Remembering Bette Stoltz, a champion of South Brooklyn

Remembering Bette Stoltz, a champion of South Brooklyn

On Thursday, we lost a great champion for South Brooklyn, for Smith Street, for small businesses, for manufacturing, for Brooklyn jobseekers, and for low-income kids.  Bette led the South Brooklyn Local Development Corporation for many years, and was a much-loved community leader, CB6 member, organizer, gadfly, husband, mom, grandmother and friend. 

I first started working with Bette 20 years ago, when I was the director of the Fifth Avenue Committee. Though I was young and new to the scene, she welcomed me to the cause of community development, and helped show me the ropes.

Bette was a champion for manufacturing and industrial space, long before it was cool. She knew that we needed to preserve space for industrial businesses in Red Hook and Gowanus, and she fought hard against efforts to undermine it. She single-handedly prevented the residential conversion of 160 Imlay Street to condos – which I believe helped launch the fight to preserve manufacturing in South Brooklyn and around the city. “We need to consider what New York is going to need in another 30 years," she said. "I mean, this is your port you're talking about. This is not a replaceable commodity” (you can see below that she kept this fight up over decades).

Bette was a champion for our small businesses. Probably her best-known work is the revitalization of Smith Street, which she called “The Little Street That Could.”  For several decades, she helped small businesses on Smith and Court Streets to stay strong in the face of disinvestment, chain stores, street reconstructions, and gentrification. She brought in the “bishop’s crook” street lights, and organized Sunday Funday, Bastille Day, and most recently the very tasty Smith Street Soup Festival. Over the past two years, she has been helping to organize the effort to create a Business Improvement District on Smith & Court Streets.

Bette was a champion for people looking for work. Working together with Aaron Shiffman, Pat Swann and me, Bette helped establish a partnership to connect public housing and other low-income residents with job opportunities. That partnership led to the creation of Red Hook on the Road (helping people get good-paying jobs as commercial drivers), Brooklyn Networks (in network cable installation), and First Source Staffing (a not-for-profit staffing agency that focuses on placing people with barriers to employment). Over the past decade – under the leadership of Aaron Shiffman at Brooklyn Workforce Innovations – those programs have helped over 5,000 low-income community residents find good jobs.

And Bette was a champion for low-income kids. From my point-of-view, this was her real passion: helping kids from NYCHA’s Red Hook, Gowanus, any Wyckoff Houses get a fair shot. For 25 years, she leveraged her connections in the business community to help kids get internships, and to support those kids to help them succeed. She was constantly seeking new slots, knowing that every single one would give another kid a chance.

To me, it seemed like her proudest accomplishment was the creation of the Culinary Arts Program at the High School for International Studies (on Baltic Street). That program has helped hundreds of kids get excited about school, discover talents they didn’t know they had, build real-world skills and find valuable internships and jobs. And it has helped build International Studies into a strong, growing, and recognized school.

Over on Pardon Me for Asking, Katia Kelly has a lovely reflection on Bette (with some nice pictures) that includes an email she recently sent to Katia, expressing her love of the neighborhood, and some nostalgic regret about some of the changes that gentrification are bringing our neighborhood.

Bette never hesitated to say what was on her mind, and to fight against change that undermined our neighborhood values. She never gave up, and was constantly looking for practical ways to make the community better, whatever challenge we were facing. And she kept working for these goals right up until the end. I’m pasting below the comments she sent over the summer in response to “Bridging Gowanus.” As you’ll see, they show a love for this community, a smart eye for the details that matter (even if they are things like concrete plants and bus companies, unloved but necessary), a healthy skepticism mixed with an optimistic view that we can make things better.

I’ll miss Bette, and my heart goes out to her husband Michel, her daughter Erica, her son Pat, her grandkids and her friends. We’ll do well to remember her – and think about what she would have said and done – in the days, months, and years to come.

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Bette Stoltz – Comments on Bridging Gowanus

1. In the online text (but not mentioned in the slide show) – Under “New Gowanus Manufacturing Zone”, in the paragraph headed “Restrict nonindustrial uses” – the list includes nightclubs, amusements (like large sports facilities) – it needs to be more specific. For example would we consider The Bell House an undesireable? Or the shuffleboard place? What are large sports facilities? We already have a pool, gyms, rock climbing, archery, tennis, and a skate park that I know of – would we allow a marina, a jai alai fronton, a skating rink, bowling alley? Or are we just saying not another Barclay size Arena, and no X rated facilities? If things are not allowed as of right, will they still have access through BSA variances?

2. There was not enough talk (not any) about the important cement/concrete cluster that exists. What will happen to them? How will we help them to thrive whether in place or nearby? There was no talk about their barging in of their materials and the truck traffic saved by this. Also, there is a need for adequate depth and width of water to accommodate barges & tugs and all importance of bridge maintenance – needed not only for them but also for the cleanup operations. These should be a part of the critical business infrastructure.

3. Engineering Schools should be challenged to invent retrofits for allowing parallel parked loading & unloading. Also what about some incentives for companies with vehicle fleets (buses, trucks, etc. to build multi story garages to reduce their footprint while adding new industrial facility space in the former parking area.

4. Why would we want to get rid of all bus & truck businesses? They are very labor intensive. Red Hook has 4 school bus companies – 600 buses leave Red Hook every morning. That is 1,200 working peoples’ jobs – drivers, matrons, mechanics, cleaners, route managers, office staff. This was how Red Hook On The Road came about – they needed drivers, people needed jobs.

5. I loved the new idea of incentives for residential owners to use wind & solar. Goes with the new EDC program we discussed at cb6 a while ago. Businesses should too!

Thank you for including two of the things I asked for early on in the process:

Right at the beginning I put forth a hope for a “Mandatory Mixed Use Zone”. I want to better inform myself about how the TIF would work and how things would be enforced, but I am very glad to see some thought going into this subject. 

I am also glad to see the idea of an Industrial BID explored - It is something I tried about 20 years ago in Red Hook (an effort before its time perhaps), but would be great in the Gowanus. However, there should be more of a contribution from new large residential development than $1 per year if they are to receive the BID’s services. A BID would be a very good thing for SWBIDC to undertake.

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