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Tunnel Vision

Riders on the L: Assemblyman N. Nick Perry

The local politician explains the challenges the L train shutdown poses for Canarsie.

by John Surico
Oct 31 2017, 4:56pm

Photo by Jason Bergman

In early 2019, the L train in New York City will shut down for 15 months to repair damage caused during Hurricane Sandy. Leading up to the closure, VICE will be providing relevant updates and policy proposals, as well as profiles of community members and businesses along the affected route in a series we're calling Tunnel Vision. Read more about the project here.

When N. Nick Perry was campaigning for the New York State Assembly in 1992, the 105th Street station on the L line, in Canarsie, Brooklyn, had become a top priority. Without proper lighting, the platform proved dangerous to passengers, and, like many subway stations citywide, was subject to structural decay. Its renovation was part of Perry's campaign platform then, and, eventually, it was funded by the MTA. That was 25 years ago. "I look at the Rockaway Parkway station today, and I realize, it's not enough," he says now. "That needs help, too."

But the station's conditions are just one of many local transit woes here.

At the L's terminus, Canarsie will, in 2019, find itself at the tail end of a 15-month shutdown between Brooklyn and Manhattan. Cutting off access to jobs and services in the city, it is no question that the shutdown will have a serious impact on a significant number of the 13,131 passengers who boarded the train at Rockaway Parkway on an average weekday last year. And for Canarsie, perhaps even more so: in an area long burdened by high unemployment and transit woes, it could be said that this neighborhood is ground zero of where the L train shutdown will hit hardest.

"The L line is a lifeblood of transportation from that part of Brooklyn," Perry told me. "That's transportation for Canarsie."

Perry, 67, has represented District 58, which includes East Flatbush, Canarsie, and Brownsville, in the Assembly since he won that race in 1992, and consecutive races after. During rush hour on a recent evening, VICE met with the elected official at his district office on the bustling Utica Avenue, a major transit corridor. The space had the aesthetic that could best be described as Old World (or, rather, Old Brooklyn) political guard: a photo of Perry standing with Bill Clinton and Al Gore before the 1996 presidential election, was seen next to faded campaign posters from elections past. Perry's face appeared above the slogan, "Keep Him Working for You."

The N in his name short for Noah, Perry himself was born in Jamaica, having immigrated to America in 1971, and speaks his mind in a slow, Caribbean drawl. "All of the coverage of the L train [shutdown] is about Williamsburg," he said, before I asked my first question. "They'll probably make more noise, or, at least, the noise that gets attention. Because the community around there is a lot more politically organized, and active, than Canarsie, which, to [the MTA], would be a sleepy town."

Canarsie, Perry said, is "extremely underserved" when it comes to transit. With a population of nearly 84,000 people, the neighborhood is home to only two subway stations—the L at 105th Street, and Rockaway Parkway, as mentioned. The patchwork of bus routes that do exist are notoriously slow; in its report cards, the transit advocacy coalition Bus Turnaround reported that the buses in District 58 go 6.7 miles per hour, on average—a little more than twice the normal walking speed. Bike lanes in the area are also minimal.

In this void has arisen a network of black cars and dollar vans, which shuttle scores of residents to the nearest transit hubs. "When the L train goes down, if you don't have a car to drive around, or money to get around, then you're in trouble," Perry explained.

In 2015, the city of New York reported that Canarsie and the neighboring Flatlands had an unemployment rate of 11 percent, with 12 percent of its residents living below the poverty line. With a significant immigrant population—according to the statistics, 41 percent of the population is foreign born—Perry says his constituents subject themselves to wage exploitation, or "work in the shadows," just to get by in an increasingly expensive city.

"There are pockets of high unemployment that we don't notice. Those reports don't get highlighted," he said. "Everything is bunched into the one big number, and they'll tell you that the unemployment rate is below 4 percent, or near there. So the economy is doing great, but in those numbers are pockets suffering, in need, with a lack of jobs."

That may be why Perry received a round of applause at a community meeting last May when he asked the MTA to offer L train construction jobs to local residents when the project, which is slated to cost $477 million, gets underway. "It's not a good project if people in the community where it's affecting don't get jobs, or don't have an opportunity to participate," he told me. (Perry says that the MTA committed then to sharing employment information with his office, but his staff has yet to receive any.)

Other economic measures—like freezes on sales or commercial taxes at specific times during the shutdown, which has been proposed by the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce and local politicians who VICE has spoken with—do not appear viable in 2018 or 2019, Perry said, especially when a body that he sits on, the Ways and Means Committee, is receiving regular briefings on possible cuts in federal funding to the state and city. Furthermore, the L train shutdown, he admitted, is not on the minds of many of his colleagues who live elsewhere, even if Albany, where he works, is largely tasked with overseeing the MTA.

Perry heralded the incentives the MTA has put in place to either reward the contractor, Judlau Contracting, for completing the work ahead of time, or fine it $410,000 every day the contractor goes past the 15-month deadline. The L train shutdown will hurt no matter what, he said, but softening the blow to this area in particular is of utmost priority. "The quicker they get it done, the less time we are without reliable transportation," Perry said. "The quicker they get it done, the better it is for the people I represent."

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