city’s transportation safety infrastructure was woefully inadequate to keep up. When stay-at-home orders were announced in March, essential delivery workers reported to work with their bicycles, e-bikes, and scooters. In order to work, delivery workers rode among cars, trucks, busses, and vans amidst a disjointed, incomplete, and unprotected bike lane network.

Sadly, the inadequacy is a matter of life and death.

On November 12, 35-year-old essential delivery worker Alfredo Cabrera Liconia was tragically struck and killed when a truck driver turned widely into the bike lane at Astoria Boulevard and Crescent Street in Astoria, Queens. Weeks before, federal, state, and local elected officials signed onto a letter urging the city Department of Transportation to install metal bollards along the Crescent Street bike lane, and along similar intersections, to prevent this exact type of tragedy. Permanent fixtures prevent drivers from entering bike lanes.

Earlier this year, on September 2, 50-year-old cyclist Salvador Chairez-Rodriguez tragically collided with an MTA bus in Woodside, Queens near 51st Street and 31st Avenue. There are limited bike lanes near that intersection but none are protected. In the immediate area are Bryant High School, PS 151, Woodside Houses, a senior center, and the Boulevard Gardens community. Creating a Safe Bike City is not solely for adult rider convenience. It means safety for all of us.

New York City’s evolution into a Bike City is happening in real time and we deserve a thoughtful, coordinated cycling and pedestrian infrastructure in real time. This is how we commute, how we exercise with our families, and how we connect with others in open spaces while maintaining social distance. It’s also how we express our right to protest. Alternatives to cars, busses, and subways have been healthy equalizers as we collectively avoid exposure to the novel coronavirus in confined spaces. However, more bikes and pedestrians without proper infrastructure means higher risk of injury. Our infrastructure needs are immediate.

I know the dangers of our roads first-hand. I have biked in all five boroughs for years and I’ve biked nearly every street in the Queens City Council district I hope to represent. I've been hit by cars, nudged, and "doored." I've been spat at, cursed at, and I've been stuck behind idling trucks. Many cyclists contend with this, yet cycling is not going away. Walking is not going away. We deserve safe options and the city must adapt.

New York does not have to be behind the ball here. We could be a standard bearer that inspires other cities and states that have yet to get up to speed to embrace varied, multimodal transportation. In this moment, the de Blasio administration should use what little time it has left to lay the foundation for a Safe Bike City in 2021.

The Department of Transportation should install safety fixtures that fully protect cyclists by preventing cars, busses, and trucks from entering bike lanes. Install metal bollards, Qwick Kurbs, physical barriers, and traffic signals to protect existing bike lanes. Build safe unloading ports for trucks to make deliveries and keep them away from bike lanes and CitiBike ports.  Coordinate CitiBike expansion proposals, like the one currently debated in Astoria, Sunnyside, and Woodside, with installing new bike lanes to protect the expanded ridership. 

The city should fully protect its bridges for cyclists and pedestrians. The Queensborough Bridge, for example, should be on the fast-track to re-open the south outer roadway for pedestrian-only passage, and to dedicate the north outer roadway to cyclists. Instead, it feels like the city is waiting for the next tragedy. 

In 2021, we will have an opportunity to elect a new Mayor and City Council that will truly build a safe, affordable, equitable, and inclusive city. We will embrace a diverse transportation network that builds a more accessible and Safe Bike City -- for workers, for students, for all of us. But we shouldn’t have to wait for new elected officials. Give bike culture its rightful safe place in New York City culture now.

Alex Rias is a City Council candidate in District 26 in Queens and a long-time commuter cyclist in all five boroughs. On Twitter @alexrias.

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The State Must Step In Now to Avoid a Mass Transit Apocalypse

lead cuomo rides

Governor Cuomo on the subway (photo: governor's office)

Hope that Congress can enact a post-election stimulus package to aid the economy amid another explosion of coronavirus cases has narrowed. One major institution in New York, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), is now out of time to get help. It is therefore necessary for New York State to step up and rescue the MTA before it begins a series of wrenching cutbacks that could permanently harm the New York region. The agency is being overwhelmed by financial losses due to the pandemic and its impact on the economy.

MTA Chair Patrick Foye, describing the MTA’s desperation, said in a NY1 interview on October 28, that “Our urgent request…to the United States Senate, is for $12 billion, which will take us through 2020…and 2021. That money is desperately needed. If we don’t receive it, our hand may be forced in terms of draconian service reductions, up to 40% on subways and buses, up to 50% on commuter rails, on top of laying off…thousands of our colleagues, plus fare and toll increases above those that are budgeted. This is an apocalyptic scenario.”

He went on to say that the MTA Board would make a decision at its December Board meeting to proceed with the cutbacks in the first quarter of 2021 if Congress didn’t give the MTA the money. He expressed optimism nonetheless.

An October 2020 New York State Comptroller report on the MTA presented the below graph showing the staggering ridership losses for the subways and other parts of the massive transit agency.

jb image osc

The graph shows subway ridership plunging 90% at the start of the pandemic, recovering to an 80% loss as the economy partially reopened by mid-June, and trending up to a still devastating 70% ridership loss from the beginning to mid-September. New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer has been tracking MTA ridership reports and other city economic matters and the most recent ridership numbers show losses are still 63-70% below weekday daily numbers from the year prior. The suburban commuter rail systems are faring badly too.

New York State adopted its 2020-2021 budget in April 2020, just weeks after the declaration of the national and New York COVID-19 emergencies. The state budget anticipated the economic plunge and authorized New York to cut its budget. It also authorized New York to borrow up to $11 billion short-term to adjust to potential massive cash flow problems, some of which stemmed from Congress postponing the April 15 income tax filing deadline to July 15. New York’s large borrowing authorization also permitted conversion of short-term loans into longer repayment periods, including 30-year bonds.

To date, New York State has borrowed $4.5 billion. Current plans are to repay $1 billion by December 31, and the remaining $3.5 billion by March 31, 2021 the end of the current fiscal year, according to the mid-year forecast issued by the State Division of the Budget. New York State is in possession of this cash now.

Governor Cuomo can ask the State Legislature to quickly appropriate this $3.5 billion in cash to the MTA. The state can convert the earlier short-term borrowing into 30-year bonds in the next several months. The state may be proceeding now to repay the other $1 billion and it would not be wise to interfere with any processes underway in relation to that repayment. 

The State Comptroller’s Annual MTA Financial Report said the agency faces the greatest financial crisis in its history. The table below from that report shows that in 2020 the MTA has lost nearly $5 billion in fare and toll revenue, and nearly $2 billion in revenue from dedicated taxes and subsidies. Those $7 billion in losses were partially offset by the major federal stimulus package enacted in March, the CARES Act, which gave the MTA $4 billion. The MTA had a modest (a mere $412 million) deficit for 2020 before covid, but its final deficit for 2020 was projected in July to be $3.4 billion.

New York State appropriating $3.5 billion to the MTA now will stem this hemorrhaging for the moment and push the MTA’s crisis into later in 2021, though the MTA will need federal help sooner or later. State action now could help get the MTA to the Biden administration without catastrophe.

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Even if the MTA gets the financial relief it needs for 2020, from New York State or the federal government, the table shows it faces a $6.2 billion deficit in 2021. If the economy fails to improve as much as anticipated, or if the huge part of New York City’s employment base now working home continues to do so, the MTA’s revenue losses would be higher and its deficits larger as a result. The MTA may be facing a major long-term restructuring.

The state budget allowed the MTA itself to borrow money, but it has said it simply cannot afford to do so. In fact, to survive into 2021 it must hoard cash. Among the options are deferring pension contributions, deferring Social Security payroll taxes, and halting cash contributions to the capital program. These options will save $3 billion in 2020-2021. The MTA can continue a hiring freeze and work with the labor unions on possible savings.

The 2020-2024 MTA capital program has been temporarily suspended. The centerpiece of revenue for that program, congestion pricing, was not approved by the Trump administration and awaits action from the Biden administration. It will be at least several years before most of this capital program can be started. The MTA will need to focus on finishing the 2015-19 capital plan with the remaining available sources of funds.

Severe health and economic problems other than the MTA confront New Yorkers. If the state is going to rescue the MTA, it could also borrow either short-term or long-term to avoid implementing its planned cutbacks to public services and aid to localities.

The State Division of the Budget’s plan to implement the adopted 2020-2021 budget provided for $8 billion in spending reductions in local assistance, in schools, health care, transportation, and emergency services. In its recently-released mid-year budget update, the Division of Budget reported that by the end of September it had withheld $2.4 billion in local aid, as it awaited the elusive new stimulus package that Congress and the President have failed to enact.

The Department of Budget’s April 25 Financial Plan indicated it would backload 40% of the state’s local assistance cutbacks to the final quarter of the state fiscal year, meaning from January through March 2021. That would represent a $3.2 billion cut to schools, hospitals, and other vital public services. If the state used $3.5 billion in borrowing authority to help the MTA, it could use part of the remaining borrowing authority to halt the cutbacks planned for the final quarter of the 2020-2021 fiscal year. This would mean the state would not be compounding the financial problems of local governments, including New York City, for now.

Sooner or later, Congress will pass another stimulus package that will include more aid for the unemployed, for state and local governments, and for transit agencies. It may be the President Biden stimulus package. But the MTA and New York’s local governments will be reeling by then if New York State does not act now. The state can use some of the funds from Congress to repay loans and cover deficits.

While such action is necessary, it will also remain true that the state, the city, the MTA, and the rest of New York’s local governments will likely confront the reality of continued budget deficits in 2021-2022, and beyond, and the necessity of a full-on restructuring of spending, borrowing, and taxing for years to come. But that likelihood does not negate the importance of state action now.

Jim Brennan was a member of the New York State Assembly for 32 years, where he chaired four committees. On Twitter @JimBrennanNY.

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Surveillance and the City: New York’s Latest Covid Boondoggle Is In Your Pocket

pilot trace pr

Gov. Cuomo talks contact tracing (photo: Darren McGee/Governor's Office)

With the presidential election behind us, I had started to gain hope that the robotexts of recent weeks would soon end. But on Friday night came a curious new entry to this genre of smartphone spam. It began, “Hi! This is the NYS Department of Health. Download the COVID Alert NY App!” With that message, I knew we had entered a new phase in the fight over contact tracing apps.

Contact tracing is nothing new. For decades, public health officials have tried to stymie the spread of contagious diseases by methodically mapping out anyone that patients might have infected. For human disease detectives, this means detailed and empathetic conversations with those who just were diagnosed with the potentially fatal COVID-19 virus, reconstructing any person they might have inadvertently infected, but also providing information on support services that range from food deliveries to city-funded dog walking.

Contact tracing is one of the most powerful tools we have, but contact tracing apps, the smartphone-enabled, Silicon Valley substitute, is a dangerous imitation. This is why it’s so upsetting to see New York spending so much time and money promoting a lackluster smartphone app rather than reinforcing the tools we know will work: social distancing, handwashing, masks, manual contact tracing, and (of course) high-speed, high-quality testing.

In recent days, COVID Alert NY has become inescapable on the web and social media, as a barrage of new ads try to get New Yorkers to download the app. And the result of this statewide push has been an abysmal failure.

New York officials are quick to brag that hundreds of thousands of users have downloaded the invasive new app. That’s just a tiny fraction of what is needed to make this app effective.

Researchers from Oxford University found we need 60%-80% of all New Yorkers to install this software for it to stop the pandemic. That’s 10-20 times the number of New Yorkers who have installed the application already. And the numbers may be worse. While New York reports the number of users who have tried out the app, they have been tighter-lipped about how many users actually use the software. A contact tracing app you don’t turn on does about as much good as wearing a mask but putting it on your forehead. A Google-funded study later found that 15% usage might reduce the spread of COVID-19. Unfortunately, the study has not yet been peer reviewed, and no state has enough public buy-in to test if these projections are accurate.

And it’s unclear if we could reach that magic 60%-80% cutoff even if we wanted. The majority of the world’s smartphones aren’t new or fast enough to run the contact tracing app. But, of course, Americans don’t trust the tech giants to take over public health tracking. According to the Pew Research Center, a majority of Americans don’t want to install this kind of app.

We’re at a crucial moment, when the second wave is spiking and we see our state on the verge of shutting down once again. This isn’t a time for magical thinking. This is the moment when we have to face the hard facts and make even harder decisions.

That means scrapping the dream that these apps will do the impossible, focusing instead on support for the basics, including manual contact tracing. It also means building trust with all New Yorkers, making sure that each and every COVID-19 patient feels safe providing their most intimate details to contact tracers.

These details aren’t just potentially embarrassing, for some New Yorkers this means putting their friends and family at risk of arrest or deportation. That’s in part because, months after it was passed by the state Legislature, Governor Cuomo has still yet to sign a bill (S. 8450-C/A. 10500-B) that would ban police and federal immigration enforcement (ICE) from accessing contact tracing data.

We don’t need a high-tech app to protect our city or state. We need to invest in evidence-based tools and fight for every single New Yorker to know that their contact tracing data is safe. This approach may not be as slick as a new app, but it has one thing going for it: it actually works.

Albert Fox Cahn (@FoxCahn) is the founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.) at the Urban Justice Center and a fellow at the Engelberg Center for Innovation Law & Policy at N.Y.U. School of Law. He writes the monthly “Surveillance and the City” column at Gotham Gazette. Caroline Magee is a rising third-year student at Emory University School of Law and a civil rights intern at the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project.

Note: this column has been updated to alter the presentation of the Oxford University study and add mention of the Google-funded study.

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Separating Fact and Fiction About the Special Flushing Waterfront District

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Rendering of the Special Flushing Waterfront District

There are several myths and mischaracterizations about the Special Flushing Waterfront District (SFWD) that we as owners want to set the record straight about. Here are several key facts about the project.

SFWD does not provide an advantage to obtain building height.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Port Authority of New York and New Jersey have already provided Letters of No Objection to allow height increases for the Special Flushing Waterfront District. SFWD only provides a consolidation of approval processes. Rather than submitting to the Board of Standards and Appeals for this, special permit approval would be provided by the City Planning Commission as part of the SFWD Waterfront Certification process. FAA and Port Authority Letters of No Objection have to be provided for this administrative approval.

In the past 20 years, the dozen special permits for height granted in Downtown Flushing were all routinely provided upon submission of FAA and Port Authority Letters of No Objection.

There will be zero sanitary sewer discharge into Flushing Creek.
All sanitary sewer effluent will be piped directly to Tallman Island Treatment Plant in College Point. Some say other developments pollute Flushing, making it seem like SFWD will do the same, but that is provably false. 

SFWD provides comprehensive stormwater runoff mitigations to prevent shoreline erosion and provide prudent shoreline restoration techniques, such as: permeable pavers, green roofs, soft shoreline edges, and onsite stormwater retention before discharge into Flushing Creek. 

As-of-Right vs SFWD: The exact same buildable bulk.
The as-of-right development scenario can currently be built. SFWD is not needed to achieve maximum bulk. At least two of the sites have plans that demonstrate this, one already with New York City Department of Buildings-approved building plans, ready to proceed. Opposition makes it appear this is not the case and that residential units, commercial and retail space are all being incrementally added. 

Macedonia AME Church is not a victim.
The Macedonia AME Church was beneficially rezoned as part of the Municipal Lot #1 ULURP in 2010. That was an economic boost for them and they are an important stalwart in our community. Macedonia built 142 affordable housing units at their Macedonia Plaza site. We know Reverend Richard McEacheron and he voted for the Special Flushing Waterfront District as a member of Queens Community Board 7 and he testified in support of SFWD at the City Planning Commission and City Council hearings. There are no complaints from him or his congregation.

Community Support
At the recent City Council hearing, over 75% of the 100+ speakers were in favor of our project and its many merits. The Council also received more than 330 letters of support for the Special District from Flushing residents and business owners. The community clearly supports this project.

Queens Community Board 7 represents Flushing, among other neighborhoods. Minkwon Center may be vocal, but that does not make it the town crier for Flushing.  Minkwon representatives have never appeared at any Queens CB7 hearings prior to the Special Flushing Waterfront District or since. It has its own agenda and refuses to meet with representatives of SFWD.

SFWD is not designed to provide a solution for homelessness nor ensure union jobs. It is designed to provide a better urban experience and numerous community benefits, including:

-A new road network, vital to our community, to alleviate College Point Boulevard traffic and connect the Special Flushing Waterfront District to Downtown Flushing.

-A fully public waterfront promenade doubled in width to 40 feet and extended by more than 400 feet in length.

-Space for seniors, youth groups and community organizations.

-6.6 acres of public open space, whereas as-of-right development would bring only 3 acres.

-Design that will allow for small local storefronts and better pedestrian experiences on the street and waterfront.

-An ideal public-private partnership between the Department of City Planning and three developers, designed to prevent the construction of three "Skyview" developments.

The current proposal seeks enhanced zoning for only 10% of the overall project on a small lot to the north, also entirely on private land. The vast majority of the project has no change in zoning at all, including the area encompassing the new public road network that will alleviate traffic and grant direct access to the waterfront. There is no increase in bulk, except a small portion in the north to allow a 400-foot extension of the waterfront promenade and to provide some affordable housing units.

If you want to advance more affordable housing, then you should contact the Mayor, the President of the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC), and City Council Member Francisco Moya. Insist on more affordable housing at Willets Point, which is public land. 

A defeat of the SFWD does not advance the affordable housing issue. Defeat will remove affordable housing from the sites completely, and all the benefits described above.

by Richard Siu of F&T Group; William Xu of United Construction & Development Group; and John Liang, Young Nian Group.

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