“All politics is Local” – Flatlands Civic Club President Joan Gilbert Says in an Interview Discussing the Social and Economic issues of the 59th Assembly District
Gilbert reflects on her role as a civic club president in alleviating some of those effects over five years.
Written by: Reya Singhi
An Urban Design student at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, Columbia University.
August 17, 2022
The collaborative nature of Joan Gilbert, president of Flatlands Civic Club, Inc. has benefited the neighborhood she lives in and advocates for its preservation. The discussion began with two books that make comparisons to life in the 59th Assembly District – Brown Girl Brownstones by Paul Marshall and The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein – analyzing the neighborhood’s transformation and comprehending how concepts like “white flight,” “redlining” and “gentrification” continue to have an effect over time.
What phrase best sums up the organization’s function in this district?
I’ve lived in Flatlands for more than 25 years, and I’ve been the Civic president for almost five years. I like to refer to it as a grassroots organization with a motto of “Achievement through effort.” The civic works with elected leaders and police precincts to find solutions for problems impacting our community’s quality of life.
How do you handle a neighborhood problem, and who do you work with to have it fixed?
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned over the years is the importance of working with elected leaders and the community board. Let me illustrate this with an example of a street that had become overrun with cars and auto body shops without naming any street. As a result, it had quadruple parking, making it challenging to maneuver on foot and safely accommodate traffic flow. Our community board manager and a representative from an elected member’s office visited the site, so they had a visual image of the problem. Following the visit, the community board manager reached out to the Sanitation Department, and site cleanup was done within a week. This is the reason I say all politics is local. So, the first point of contact is the local person and then going beyond that, sometimes even to Washington DC, if it needs to go.
The books talk about the quintessential “American Dream” as home ownership. What are some of the biggest challenges standing in its way?
Home Ownership. I come from the West Indies, so home ownership is a cultural expectation, and that’s the big American Dream for many people in these communities. The books’ fundamental topics have housing as a common thread, which speaks volumes. Owning a home is a source of pride, a step toward creating generational wealth and a feeling of accomplishment in realizing the dream.
However, it involves so many facets that this is a complicated issue. Some people may face difficulties getting a down payment, finding an affordable home and acquiring property insurance, mainly if they live in a flood zone. Then others obtain a mortgage but have trouble keeping up with their home. Superstorm Sandy severely damaged Canarsie. Even 10 years later, some households can still feel the repercussions. Some organizations are trying to help the homeowners, but you must “qualify” to get into their programs, so the administrative issues also limit the reach.
But everyone’s situation is different; some are doing well. So, in the end, it’s a matter of finances.
How do you think the demographics in the 59th Assembly District have changed and what was the precedence for it?
A neighbor who arrived in the area around 10 years before me informed me that his family was among the few black residents on the block when they first moved in. When I moved, there were perhaps three white families. Since I moved, Flatlands and the adjacent neighborhoods have a predominance of black residents. However, in the past eight to 10 years, I’ve witnessed a change in the neighborhood’s demographics, adding another layer of immigrants from Middle Eastern countries.
In the instance of Brooklyn, gentrification has received a lot of attention. Do you believe the 59th Assembly District is experiencing this complex phenomenon?
In Downtown Brooklyn, certain parts of East New York, Fort Greene and Bedford-Stuyvesant have been affected by gentrification. But somehow, south Brooklyn has not yet been touched. Don’t get me wrong; there are certain pockets of it, and I can see it. I believe once Starbucks and Target come, it’s going to change. Hahaha. But south Brooklyn has not been gentrified, and I guess it’s because of the accessibility to the city. Public transportation is a little cumbersome. For instance, in my neighborhood, getting into the city requires taking a bus and a train. The “L” is the only subway serving the Canarsie neighborhood. So, transit is one of the main reasons south Brooklyn has not yet been gentrified.
What role does the Flatlands Civic play in the 59th Assembly District?
The 59th Assembly District is one of the biggest districts in Brooklyn. It comprises Canarsie, Flatlands, Georgetown, Mill Basin, Marine Park, Bergen Beach and Gerritsen Beach, of which Canarsie is the biggest neighborhood.
I do think it’s fair to say that not every district is treated the same. This is seen with our spaces, such as parks and streets, so one thing we are trying to do through Flatlands Civic is change the perception of the neighborhood. For example, this past December, our community park was gifted with its first holiday tree lighting event. Flatlands Civic, together with Assemblywoman Jaime Williams, State Senator Roxanne Persaud and local organizations, such as Millennium Development and The Newton Foundation, made this possible. After the event, a resident came up to me and said, ‘Thank you for bringing this event to the community,’ which shows appreciation and makes people feel proud.
When such events are brought to the neighborhood, the locals observe how it brings everyone together. At this point, I prefer the redlining example because if people are made to feel that their area is worthless, it will eventually turn into a dump. However, the politicians and citizens of the neighborhood change their perspectives if we invest and get involved. Having said that, I’m pleased to say that in another few weeks, the community will experience another “first.” Flatlands Civic, in partnership with our councilmember’s office and together with the Sanitation Department, will host a shredding event at this same park. It’s the goal of the civic to be visible and to encourage civic engagement among its residents.