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Adolfo Carrión: Standing Up For His Bronx, And For Civility


August 7, 2003
Copyright ©2003 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved.

IT could be said that the worst part of working as a borough president, except in Manhattan, is Manhattan. Simply put, the job entails the unenviable task of reminding City Hall that places like Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island actually exist.

There are various ways to make this happen, ranging from the hard sell to the soft touch. By his own account, Adolfo Carrión Jr., the Bronx borough president, employs a style that lies to the south of bombast but well to the north of politesse.

Call it quiet muscle.

"The style you get with Adolfo Carrión is one of respecting the process and individual opinion," Mr. Carrión explained last week, "but never, ever tolerating disrespect."

Mr. Carrión, who tends to choose his words with caution but has been known to choose some from the vernacular, displayed his quiet muscle just last month when he stepped into negotiations over construction of a $1.3 billion water filtration plant under Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. As part of the negotiations, the state has allotted $243 million for fixing parkland in the Bronx, and Mr. Carrión insisted on having a say in how the money was spent, despite vociferous arguments from Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg in City Hall.

"When I read reports that Bloomberg had difficulty with my signing off, my relationship with City Hall became more clear, meaning the mayor had tried to box me out," Mr. Carrión said. "In the end, as chief executive of the county, I had to be sure that the borough's interests and the 61 neighborhoods I represent were defended."

The Bronx, Mr. Carrión insists, has traditionally borne more bane than boon. It is home to enormous city waste stations. It has carried the brunt of housing of the city's homeless population. It has the largest wholesale food market in New York in a neighborhood where it is difficult for residents to buy fresh fruit.

"This community has had an imbalance," he explained. "It has carried more burdens than benefits."

That said, Mr. Carrión — a man who smiles as he claims to have a temper — likes to pick his battles carefully. By nature, he is neither bomb-thrower nor fiery rhetorician. Rather, he says, he likes to put the spotlight on himself if it will truly illuminate a cause that he supports.

TWO years ago, for instance, he was imprisoned for 40 days while protesting Navy bombing exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques with, among others, the Rev. Al Sharpton. At the same time, when Mayor Bloomberg recently demanded that the Bronx take 2,000 tons of solid waste from Queens in a budget-cutting move, Mr. Carrión squashed the plan with quiet politicking from behind the scenes.

"It's easy to throw stones," he said. "If I wanted sexy press, I could do a march a week, but then the issue goes away and all you have is your 15 minutes of fame. I've been given a responsibility by my community to provide real leadership, not lay down in the street and get arrested once a week."

Spend enough time with Mr. Carrión and you will pick up a verbal leitmotif: he likes the word "respect" in all its forms.

"Politics is not a dirty word," he says, "but we need to reintroduce a little respectfulness." Or: "You don't have to be disrespectful to be direct."

Respect was instilled in him, he said, by his father, Adolfo Sr., who grew up as a Puerto Rican in disrespectful Hell's Kitchen. As an older man, Adolfo Sr. became a minister and Adolfo Jr. thought to follow him into the church but changed his mind and got a master's degree in urban planning at Hunter College instead.

He worked for the city's Urban Planning Department, then on the planning committee for Community Board 5, which serves Morris Heights, University Heights, Fordham and Mount Hope. A few years later, he was elected the board's district manager. After five years as district manager, he ran in November 1997 for City Council as a self-described young whippersnapper. (He is now 42.) He won.

In 2001, when Fernando Ferrer left office as the Bronx borough president, Mr. Carrión entered the race. He won with the support of Mr. Ferrer, Mr. Sharpton and former Mayor Edward I. Koch, and set himself up in a corner suite of the Bronx County Building on 161st Street.

These days, Mr. Carrión is working on two pet projects.

The first is to develop the neighborhood near Yankee Stadium. He has plans to build a hotel and convention center, a new Metro-North station, a ferry landing on the Harlem River and a high school for sports medicine — all in a partnership with the baseball team.

The second plan, perhaps more viable, is to overhaul the Bronx waterfront, which includes long stretches of the Hudson and Harlem Rivers, the Bronx River and Eastchester Bay. He envisions a narrow riverside park along the Harlemfrom 176th Street to the 225th Street Bridge.

A few days ago, in fact, he was riding bikes with his wife, Linda, and three of his four children along the Hudson River Greenway in Manhattan. Down near 48th Street, he turned to his wife and told her, "This is exactly what I want."

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