WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — Herman "Denny" Farrell Jr.'s name is synonymous with uptown politics.
He grew up near Riverside Drive in Washington Heights and has represented the area in the state Assembly since 1974. Farrell has also chaired Ways and Means, one of the assembly's most prominent committees, since 1994. He counts the Neighborhood Preservation Companies Act, which provides state funds to community groups to advocate for tenants and fight housing abandonment, as one of his most significant accomplishments.
This year, he is facing a challenge in the Democratic primary from Hudson Heights resident Kelley Boyd. Even after 40 years of service, Farrell, 82, says that he is still looking for ways to help the only community that he has always called home.
Q: What are some of the top issues in the district?
A: I would have to say No. 1 always is the issue of children and schools. The problem goes back to [Bloomberg] in my opinion. He refused to acknowledge that class size meant anything. He also decided that he could take control and he could make it better than anybody else. We in the Assembly gave him the power even though over the years we had refused to do that. He created a major problem called charters.
They exist because the mayor’s schools are not functioning. We now have two types of classes, and this creates a major battle. The parent who knows that I want my child in the best school will end up finding charter schools. The children that have parents who don’t have an understanding of the system, or it’s the grandmother who is taking care of the child and is not up to date with what’s going on, they end up being in the city schools. The solution is to make our city schools better. You’ve got to get the size of the classes down to be of any help.
The No. 2 of course is housing, but it’s a different housing problem than it was 40 years ago. Forty years ago, I took buildings away from landlords. In those days the question was heat and roof leaking. We created neighborhood preservation companies that would take care of the buildings with the tenants.
Now, everything is turned around. The value of the property is so going up that the landlords are now doing work in the building. I mean, some buildings you may not like what they did, but they put an elevator in, they did this, they did that, but you’re not going without heat and hot water.
The problem now is gentrification and rising rents.
Q: What have you done recently to solve some of these problems?
A: We’re still building affordable housing in the neighborhood. We’re building one at 153rd Street. They’re going to do a groundbreaking some time in September. It’s a daycare and a building for low-income folks to be able to get affordable housing. There’s also one at 155th Street on St Nicholas. It’s just about finished and it will be all affordable housing.
Q: There are frequent concerns about quality-of-life issues in the district. What is your approach to tackling them?
A: We do have quality-of-life issues: illegal motorcycles, noise, parties in Riverside Park. We need more police in order to address them.
Another issue is accessibility. We have steps on Riverside Drive that you could break a leg on. I said, 'We’ve got to do something.' I got a zigzag ramp for wheelchairs, but it’s not just wheelchairs. It’s baby carriages. It’s old man, old woman. I put that in about five years ago.
I’m trying to put another one in now. This is a $20 million bridge at 151st Street going across the railroad track and then over the highway and dropping you into the park. Two years ago, the governor started this program. What it basically said was that he was going to rebuild things, rebuild fast, and that will create jobs. So one of the things he’s going to build is this bridge. We might break ground in 2015.
Q: One criticism from your opponent is that your job in Albany as the chairman of Ways and Means Committee takes away time from serving the district.
A: Every Saturday in the summer I spend going to different programs, talking to people. That’s my way of talking with the communities.
We run an operation that takes care of people. I’m very proud of what we do. I’m very proud of what I’ve done over the years.