Symbolism and Pragmatism

Borough President Eric Adams released a statement this past week advocating for the preservation of a centuries-old African burial ground at the corner of Bedford Avenue and Church Avenue in Flatbush.
Previously, Adams had supported the construction of an affordable housing development on the site, originally proposed by Councilman Mathieu Eugene.
In this case, Adams was in the right for swallowing his words: the burial ground affordable housing idea was always ill-fated and disrespectful to one of the few places in the city that honors the colonial experience of African Americans.
However, the Flatbush African Burial Ground controversy represents a larger issue that Adams will have to face if elected mayor: balancing pragmatism and symbolic action.
Again, Adams was smart to change his tune on the burial ground development. However, he should not use the burial ground as an excuse to abandon other affordable housing projects in Flatbush and other quickly gentrifying parts of Brooklyn.
New York’s Democratic Party is massive and contains many opposing wings, a fact which often leads to self-cannibalizing policy contradictions (i.e. affordable housing, but not at the expense of cultural heritage). If Adams wants to avoid falling into similar Catch 22 scenarios while mayor, he needs some foresight, a skill that our current mayor lacks significantly.
Affordable housing is a great proposition in most scenarios, but it is not a silver bullet. Mayor de Blasio does not understand this, which was made clear when he quickly supported the Flatbush burial site development last year. Affordable development is good, the mayor must have thought. What a great way to earn some quick political brownie points!
So Mr. Adams, if you are elected (which is quite likely), don’t search for silver bullets. Instead, consider issues on a case by case basis, engaging with the material on both a pragmatic and symbolic level.
This level of tact might prevent you from earning a few cheap positive headlines in the short-term, but it will make you a more effective and compassionate public servant in the long-term.

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