Like all mayors of New York, Bill de Blasio manages to press an array of buttons with his policies and personality. Just within the Orthodox community, his friends vouch for him and his good heart, and boast of late-night consultations 15 years ago on how to save childcare vouchers or ways to overcome bureaucratic hurdles facing mosdos.
De Blasio’s job has gotten a bit busier since those simpler times, but he made his first big visit to the area of his old district last Tuesday evening for a town hall meeting. It was the first such event in the history of the district, according to Councilman David Greenfield, who sponsored and moderated the event.
“This was the most successful community political event in the history of Boro Park and Flatbush,” Greenfield said in a statement following the meeting. “I give Mayor de Blasio enormous credit for coming here. He was engaged, focused and committed to getting results to everyone.”
As New York’s chief executive, Mr. de Blasio is responsible for overseeing the police, fire, sanitation and buildings department. But in a series of town hall meetings sprinkled throughout the city these past few months, the 56-year-old Democrat has been dunked into the kishkes of each district.
Residents are not interested in the mayor’s detailed denunciations of President Donald Trump’s immigration policies or budgetary priorities — they want to focus on local issues. They want to know why their tree wasn’t pruned. They want the mayor to know that the corner traffic light’s timing is a disaster waiting to happen.
About 700 people crowded the hall and an overflow side room. The mayor came with the commissioner or deputy commissioner of every major city agency, along with a respectful NYPD delegation. Brooklyn South Chief Steven Powers was in attendance, plus the commanding officers of the 61st, 62nd, 66th and 70th Precincts.
“They are so devoted to public service they will be here all night if they need to be,” the mayor said. Greenfield offered to bring along cots if the night got too long.
Mr. De Blasio frequently leaned on his commissioners during the three-hour event. “He is the man you have to speak to,” he said at one point, putting his arm around Vincent Sapienza, the commissioner of the department of environmental protection. “Make a new friend,” he told another questioner, pointing to the buildings commissioner, Rick Chandler.
“Captain,” the mayor asked the 66th police precinct’s commanding officer, David Wall, “will you pay a visit to 63rd Street between 19th and 20th and see this woman during the daytime hours so that you can follow up?”
The evening also bespoke a familiarity and friendship with members in the audience, developed during Mr. de Blasio’s eight years representing about half of Boro Park in the city council.
“Full disclosure, I’ve been in his sukkah,” the mayor said when Yeruchim Silber, currently director of government relations for Agudath Israel of America, rose to ask a question. Mr. de Blasio opened several responses by noting longstanding relationships with the questioner.
“You’ve been in so many sukkahs,” Greenfield teased at one point. “Tell me, whose sukkah is the nicest?”
Mr. de Blasio started the program by thanking the community for giving him his first leg up in elected office, when he won his first race in 2001.
“When I was just starting out — literally, when I was just starting out, like a lot of us, no one knew who I was,” the mayor said. “I went to people, I talked about what I hoped to do for the community, and people listened. And you know what? Some people are kind enough to give you a chance. And when you are in public life, the only way you can get an opportunity to serve is if some people take a chance on you. A lot of the people who I had the blessing of their friendship and their support are here tonight. I want to thank you all — you know who you are.”
The vast majority of the 40 or so questions dealt with quality-of-life issues such as parking and driving safety.
A chassidic woman said that she had three back surgeries and wanted to know if the mayor could install benches along Boro Park’s avenues for her and elderly people to rest on. She said that when she reached out to Councilman David Greenfield’s office, the response was that it attracts homeless people. But other neighborhoods with greater homeless populations such as in Manhattan and Bay Ridge have benches.
Polly Trottenberg, the transportation commissioner, took down her information and promised to follow up with her afterward for a list of possible locations to place benches.
A woman from MADD — Mothers Against Drunk Driving — asked for a speed bump on her block. Trottenberg explained the process of how to apply for one.
One woman asked why the Metropolitan pool in Williamsburg cut its special women’s hours from three times a week to just once a week. This came last year after The New York Times editorialized that the situation constituted official discrimination by the city.
The woman said that since the cuts were implemented, attendance at the pool plummeted from 70 to 100 women at any time to just seven.
“I really appreciate — it’s very helpful to hear what you’re saying,” Mr. de Blasio responded. “Because since the decisions were made I haven’t gotten a report on what usage of the pool used to be. … You raised information that I did not know, and I’m going to go back and talk to people about what that means.”
Mr. De Blasio accepted the sheet with attendance rates.
One man complained about kapparos, claiming that it violated health codes — followed by a loud chorus of booing and a smattering of applause.
“Get some order, David,” Mr. de Blasio joked.
Greenfield jumped in.
“As both a representative for the community and a law professor,” the councilman said, “I would like to quote an important passage of the United States Constitution: ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’”
“It’s important what David read,” the mayor added, “and this is the balance we try to strike in New York City.”
The kapparos complaint was not the only one to hint at the neighborhood’s significant Jewish presence. One woman, who said she lived on 18th Ave. near Bensonhurst, asked what the city was doing about the rezoning of homes from two-family homes to five-family units.
“It’s no secret that the neighborhood has changed in the last ten to 15 years, creating a poor quality of life,” she contended.
Greenfield responded that the City Council had passed a law just the week before increasing the fines for illegal conversion of homes.
The mayor then called up Rick Chandler, the buildings commissioner, to respond. He said that the agency had increased the number of inspectors by 140 over the past two years to prevent illegal conversion of homes.
Yanky Meyer, the founder of Misaskim, a disaster relief agency serving the Orthodox community, brought up a hesitation people have with calling 911 when they smell gas. He said that the first thing the fire department does is turn off the gas for the entire building, and it could remain off for as long as six months.
“What it’s doing,” Rabbi Meyer said, “is building a distrust with the community, who will not call 911 but will rather call their local plumber.”
Chandler agreed with the sentiment, saying that he told the CEO of Consolidated Edison just the night before that by shutting off the gas they are contributing to more future dangerous situations.
The mayor amplified Chandler’s message, saying that the main concern should be safety.
“We’ve seen these horrible explosions. The city saw them — how many people have we lost,” he said. “Just one thing we cannot take lightly is the smell of gas. There’s too much chance that there could be a real danger. So I have to say to people, ‘please, never underestimate it, never try to deal with it informally, because G-d forbid if this was the real thing.’ But we will work to make sure that the follow-up is stronger.”
A frum high school girl questioned the wisdom of half-fares for students who live at a distance from school but not far enough to justify a full pass. She suggested instead issuing a limited number of free fares a month.
“If a parent has three kids, it’s nine dollars and change every day,” she said. “But if we have limited fare passes — you get for example ten fares a month — then you could use that when there’s bad weather or when you have to have your books. You could walk the rest of the time.”
Trottenburg said that it was something to consider, but financial considerations had to be taken into account.
One white-haired man, not obviously Jewish, questioned why yeshivah students cannot fully benefit from the pre-K program, since the city only offers a limited number of half-day slots, which would better work for yeshivos. The mayor replied by imploring yeshivos to reach out to his office, promising to work with them on a program that suits them.
Not everyone received a positive answer. One yeshivah representative brought up the problem yeshivos have with garbage collection. Sanitation trucks for yeshivos currently come only after the public schools, meaning that the truck could sometimes be full and not have enough capacity for the yeshivah.
Mr. de Blasio said he understood the problem but there wasn’t enough funding to correct it.
One woman said that she received a sanitation ticket on the last day of Pesach. “I am asking that you stop giving out tickets on Shabbos or Yom Tov,” she requested. That, too, met with an ambiguous response from the mayor.
Nachman Caller, the local Republican district leader, said he wanted to ask about “the biggest issue in our community — housing.” He requested that the 421-A tax credit be restored for condominiums and wanted to know what else the city can do.
David Quart, deputy commissioner at the housing preservation and development agency, said that the traditional solutions of allowing developers to build on city-owned land for a nominal fee was not appropriate for a neighborhood such as Boro Park.
“The reality is, it is harder in neighborhoods like this, where there is very little or no public land,” Quart said. “That said, we are always looking for owners of private land who are interested in working with us to build affordable housing, to find the proper zoning district that may be appropriate in order for us to build between 20 and 30 percent of the units [as affordable].”
Mr. de Blasio added that the Culver L housing project, which would add several dozen units in Boro Park, “has been taking a long time but is finally moving.”
A man asked that the parking zone for a fire hydrant be limited to five feet on each side rather than the current 15 feet. Firetrucks responding to an emergency anyhow do not actually park on the curb but just pull up in middle of the street.
Another gentleman complained that some parts of Brooklyn pay $3,000 a year while in Boro Park he pays $9,300 for just a single floor. Condos are assessed at a higher value than regular housing, Greenfield added by way of explanation.
Yoel Rosenfeld, an activist in the Bobover kehillah, noted that the city’s 100,000 private school students saves the city $2 billion a year, yet they are discriminated against when it comes to water usage. For example, he says that the city recently began demanding that yeshivos install water meters and pay for their water, something public schools don’t have to do.
“We feel like the city looks at the yeshivos differently than public schools,” he said.
Mr. de Blasio answered that he is not familiar with the specific water issue, but “I think we’ve shown in recent years that we’re working very closely with the yeshivos.”
“What I want to say is, any yeshivah or nonprofit that feels they are not being treated fairly or there is some disconnect with the city,” he added, “we want to have a direct conversation to see if we can resolve the issue.”
He then called up Sapienza, the DEP commissioner, who clarified that yeshivos are generally allowed an exemption for water bills, but if parts of the building are used for other functions, it can generate a bill.
One member of the Orthodox community asked why if Orthodox Jews are 6 percent of the city population they are not represented on that rate in city government and on corporate boards.
“I want to make sure that if there are people who want to work in city service that we’re maximizing that opportunity,” Mr. de Blasio said. “I don’t want there to be any barrier; I have a long experience working with this community. … I am very committed to having our workforce look like the New York City, including the Orthodox community.”
The biggest applause of the evening came when Yitzchok Fleischer, a longtime friend and supporter of the mayor, requested that the speed limit on Ocean Parkway be raised from the current 25 mph. The lower limit had come three years ago as part of Mr. de Blasio’s Vision Zero program to end traffic fatalities.
The mayor’s response, in turn, drew the only booing of the night.
“The speed cameras are not for revenue, I know people worry about it,” Mr. de Blasio said, raising his voice over the booing. “They’re not. They’re not. Boo all you want, I’m telling you the truth. They are to reduce fatalities. … When you heard a 22 percent reduction in fatalities — I’m sorry, that is a fact.”
“I, too, have driven my car fast on Ocean Parkway before I was mayor,” he added. “I’m not going to lie about it. When I drove my car I drove the speed limit and then some. I thought that was normal.”
He then launched into the statistics underlying his Vision Zero, saying that the old fatality rates were “astounding.” Since the speed limit went down, however, the numbers have gone down “dramatically.”
But he promised to recalibrate the timing on the cameras to better reflect actual traffic flows.