Inspired by a Neighborhood

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A political star who was shaped by his Upper West Side roots

By Christopher Moore

Assembly Member Keith Wright has plenty of memories of the Upper West Side, where he attended the Ethical Culture School as a child.

“We were part of a grand experiment,” he said, thinking back to when he was one of the only African-American students at the school. “There weren’t too many black students,” he added. “I think there was David Dinkins, Jr., and the son of Harry Belafonte and myself.”

As a boy, Assembly Member Keith Wright organized the 2nd- and 3rd-grade classes at Ethical Culture School when a local shop announced a price increase on baseball cards. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

Wright’s father, a judge on the New York State Supreme Court, was ensconced in an apartment on West 90th Street. Young Wright lived with his mother at 135th Street, but having his dad and his school on the Upper West Side gave him a familiarity with the area—along with the issues at play there. His five siblings have their fair share of West Side memories, too. Older brother Geoffrey is an acting Supreme Court judge. Alexis Wright, another brother, is a dean of children’s programs at the Bank Street School for Children and lives on the Upper West Side. Brother Bruce lives in Brooklyn and works for the New York Times. Patrick, 23, is a student at Hostos Community College. The one sister in the family, Tiffany, is a college vice-president and lives in Miami. She seems to be something of an exception, with much of the family’s life continuing to revolve around New York City.

As for Wright, he said that he wasn’t just educated on the Upper West Side.

“A lot of my philosophies took root there as well,” he said.

The neighborhood was fertile with lessons in civic activism for the future politician. Wright remembered being outraged when a local shop announced a price increase on baseball cards, up from a nickel to 7 cents.

“I organized the whole 2nd and 3rd grade,” he remembered. There were picket signs and protests.

Did it work?

“It absolutely worked,” Wright said.

That would not be the last political enterprise for Wright, who has become a go-to person for media figures reporting on the chaos in Albany. These days, reporters are asking about the incumbent governor, David Paterson, and his likely successor, Democratic candidate Andrew Cuomo. Wright offered kind words for Cuomo.

“He’ll be a great governor,” he said.

But Wright acknowledged quickly that the next state leader will face daunting challenges, too.

“It’s hard to govern when you don’t have money,” he said. “It’s easy to govern when you have money.”

As for Paterson, Wright said, “He’s had to make some very hard decisions.”

Wright is one legislator who will likely play a big role in years to come. He’s long been viewed as a significant player in the Albany politics game. The Manhattan native first won an Assembly seat in 1992 and became assistant majority whip in 1998. He’s currently the chair of the Assembly Social Services Committee, where he has his eye on everything from welfare to Medicaid to a range of other programs. He’s also been an active member of the Housing Committee, where he co-sponsored legislation protecting rent control.

Wright has seen up close the political realms of both the West Side and Harlem. He lives with his wife, Susan, and two children at 135th Street and Fifth Avenue. But ask him about the differences between Harlem and the Upper West Side and he’s likely to stress the similarities.

“I think they are pretty much the same on a macro level,” he said. “Everybody cares about having a good job, a good education for their children and gentrification.”

Parents in all parts of the city wrestle with where to send their children to school. Health care decisions continue to challenge family budgets.

“Everybody’s being affected by this recession,” said Wright, who insisted that job creation remains a huge issue for New York State.

He conceded that his childhood experiences with the West Side came in a very different time.

“I remember the Upper West Side when it was nice and funky,” he said.

But from the baseball card protest right on through to the larger political battles of his early days, he learned a lot of lessons.

“The Upper West Side,” he said, “taught me that it is only through coalitions that you will be able to win.”

Today, Wright thinks of the area as one where statewide and even national issues play out, due to the diverse population.

“The Upper West Side could be looked at as a laboratory of all New York,” he said, “although there might be a higher average income there.”

Still, he said, the different kinds of people are what make the area exciting.

“You have a little bit of everything,” he said.

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