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Shahana Hanif, New York City Council Member
Issue 32: On eating out as a form of community organizing, representing district 39, and where she likes to eat out in the district.
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Shahana Hanif is the council member for New York City’s 39th district, a large district covering parts of Kensington, Borough Park, Windsor Terrace, Park Slope, Gowanus, Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, and the Columbia Waterfront. She is the first Muslim woman and the first Bangladeshi American elected to the New York City Council, and the first woman to represent the 39th district.
Shahana also happens to be my council person and I’ve been following her work ever since I got a mailer about her at the start of primary season in spring 2021. The 39th is incredibly diverse in food and Shahana takes full advantage of all the great restaurants across the district. I chatted with her about eating out as a form of community organizing, the challenges of representing such a large district, and where she likes to eat.
Brianna Plaza: Tell me about your background in organizing.
Shahana Hanif: The catalyst in becoming an organizer was my diagnosis with Lupus at 17. I wrote about living with Lupus — including getting rejected for the City’s paratransit services, Access A Ride — and through storytelling, connected with women also living with chronic illnesses and disabilities and began to build a community of disability activists for mutual aid and support.
While at Brooklyn College, I co-founded the Muslim Writer’s Collective’s New York chapter with a few of my friends. It was important for me to bring young Muslim artists, writers, and creatives together in one place to build a space that was explicitly ours and for an opportunity to use our creativity to organize our communities and build the power of the Muslim community post-9/11. Every month our open mics brought together hundreds of diverse young Muslims deeply committed to one another’s safety and joy.
During college, I joined CAAAV as a public housing tenant organizer and then came back to my neighborhood as my local Council Member’s Director of Organizing and Community Engagement. Bringing people together and calling on each of us to take action, whether they’re similar or radically different, has not only been what I’ve done professionally but also has been a passion of mine. I think with the way the world is right now, we’re too easily predisposed to be alone, and that not only weighs on us personally, but it also dilutes our power. Organizing is a funny word because not everyone knows what it means, but we all know when we’ve been organized — when we’ve found community or a common purpose with a group of people. Organizing not only brings us together, but it makes us stronger both personally and politically.
Brianna Plaza: Has food always been a part of your life? Tell me how that factored into your campaign.
Shahana Hanif: Growing up in Kensington, food was interwoven into everything I did. From the spicy beef curry my mother would make at home to the mutton biryani that I would enjoy around a big table with my extended neighborhood family, when I say the word “Kensington” I can smell the meals and spices I ate growing up. Food was always a cultural touchstone but as I became older and started using social media more, I viewed my documentation of the food I ate as something more radical. Women’s bodies, especially women of color, are constantly policed and judged. Until about a few years ago, you didn’t even really see women openly eating in the Bangladeshi restaurants in Kensington and especially not women who looked like me.
During the campaign, I documented my food journey not just as a fun thing to do — and not to mention a great way to highlight some of the incredible restaurants in our district — but also as an act of defiance. I was going to eat delicious food from the pulau with roast chicken at Ghoroa and the pizza place on the corner to the great new pasta restaurant in the neighborhood because I loved it and I wasn’t going to let anyone judge my joy.
Brianna Plaza: You represent a large district that's diverse both in community and types of restaurants. How do you make sure that these businesses — from Popina, to Couleur Cafe, to Sonia Cafe — feel like they are all represented by your office?
Shahana Hanif: My father owns what is now Radhuni, in Kensington, and that was his baby. It was originally called Little Bangladesh.
It grew out of a love of food. It grew out of a love of our heritage and culture, and the preservation of Bangladeshi cuisine. I have always had a love of the restaurant world and know just how much work goes into operating a food business.
I saw my dad working so hard and as a result of it, being pretty absent, because that's how this work is. That informs my love of restaurants. Through COVID, what we saw was a shuttering of many of our favorites, but also at the same time, this district really utilized open dining. We also saw a boom in the opening of new restaurants, in the 39th in particular.
My office has been a hub of supporting restaurants. I have been vocal around the advocacy to support small businesses, which of course include a brevity of so many kinds of operations. One of the ways in which I highlighted these restaurants was just by eating at them.
I think it's really critical to enjoy food, and through COVID especially, where of course there was just so much despair and hopelessness. I took to what gives me joy, and that's good food. I know that behind the good food are incredible workers. In the kitchen you will meet immigrant workers. You will meet delivery workers who are struggling on unsafe streets and not having the adequate protections they need.
I've been advocating for making sure open dining is successful, and that our restaurants have adequate grants or opportunities to resuscitate in a meaningful way through this COVID recovery period, that I'm also a champion of workers, who are predominantly an immigrant workforce.
I also make sure I try the food of the district. I use the hashtag #DineInThe39. When I'm able to go out and eat I love the vastness of the options in my district and I genuinely love food.
That's really the heart of it. A genuine love of food, which was a long time coming. I think my relationship to food has not always been like this, so it's really a personal growth as well in how I understand food and relate to food.
Brianna Plaza: What do you think about the mayor pulling back on vaccine mandates and the changing rules around shed dining?
Shahana Hanif: I think what we need is, especially for this moment, a separate department under Small Business Services, that is just thinking about, eating, and breathing restaurants. It has to be dedicated to restaurants so that we're interacting with them directly to better understand their conditions.
I know that some restaurants just did not have the capacity to do the vaccine check. Or, they recognized that there were customers that would retaliate; they did not have the tools to support their workers or to enforce protocols from the city.
I think the mayor pulling out of the mask mandate, or not making it mandatory, is haphazard. We're seeing a rise in cases. But again, at the root of this is the necessity of engaging our small businesses. They've already suffered enough and I would hate for another wave of a mutation or a variant of COVID to bring us back to a place that is two steps backwards.
Brianna Plaza: How do you think about eating out as a form of building your community and getting to know your constituents?
Shahana Hanif: I've really used restaurants as a form of relationship building. I lean on the things that I feel comfortable doing and I love connecting with our restaurant owners.
Cafe Couleur in Park Slope has become a community gathering space for our Muslim youth in Kensington. I've gotten to see the ways in which deep collaborations have happened across the district to serve our neighbors who have not had adequate community spaces, or centers, and access. Couleur is one of my favorites and I love Murat, and his wife, and their entire family for the ways in which they continue to show up for this community.
And then contributing to Instagram and my socials and really lifting up the dishes that I like. Food is about sharing and food is really, about all of us. This collective opportunity for us to come together.
I eat alone a lot too. I find it to be one of my meditations. I genuinely enjoy my company and I don't want to be bothered when I'm eating at times. So I eat as a practice of self-preservation, but I love the banter that happens.
At some moments, I get asked about issues but it’s not the same as a town hall. These are the everyday spaces where I feel like conversations can happen with authenticity.
I know I now have this assumed power because I am a council member but I think being able to really go into these spaces breaks that wall. I don't need to be seen or talked to at my office, or only through the hearings, and these other formal ways that you reach your council member and elected official.
That normalcy, that everydayness, and being personable is important to me. And for my constituents to recognize me as a thought partner in this work is important.
Brianna Plaza: How did you get involved with the Lisa Ling show and what was it like to showcase all your favorite places to eat?
Shahana Hanif: Their team basically reached out. I actually had no idea it was Lisa Ling and a show about Asian food. These folks gave me no information and at the beginning I was like, "I have no idea what this is about." They kept delaying the conversation - finally we had a meeting with them and they described the kind of show it is, but still had not said the host was Lisa Ling. Eventually as we neared the date of the shooting I had the details and I was like, "Oh my gosh. What is happening to me right now?"
And so I was able to really just talk about food. One of the things I had asked them to do was cover Bangladeshi food, which has not been done in this way on any other food shows that I've watched.
Oftentimes when the Western world covers South Asian cuisine and gastronomy, it's Indian food. Bangladeshi cuisine gets left out. And the history of Bangladeshi food in New York City and in other diasporas is that many restaurants have Bangladeshi owners, with Bangladeshi cooks and workers, but the name of the restaurant will be something Indian.
The intersection of food work and being undocumented is not something that's new, because of what we've seen with farm workers that are literally growing our produce and not getting paid, or are experiencing wage theft. Or delivery workers who, up until the incredible legislative package last term, were not even allowed to use the bathrooms where they're picking up food from. I really like that I got to shape the episode in a way that was a little bit more political than I think they had wanted it to be.
Brianna Plaza: What are your go-to places across your district?
Shahana Hanif: I love a good bagel from Hot Bagels in Kensington. The family that runs that place watched me grow up and that place has always been incredible and it’s just a neighborhood classic.
But I also eat at Bagel Hole, it's the only place that I like my bagel just as is — other places I like to get it toasted.
I love a slice from Smiling Pizza. I love pasta from Giovanni’s because it’s a house made pasta and I like to look for fresh pasta. It’s not a short walk but it’s a nice walk from Windsor Terrace.
I just had the steak at Olivier Bistro on 4th Ave, which is across the street from my office, and it was just amazing. I love steak. I am constantly looking for steak. Every birthday over the last couple of years, I celebrate by having a steak by myself. I take the day to celebrate myself over steak and it's just been great.
And then there are so many restaurants in Kensington. Fuchka and Sonia Cafe. I mean, they are like a hidden gem. To see more Bangladeshi restaurants focus on Bangladeshi food is really powerful in this time. 10-15 years ago there was a lot of emphasis on North Indian foods, but businesses were operated by Bangladeshi people.
One of my other favorite restaurants is Negril — it's a party. We don't have too many Black-owned spots in the district and Negril is A+.
Other things ~
A new season of Top Chef is in full swing so I revisited this article from Taste on how the show traces which foods are celebrated in American cuisine.