NEW YORK CITY — The South Bronx has long been at the center of the city's gentrification debate, but Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. insists the claim that amenities like coffee houses and new restaurants are meant only for wealthy outsiders is based on a faulty presumption.
"Think of accepting that premise: that when we finally get to a position where we have something nice — nice stores, a good shopping experience, a great restaurant — that that has to be for somebody else? No," he said. "We deserve that."
Diaz recently sat down with DNAinfo New York for a wide-ranging discussion on issues from development to his potential mayoral ambitions to charter schools. Highlights from the conversation are below, edited and condensed for clarity.
Development in the borough:
"When you speak to Bronxites, the majority of them — at least those that speak to me — they like having amenities. They like having restaurants. They like having museums. They like the development. Many of them used to say, 'Why is that happening in other boroughs?' And what we’ve done is that we’ve learned from other boroughs as to what works and what are things that can be done better.
"But we also have had another problem when you speak of displacement over the years, and that's that the young professionals who we encourage as children to get a higher education, to get a career, don’t have a place to go. A lot of them want to stay, but they make too much money for the lower income levels, and they don’t make enough money to buy a condo. They don’t make enough money to buy a house. So when we speak of development, especially around residential, I want to do mixed income. I want to make sure we have high enough AMIs so that we can have a place for that professional skilled workforce so that we can retain them."
"If I had to make a decision tonight, and I've said this all along, I have every intention of running for reelection as Bronx borough president. With that said, I’m flattered for those people who ask and put out there that perhaps I should be running citywide. I think that’s a testament to the work that we’ve been doing in our borough, and in this business, being in this business 20 years, you can never say never. You don’t know what’s going to happen."
The city's response to last summer's outbreak of Legionnaires' disease:
"Awful. They failed us. That’s why I had to call the governor. In that two week span in the summer of 2015, we lost more lives than two and a half months in violent crime, in homicides in our borough. From early on, I wanted to work with the City of New York, but it seemed like they didn’t have answers, so at some point, we needed all hands on deck. At some point, we needed boots on the ground, and I wasn’t comfortable that that was happening just from the city’s perspective."
The "Piano District" controversy:
"We don’t even want to revisit that because he [developer Keith Rubenstein] did it innocently. He wanted to pay homage to that area. It's Port Morris. It will always be Port Morris/Mott Haven. Let’s put that to rest. Moving forward, I think it would be a beautiful location. I think it could be the catalyst for more development along that waterfront. It’s just that people still want to rehash that as a way of trying to fight against it.
"Was some of the art [at Rubenstein's party] in poor taste? Yes. Did it depict what we were like in the '70s and the '80s? Perhaps. But that was art, right, that was a form of expression. It seems to me that there are some people who would protest that art of what we used to be like but in reality still want us to be like that."
His relationship with his father, state Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr.:
"We differ. We have differences. We’ve had differences in our past, and I suspect that we’ll continue to have differences. We all have parents here, and I can safely say that the parents don’t always get it right."
Policing and crime in The Bronx:
"We all know that we need each other. We know that on both sides we have rotten apples, that there are rotten apples in the NYPD, that there are rotten apples in our community. But overall everyone understands that The Bronx is the safest Bronx that the world has seen in 50 years, and that’s, yes, because of the NYPD, and so we give them kudos, and we continue to work with them, but it’s also because of the citizenry, and so the NYPD appreciates that as well.
"We have a lot of work to do still. People still feel like they’re wrongfully targeted, but overall, there is no question in my mind that The Bronx community at large appreciates the NYPD and that the NYPD appreciates the level of support that they get from The Bronx community."
His relationship with Gov. Andrew Cuomo:
"The governor is a great friend to me personally. He’s been exceptional in terms of his support for The Bronx, and I’ll say this here, I’ll say this anywhere: next year, I will be honored to have Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s support for any position that I run for if he would give it to me.
"The governor and I have never, we’ve never ever had a conversation about me running for mayor."
His relationship with Mayor Bill de Blasio:
"It's cordial. Universal pre-k, Bronxites benefit from that. His executive order to increase the living wage when you receive a subsidy citywide, The Bronx benefits from that. There are so many different things that he's done, but when you look at a direct investment in our borough, and you compare it to what we’ve seen from the state — the four Metro-North stations, investment in Roberto Clemente State Park — what we’re hoping from the City of New York is for more of this to happen at a citywide level."
His support for charter schools:
"I support charter schools, always have. I believe that you don’t have to be against traditional public schools in order to be pro charter schools and vice versa. I think that the conversation has become too emotional.
"P.S. 55 is in one of the most challenging parts of The Bronx, and they collocate with a charter school, and that’s a prime example of how the two principals get along, the parents get along, the students work together. They share space, equipment, resources, and there’s a harmonious climate and environment there that I would hope that the rest of the city could look to and try to emulate."