Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Opposition to a plan to relocate Rikers Island inmates to a corner of Williamsburg was swift. Even rumors of such a proposal stirred long-felt emotions in Greenpoint and Williamsburg. When city officials explored the former Brooklyn Union Gas Company location, the calls flooded in.
Mayor Bill de Blasio denied the rumors at a news conference last month, stating that there wasn’t a “concerted effort” to find “alternatives” to Rikers Island. However, a five-agency city report, Alternatives to Rikers Island, suggests otherwise. It also puts North Brooklyn in the crosshairs.
Like my constituents, I’m 100 percent against the building of a jail in Williamsburg. Williamsburg, and the surrounding Greenpoint community, prides itself on being a safe, tight-knit community. That pride is rooted in tireless advocacy and efforts to wrest a community from decades of industrial negligence and economic hardship. And a community is no place for a prison.
Furthermore, the industrial zone in which this prison could sit is no place for a prison — it’s a place for opportunities. It’s a place for reinvesting in Greenpoint, Williamsburg and North Brooklyn. As the original builders of Rikers Island rightfully decided back in the ’30s, the perfect place for a prison is an island. The perfect place to live and work is North Brooklyn, as the original settlers rightfully decided in the 17th century.
When I talk about reinvesting in North Brooklyn, I’m alluding to a recent past mired by a slew of troubles. Williamsburg, and Greenpoint specifically, are already overburdened by temporary shelter placements, a multitude of trash transfer sites and with them truck traffic and air quality issues, and one of the most notoriously toxic superfund sites in America. To say that adding a jail to this mounting list of local issues is concerning is the least of what I can convey.
We have an obligation to realize the opportunity so many have fought for in Williamsburg and Greenpoint. We have an opportunity to reinvest in our future here and right decades of environmental catastrophe, develop well-paying jobs, provide economic and upward mobility for all of Brooklyn and options to explore affordable housing. We should be looking to nurture small business and foster industry and creativity. A prison doesn’t serve these interests; it hinders them.
Greenpoint has suffered a dearth of industry for decades, and Williamsburg now stands to price itself out. These neighborhoods have a long and storied history, they’ve long-served one another’s needs and interests, oscillating between a place to work and a place to live. It was a balance that was undone in May 2005 when 175 blocks was transformed from low-slung industry and low-rent living to hi-rise condominiums and 17,000 new residents. To put it succinctly, the neighborhood is teeming with people, but not with jobs.
Greenpoint and Williamsburg need to complete their transformation and to effectively restore the balance that comes of having a living space, work, the means to get from one to another and the time and amenities to enjoy them both. It’s a vision that has kept people in Brooklyn and brought them from afar. That vision does not include a jail. The truth is, having such a vision and affording these opportunities, could keep people out of jail.
I understand that conditions at Rikers Island are far from ideal. I also understand that the city is obligated to remedy them. But one cannot deny that the state of housing and economic realities for many Brooklyn families is partly to blame for the state of New York City’s incarcerated population and institutions. Let's not perpetuate the cycle.
Elected to the New York State Senate in November 2002, Martin Malavé Dilan is serving his seventh term in the 18th (formerly 17th) Senatorial District representing the North Brooklyn communities of Bushwick, Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Cypress Hills, City-Line, East New York, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Brownsville.