While Toba Potosky is, in his own words, decidedly not a career politician, he’s had pretty much every other job – street vendor, documentarian, Studio 54 bartender, to name a few. Now he’s hoping to add “city council member” to his extensive resume.
Potosky cut his political teeth as a housing activist, and it’s the flagship issue of his campaign. We spoke with the District 33 candidate about his love of parks, animals, and small business recovery.
For our readers who might not know you, can you give us a quick introduction? What motivated you to run in the first place?
I’ve been living in Brooklyn Heights for 36 years. For the past 16 of those years, I’ve been very involved in our community as an advocate, as an organizer, and in some instances as an activist. I’m the beneficiary of one of the greatest affordable housing programs in the history of New York called Mitchell-Lama, and yet when I became president of my Mitchell-Lama in 2005, I saw that income levels did not match middle income or working class incomes for city workers and teachers or nurses.
I started reaching out to elected officials to say “Hey, this is our responsibility to provide affordable housing to moderate income New Yorkers, and yet this doesn’t reach that metric.” Nobody had any answers, except everybody agreed with me that yeah, it’s not right, but no one was doing anything. It took me a while to put all the people in place that needed to be talked to. I met with these state legislators and representatives of New York State Senate. I spoke to the city council and then I went to meet with my local elected officials – my state senator, my state assembly member. I had sent them an email, with bullet points about the issues: affordable housing, Mitchell-Lama, and where we are. That email became a piece of legislation that in 2013 got signed into law by Governor Cuomo. It increased income limits to be more in line with city workers. The nice thing about the bill is that in this new area of the new margin that it extended (it increased the income eligibility by 25%) it left the other end of the spectrum where it was, at the same level. If you came in at this higher level, you would actually pay more. That helped the subsidized people at the other end of the spectrum, so you were helping to subsidize people in the building.
That was really my first introduction into working in government and working with the city and legislature. I attended every affordable housing task force meeting from when C. Virginia Fields was the Manhattan Borough President, and then Scott Stringer, and Eric Adams and Marty Markowitz [in Brooklyn], just to educate myself on how all these elected officials talk about affordable housing and yet, they really don’t do anything about affordable housing. It’s always on the tongue of anybody running for office, and yet they’re just press conferences. There’s such a great need for housing for low and moderate income New Yorkers, so why aren’t we building it?
What would you say are the top three issues specific to this district that you plan to tackle?
I mean, it’s hard to say what are the three items because there’s so much need. But in saying that, I think the potential is so great, and I think that any time you have something, in this case it’s a pandemic, in 2001 we had the attack on the city, so the city comes back stronger each time, and then we grow from our past experiences, in this case we need a small business recovery. We all know that small businesses were suffering before COVID, right? So many people prefer to do their shopping online and have that experience. Small business recovery is important but the potentiality is there if you look at places like DUMBO. Right before COVID, the whole world wanted to visit DUMBO. What was it? It was about the excitement and the energy and the shops that were there.
And I think for neighborhoods, especially in Greenpoint, the potential is there also. I’ve been meeting with organizations in Greenpoint and we’re talking about what the potential of marketing small businesses is and things like food and culture, and the marketing of that to get the word out to the rest of the city once tourists come back. Like, hey Greenpoint represents this, come and see it. Every time I go to Greenpoint, it’s exciting because it reminds me of old New York in the sense that you can walk into all these small businesses, and certainly elected officials talk about how small businesses are the heart and soul of America, and obviously it is and is vital for employment and for local economies and that lives in Greenpoint, and that’s just exciting.
Small businesses need our help. I think that by creating what I’m calling a small business advisory task force where we work with lenders and work with landlords and we bring in the EDC, and we look at the whole picture…We have to look at the benefits of working with the tax and cutting red tape so that businesses can thrive, because I do believe that people prefer an in store experience where you can go and touch clothing, talk to people, try things on, as opposed to what we do as a community of buying something online…I remember because I’ve lived in Brooklyn for 36 when Montague Street had a bakery and a bookstore and good brunch restaurants. I see that those days are gone. New and exciting businesses can come, but they have to be marketed. If you remember days like when Smith Street sort of became the centerpiece for the culinary world in New York and everybody wanted to go to Smith Street. Those things can be cultivated and brought back.
Obviously people have learned more and more how important our parks are. In 2010, I was the co-founder of the Cadman Park Conservancy. We started a non-profit in order to work with the New York City parks department on the care and maintenance of Cadman Plaza Park, Walt Whitman Park, and the Korean War Veterans Park. In doing that, we discovered that the Brooklyn War Memorial, which is in Cadman Plaza Park, which is one of the only real World War II memorials in NYC. In our research, we found out that 327,000 people from Brooklyn served in World War II. 11 states sent more people, but Brooklyn itself sent 327,000 people to serve during the war. Just under 11,000 passed away serving during the war and their names are up on the wall of honor inside the war memorial and unfortunately because of the way the memorial is designed, in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and how it was designed, the memorial was closed 30 years ago to the public.
I was advocating with our elected officials yet again to raise the total of $5 million for the memorial itself to create a ramp and a handicap accessible bathroom and an access elevator so that once again we can reopen the memorial and turn it into an educational and cultural arts center. Because of our work with New York City parks and our relationship we advocated successfully for raising funds for a cafe and a public bathroom, because there’s two concrete block houses in the park and one of them is a public bathroom but it’s been closed. The park is so well loved and used that it’s important to have a working, functioning bathroom. Our concern was that we didn’t want to have just a bathroom that was not being supervised. The idea of the other concrete block house, which is just a maintenance storage room, would be converted to a cafe. Phase 1 was approval which was the bathroom, and when we got together with the community board, we were told the renovation would be $1.5 million. We know that bathrooms are expensive to renovate but $1.5 million for an existing bathroom seems to be an exorbitant amount of money.
These are the things that inspire me to run for office, as opposed to sitting outside the room where decisions are being made, but having a seat at the table. It’s the one thing I tell people – I’m running for office to bring your voice to city hall. For far too long, we’ve been forgotten or disregarded. There’s so many things that have gone wrong. Homelessness is increasing, crime is increasing, this whole issue regarding the Promenade and that the city’s decision is to tear down the Promenade in order to fix the BQE underneath? I mean, they appointed two expert panels and both panels came back and said “This is absurd.” It’s a weird form of double jeopardy because the city used our tax dollars to fund this absurd program and we as a community raised money to fund one of the engineering studies, so it was our money on both sides. One of the main reasons why I’m running is because the city has forgotten who they represent, and the idea that they wanted to tear down the promenade at night, over a two year period, in a residential neighborhood was just unacceptable. I look forward to being the voice of helping to move that project forward in a much more reasonable way.
You’ve had a lot of different jobs over the years, including that of a community organizer. What are some things that you’ve learned from those roles that will serve you as city council member?
I’m self taught in many ways. You have to be in the thick of things in order to find your way through. Based on all my experiences, I’m not the kind of person who looks at a problem and says “Somebody should.” I’m the kind of person who sees something and says “Let’s fix this now.” That’s what I have a reputation for, and that’s what I’ve done all my life. My parents divorced when I was young. I didn’t come from a wealthy family. I came from a middle class family. My mom worked, and she was a member of 1199 [union representing healthcare workers.] My dad had a small business that struggled for a long time. I knew that for me as a kid, I wanted to make some money so that’s how I began as a vendor. I worked at Studio 54 as a bartender there.
All the stuff I just talked about, housing, parks, the promenade – that’s all volunteer work. I have a full time job. I’m a sound engineer. I work 6 days a week. I get up every work day at 3 AM and I’m done with work around 9:30 in the morning, home by 10, and that gives me the opportunity to work on community based stuff, which is something that I love. To be honest with you, I fell into becoming a sound engineer 30 years ago. It’s been great for me, but to me it’s equivalent of being a bartender, because my passion is really community based service. The most frustrating thing is sitting in a meeting with the other candidates, and there are some that we’re running against who have their careers in politics, which is fine, but they give political answers and they sound so good. I’m like “Wow, that’s such a polished answer, but to tell you the truth, if they’re really that good, why is homelessness rising? Why is crime rising? Why don’t we have answers, where is the leadership?”
In all honesty, that gets to the crux of why I’m running – there is no leadership, and people in our district really have very little communication with our elected officials. It really is at the whim of our elected officials to decide what is important to them or not. That is the most important thing to me. When it comes to parks, the promenade, transportation, homelessness, these things are so vital to me because I live here and I see what’s going on. I’m a working class guy. I take the subway everyday, the 3:56 AM 2-3 train to 50th and Broadway. I see who’s in the subway at 4 in the morning, and I walk through Times Square on my way home and take the 2-3 express back. I’m in the parks everyday. There’s an attitude of what’s acceptable for the city. Our elected officials have decided amongst themselves what is acceptable. I have a different attitude – I have an idea about a quality of life for all.
What is your favorite thing about living in this district?
The diversity. You can walk from Greenpoint to DUMBO and feel the excitement of every neighborhood, from Williamsburg, Vinegar Hill, Fulton Landing, up to Brooklyn Heights and Boerum Hill and then over to Court Street and Gowanus. I mean, it is a massive district, and it’s the people and the small businesses. You feel the energy of each distinctive neighborhood, and it means something to me. It makes you feel alive, and you understand why the whole world looks to New York, especially Brooklyn.
My parents are from Brooklyn. My dad went to Erasmus, my mom went to Wingate, they both went to Brooklyn College. My dad had said Brooklyn lost its heart and soul when Ebbets Field got torn down, and he said that when the Barclays Center was coming back, you’re gonna see that Brooklyn is gonna come alive. He was right. The Barclays Center went up, and everybody wants to be in Brooklyn, everybody wants to live in Brooklyn. People who had never thought about it before and were focused on Manhattan – everyone wants to be here. It’s an exciting place, and it’s a great place to be a part of.
I’m excited about the opportunity to serve our community because I am passionate about so many different issues. Because I’ve been the president of Cadman Towers for 16 years, I have replaced 12 roofs, a boiler, and hundreds of windows. I’ve remediated mold, bedbugs, cleaned air vents. I’m responsible for $40 million of capital repair work. There’s nobody in this race that’s more qualified to take on the challenges and represent the people of NYCHA more than me. I’m not bragging, I’m just saying in 16 years, this is my experience…this is my volunteer work. I’m just passionate about the people in this district, and I just can’t wait for the opportunity to really serve them.
I can tell you how many times I’ve gone to testify at City Hall on numerous things, including the helicopters that are constantly flying around downtown Brooklyn and trying to raise the parks’ budget. The New York City parks’ budget was less in 2019 than in 1990. Back then, it was 1% of the overall city budget, now it’s 0.5%. I need to be on the other side of the room. I need to be in the room where decisions are being made, fighting for the people who live in this district.
Any other last thoughts about what our readers/voters should know about you?
This is who I am. I am 100% all in. I’m only going to City Hall to represent the people, not special interests. I think that distinguishes me from people who have been career politicians. Those who live in NYCHA, those who are sleeping in the parks, to those who are living in high rise buildings – we all have needs and concerns and we all love living here. I feel that our campaign and my candidacy will bridge the gap. It just seems that city hall has stopped listening. My overall goal is to really represent the district. My thing is creating a policy of a quality of life for all.
There’s two things that are unique to my candidacy. One is animal rights. As an animal lover, I think that we as a city are understanding more and more that animals have feelings and emotions. We have not been enforcing some of these laws, so the city council really needs to have an animal rights committee, to make sure that we’re looking at what the city laws are, and that people who abuse animals go to jail. Being a lifelong New Yorker, they always talk about the horses in Central Park and people feel one way or another, but stories have to be told – what is it, why do so many want to remove the horses from Central Park? Is it a healthy environment? Are the horses being exploited? Are they meant to be standing along Central Park south for all this time?
The other thing that is a big issue for me is accessibility. To think that the American With Disabilities Act passed 30 years ago, and we still don’t have a 100% accessible mass transit system is offensive to me. I understand that the MTA is a state agency but we can advocate very strongly and we as leaders can actually shine a light on this major deficiency. If you have any kind of disability, you’re gonna have a tough time in New York City mass transit. And not just a physical disability – if you’re blind, deaf, there are issues that you’re going to have, and these issues need to be addressed.
In New York, we should be leading on affordable housing. We should be leading on accessibility on public transportation. That’s just not the case. Everything that I’m talking about really just comes down to leadership, that’s what I’m focused on, and that’s what I hope to be doing.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.