Last week, the publishers of Our Time Press sat down with Senator Velmanette Montgomery on the eve of our newspaper’s 18th birthday. The 45 minutes we requested expanded to another 45, and could have gone longer. The fervor, commitment and energy she brings to her projects and to finding solutions to the satisfying the needs of the people, she brought to this interview. She took us down many avenues, and that session — which skimmed the surface of a job well done, a career well developed — will be presented in two more parts to be placed in Our Time over coming weeks moving into March Women’s History Month. We started our conversation off with the usual questions, as you will note in Part One to come, but it swiftly intensified to an exploration of the soul of a fighter, a woman who speaks Truth to whoever’s listening, a quality that reveals itself in the upcoming parts.
State Senator Velmanette Montgomery was first elected in 1984 and is now in her 30th year in office. In that time, the changes in her District 25, encompassing Fort Greene, Boerum Hill, Red Hook, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Sunset Park, Gowanus and Park Slope, are evident in the changing skyline and the changing skyline, demographics, culture-blends, conversation and descriptive language (these areas, once considered a catastrophe, are now known nationally as “cool.”). Reflecting on the changes in her district, the senator said, “When I first ran it was a district that was fairly specifically defined. A majority-minority district. I remember campaigning in Bedford-Stuyvesant. I’d go and they were always involved in block associations and I’d meet people who had been on their block for 50 years and more. People in that eastern part of the district were very much solidly Brooklyn residents. And they were wedded to a tradition, either in terms of organizations or churches so there was a huge identity with the neighborhood. I also have parts of Boerum Hill, also a brownstone area. It was gentrifying, but gradually. There were still families that had been there many years, but it was still turning. In the middle was Clinton Hill/Fort Greene. Also brownstones. I’ve always considered that I represented the brownstone belt. It was a very exciting time in that part of the district, because there again, it was beginning to be gentrified, but it was very organic, so to speak. People who were pioneers came in, all working on their own property; they were counting trees, planting trees. It was a multicultural movement, we had a political club that was multicultural. I always used to say I had the Buppies, the Black part, the ethnic and nonethnic white communities. So it was always a very interesting district. Very vibrant. But you had to be able to be diverse in the way you responded to different parts of the district. So it was very exciting in that way. As time has gone on, the changes that I have seen, because we were always, the district was always influx. There was always some changes happening. But there was not the pressure on Bedford-Stuyvesant where people were terrified of losing their properties. We had a huge problem long before it became national news. There were indications that predatory lending was wiping out Bed-Stuy. It was the late Nineties that it started in Bed-Stuy. I remember having people come to me in a panic because they had lost their properties. That’s when I began to feel the sense of losing the heart of the area. Especially for the people in Bed-Stuy.
It took, it seems, about ten years for this movement to move into other neighborhoods as much as it was in my district. I remember going to one of my colleagues with a district to the south and he said, “That’s not my issue”. Little did he know it was very big even then but he didn’t know it. Couldn’t imagine it. It was always a problem, big in parts of Queens. This was way before it became headline news. Then we began to see predatory businesses and it has magnified since I’ve been in office. When I was first elected there were maybe one or two bank branches in all of Bed-Stuy– the redlining was amazing. But now, not only are there bank branches but the redlining has lifted and money is starting to flow into Bed-Stuy. That was another pressure. Now we begin to see money being available for certain people. So those are some of the institutional changes that have shifted not only the housing availability but the demographics as they say, euphemistically. Now it’s a very different district.
“I meet people in my office all the time in Albany and they tell me they live in Bed-Stuy, and I mean deep in Bed-Stuy. It’s fascinating the way that’s happening. Part of what I see that is encouraging is that a lot of the young people don’t seem to be intimidated about living in Bed-Stuy. This generation seems just fine living in Bed-Stuy”.
Ten years ago this March, Sen. Montgomery testified on the Downtown Brooklyn Plan
Before the City Planning Commission, her testimony was prescient in terms of what we are seeing with the high rises on Flatbush Avenue creating a wall between neighborhoods. How are the issues of these new residents differ from your traditional issues of child welfare, juvenile justice, etc. How does this new constituency affect what you do?
First of all, we have started to connect with some of the people in some of the new high rises, not as consistently because they don’t need us. When I was first elected I represented Concord Village, that was (at that time) considered an upscale co-op community that was integrated and high income, we had lawyers there, we had political people and I remember I had a great relationship representing them. They have similar issues like, “Can you fix the park down the way”? Kids making noise. They had the same issues as some of the high rises in Bed-Stuy.
But the people who move into these towers, first of all, it is an entirely different income. There are some multimillion-dollar condos in those buildings. I’m not sure, for the most part, a lot of absenteeism exists because they’re not really here and the fact of the matter is they don’t really need my kind of politics. They operate on a whole different level. Which I’m sure is fine with them. I can run around with the formally incarcerated people, and as long as we keep their environment safe, they’re fine.
And then you wake up one day and there’s a median in the middle of Myrtle Avenue with trees growing. They don’t oppose retail politics, but they don’t need it in the same way, unless there’s a big issue they are involved with.
Part II of “People’s Ambassador” will appear in the February 27 Our Time Present.