Is the Bill Banning Party Boats in Sheepshead Bay Racist?

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Over the last fifteen years or so, Sheepshead Bay has unexpectedly become a hot party destination. Not the neighborhood—the actual bay itself, a narrow stab of water separating the Brooklyn mainland from the eastern end of Coney Island, and whose docks have become a popular stopping point for booze cruises and party boats.

In February, Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz (D-Brooklyn), claiming that the offshore drunken revelry has become a nuisance for neighborhood residents, introduced a bill that would ban party boats from docking in the bay, or operating within 750 feet of the shoreline. “People drink and get rowdy even before they board the party boats,” he said. “They urinate and defecate on people’s property when they disembark.”

Cymbrowitz’s legislation (A.5402) defines a party boat as a “vessel at least 14 feet long, operated by an owner or employee,and rented for a group recreational event of more than six passengers.” The bill exempts fishing boats, “an historic and still active staple of Sheepshead Bay.”

Presumably, no right-thinking person would oppose any activity that sometimes ends with public urination and defecation, but as with most legislation, Cymbrowitz’s bill is not so simple. As far back as last August, when the Assemblyman first promised to ban party boats, critics suggested a surreptitious racist rationale, since most of the patrons who would be affected by the legislation are black. Joe Lind, captain of the party vessel Golden Sunshine and a 40-year party boat veteran, told the Brooklyn Daily that “a lot of the people that come here are black people—they’re from the Caribbean and inner city,” and noting that the waterfront community lodging complaints is mostly white.

Criticisms of the bill have come primarily from one predictable group—charter boat owners themselves, like Lind, whose livelihood is threatened by the legislation. Yesterday, WNYC published a story in which reporter Kathleen Horan talked to several such owners about this predicament. The refrain was familiar:

“In Sheepshead Bay, 90 percent of the party boat [clientele] is West Indian,” said Captain Gregory Pelletteri, who helps operate [Captain Pete] Gouba’s cruises. “You might not want to say that, but that’s the reality of it—there are not a whole lot of other parties going on.”

Lind also makes an appearance, coming out somewhat more strongly than he did last August. “There is a desire by the people who are pushing this to get rid of the blacks in the neighborhood,” he said, just like that.

Critics of the bill probably have a point: According to Theresa Scavo, the chair of Community Board 15, there was only one complaint about the party boats all of last year. In 2013, there were two.

A.5402 has yet to gain much traction in Albany, but Assemblyman Cymbrowitz told WNYC that he already counts the bill as a success, since it’s prompted boat owners to take its concerns more seriously.

Follow Phillip Pantuso on Twitter @phillippantuso.