By JHERELLE BENN
The president of Brooklyn began the morning in a pair of swim trunks.
Eric Adams was in the pool at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights to advocate safe swimming. His schedule for Sunday, Oct. 18 led him into a pair of sneakers as he joined hundreds of young athletes in a march across the Brooklyn Bridge calling for greater access to safe spaces for youth sports. He went to a community cookout where he wore a polo shirt and his signature smile. There was another change of clothing for an emergency hospital visit to encourage a dear friend fighting for his life and then a funeral to give a proclamation, honoring someone who had lost hers.
It is for this reason, he said, that he keeps a suit and tie with casual pants in the car just in case he needs to speak on a last-minute panel or give a keynote speech at one of the many events happening in the busy borough of Brooklyn.
Adams, the first African-American to become Brooklyn borough president, is a man of many outfits. “My day is really defined in the attire. The constant switching of attire to fit where I’m going and what I’m going to do,” he said. “And that diverse attire is reflective of the diverse information I need to know and how I need to be present in the moment to speak to the people that I’m speaking with.”
Adams has become a genial and popular spokesman for Brooklyn, but no change of clothing can help him he walk the difficult line between encouraging the development that is reshaping Brooklyn – as his talkative predecessor Marty Markowitz did – and addressing the fear of gentrification that resounds among the black constituents whose support launched him to higher office.
Earlier this month the Brooklyn Borough Board joined boards in Queens, the Bronx, and Manhattan in voting against Mayor Bill de Blasio’s rezoning plans, which would allow higher-density development in many neighborhoods to encourage construction of affordable housing. Opponents say the housing envisioned under the plan say it isn’t really affordable and that it would contribute to the displacement that gentrification causes. Comptroller Scott Stringer issued a report asserting that the rezoning plan could displace as many as 50,000 residents of East New York.
“By voting with our recommendations today, we’re saying ‘No’ to the city plan,” Adams said at the Brooklyn Borough Board meeting on Dec. 1.
Adams sounded more pro-development in an interview with the Commercial Observer in March.
“I think that East New York and Brownsville really offer some gems, if we just go and develop there. If we [met] infrastructure needs, we would see a great deal of development,” he said.
Last year he released a report that targeted East New York, Broadway Junction, and Coney Island for development of affordable housing. The report recommended that 600 affordable housing units be built in the Broadway Junction area alone.
A First for African Americans
Ron Howell, a journalism professor at Brooklyn College who has written extensively on African Americans in Brooklyn politics, said that Adamsput his name in the history book of Brooklyn when he was elected borough president.”
Howell is the grandson of Brooklyn’s first black elected official, Bertram L. Baker, who won a seat in the Assembly in 1948 and was recognized as the borough’s black political boss.
“For 30 years, black activists had been trying to get a black person elected to that office,” said Howell.
Last year Howell organized a panel at Brooklyn College to discuss gentrification in Bedford-Stuyvesant. At this panel Alicia Boyd, founder of The Movement to Protect the People, spoke out against black elected officials, including the borough president. She said the black politicians weren’t protecting black residents from being driven out of their neighborhoods by the rising rents that gentrification is causing.
“We got a black borough president. They put him there so he can sell out the black community all throughout Brooklyn,” Boyd said. “We need to start demanding better for ourselves.”
As is the case for many of the city’s elected officials, Adams’ campaign fund relies heavily on real estate donors. The Commercial Observer reported that, “Those associated with the real estate industry made up more of Mr. Adams’ campaign donations of any other industry.” Shortly after becoming borough president Adams hired Anthony Lolli, a real estate executive, to be his adviser.
Responding to questions raised about his loyalty to his black constituents, Adams says his diverse experience is what qualifies and prepares him to serve as president of such a diverse borough.
Bold and Outspoken
Adams was born in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn on September 1, 1960. He was one of six children and as a boy, death and poverty were a part of everyday life. “It’s amazing how you could become so accustom to violence and conditions,” Adams said. He remembers making a game out of guessing who was shot the night before. The rodents were their “little pets and toys and projects.” He was in the third grade when his family moved to Jamaica, Queens, where he had a life-changing run-in with the police.
As Adams recounted in an article he wrote for The New York Times last year, he was beaten by police officers when he was 15. He was arrested for minor crimes that night and taken to the basement of the 103rd Precinct where he endured repeated kicks to the groin. “Out of every part of my body, that’s what they targeted,” Adams wrote. He urinated blood for seven days after that.
It was an attack on his manhood, his pride and, he said, the color of his skin. Adams kept the secret with him, staying silent about the incident until adulthood but the experience had started a fire in him. “I didn’t want any more children to go through what I endured, so I sought to make change from the inside by joining the Police Department.”
Before becoming a politician Adams served in the Police Department for 22 years. As an officer, he noticed that the people he arrested were getting younger and younger. He could see that city agencies were failing urban youth. The stop-and-frisk policy was particularly upsetting to Adams. “It was that policy that millions of young people were being stopped and searched and frisked, degraded, demoralized, and negatively impacted,” Adams said. “It’s horrific to be stopped by this symbol of authority when you did nothing wrong at all. It makes you feel as though you are illegal just based on your existence.”
In 1995 Adams co-founded 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care along with other African-American law enforcement officers. They sought to make sure fair policing was being practiced. According to Adams, “We wanted to be the conscience of policing.”
The group’s outspokenness encouraged the Vulcan Society, an association made up of African-American firefighters, to push harder for blacks to be hired in the Fire Department, according to Paul Washington, former president of the society.
Washington said he mimicked Adams’ example with 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care. “They were just like us,” he said. He was inspired by the way Adams used the media and followed with a similar strategy to bring attention to discriminatory hiring practices within the Fire Department.
The Vulcan Society won a lawsuit against the Fire Department, with a federal judge naming a monitor to oversee a new entrance exam and other hiring practices in the agency.
Adams continued working his way up the ranks, becoming a police captain. He was elected to the State Senate in 2006. His district includes Brownsville, Crown Heights, East Flatbush, Park Slope, Prospect Heights, Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, South Slope, and Sunset Park. As a New York state senator Adams tackled issues such as the stop-and-frisk policy, illegal guns, and marriage equality (which he voted in favor of).
As a legislator Adams was bold and outspoken. Back in 2012 he joined a group of senators and Assembly members who wore hoodies to the legislative chambers to protest of the death of Travyon Martin, a black teen shot to death by a neighborhood watchman in Florida.
“I have a son; he looks like Trayvon,” Adams said during the demonstration.
Professor Moses Davies, who teaches a black political identity course at Brooklyn College, said of Adams that “in terms of being vocal about black issues, not many black politicians are that vocal.”
He added, “Because they are politicians, most of them try to play it safe. They don’t want anything to have to do with creating controversy and most of them are looking to advance.”
But Adams took his spot on a new stage when he was elected borough president a year later in 2013; his constituency was borough-wide, not from a heavily minority section of the borough.
As a result, he has faced much criticism for his positions on development. His answer is that the diversity of this borough is what’s important.
According to Adams, “Each change of attire also comes with a change of approach and knowledge of the people I’m communicating with.
“Diverse clothing for a diverse borough with diverse issues.”