From Sheepshead to the Senate: A Q & A with Chuck Schumer
Chuck Schumer has been a U.S. Senator since 1999 and New York’s senior Senator since 2001. Over all of his years of success on the national stage, Schumer has never left Brooklyn, the borough in which he was born and raised. A native of the neighborhood of Sheepshead Bay, he attended Brooklyn public schools and was the valedictorian at James Madison High School—an institution that has produced an incredible number of prominent Americans, including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Schumer’s current colleague, U.S. Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont. After graduating from Harvard, Schumer ran at the age of 23 to represent his area of Brooklyn in the New York State Assembly, and won. Since then the senator, now 63, has served continuously as an elected official, never once losing a race. From 1981 through 1998, he represented Brooklyn and Queens in the U.S. House of Representatives. Today, he lives in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope with his wife, Iris Weinshall, a vice chancellor at the City University of New York and former commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation.
For this special issue of City & State, Editor-in-chief Morgan Pehme spoke with Sen. Schumer about—what else—Brooklyn!
The following is an edited transcript.
City & State: How has the borough changed since you were growing up in Brooklyn?
Chuck Schumer: It’s changed dramatically. Its population was declining and people were leaving, mainly because of crime. Now crime is down and people are flocking to the borough—all kinds of people, from all over the world. You can go to Williamsburg and see it gentrified, but you can also go to East New York or Brownsville and see many more stores filled up and many more houses built. When I went to college and said I was from Brooklyn, my classmates said, “Don’t you get mugged all the time?” Thirty years later, when my kids went to college and said they were from Brooklyn, a lot of their classmates said, “How’d you get to live in such a cool place?”
C&S: You grew up in a middle class family in Brooklyn and were able to achieve the American Dream. Do you think working class people now are being frozen out of the borough, and that they might not have the same opportunities from which you benefited?
CS: No. It’s just changed. Working class people are moving farther South, into Canarsie and Sheepshead Bay and places like that.
C&S: What are a few things about Brooklyn that you enjoy that some people might not know about?
CS: I’ll tell you my two favorite places. One is the statue of Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson by Cyclone field. Sometimes I ride my bike down there early on a Saturday morning. You can smell the ocean and it’s right near the parachute jump, which is one of the symbols of Brooklyn. The other place is the Marine Park basketball courts where I learned about life and spent my youth.
C&S: Have those basketball courts changed?
CS: Yes, we had to take a broom and get the broken bottles off the court before we played. Now they’re newly paved and they’re in much better shape.
C&S: How has the neighborhood where you live now, Park Slope, changed over the years?
CS: It’s much more gentrified. There were still fire escapes on a lot of the brownstones when we moved in back in 1983, because they had turned them into SROs [single room occupancy housing].
C&S: What is gone from Brooklyn that you miss most?
CS: Ebinger’s, the old Brooklyn bakery that had the best cakes in the world.
C&S: On a more serious note, do you think that Brooklyn is prepared to withstand another Superstorm Sandy?
CS: It will be better prepared over the next few years with the work we’re doing.
C&S: Lastly, do you have any favorite personal anecdotes about Brooklyn?
CS: I occasionally speak at Brooklyn high school graduations and I tell the kids I went to Brooklyn public schools—PS 197, Cunningham [Junior High School] and [James] Madison [High School]—and from there I went to Harvard. And when I got into Harvard, I was scared. How was I going to compete with all those kids from the fancy private schools and the rich suburban communities? And when I got there, I found that the education I got in Brooklyn schools kept me in the ballpark. But I found I had something a lot of those people didn’t have: a knowledge of how the world works, a practical knowledge of getting things done with all kinds of people—call it “street smarts” for lack of a better word. And my education was every bit as good as theirs.