On 9/11, Julie Menin remembers a sense of confusion and fear, what seemed like confetti falling from the sky, and choking white ash.
The impact on lower Manhattan, where Menin, CC ’89, owned a restaurant, was devastating. Tens of thousands of residents abandoned the area, and businesses were shell-shocked.
But Menin, who founded a nonprofit focused on bringing business back to the community and served as chair of the local Community Board 1 for seven years, has seen the area transform. Now, it’s the fastest growing residential neighborhood in New York City and the fourth largest commercial business district in the U.S.
And next year, Menin is running for Manhattan borough president. “I want to take the success we’ve achieved downtown and take it borough-wide to every single neighborhood,” she said.
In the Democratic primary next September, Menin will face three City Council members: Robert Jackson, who represents Upper Manhattan; Gale Brewer, who represents the Upper West Side; and Jessica Lappin, who represents the Upper East Side. Incumbent Scott Stringer is running for mayor.
Off the sidelines
“Leadership means not shying away from contentious issues,” Menin said. In her seven years as CB1 chair, Menin has dealt with some controversial national debates, which she feels have prepped her for borough president, a role that has limited powers but a large bully pulpit.
She advocated for moving trials of the 9/11 bombers out of lower Manhattan, which would have meant implementing New York Police Department checkpoints across the neighborhood. She led her board to a vote supporting the Islamic community center near Ground Zero, even as she received death threats. And she negotiated a compromise with Occupy Wall Street demonstrators to keep them from drumming day and night while still allowing them to protest.
But the achievement Menin is most proud of is overseeing the addition of three new public schools in Lower Manhattan over four years—more new public schools, she believed, than any other New York neighborhood.
When she became chair, “one of first things I saw was overcrowding in local public schools,” Menin said. “I was seeing 36 kids in a class in P.S. 89.”
Menin collected her own data on population growth that refuted the city’s numbers, and then found locations for the new schools.
“You have to first of all challenge assumptions,” Menin said. “If the city is not doing what it says it’s doing, you have to be proactive and vocal and not sit on the sidelines.”
Not sitting on the sidelines is an important principle for Menin, and one that can be seen in her other high-profile accomplishments.
“I was very vocal on all of these subjects, and I felt strongly that the community board must take a stand on each of these,” Menin said.
Menin’s diverse resume also includes hosting a political interview show, “Give and Take,” on NBC, which she said also prepared her for electoral politics.
“There’s nothing like live TV, where you’re doing a debate and you need to put forward your views in a convincing, clear fashion,” she said.
As borough president, Menin said her top goals would be creation of new jobs, education, and affordable housing. Menin, who owned a Lower Manhattan restaurant and catering business called Vine, said that she would make it “easier for small businesses to operate in this city.”
“There are so many licenses and fees and other regulatory requirements that small businesses have to do, and many not automated or online,” she said. “If you make it easier for small businesses to operate, it will lead to the creation of more small businesses.”
On her campaign, Menin has called for the creation of new job centers and internship programs. She would also like to reform the city planning review process, Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, so that the creation of more public school seats and more affordable housing is required when large-scale developments are built.
Menin said she has built “tremendous momentum” in the campaign so far—she is the only candidate to complete her fundraising for the primary election, with 1,750 donors in eight months. By June, she plans to hold 200 meet-and-greet events across Manhattan.
While some observers have pointed out that demographics seem to favor Jackson in the race—he is the only person of color, the only man, and the only candidate living above 96th Street—Menin said she was focused on her own campaign and doesn’t “believe it’s productive or right to try to divide Manhattan in terms of differences.”
Menin said she thinks her experience at Columbia, where she majored in political science, prepared her well for life.
She recalled “sitting on the steps of Low Library with my friends” and the experience of “having New York City as your campus.” She lived in Carman, Hartley, and Furnald, but “spent a lot of time in the library,” she said, laughing. And it paid off—she graduated magna cum laude.
Menin’s favorite professor was political science professor Ester Fuchs. Menin, who was in Fuchs’s American Parties and Elections course, “was somebody, even as an undergrad, who understood that politics was not a dirty word, but a way to be civically engaged,” Fuchs said.
Fuchs said she wasn’t surprised to hear that Menin was running for elected office.
“It seems to me that this was in her DNA and worldview from college onward,” Fuchs said. “I think the borough of Manhattan is lucky to have her as a candidate in this race.”
After graduating, Menin studied law at Northwestern University and then worked at law firms in Washington, D.C. and New York, where she specialized in regulatory law. In 2000, she quit her job to open Vine, which is where she was working on 9/11.
Confusion reigned that day. Hundreds of people began crowding into the building, it was hard to breathe, and white ash got everywhere. She and her husband opened their restaurant to rescue workers and stayed until the third day, when they were evacuated.
“I will never forget just going past the checkpoint of the frozen zone and suddenly heading uptown,” she said. “It was a totally different world—people were on the streets, dining in restaurants. It was a war zone downtown—there were military tanks in the streets, people couldn’t breathe, it was utter devastation.”
But there was “no doubt that we were going to come back home,” she said.
Her experience of 9/11 led Menin to take a leadership role in the community, culminating now in her campaign for borough president.
“If you had asked me when I was a student at Columbia, I was really fascinated with political theory, but I didn’t think I would necessarily run for office,” she said. “But 9/11, what I saw after 9/11 ... motivated me to run.”