Council candidate Maritza Davila. — Photo by Aaron Short
To help you make the right decision in the upcoming Democratic primary — which is the de facto election in Brooklyn — BushwickBK will be running profiles on each of the three main City Council candidates for the 34th District this week. As the 37th’s Erik Dilan is running unchallenged in the election, he will not be profiled.
In 1990, Maritza Davila, a single mother of three, was working at grocery store off Myrtle Avenue making just above minimum wage. It was a steady job, but the pay was too low to support her family and her housing situation was growing dire.
"I was living in a dilapidated 8-unit building on Bleecker between Cypress and St. Nicholas that had no heat or hot water," said Davila. "I didn’t realize the landlord was collecting bills."
Morale in the community was low. It was ten years after the arson that ravaged Bushwick and many buildings remained abandoned and drug infested. On her own block, she found vials of crack and hypodermic needles from users who dropped their paraphernalia. She went out to look for help and soon met two housing organizers from the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council (RBSCC).
"I decided to take it block by block," said Davila. "Unless you live there, you really don’t know what the issues are in order to empower people."
With their help, and the blessing of officers from the 83rd Precinct and Assemblymember Vito Lopez (D-Williamsburg, Bushwick), Davila founded the Northern Bushwick Residents’ Association, which she still leads, and began organizing block associations. She helped local residents develop relationships with NYPD officers and built a community garden in an abandoned lot on Jefferson Street near Irving Avenue.
"I came into politics by default," said Davila. "I never thought I would be running for office."
Almost twenty years later, she is, challenging incumbent Councilmember Diana Reyna for a spot on City Council in the 34th District. Davila was born in Puerto Rico, moving to Brooklyn when she was only 3 months old. She lived on Marcy Avenue near Wallabout Street before her family moved to Palmetto Street in Bushwick when she was almost 9. She attended PS 106, IS 291 and Bushwick High School (now the Bushwick Campus), attending St. Barbara’s Church, before pursuing a two-year business-statistics administration class and an Associates degree, but work and the responsibilities of raising young children intervened. Now she has two grandchildren and she’s currently going back to school to complete her A.A. at Kingsborough Community College.
"I’ve always maintained that integrity, that work ethic. I think work is the only way to make a difference. I’ve always been working. [Running for office] is another step in my life where I think I can do more," she said.
Davila got Lopez’s attention in the early 1990s after her work urging the 83rd Precinct to add foot patrols to her block, and she applied for a job as a legislative aide. By 1996, she was working as a community organizer with RBSCC, first starting to build a weatherization program. She worked to help landlords make their buildings more energy efficient, which at that time cost between $5,000 and $10,000 per unit, as well as in the lead prevention program which helped the city abate lead paint from older buildings in Bushwick.
"When no one was thinking green, we were doing green," said Davila.
One of her proudest accomplishments is working with Lopez to bring Rheingold Gardens to the neighborhood. The compound off Bushwick Avenue contains 600 "affordable" rentals and cooperative apartments for first-time homeowners, which added many new residents to an area of mostly abandoned former breweries, factory buildings, and auto mechanic shops.
"It was vacant. No one wanted to walk through there. As a little girl, I had to walk through that lot. It was a horrible experience. It’s become a beautiful neighborhood."
She is converting these experiences into a platform for her candidacy. For Davila, preserving Bushwick’s affordable housing stock, building more affordable housing, giving parents more control in local schools, and encouraging more residents to utilize local health care services are among the most important issues in the 34th District campaign.
"There are two hospitals within walking distance but our community doesn’t want to go to these hospitals," said Davila, who has sat on boards at both Woodhull Hospital and Wyckoff Heights Medical Center. "We need to bring up morale in these hospitals and bring back the faith of people to go back to these hospitals. It’s not an impossible task. It takes committed people to do this."
Davila also emphasizes small business development, pointing to her experiences organizing merchants on Wyckoff Avenue and Irving Avenue to develop Merchants’ Associations and utilize the resources available to them. She welcomes new development along Wyckoff and Flushing Avenue, but believes it must stay within the context of the neighborhood.
"The neighborhoods in the 34th district have their own personalities," said Davila. "Williamsburg has many bars and stores. Is that going to work in Bushwick? There are many more residents here than businesses, and here they pay attention to how many liquor licenses are being given out. Unlike Community Board 1, there is not a full page of liquor licenses coming through Community Board 4."
She believes she can address the concerns of constituents from different neighborhoods through grassroots organizing and gathering input from everyone to solve common problems.
"It may not be a perfect world, but we live here and take pride in what we have. We’re going to work very hard to bring in resources and protect the rights of the residents and business owners that work and live in this community," said Davila. "I see myself working with everyone."
These days, she spends almost as much time volunteering with community organizations after work. Just before running for office, Davila helped organize Bushwick’s Summer Streets program, which closed off Knickerbocker Avenue to vehicular traffic for three Sundays, counseled seniors facing displacement from their homes, and helped run a number of RBSCC holiday events from its annual picnic at Sunken Meadows to last year’s Thanksgiving and Christmas meals on wheels programs.
"Looking at how much (Lopez) has done with this community and how drastically it has changed because of his work, I want to give back to the community because of his drive and motivation," said Davila.
She has received the endorsements of numerous public officials and labor groups, including the Working Families Party, 1199 (health care workers), 32BJ (property services workers), and the RWDSU (retail and restaurant workers). While she has been finishing up what has been a long campaign for City Council, Associated Supermarket on Knickerbocker finally agreed to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in back wages to its workers after State Department of Labor investigations. The endorsement of unions and the settlement hold personal resonance to Davila, who still remembers her days stocking shelves and ringing up customers’ groceries.
"That was a very strong message that was sent to working class New Yorkers," said Davila. "You can’t hire people and not pay them wages. Now there are laws in place. Now they can no longer hire people and treat them like second class citizens."