On a clear Saturday in mid-July, the corner of Fifth and Bay Ridge Avenues in southwest Brooklyn is alive with the hum of small-town urban life. Clusters of children shamble and scoot down the sidewalk, weaving around older men as they debate the latest news out of Syria. Restaurants serving Moroccan, Egyptian, and Yemeni cuisine beckon to passersby, competing for attention with hookah lounges and Syrian pastry shops. Down the street a pair of housewives—sisters from Iraq—inspect the mounds of feta cheese and olives on offer at Balady Halal Market. Their daughters, teenage girls in skinny jeans and hijabs, loiter near a shelf lined with loose sumac and thyme, flipping through Instagram.
Just off Fifth Avenue, the doors of a glass-plated storefront swing in both directions as a mix of local students, earnest-eyed hipsters, and purse-bearing mothers breeze in and out, carrying clipboards, voter registration cards, and campaign literature. Signs on the door read “welcome” in Arabic and English, and color-coded maps of the neighborhood cover most of the walls. In the back, a large poster crowded with dozens of volunteers’ signatures hangs alongside a handwritten message: “Team El-Yateem, Putting People Over Politics.”
“El-Yateem” refers to Rev. Khader El-Yateem, a Palestinian-American immigrant running to become the City Council representative for District 43, and the storefront is his campaign headquarters. At 48, El-Yateem is a well-known figure in the district—a swath of waterfront that encompasses Bay Ridge and its neighboring communities—but a newcomer to electoral politics, having served the last two decades as a local Lutheran pastor. Jockeying among four other Democratic primary candidates, El-Yateem faces competitors bolstered by years in the New York political mix. But the thrum of activity in his campaign headquarters testifies to the grassroots energy that has coalesced around his campaign. If he is successful—if he can prevail in the September 12 primary and then again in the November general election—El-Yateem will become the first Arab American in New York’s City Council. He will also be the first person of color to hold the seat.
“All these years of organizing and forming alliances—it taught us how to assert ourselves as a community,” El Yateem says of his decision to run for political office. “It taught me how to be a leader, and now it’s time for us to take it to the next level.”
Just a few years ago, El-Yateem’s campaign would have been unfathomable in District 43. For decades, the area was defined by its close-knit Irish and Italian populations, with one Bay Ridge resident hailing it in a 1982 New York Times article as “the last white enclave of Brooklyn.” Today, however, the area is deeply multicultural, home to thousands of Asian, Arab, and Latino residents who have settled alongside longer-standing European-American enclaves. The rapid shift has turned it into a flashpoint for racial tensions—on message boards and Twitter, some residents fret openly about the “Asian invasion” and rail against non-English speakers—but the neighborhood has also become an emblem of a more welcoming, diverse New York.