Scott Stringer Cooks Up Support for Latino Issues
Ana María Toro
Fri, 08 Feb 2008 09:44:00
The dozen rows of seats at the Barnes and Noble on Broadway and 82nd St. were not enough to accommodate everyone who showed up to Scott Stringer’s book signing last Thursday night. As the Manhattan borough president approached the podium to talk about his new book, “Go Green East Harlem,” he was greeted by riotous applause. A woman on the first row screamed, “We love you, Scott.”
Stringer has been feeling a lot of love lately, particularly from Latinos. His efforts to combat the health problems that have been afflicting this community, as well as his creative solutions to long-standing issues, help explain the kind of reception he’s been getting. The book, a bilingual cookbook full of healthy versions of traditional Latino meals, has sold out at some bookstores around the city. It was made with the cooperation of East Harlem residents and restaurants, as well as health professionals who made sure the recipes met healthy eating standards –without sacrificing flavor. The locals also took the photographs featured in the book.
“This is really an idea that comes from us listening to the community and people telling us what they need,” said Stringer, 47. “And they need education on health and how to do it in the different languages and cultures of a community.”
While some elected leaders acknowledge that the publication of a cookbook is not usually part of anyone’s political arsenal, they admire Stringer’s forward-thinking.
“This is an unusual turn for a politician,” said Senator Eric Schneiderman of Stringer’s cookbook. “He is someone who has an instinctive feel for practical solutions to people’s problems, and this is a very practical approach,” he added.
The cookbook is part of the Go Green East Harlem Health Initiative, Stringer’s response to the startling statistics in this predominantly Latino enclave. The neighborhood has some of the highest rates of asthma, obesity and diabetes in the city, and Stringer is not shy to point the finger to the causes of these problems.
“Over time, we dumped all the dirty buses, all the garbage depots in one community, in East Harlem and thought that was ok,” he said. “And it turned out to be a big health risk for parents and children in particular.”
The Go Green East Harlem Health Initiative aims to counter the effects of what Stringer calls “environmental racism” against this predominantly Latino neighborhood. Besides the cookbook, the initiative also includes the opening of the East Harlem Asthma Center of Excellence, the launch of the first weekend farmers’ market in El Barrio -so that residents will have more access to fresh produce- and reforesting the neighborhood to improve air quality.
To Henry Calderon, the president of the East Harlem Chamber of Commerce, the initiative is evidence that Stringer means what he says.“He said he understood that asthma and diabetes were major problems,” he said of Stringer. “He follows up on promises.”
Since his election two years ago, Stringer has turned his tenure as borough president from what was widely considered just a ceremonial office -and a stepping stone for a higher position- into a platform to effect real change. His inaugural address focused on the power of ideas “big and small, imaginative but achievable,” and he is his bringing those ideas to fruition by tackling borough-wide problems like construction-site safety. This issue has taken on a particular urgency lately: in the past month, two construction workers have been killed at their jobs. The New York Committee on Occupational Health and Safety reports that construction is the most dangerous occupation, with death rates four times the average for other workers. To bring those numbers down, Stringer is calling for more oversight over construction sites, many of which employ Latin American immigrants.
He has also formed ties with other offices in order to reach out to more members of the community. Last year, he joined forces with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office to increase outreach to victims of domestic violence, an issue that he has been working on since his days at the State Assembly, where he served for 13 years. As legislator, he sponsored the stalking law to protect victims of domestic violence harassed by their abusers.
This law and his efforts to help victims of domestic violence have been high points in his political career. “That is the work that I will remember the most during my time at the state legislature, because domestic violence was not as up front and center as it is today,” he said. “I think it has had so much impact in the state saving lives.”
Now, Stringer is fighting to save neighborhoods on the island from gentrification. While he acknowledges that new buildings can benefit a neighborhood, he is appalled by the consequences of the rapid pace of construction in many parts of the city. “Why should we displace the very people who made these neighborhoods so incredible?” he asked. “That is a challenge for the Latino community in neighborhoods where there is great gentrification.”
To combat the displacement of old-time residents of Manhattan neighborhoods like East Harlem and Washington Heights, he is looking to convert vacant properties, many of which are above 96th Street, into affordable housing. He has also reached out to Mitchell-Lama residents to come up with ways to protect their homes.
His drive to preserve the city’s neighborhoods and their cultural identity takes root in his own upbringing. He grew up in Washington Heights with a Jewish mom and a Puerto Rican stepfather and stepbrothers, an experience he credits with teaching him how to work with people from all backgrounds. It was in the Heights that he first got a taste of politics, watching his aunt, former Congresswoman Bella Abzug, and his mother, former City Councilwoman Arlene Stringer-Cuevas, at work. He understood at an early age how much public service could accomplish, and at 11 he was already handing out political pamphlets in his neighborhood; at 17 he was appointed to a community board. He has been in politics ever since. His constituents remember what he has done for them, and continue to vote him into office.
“When they were threatening to close Metropolitan Hospital he was there,” said Mickie Agrait, a retired Puerto Rican woman who attended Stringer’s book signing. “He is just not a politician that puts out press releases. He is involved in the community and he is accessible.” Some of the ways Stringer increases his accessibility to the community is by staffing his offices in Harlem and downtown with a diverse and multilingual group of employees. His office on 125th Street welcomes visitors with a sign in Spanish, and its conference rooms serve as meeting points for community groups. The closeness he feels to the cultures, languages and people of New York propels him to fight for their interests.
“The only way you are going to be able to be a player in health issues, housing issues, education issues, is if you come from a different direction, to shock people, get people’s attention, and do substantive work,” he said.