The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2010

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MAY 2010 Issue

City Notes

Back in the Ring

Outside of Powell's campaign headquarters (center) on DeKalb & Bedford. Photo by Walter Chiu.
Outside of Powell's campaign headquarters (center) on DeKalb & Bedford. Photo by Walter Chiu.

The writer and activist Kevin Powell is back trying to unseat Rep. Ed Towns, and there are reasons to believe that the third time could be a charm. Approaching this summer’s campaign with a better fundraising and organizational infrastructure, Powell feels confident that he can make some key players take notice. Already heated, the battle in central Brooklyn pits a veteran pol versus a determined insurgent. Towns may have the deep pockets and close relationships to the party brass, but the challenger will bring passion into the ring.

At a high-profile late April launch event in TriBeCa, Powell contrasted his ongoing community organizing work in the 10th Congressional District—which runs from Fort Greene through Bed-Stuy to East New York—with Towns’s relatively low impact. Though in office for 27 years, Towns has been largely “absent” in terms of helping the district, Powell said, citing the congressman’s lack of record in terms of bringing home the goods. Unlike Charles Rangel, Towns has not created an economic empowerment zone in the mostly low-income area he represents.

Held at hip-hop impresario Damon Dash’s art gallery, the TriBeCa event illustrated Powell’s ability to bring together celebrities and community activists. In addition to Dash, the designer Marc Ecko also served as a host for the event. Ecko stressed that Powell can “authentically connect” with people, and “wear his principles on his sleeve.” Such commitment explained the presence of the wide cross-section of folks from Brooklyn and beyond, including Khary Lazarre-White of Harlem’s Brotherhood/Sister Sol, Lucy Koteen of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, and Josh Skaller and Chris Owens of Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats.

One of the major lessons Powell learned from his previous losses to Towns is the paramount importance of fundraising. Bolstered by celebrity contributions such as Chris Rock’s $2,400, Powell has raised nearly $100k; although Towns has raised nearly $900k, according to, by the end of March he had already spent more than $725k. Powell notes that in his past campaigns, he tapped only “about 20%” of his national network. He intends to go all-out this year, raising money from Hollywood to Brooklyn, where he’s planning monthly events through the September primary.

Powell is also ready to knock on many doors. His campaign manager, Dan Campanelli—who ran Skaller’s solid-second bid for Bill de Blasio’s City Council seat—has closely studied the district’s voting patterns over the last two cycles. While Towns’s percentage of the vote was definitive in 2008 (67%), the total number of votes was not great (approx 33,500)—which certainly puts the incumbent in striking distance. The Working Families Party, of course, could give the challenger a crucial boost. Powell says that “provided we first show that we’re a viable campaign,” he is “optimistic” that the WFP would back him.

It’s nearly certain that the key players in the local Democratic Party will not support Powell’s bid, however. In 2008, both the Clintons and Chuck Schumer came out strong for Towns, the party veteran. While there’s no love lost between Towns and Vito Lopez, the Brooklyn party boss will probably sit it out (unless prodded by the WFP). Rumor has it that Lopez is waiting for Towns to retire so that he can push a different candidate into the seat. Meanwhile, Powell vows to continue working with the party reform groups like the New Kings Democrats and the Central Brooklyn Independent Dems, as well as everyone “tired of old-school machine politics.”

In terms of vision, Powell frequently invokes then-Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s role in helping launch the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation in 1967. While the organization remains in place today and can claim Towns’s support, the congressman has not generated similar efforts elsewhere in the district. Brownsville and East New York have not exactly prospered over the last few decades—while that continued decline is by no means entirely his fault, it’s indeed difficult to see what Towns has delivered for his constituents. Or, as Powell puts it, “After nearly three decades in office, what will his legacy be?”

As detailed on his website, Powell has a wide-ranging platform, proposing a vast array of initiatives that would cover everything from funding for school nurses to the creation of “four pilot community centers throughout the district that house community education, public health initiatives, and allow open public space for dialogue about the future of our district.” He and his policy director, Aaron Golembiewski, have been consulting with experts and activists across the country on health care and other issues. In particular, Powell has been working with Van Jones on a variety of green jobs initiatives, which comprise a centerpiece of his platform. (Despite the Glenn Beck-fueled controversy, Jones became Obama’s Special Advisor on Green Jobs precisely because of his expertise on the subject.)

Powell’s campaign headquarters will open in May on Dekalb and Bedford, where Clinton Hill and Bed-Stuy meet. He says that the office will double as a community center, and that he and his team will provide constituent services—“there’s a bus stop right outside the front door,” he adds. Meantime, Powell, along with field director Gene Johnson and campaign volunteers, are fanning out across the district in order to conduct a “needs assessment.” They will go from barbershop and beauty salon in central Brooklyn to the synagogues of South Williamsburg in order to listen to everyday concerns.

As a certain presidential candidate used to say, “power flows from the bottom up.” That may not be the case in D.C. right now, but a few more community organizers in the House certainly couldn’t hurt.

Nora Sayre’s New York

Nora Sayre is not often included on the roster of great New York writers, but she should be. In fact, Sayre is best known for her books about the Cold War and her work as a film critic for the Times in the 70s. (She died in 2001, just short of her 69th birthday.) Yet in the late 60s, while serving as the New York correspondent for the New Statesman of London, Sayre churned out essays on par with James Baldwin’s classics of the era. And reading them today sheds light on why the city used to produce so much more great writing about itself.

As a foreign correspondent in the pre-Internet era, Sayre had the luxury of writing about the city for a smart audience familiar with the city but not able to regularly check its pulse. In her introduction to Sixties Going on Seventies, a collection of her essays (Rutgers University Press, 1996), Sayre recalls that she had “enormous editorial freedom” and highlights the “pleasure [of] being a foreign correspondent in the city where I was raised.” She held that position through the tumultuous last half of the decade, noting that by 1968, she was “feeling rather like a war correspondent.” Vietnam, of course, was not the only conflict she had in mind.

As revealed in Sayre’s essays, the city in the late 60s was the site of many battlefronts, over sex, drugs, race, politics, capitalism, and socialism. In her writings, Sayre provided a bird’s eye view of goings-on including Timothy Leary’s League for Spiritual Discovery (a.k.a. LSD) workshops, philosophy classes taken by then-retired cops at the newly formed John Jay College, clubs dedicated to the teachings of Ayn Rand, and the Digger encampments in Tompkins Square. So many subcultures produced a natural flow of good material.

But the many different languages required an interpreter, especially for a foreign audience. Sayre’s best essay, “New York for Natives,” published in 1969, showcased the knowledge of the city she had gained from both books and the streets, her range spanning high culture to low. Not many writers would feel comfortable quoting both James brothers (Henry and William) and singing the praises of the Municipal Asphalt Plant in the same essay. Sayre gladly details her frequent Yorkville encounters with an aging Fiorello LaGuardia, whose small white bulldog regularly entangled with her “lumpy spaniel” on John Finley Walk; it was “an honor to annoy the former mayor,” she wryly observes.

From Yorkville to Brownsville, turf meant everything to New Yorkers of the era. For Sayre:

“No one is daft enough to claim that New York is a work of art. But it’s a series of theaters which can reward a participating audience....When physical realms outside your own seem inhuman, the emotional dependence on a few blocks answers an almost animal need. And certain New Yorkers seem almost helplessly committed to the crises on their own turf....My addicts, my muggers, my transit strike: these involve some of us more deeply than any national statistics.”

Perhaps it’s wrong-headed to get nostalgic for the city of the late 60s, when chaos lurked around the corner. But it was a headier time, with competing ideologies in the air. Nowadays, the crass culture spawned by Ayn Rand reigns supreme, power is centralized, and the meaning of neighborhoods is determined by statistics. It’s no wonder that there aren’t more people writing like Nora Sayre.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2010

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