Though City Councilman Al Vann of the 36th District (Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights), has been accused of being an ineffective and absentee council member by both constituents and the press, he wasn’t always seen as such. Before his 34 year-career in the State Assembly and City Council, Vann was a leader of the African-American Teachers Association, which “got into heated, sometimes physical battles with members of the powerful and largely Jewish United Federation of Teachers, led by Albert Shanker.” (CityLimits.org) In 1968, he fought for the ability of the community to remove white teachers from the schools, contending that minority children needed more black role models. (NYSun)
His outspoken racial politics continue to create a stir in Bed-Stuy – Vann was a major proponent of the 2007 renaming of a section of Gates Avenue as Sonny Carson Avenue, a controversial Brooklyn activist.
According to journalist Ron Howell’s blog, Vann’s office then published a list of street names in Bed-Stuy, along with a brief bio of the historical figure they were named for – it turns out that many were named after slave-holders. Vann then sent a list of black heroes who would make good replacements in a newsletter to constituents.
(Bed-Stuy residents, you can look here to see if your street was named after a slave-holder.)
In 2006, Vann was criticized for railing against David Yassky as a “white individual” vying for what Vann considered to be a black seat in New York’s 11th Congressional District, which includes City District 36.
Yet he’s also known for less controversial projects, such as District Katrina Relief Effort, the Black Brooklyn Empowerment Convention, and the New York City Council Initiative called New York City Works, “which provides resources to reduce the disproportionally high unemployment rate in Black and Latino communities.”
Though some criticize Vann for his “polarizing” racial politics, for others like Our Time Press, he is a leader who’s been tied to the hope of a Bed-Stuy as the heart of political power and the African-American community in Brooklyn for over thirty years, an encouraging presence in a time of increased gentrification in the neighborhood.
Whether Al Vann’s politics will push Bed-Stuy forward or backward, and whether they still represent his constituents’ concerns is something we’ll have to wait for in his upcoming term.
PS – For a video of the social milieu in Bedford-Stuyvesant at the time of Vann’s political beginnings, check out Thirteen.org’s copy of “Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant.”