Ruben Diaz Jr.

Borough President Rubén Díaz Jr. on delivering for Bronxites

Rubén Díaz Jr. has served as Bronx borough president since 2009, and he is eligible for one more term – assuming he’s re-elected this fall. Díaz spoke with City & State about the biggest projects underway in the borough, ensuring local residents benefit from borough improvements and changing the public’s perceptions of the Bronx. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

C&S: Your position is term-limited, so if you are elected for a third and final term, you would have four years left as Bronx borough president. Where would you like to see the Bronx by 2021?

RD: I want to have the Bronx be in a better position than when I first started, and we’ve been working since day one towards that goal. So I want to continue to reduce our unemployment rate. When we started, we were at 14.1 percent. We’ve gone as low as 5.4. I want to continue to be national leader in crime reduction. I want to continue to be a leader in green development. I want to continue to build housing at every level. I want to continue to educate Bronxites to be healthier. It’s the reason why we have forged strong alliances with our farmers upstate, where we have more farmers markets here, making sure that EBT (electronic benefits transfer) card holders use health bucks and the EBT cards to buy fruits and vegetables. We’ve worked with the congressional delegation to have the federal government accept New York state as one of the six states in a pilot program to be able to use EBT cards to buy produce from grocers online.

When I’m done here, I fully expect to see a fully restored Orchard Beach. I would like to see four Metro-North stations come to life. I want to see the Bruckner-Sheridan interchange finally completed after 30 years of conversation. I would love to see the completion of York Studios over in Soundview, the Kingsbridge National Ice Center thriving, the Post Office with Youngwoo and the waterfront along the Harlem River and Mott Haven all developed. I’m going to continue to execute and check off these boxes, and if the voters of the Bronx give me another four years, that will be my mission moving forward, to finish off the things that we started.

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C&S: Are you concerned that the influx of development projects in the Bronx will lead to gentrification and displacement of Bronx natives?

RD: Every single day of my life. So, that means that we have to continue to create jobs that pay Bronxites wages where they can afford to continue to live here. We need to continue to develop housing for the different income levels, whether it’s low income or even our working professional class. I see what has happened in other boroughs and other communities, where there was an influx of businesses and industry, and that could be a good thing. But I also saw many areas where the citizenry was not prepared. We’ve learned what’s worked in other boroughs, and what could have been done better. Gentrification doesn’t have to mean that good things are happening here just for other people. We’re making it work for Bronxites.

“Gentrification doesn't have to mean that good things are happening here just for other people. We’remaking it workforBronxites.”

C&S: You’ve been a strong supporter of the Fair Fares proposal. What do you think of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan for a millionaires tax to pay for repairs to the subway system as well as subsidizing fares for lower-income residents?

RD: I think it’s interesting. I think that it could go a long way in generating the revenue that’s needed. When I was in the Assembly, we did something similar to this around education, where we had an income tax surcharge that had different levels depending on your income bracket. It was dedicated back then to a specific fund – in that case, it was education, where the business community and those who were more affluent back then were open-minded because they cared about education. I suspect that those in corporate America feel a great deal of compassion for making sure that the transportation arteries of New York City run in an efficient way because we all benefit from it. It’s part of who we are as a city and it’s certainly essential to our economy. I’m hoping that at the very least it starts a dialogue between the city, between the state and the MTA, and for that matter, the business community in the city of New York, to have a way to generate a continuous revenue funding stream for our transportation system. I support Fair Fares, so whatever that funding stream is and whatever that agreement is, I think it should entail subsidizing the very poor of the city of New York. I’m not saying no to the mayor’s proposal. I’m looking forward to hearing more of the details. But I definitely feel that the state and the city have to get their heads together and see how we get Fair Fares for the working poor to be able to get on the transit system.

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C&S: What are the greatest challenges you face as borough president?

RD: My biggest challenge is obviously making sure that Bronxites are prepared for the economy of the future. Another challenge for us is, how do we become a healthier citizenry? People talk about displacement and gentrification, but how do we get Bronxites to be healthy enough to benefit from the progress? How do we change the mindset of both people who live in the Bronx and people who live outside of the Bronx about the Bronx? There’s so many people who haven’t been here in many, many years or who have never been here and still believe that we are the Bronx of the ’70s, and that’s just not the case. At the same time, there are many Bronxites that have been beaten down psychologically over the years, that they don’t feel like they deserve better things. That’s from a more philosophical standpoint, but more in a tangible way, how do we finish what we’ve started? How do we really get these major projects that will be transformative for the borough to be done as quickly as possible over the next four years?