A Brooklyn Boy Whose Childhood Dreams Stop Here

By Lisa Keys

Published March 21, 2003, issue of March 21, 2003.
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It’s a typical morning at Borough Hall in downtown Brooklyn. Politicians are meeting and greeting, children are dancing jigs and an impressive amount of Irish coffee is being consumed at 9 a.m. The borough’s stentorious president, Marty Markowitz, a smiling, roly-poly man, is wearing a tall striped hat that seems plucked from the pages of a Dr. Seuss book.

As the festivities wind down, Markowitz motions to an enormous platter of green bagels, stockpiled like hand grenades. “Take some bagels home. It’s your tax dollars.”

Okay, so it’s not exactly a typical day, but close. “I always look for an excuse to celebrate Brooklyn’s greatest treasure: our diversity,” Markowitz told the Forward.

Nobody embraces that diversity more than Markowitz himself. He’s Brooklyn chair of the Irish-Jewish group known as the Loyal League of Yiddish Sons of Erin — thus mustering the clout to host a St. Patrick’s Day party the same day Purim started; hence the “traditional” green bagels. He is also a lifetime member of the NAACP and once served as grand marshal of the borough’s block-rocking West Indian Day Parade.

Over the next few weeks, Borough Hall will play host to a Jewish Heritage Night and, on a different evening, Brooklyn’s Greek and African-American communities will gather to pay tribute to Yvette Jarvis, the first Brooklynite elected to office outside the United States. “That ain’t happening in the Bronx, that’s for sure,” said Markowitz, laughing.

Since becoming Brooklyn’s president, the equivalent of county executive, in January 2002, Markowitz has vowed to be “chief advocate, biggest promoter, best salesman and most enthusiastic cheerleader” of the borough that is New York City’s most populous. With nearly 2.5 million residents, Brooklyn would be the nation’s fourth largest city, if it were a city. But it hasn’t been one since 1898, when it joined with four other counties to become part of what some Brooklynites still resentfully call “the city across the river.”

Not one to be resentful, Markowitz has nonetheless begun a process of resuscitating the Seal of the City of Brooklyn. “I’ve declared Brooklyn a city again,” he said. “I’m reestablishing what we once were.”

Nobody can muster Brooklyn pride like Markowitz can. Since taking office, he has transformed bland “Welcome to Brooklyn” signs on expressways and bridges into exclamatory battle cries: “Welcome to Brooklyn: How Sweet it is!” a new sign reads. Others include “Welcome to Brooklyn: Like No Other Place in the World!” and “Welcome to Brooklyn: Believe the Hype!”

He is probably most famous for last spring’s “Lighten Up, Brooklyn” campaign, which saw neighborhoods competing to lose the most weight. While Markowitz dubbed the program a success — the predominantly Russian neighborhood of Sheepshead Bay proved victorious — he frankly admits personal failure: “I lost 11 pounds and then I gained 17,” he said. “Once I fall off the wagon, that’s it. My first piece of bread and butter and I’m down that road again.”

Markowitz said he is “thrilled to death” to be Brooklyn’s borough president, which he calls a lifelong dream. That thrill, he notes, is tempered by being in office during one of New York’s darkest economic period in decades; since taking office, Markowitz’s budget has been slashed by 37% — and more cuts are on the horizon.

He nonetheless has high hopes. Along with working for affordable housing, education and “jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs,” Markowitz is opening a Brooklyn tourist office in Borough Hall, capitalizing on the slogan “See the world and come to Brooklyn.” “You can go to Poland, Russia, China. And, of course, we have the Amish of Brooklyn — the chasidim,” he said. “From someone coming from Kalamazoo, Michigan, that has to be an eye-opening experience.”

The job isn’t all green bagels and competitive dieting, though. “We work on serious issues, too,” he said. “You have to reach people in different ways. It’s not just policy; you have to reach them in their minds, in their hearts. Borough president is quasi-executive. It’s not legislative — it’s a position whose job it is to advocate for the borough.”

Born and raised in public housing in Crown Heights, Markowitz, 58, helped support his family by working odd jobs after his father died when he was 9. “I really thought until I was 16 that everyone was Jewish,” said Markowitz, who was never personally observant. “On the holidays, everything stopped.”

As a boy, he said, “I knew I wanted to be in government, public service.” In high school, after meeting Abe Stark, Brooklyn borough president from 1961 to 1970, “I decided I wanted to be borough president.”

At age 26, Markowitz ran for city council and lost. At age 33, he ran for state senate and served in Albany for 23 years. In 1985, he ran for borough president and lost. “I waited for my time to come — and it did,” he said. “I knew if I was ever to achieve this dream I have had, the time was in 2001.”

And the dream ends here, Markowitz said. “If I was to run for mayor I’d have to spend a significant amount of time raising money,” he said. “We’re not all Bloombergs.

“I’m perfectly thrilled to cap my career as Brooklyn borough president. To me, Brooklyn is the world. [Hometown Senator Charles] Schumer probably wants to be the first Jewish president. That’s great — you need guys like that. You also need people like me to take care of the home front.”

That home front, he acknowledges, is one drastically different than the Brooklyn of yore. “The change is dramatic,” he said, pointing to the hipper-than-thou neighborhood of Williamsburg as the site of greatest change. “You have to have 14 different colors in your hair to live there, piercings all over the place. It represents the Brooklyn of tomorrow: the young, artists, shops, restaurants, nightclubs.”

Children of ex-Brooklynites are returning, Markowitz said, helping to reinvigorate the spirit of the borough. “That woman, that woman who won all the Grammys,” he said. Norah Jones? “Yes. She lives in Brooklyn. Well, she’ll probably move, now — but it’s an exciting place to be.

“I can hardly believe I’m here. Where else can a Jew from Crown Heights hold a tremendous St. Patrick’s Day event and make everyone happy?”

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