Curtis Harris Sr. described himself as “a Renaissance man” — a person with varied interests and areas of expertise.
“I am a Crown Heights resident with the loving heart of a father, sharp mind of an accountant, creative spirit of a poet and experience of a community organizer,” Harris told BK Reader.
Harris, the founder and director of a nonprofit that uses poetry to improve child literacy, wants to add another title to his resume: City Council member.
The Brooklyn native, born in Brownsville and reared in Clinton Hill, is a candidate in the Council District 35 race to replace term-limited City Council Majority Leader Laurie A. Cumbo. It’s currently a nine-candidate competition, which includes Crystal Hudson, to represent parts of Prospect Heights, Crown Heights, Fort Greene, Clinton Hill and Bed-Stuy.
Smart housing development
A Community Board 8 (CB8) member for seven years, Harris was frustrated because the board lacked “the influence it needed” to make some important decisions that directly impacted the community.
“That is one of the reasons why I decided to run for City Council,” he explained.
Harris recalled that he “made trouble for the irresponsible developers” while serving on CB8’s Housing and Land Use Committees.
“What I saw coming back then is now manifesting itself. I’ve been trying to stop this train of gentrification,” he said, pointing to the low-income housing crisis in the district.
Indeed, Brooklyn saw its largest year-over-year increase in residential rents since 2013 – up by 5.5% to $2,745 – according to StreetEasy’s February 2020 Market Reports. Northern Brooklyn, which includes neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Greenpoint, was the fourth most expensive submarket across the city, after Manhattan’s Downtown, Upper West Side and Midtown areas.
Harris vowed to fight in the City Council to adjust AMI (Area Median Income), the formula used to determine who is eligible for different types of housing programs.
“We have to be smart about development so that it benefits the many and not just a few. It has to take people into consideration and their income levels,” Harris stated. “I am not against development, but we have to be smart. We can’t rubber-stamp every development project that comes across our desk. And we can’t reject every development project that comes across our desk.”
Preventing evictions, improving food security and reforming police
Harris has a broad platform that includes preventing evictions, which would be one of his top priorities for the district if elected. Improving food security and access to affordable health care are also at the top of his agenda.
He’s also a strong proponent of police reform. “I am not against the police,” Harris wanted to make clear. “However, we must have law enforcement that is transparent and accountable to the people.”
Harris called for a “reimagining of policing” in the city, especially after witnessing the NYPD’s heavy-handed response to protesters who demonstrated against the police killing of George Floyd.
“There is a culture in the NYPD that must be revisited,” said Harris, who also supports defunding the NYPD.
Harris, a father of six children and the grandfather of a toddler, retired in April after a 45-year career in accounting. As a professional who’s accustomed to evaluating bottom lines, Harris has serious concerns about the city’s projected $9 billion budget deficit.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has reportedly laid the groundwork to borrow money to help recover from the economic downturn.
“We have to be very creative with what we are getting ready to do,” Harris warned. He recommended a two-pronged approach of creatively increasing revenue streams and reducing expenses. “We can look at the potential of borrowing. However, we must be careful,” Harris added.
A Socialist at heart
Socialism guides Harris’ thinking about public policy, as well as community service.
“I’ve always been a socialist at heart,” declared Harris, adding that he’s a true socialist, unlike the “faux socialists” who use the ideology as a label to win votes.
“A true socialist will develop food programs and free medical programs. A true socialist will identify with the people, help the people, and even die for the people,” said Harris, who has always identified with the Black Panther Party.
As the executive director of Green Earth Poets Café, Harris gives back to the Central Brooklyn community that nurtured him. The arts organization launched in the aftermath of the fatal shooting in 2012 of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager.
Improving literacy through poetry
Harris’ organization focuses most of its attention on kids in poor neighborhoods who attend low-performing schools, as well as seniors.
The youth learn theater production and how to craft poetry, which they can perform at poetry slams. Through the arts, the organization helps to improve literacy, communication and leadership skills, and self-confidence.
Harris attributes his love of the arts to his father, Eddie Harris, a jazz musician. “He was my very first model of love, art and intelligence,” he said.