Board Vice President Mark Levine
Mark Levine, a New York middle-school math teacher for 34 years, can calculate the odds: if a recent proposal by the Federal Bureau of Prisons is allowed to proceed, many of his neighbors could be at great risk.
It is a nightmare he is determined to stop. Levine is the vice president of the board at Brigham Park Cooperative Apartments, Section 4, in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, and was bowled over when he received a call in the middle of December from City Councilman Alan Maisel. The politician told him about a communiqué he had received from Borough President Eric Adams’ office. The idea sounded crazy: to convert the abandoned Beth Aaron Synagogue at 2261 Bragg Street, near Levine’s co-op, into a 100-bed “halfway house” for convicted criminals who have six months left on their sentences. Eighty-seven men and 13 women would reside there.
Levine cares because he has deep roots in the community. Although he was born in Boston, he moved to Brooklyn when he was 10 and into his current home 38 years ago. He says he likes the place because it’s very close to Marine Park, “which is one of the nicest parks in the city. It is a very nice residential area. It’s been a pretty stable neighborhood.”
Stability has been a key issue for Levine, who has served on his co-op board for 25 years. He has been working closely with City Councilman Maisel’s office for years, trying to deal with the former synagogue, which, he says, “has been in such disrepair. They put in bingo nights, Las Vegas nights. They then put in a yeshiva for a short amount of time. Then, back in 2000, they had a fire there.” He blames the property’s owner, Sroya Sorscher, for letting the property become so run down.
“The synagogue itself is in terrible, terrible disrepair,” Levine says. “There are numerous violations going back to last year.”
For Levine, the proposed prison plan will only make matters worse and is ill-advised on many levels. “Children go through our walkways to get to school,” he says. “There are three playgrounds. One is right across the street from the synagogue entrance. Across the street, less than a hundred feet away, is the school playground and, of course, the school itself.”
He adds that there is a large population of seniors, children, and teenagers, as well as many schools, yeshivas, senior centers, day care centers, churches, and synagogues located near the proposed halfway house site. “We’re very vulnerable,” Levine notes. “We’re a densely populated neighborhood.”
The government, in one of its few replies to the neighborhood’s concerns, reportedly said the facility would house only non-violent offenders, which doesn’t reassure Levine. “I don’t trust the government,” he says, pointing to the fact that there was no widely disseminated public announcement of the change.
Is this just another case of the NIMBY – “Not in My Backyard” – syndrome? After all, the neighborhood is not exactly threat-free: for over 30 years, it has included Sheepshead/Nostrand Public Housing Complex, which has had its share of crime.
“It’s always been a well-maintained city project,” Levine says. “You very rarely hear of any wholesale problems. If there is a problem, it’s usually down over a quarter mile away, on Nostrand Avenue. That’s where all the stores are located.”
Levine and others from the area – including board members from Brigham Park Cooperatives, Sections 2, 3, and 4, consisting of 792 units – began a campaign in December to alert the media about the proposed plan and also put pressure on local and federal politicians to terminate it.
“We first are dealing with our local elected officials,” Levine notes, adding that they’ve had some success. On December 15, Brooklyn Borough President Adams, Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein, Councilman Maisel, State Senator Roxanne Persaud, and Democratic State Committeeman Lewis Fidler co-signed a letter of protest, saying “we are staunchly opposed to the consideration of this site for the proposed [facility]...”
But the real challenge, says Levine, is getting attention at the federal level. For a long time, repeated calls and letters to the Federal Bureau of Prisons and to Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand received no response. (Calls from Habitat also received no reply.) Then, on March 2, the co-op was notified by Councilman Maisel that he “was advised by the offices of both Senators Schumer and Gillibrand that the halfway house decision is a long way off,” according to a memo distributed to the shareholders of Brigham Park Cooperative Apartments, Section 4.
Despite that reassurance, Levine says that the community is not going to sit still. “The whole neighborhood’s been involved – all the co-ops,” he says. “We know the people in the Sheepshead/Nostrand housing project are protesting. There are petitions on Weinstein’s and Maisel’s websites. We’ve done all these things. According to all our elected officials, there’s nothing more that they can do, legally, in terms of taking this to court. We would have to go to court ourselves. That is a very good possibility. We’re investigating it now.”