U.S. News

02.17.14

The Celebrity You've Never Heard Of

By Antonia Marrero for the Moral Courage Project

If you walk around Williamsburg with Marty Needelman, it soon dawns on you that he’s a celebrity. Folks of all ages and hues shout his name, offer handshakes, and provide chatty updates in rapid-fire Spanish on matters both personal and political. 

Needelman isn’t as famous as he should be. Then again, that’s not his goal.

As Chief Counsel of Brooklyn Legal Services, Needelman aims to keep Williamsburg’s most vulnerable safe from the bullies who sabotage their homes. He advocates with the people, not for them. But boy, do they ever need him. To understand why he’s such a street-level hero, watch this video clip from Moral Courage TV: 

Video screenshot

Twenty years ago, Williamsburg was far more dangerous than cute. These days, the place hosts film shoots, art festivals, and vibrant entrepreneurship. But before it attracted culture hackers, the neighborhood ranked among the poorest and most densely populated in New York City, settled by waves of working-class immigrants: Italians, Jews, Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans.

Then manufacturing turned south and factories emptied out. Developers began converting the buildings into luxury lofts. As they sprouted, so did a very public problem: the rent-regulated apartments of Williamsburg were being systematically dismantled.

Here’s what Marty Needelman knew: rent regulation is the basis of upward mobility for working-class and immigrant people. It allows families to put down roots, communities to grow, and poor children to attend the same public schools as rich kids. Bottom line? Rent regulation promises true pluralism, an ideal in which the multilingual Needelman has a deeply personal stake. He married a woman from outside of his Jewish community. Later, he led the fight to against segregating Hasidic Jewish students from other students in a public school. The integrationists won.

Needelman’s full-throated commitment to pluralism helps explain why, in the face of danger, his law practice cracks down on crooked landlords. One landlord even paid somebody to hurl a Molotov cocktail into an apartment just to smoke out tenants and jack up rents. Seriously.

All of this, in turn, illustrates why Marty Needelman is a profile in moral courage.