Antonio Reynoso, 30, is a Williamsburg native who’s running in this fall’s election for the 34th district seat on the New York City Council, a zone that includes Williamsburg, Bushwick and Ridgewood. Reynoso has been working for the current Councilmember, Diana Reyna, since a year after he graduated from college–and he’s been her chief of staff for about half of that time. Widely endorsed by NYC politicians, including mayoral hopefuls Bill de Blasio and Christine Quinn and borough presidents Marty Markowitz and Scott Stringer, as well a whole slew of organizations ranging from Planned Parenthood to Make The Road to the Working Families Party, Reynoso is running against Vito Lopez, a former New York State Assemblyman and former chairman of the Democratic Party of Kings County, whose early career was distinguished by extensive advocacy for affordable housing and the senior community of Bushwick and Ridgewood, but who was the subject investigations in a number of sexual harassment scandals for the better part of the past year.
On a sunny Sunday in August, we sat down with Reynoso at his campaign headquarters in South Williamsburg to talk about Bushwick, the arts, and his vision for the community he wants to continue serving.
BD: How are you doing?
AR: I’m doing very well, thank you.
BD: Tell us a little bit about yourself. Are you from this district?
AR: I actually grew up two blocks away from [campaign headquarters], I was born on the south side of Williamsburg on Hewes; 49 Hewes is where I was born and raised. I went to Public school, PS 19, and Junior High School 50, and I went to a day care center on South 5th street. So the heart of where I grew up is the heart of this district and this community. I was born and raised in this community. The only time I left it was for five years to go to LaMoyne College in Syracuse–it’s a small Catholic school—and then I worked with New York’s Community for Change for one year and then for the [current, retiring 34th district] Council member [Diana Reyna] for 6 years. So my entire life I’ve been living in and then working for this community.
BD: That’s wonderful. You’ve worked pretty closely with Diana Reynas, right?
AR: Yeah, for six years. I started off as her Ridgewood representative, and then in 2009 she had a campaign—she ran against ‘the machine’, against Vito Lopez’s hand-picked candidate, and I ran her campaign and we won by 251 votes. It was a close race and it was really, really difficult. We didn’t have a lot of the support that you would think that an incumbent generally should have, there were a lot of folks who came out against her, but the community really came through and the volunteer effort was really strong and we won! Shortly after that I became her chief of staff. I’ve been her chief of staff ever since, and now I’m running, so I haven’t been in the office for about three months now. I’m just running full-time and doing everything I can to be the next council member.
BD: That’s great. We hear you’ve been involved in some initiatives supporting the arts in North Brooklyn?
AR: Yes, the arts are extremely important. The history here in Williamsburg, especially near the waterfront and the industrial area that used to be the waterfront that’s all housing and residential now—it’s become a strong artist community, very strong. And we’re blessed to have a very diverse district, from the Hasidic Williamsburg section below Broadway, the Latino section in the South Side, the gentrifying community in the North Side, the Italian community south of Meeker, the Polish community in Greenpoint, the African American community in East Williamsburg and also in Greenpoint—it’s so diverse, and it’s amazing, and it’s something that made this place to attractive to a lot of folks. Its affordability also made it attractive to the artist community—and then the developers set out, and now artists are getting displaced, and we started seeing a movement of the arts from the waterfront area in Williamsburg to East Williamsburg and to Bushwick and to Ridgewood, even. The displacement of the artist community mirrors the displacement of the Latino community in this district. It’s not only a housing issue, it’s a jobs issue. So, the history of the artist community is similar, and I think you could say we share that history. Now that there are a lot of artists in Bushwick who call it home and want to be there and stay there and integrate into the community, and it’s made portions of Bushwick really vibrant; it’s added additional personality to the area and I think a lot of folks who have lived in Bushwick since the fifties, sixties and seventies are really open to that infusion as long as it’s not displacing them. So, because of all of this, I’ve become extremely sensitive to the needs of the creative community. The common denominator is housing and affordable workspace, and I think that’s universal, or at least a concern district-wide. The policy that I’ll be pushing is going to be affordable housing for all. Right now there are policies in place to give housing to seniors, to give housing to low-income residents and to give housing to city officials; I don’t see why it wouldn’t make sense to look into including artists in a program like that, especially in areas like Bushwick and east Williamsburg where there are a lot of people working in the arts. And that’s something that takes a creative leader, someone who knows how to work the system in a GOOD way, and I think I can do that, and it’s something that I’m very interested in pushing.
BD: Love that phrase, ‘Work the system in a good way.’ Do you spend much time in Bushwick these days?
AR: Yeah, now more than ever. I have to door-knock [for the campaign], and recently we’ve been around the Hope Gardens area in Bushwick; also, the Quebradillas baseball league and Evas Sports Club, they’re two little leagues, I’ve been spending some time with them and with, Make The Road New York, a local advocacy not-for-profit that provides services for immigrants and for children. So, that’s where I’ve been spending most of my time when I am in Bushwick. I don’t get to spend too much time in ‘artist Bushwick’—I do get invited out to galleries and events and shows, and [when I can make it to those things] it’s amazing and it’s great. I went to Bushwick Open Studios, and it was the second year I was able to go, I really enjoyed taking it all in. It is unbelievable, it was a remarkable experience. I’d recommend it to anyone, and it’s one of the things that I think can be sustained long-term in Bushwick. It also helps attract more artists, and lets people know that this is the creative center of North Brooklyn. I also have friends at NurtureArt who invite me to a lot of their openings, and we try to be supportive of organizations that work with artists. St. Nick’s has a programs called [email protected], that’s in East Williamsburg, closer to Green Point, and they give affordable—free – space to artists, so they can have studios and focus on pursuing their art.
BD: Are you an artist?
AR: Well, I was recently introduced as a dancer at an event. [The person introducing me said] ‘He doesn’t think of himself as an artist, but he’s a dancer.’ So yeah, I dance, it’s what I like to do. It doesn’t matter what type of music it is, I’ll figure it out, I learn very quickly and it comes to me very naturally, and I think I’m good at it—it’s something that feels very powerful. When I was young, especially in school, there was always an opportunity to do dance, whether it was in a show or in the Dominican Day Parade or at a Puerto Rican festival, or just Cinco de Mayo—all chances to showcase culture through dance, and that was always an important part of it that made it significant to my upbringing and to my education. It doesn’t happen that much anymore in schools. [When I was young] after school programming was almost hand-in-hand with the work that we did in school and now [those programs] are suffering, and there aren’t as many after school programs for arts, whether it’s music, painting, singing—or dance. So—one of the things I want to do is make after school programming in the arts something that’s permanent and part of the baseline in the city budget—that way it’s not something that would be cut on a yearly basis so that we’d have to fight for it in the city council on a yearly basis, and it could be sustained long-term. There are a lot of organizations that currently do after-school programming–like The Bushwick Starr: they teach kids how to write a play and then professional actors perform the plays after they’re written—the kids get to direct it and they teach them how to do all that work. The Bushwick Starr does great work, and the funding that they get to do that work is part of a program that also subsidizes other organizations as well—and it helps them sustain the space that they work in and to continue what they do on a daily basis because they’re using this funding to subsidize space that the kids are going to be using, but also space that the artists use themselves. So it helps sustain the culture or the movement that they have that’s extremely important. So, after school programming could be a really important way that we integrate arts into schools. What [organizations like this can] do with $3,500, you can’t even imagine. It’s affordable and it makes a huge difference. So I hope be able to work out a system that is smart, affordable and is an effective education system for our children.
BD: Great. Are there any other parts of your campaign that you want to tell us about?
AR: Yeah—every time I meet with artists, I’m asked what my agenda is for artists, and when I’m asked that, I say that my agenda for artists is just my agenda. My agenda isn’t for artists; it isn’t for poor people or rich people or the people over here or the people over there. We seem to all have an interest in quality education, affordable housing, access to jobs, and those are all things that I know how to do, because I’ve worked for the City Council for six years, three and a half of which I’ve been chief of staff for, and there isn’t a facet of the City Council—politics, budget, policy—that I don’t know. [If elected] I will be able to start putting that experience to use so that I can effectively bring the resources that the community needs. The person that I’m running against is…not someone who’s going to able to build coalitions [in City Council] or get the resources we need to succeed, and that’s the bottom line: who can provide the most for this community? I feel—I know—that I’m the person who can do that. I don’t think anyone should run if they’re not willing to put the community’s interests first.