Vanessa Gibson’s first couple days in her post as Bronx borough president were celebratory. In addition to cementing her place as the first Black woman to become borough president of New York City’s northernmost borough, Gibson also celebrated the installment of her diverse administration, a crew she assembled and touted as the most creative and boldest minds in the Bronx.
But the honeymoon was quickly upstaged by numbing tragedy, as the following weekend the Twin Parks North West high-rise apartment in the Fordham Heights section lit ablaze killing 17 people on Jan. 9. Since then, the work to repair systemic and qualitative cracks in the Bronx has been an unrelenting challenge for the Gibson administration.
“The month started out on a good note, announcing the first Latina, Janet Peguro, as my deputy borough president, and unfortunately that weekend we had a horrific five-alarm fire that claimed the lives of 17 neighbors, eight children and nine adults,” the Bronx beep told the Bronx Times. “Fast-forward t0 five weeks later and we’re still working with these families.”
In her first month as borough president — she assumed the office on Jan. 1 — Gibson seemed to be everywhere except her office.
For any elected official in a new role, it’s about finding their sea legs and for a unique position like the Bronx borough president — a ceremonial role in nature, outside of certain responsibilities such as land-use oversight and board appointments — Gibson has became the face of a borough grappling and shifting from one crisis to another.
In her first month as beep, the Bronx saw a rise in crime — 150% uptick in shootings from last January — and incidents where an 11-month old girl was hit in the face by a stray bullet while in her car seat, a Belmont cop was shot and a building explosion in Longwood that sent close a dozen people to the hospital were emblematic of a borough in flux.
“It’s just been very challenging, and January was a very tough month, not just for the Bronx but for the city of New Yorker,” said Gibson. “Mayor Eric Adams has been in the Bronx more than I thought he would be at this point. We’ve been side-by-side at funerals, shooting responses, visiting hospitals, and while it’s been a challenging time, one thing I’m committed to being is visible for all my Bronx neighborhoods.”
Gibson’s rise in local politics — a journey that started when she succeeded her late mentor Aurelia Greene as a state assemblywoman in 2009 followed by a run as a city councilwoman beginning in 2013 — opened a new chapter when the District 16 councilwoman received 79% of the vote on her way to succeeding Ruben Diaz Jr., as the Bronx beep position.
A battle-tested politician, Gibson told the Bronx Times that the administration’s response to the Twin Parks North West fire — coordinating aid and transition plans for displaced families of the fire as well as managing myriad hiccups for victims such as cramped hotel accommodations or expediting travel visas for immigrant families hoping to mourn their loved ones in New York — has served as a litmus test.
Impressively enough, Gibson’s team was able to secure funerals for the 15 victims within two weeks of the fire. However, a month later issues still remain for families upended by the fire.
“There were a lot of these challenges that these families faced, because these hotels weren’t exactly five-star, and some of the rooms were not conducive to hold the size of a family,” she said. “We needed to asses the immediate needs of the victims … We had to get a collection of money so that funeral and burial services could be accommodated, we worked with the chief medical examiner’s office to expedite death certificates so bodies could be released to the funeral home. It’s been a lot, and five weeks later there are still families we are trying to help.”
In light of a high-variance January, Gibson said she’s been encouraged by the groundswell of support people have shown for the victims of the Bronx fire, as well as the work done with other Bronx leaders to push for meaningful fire safety legislation.
Gibson said one of the biggest obstacles facing her administration is easing safety concerns of Bronxites across the borough, hoping to quell the city’s surge of gun violence from each corner of the Bronx.
“The general theme I continue to hear from residents is that they don’t feel safe, and they feel like the city is out of control,” Gibson said. “There are individuals that possess weapons illegally and they are using (these weapons) to shoot and kill each other and innocent New Yorkers and bystanders are being caught in the middle, and we are burying too many children at younger and younger ages.”
Stabilizing the Bronx, which the beep defines as full-fledged effort to address the borough’s success out of the pandemic and mitigating evergreen boroughwide issues such as food insecurity and its last-in-the-state health disparities, remains a focus for this administration and will not be accomplished without strong intra- and outer-borough relationships.
So far in February, things have slowed down, somewhat for Gibson and her team. The administration has began conducting its regular business — scheduling interviews with BIDs across the borough, workshopping with community board leaders and planning trips to each locale in the Bronx chatting with residents and shareholders alike on what the Bronx could be under this administration.
“There’s a lot of ground to cover, and I feel like January did not give me the ability to do everything I wanted because I had to respond to tragedies, the fires and the shootings in the borough and that took me away from the office,” she said. “We’re still in the beginning of our new administration, but I am not new to public service. I’ve been able to cultivate great partnerships with all members of government, in addition to the respect given to Bronx borough president title, which will help keep us aware of what’s happening in the city.”
Reach Robbie Sequeira at email@example.com or (718) 260-4599. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes.