Editor’s Note: Watch Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders take part in the CNN Democratic Debate on Thursday evening at 9 p.m. ET.
Tanwi Nandini Islam is the author of “Bright Lines,” which was shortlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and a finalist for the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction. She is a writer, multimedia artist and founder of Hi Wildflower Botanica, a perfume and skincare line. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
Author: Brooklyn divided into rich vs. poor, old vs. young, supporters of Clinton vs. Sanders, between the Brooklyn that's celebrated and the Brooklyn that is ignored.
Gentrification is raising rents, forcing those with less means to leave and changing neighborhoods, she says
When driving through Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood last week on the day of a Bernie Sanders event, I noticed that a giant mural saying, “Welcome Home, Bernie!” had sprung up on Franklin Street.
It’s no wonder why, for this neighborhood represents one of his core demographics: the young, white, urban creative professional. But the backdrop of Sanders’ rooftop speech that afternoon was a cluster of luxury apartments with a view of the East River, highlighting one of New York’s central issues: gentrification and the lack of affordable housing.
Election season is a time of collective conversation, exposing the deep-seated political divisions among our friends, neighbors and family members. As the New York Democratic Primary approaches, the debate between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton at the Brooklyn Navy Yard on Thursday evening is a showdown to claim a city that personifies not only diversity but also staggering disparity among its residents.
Brooklyn is a borough that’s divided, but not only between rich vs. poor, old vs. young, liberal vs. progressive, supporters of Clinton vs. Sanders. It’s divided between the Brooklyn that is celebrated and the Brooklyn that is neglected and ignored.
Recalling a time of jubilation
While there is a palpable excitement in the neighborhood, I can’t help but remember the last time I felt excited by a candidate. This will be my third presidential election in Brooklyn, and the tenor of this election is markedly different from the past two.
On the night President Barack Obama won the 2008 election, a profound jubilation spilled onto the streets; the Republican reign was over.
I hopped on my bike, ringing its bell through my block in Bed Stuy, riding into Clinton Hill. I stopped to watch the celebration at a restaurant on DeKalb Avenue, where people toasted each other on this historic win. Black, white, Latino, Asian, young, old – all manner of people celebrated that night. I remember that feeling of elation thick in the air; a high that would last until his inauguration.
At the time, I was a grad student and worked as a high school teaching artist in different neighborhoods throughout the city. These were often at the very end of the subway line: Canarsie, Kingsbridge, Jamaica. My students reflected the beautiful multitude of communities in New York City’s outer boroughs.
Together, we tapped into their creativity and ability to tell stories based on their lives. Much of what we explored were the issues they faced growing up in a neighborhood often defined by a lack of access: to education, health care, housing, healthy food, clean air. My students possessed that adolescent verve and courage, always questioning the status quo.
This taught me deeply about what true participation in social change looks like.
Forced to move
For so many of my friends – artists, activists, community organizers and small business owners – the world they inhabit day in and day out is their neighborhood. It’s where they work, create their art, organize for social justice. However, with landlords raising rents and luring wealthier tenants, several of my friends have been forced to move, either to the Bronx or Queens, or to another state entirely, where they can actually afford to live.
As a woman of color, writer and small-business owner in her early 30s, my race, class and gender certainly inform my vote. My vote is laced with my experiences living in the United States and my desire to be a part of political change. But the extreme changes we’ve seen in Brooklyn in the past 10 years have affected its historically rich, vibrant culture.
The history of Brooklyn Navy Yard: From WWII warships to Hollywood on the East River
So, when I learned that the Democratic debate would take place in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, it felt like a telling example of how the trendy brand of Brooklyn – namesake of countless artisanal ventures – has not been a solution for poverty, deteriorating infrastructure, racial profiling and police brutality. These are realities of Brooklyn that exist outside of the bubble of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a revitalized neighborhood that’s the site of innovation and entrepreneurship.
“It is critical that we seize the moment and focus our country’s attention on the pockets of Brooklyn where the popularity of our brand has yet to translate into prosperity for its residents,” said Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams in a statement released on Tuesday. His call to bring the debate to Brownsville, a predominantly black neighborhood in Brooklyn, emphasizes the needs of New Yorkers omitted from conversations about social and economic change.
For example, both campaigns have sorely stumbled in response to the critically important actions of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Who’s the outsider?
At the end of any two-term presidency, there’s a combination of hope and frustration among voters. As part of the generation that voted Obama into office, we’ve accepted his successes and his limitations as president.
Just as we’ve lived to see the legalization of same-sex marriage, we’ve also seen the frightening spate of mass shootings and the prolific use of drones in warfare. It’s easy to see Hillary Clinton as an extension of these policies as secretary of state and Bernie Sanders as an outsider.
Yet it can be argued that as a woman, Hillary Clinton is a consummate outsider in politics, a man’s game. I’ve rehashed this internal debate countless times.
Thursday’s debate will illuminate which candidate represents the Brooklyn in which we want to live.
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