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At 63, Barron speaks smoothly, with a force tempered by the proud grin that accompanies his sermons. He has short white hair and hazel eyes that lock on his audience like those of a salesman shy of his quota.
He hustles out the front door and pulls down the metal grate behind him. His wife has just arrived. The couple shares a single vehicle, a black Honda Accord, and they must execute a swap. Organizing their itineraries around this isn't as complicated as it might seem. The two hold joint staff meetings, operate as a single unit. When Inez is councilwoman, Charles will have no less say in city hall, and if Charles wins her assembly seat, he'll effectively arrive in Albany with five years' experience.
A retired public school teacher and principal, Inez never intended to get into politics. Charles pushed her into it, she says as she maneuvers the car down a residential block. Though the two "are of one mind," according to Charles, Inez is of a cooler temperament, far more delicate in her approach.
The car stops in front of a modest, well-kept house on Bradford Street. Inez slides out and Charles takes the wheel. The couple purchased the home in 1983 for $26,000 and raised their two sons here. That was a different East New York, one reeling on the back end of a two-decade slide into ruin.
During the urban-renewal era of the 1960s, city officials tore down private properties across the boroughs to build housing projects. People of color, flushed out of Harlem, Brownsville, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and elsewhere and redlined out of most other neighborhoods, poured into East New York. In 1960, the neighborhood was 80 percent white. A scant six years later, it was 85 percent black and Puerto Rican.
Neglect followed the demographic shift. A 1971 New York Times feature noted the area's "bombed-out appearance," owing to landlords who allowed their buildings to deteriorate, milking rents before abandoning the properties. So much of the neighborhood was vacant — an estimated 1,000 buildings — that the police department assigned an "empty building patrol" to the barren landscape.
East New York's eventual upward trend followed the city's as a whole through the '90s. Crime dropped and property values rose everywhere. By the time Barron took office, the Brooklyn boom was underway. As the wave of development swept east across the borough, investors seeking cheap acreage and residents seeking affordable housing were left with fewer and fewer options. East New York offered value.
"Only thing God isn't making more of is land," says Bill Wilkins, director of East New York's Local Development Corporation. Over the past decade or so, developers have bought up 7 million square feet of empty lots in East New York, cutting the vacancy rate by 29 percent. No community board district in the city has issued more building permits, Wilkins says.
The fruits of this land rush are evident as Barron cruises around the neighborhood. There's the Fountains development, finished in 2003, a pristine white apartment complex with red archways at each entrance, the sort of structure you'd expect to see in the suburbs. Behind it are rows of brick houses lined with white fences. And there's the Elton Street Corridor, a new commercial strip adjacent to the Gateway Mall, which opened in 2002. And up the street, the Spring Creek Nehemiah houses, neat rows of more than 200 single-family homes finished in 2012, with 1,500 more units scheduled for completion in 2016. Three new bus lines and two new schools sprang up to serve areas that a generation ago were dirt lots and swampland.
"It has been euphoric," says Reverend Tyrone Stevenson, pastor of the Hope Christian Church and an East New York native. "I was driving down New Lots Avenue, trying to explain to my daughter what used to be here. There were burning cars, crime, drug dealers. It was out of control. Now you see people cutting grass, planting gardens."
From 2000 to 2010, according to U.S. Census data, East New York's population grew by about 7,000. In 2000, 36 percent of residents earned more than $35,000 a year; by 2012, 48 percent did. Over that stretch, median home value increased from $169,200 to $427,600, and the number of homeowners rose by 18 percent — 3 percent higher than the overall rate in Brooklyn (where median home value rose to $562,600 from $229,200).
Barron has overseen much of this improvement. But locals debate how much of the credit he deserves. While development proposals must pass through him to get council approval, other actors carry a hefty portion of the workload. East Brooklyn Congregations, a coalition of local churches, spearheaded the first successful efforts to draw housing developers in the 1980s and has orchestrated the construction of more than 3,000 units since. The mayor's office, meanwhile, distributes the tax-exempt bonds that lure builders, funding more than 5,000 homes in the neighborhood over the 12 years of Michael Bloomberg's administration.
Perhaps most instrumental, of course, are the market forces. There's no question Barron rode a wave he didn't create. During the decade preceding his first term, the district's vacancy rate had already dropped by 26 percent.
"East New York is one of the few neighborhoods left with a lot of open land," says Dennis Taylor, executive director of the Sabaoth Group, a nonprofit social services organization. "Economic development is going to take place. Whoever's in that seat gets the credit oftentimes, even when they had nothing to do with it. Most of the things that are happening here now were planned before Councilman Barron even took his seat."