Photo by Tess Mayer.

In New York City, the war between renters and developers is only getting fiercer. The outgoing councilmember of Central Brooklyn’s City Council District 35, Laurie Cumbo, is one of over thirty term-limited City Council members who will hand over power next year following the upcoming June primary, which will decide the Democratic nominee and the presumptive winner in the November elections. Cumbo leaves behind rising rents and a history of strife with local tenants’ organizations, who often accused her of selling out working-class neighborhoods, predominantly populated by people of color, to luxury developers looking to make another buck. The crisis has only intensified as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to push New Yorkers to the brink of eviction and food insecurity. Michael Hollingsworth, a tenant organizer and graphic designer with a disdain for smoke-filled rooms in politics, is running for office to put community control back in the hands of his community. 

A member of the Crown Heights Tenant Union and Central Brooklyn branch of New York City’s Democratic Socialists of America, Hollingsworth is one of six socialists on the ballot this June who seek to swing the balance of power inside and outside City Hall toward the working class. But what transpires in this district—which covers the neighborhoods of Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights, and parts of Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy—will have reverberations all the way to Washington, D.C. The district overlaps with those of the socialist state legislators Phara Souffrant Forrest, a member of the Assembly, and State Senator Jabari Brisport, as well as Congressmember Hakeem Jeffries, the heir-apparent to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. But Hollingsworth, a lifelong Central Brooklynite and a rent-stabilized tenant to this day, makes clear that he’s not interested in joining the inner circle of the Democratic Party. Though his victory against the establishment favorite, former Cumbo treasurer Crystal Hudson, would indeed ruffle feathers all the way to the Capitol, his concerns if elected would be much closer to home. 

———

ROB M. KATZ: Talk about why you’re running. What are your top priorities if elected?

MICHAEL HOLLINGSWORTH: I live in a part of the district that has been under siege, like a lot of neighborhoods of color for the past 20 years, in terms of a lot of luxury development. Before that, [there was] a lot of displacement of long-term Black and brown folks who were forced out because our electeds basically sat by and let tenant protections weaken, enforcement weaken, and watched that happen to our neighborhoods. 

I’m not afraid to call out the folks that are responsible for gentrification of Black and brown neighborhoods. I know there’s a popular false narrative by a lot of Central Brooklyn electeds who like to say that young white people are the cause of Black folks and brown folks being displaced. For me, someone who’s been here my entire life, I know what the cause is. It’s not young white people. It is the electeds who are drenched in real estate money, elected to rezone our neighborhoods, hand over public land to private interests, sit by for years, and watch our tenant protections weaken and just allow our folks to be displaced year after year.

I’m obviously going to be of a different calibur. I don’t take real estate money, so I’m not going to do the bidding of real estate. A City Council member has a huge say in what gets built in our neighborhoods. Unfortunately for the past ten years or so, City Council members do what developers tell them to do. I’m taking a 180-degree approach to that. We’re calling for a comprehensive citywide plan that’s basically going to shut out real estate and actually bring in real community input. We’re also going to talk about the issues of the carceral state that we live in, our environment, and education. Those are the big ones. There’s a lot of connective tissue between all of them. 

I’m on board with the Defund NYPD movement. I always make sure that people understand when I say “defund,” there’s a second part of that, and that’s “refund.” Some of that money has to go back to neighborhoods of color, neighborhoods that have been under-resourced for generations. That includes investing in safe and affordable housing. That includes investing in our schools. I know one of the pushbacks that I’m going to get is that neighborhoods like mine need police because there’s lots of crime. My position is, the reason why neighborhoods like mine have a lot of crime is because they’ve never been invested in. That has led to tons of poverty. Wherever you find lots of poverty, you’re going to find lots of crime. All the basic stuff that we’ve given to other neighborhoods that are successful now, we’ve never given to neighborhoods of color. I want us to fix that. If we do that, there won’t be a need for us to have 40,000 armed police and a $10.9 billion budget. 

KATZ: People speculate about whether there will be a socialist or progressive caucus in the City Council. What are you hoping could be accomplished with this wave of socialists or progressives in the City Council?

HOLLINGSWORTH: Well, we’ve gotta be very careful with that “progressive” label. I identify as a Black socialist. I know everybody these days is calling themselves a progressive. Everybody is slapping that on themselves. De Blasio calls himself a progressive, and he refused to take away disciplinary power from [Dermot] Shea, the NYPD commissioner. Don’t just take what a candidate says on its face. Do some research. See if they were really talking about these issues before they decided to run for office. If enough people do that this year, then we can get a really good City Council with enough true leftists—a combination of socialists and real progressives.

As bad as this pandemic has been and continues to be, it has exposed a lot of the inequalities that a lot of us already knew about. With a true left City Council and a good mayor, we can decide to do one of two things. We can decide to either go back to the old New York before COVID, or we can chart a course for a new city that truly is more fair and freer for all of us, not just the handful of folks who were doing well before. It can, in a lot of ways, set the course for NY for the next 200 to 300 years, if we do it right. 

KATZ: Now that you mention it, do you have any thoughts on where the mayoral race is headed?

HOLLINGSWORTH: [Laughs] Um…

KATZ: It’s okay to pass!

HOLLINGSWORTH: [Laughs] I’ve been told not to. I do have strong opinions but I’ve been told to keep them to myself for now. I don’t want to offend anyone. My message to New Yorkers would be to be very careful about our next mayor.

KATZ: To do their research.

HOLLINGSWORTH: Yeah. Our next mayor is coming in at a crucial time. We’re at a crossroads. If somebody has a son who has an afro in a commercial, don’t fall for that this time. We need to be very, very careful.

KATZ: I wanted to talk about the current battle in Crown Heights around keeping the Associated Supermarket from being evicted. It’s become a burning issue in Central Brooklyn, highlighting the impact of gentrification on people’s day-to-day lives. It could create a food desert affecting thousands of New Yorkers.

HOLLINGSWORTH: That supermarket is a few blocks away from me. It’s the supermarket my mother used to take me and my brothers to when we were younger. It’s served the neighborhood for 50 years. About a month ago, I had a friend reach out to me and say, “Hey, the supermarket has just been given 90 days to vacate the premises.” I was kind of floored.

The Crown Heights Tenant Union was in one hundred percent agreement that this is a supermarket that has served the neighborhood forever, for longer than most of us have been alive, and it’s crucially needed. We decided that we just needed to mobilize, so we had a couple of actions where we let the community know what was happening, had some speak-outs. If you just stand out there on a Saturday for about ten minutes and watch the people who go in and out, you’ll see the majority of folks are older folks, seniors who have mobility issues. I’ve heard people say, “Get over it, they can walk a couple extra blocks.” That’s easy to say if you’re young and able. One of the reasons why they’re older and have a lot of physical issues is because they moved into these neighborhoods when nobody else wanted to live here. They did a lot of back-breaking work for years. They’ve earned the right to be able to still shop for food where it’s convenient for them. If it goes away, it’s a food desert. This is a place where people can get fresh produce and meat. Sure, there are lots of bodegas, but a bodega is not a supermarket. 

That’s the sickness of this country, right? That’s capitalism. The owners of the site, their rationale is, “Well, we own the property so we can do whatever we want to, because we have the right.” Just because you have the right to do something doesn’t make it right. America allows one man, sitting in an office, who doesn’t live in a community, to make a decision to disenfranchise thousands of people. It’s just not right. 

KATZ: You’ve mentioned before that the Brooklyn political establishment is looking at District 35—why? Why is this district a battleground in 2021?

HOLLINGSWORTH: For a long time, it has been a seat of Black political power that wasn’t corrupt. You can go back to Mary Pinkett, James Davis, and then [current Attorney General and former City Councilmember] Tish James. That part is legitimate. Last summer, Jabari, Phara, and other folks from DSA, during the Defund [the Police] campaign, did an action outside of Laurie Cumbo’s house. She did what she usually does, which is overblow things. She said she was inside with her kid. Then she took that and went with the false narrative that DSA is responsible for displacing Black folks. This is coming from a woman who’s never said no to any anti-Black or brown land use decision, by the way, and who was handpicked by [the real estate developer and former Brooklyn Nets owner] Bruce Rattner and Hakeem Jeffries to give away the neighborhoods, which she’s done successfully.

They were shocked when Phara and Jabari won, and that took two establishment Democrats off of the political playing field. These folks care about one thing above anything else. And that is keeping political power and handing it off to their friends, and friends of friends. They lost two friends. The two people who were elected are both Black, so it’s not about Black people losing political power. It’s about [the establishment] losing political power. This is a narrative that’s going to happen in my race. They can’t say I’m a gentrifier—I’ve lived here my entire life. Although they’ll probably try.

KATZ: They try a lot of things.

HOLLINGSWORTH: Yeah, but I’m ready for that. They obviously look at this City Council seat as being huge. The district overlaps with a lot of Hakeem Jeffries’s district. They would rather have someone in the seat who is more pliable to the establishment wing of the party. I’m not comfortable with the way things have been going. They haven’t been working for the majority of us. They’ve been working for the political class. So have their donors, particularly the real estate folks. The rest of us who live here, not so much. They’re going to have all of their guns trained on this race. When we beat them, it’s going to be quite a day in Central Brooklyn. The chickens will come home to roost, and I’m looking forward to it.