If You Don't Show Up, Don't Complain

By Miss Heather

I have been asked to write an "exciting" piece about community process and community boards. I regret to inform everyone these gatherings are usually dull as dishwater, and quite poorly attended. This is a shame, as the decisions made at these proceedings--especially regarding housing and transportation--have far-reaching ramifications for all of us. The 2005 rezone of north Brooklyn's waterfront is an example of how lack of coordination and meaningful dialogue between our state and municipal agencies as well as community boards and elected officials can open a proverbial Pandora's Box of problems. I have a close friend; we'll call "C."

She lives off of the Montrose Avenue stop of the L because it provides quick and easy access to Manhattan (where she works). In the last year the delays due to increased ridership became so untenable she now walks to the G train. If this isn't a striking testament to how bad the L train has become I honestly do not know what is. I say this as someone who actually rides the G. When it is running, that is. But I digress.

It's not unreasonable to assume that when "C" changed her commute, her purchasing habits changed as well. While simplistic, this illustrates how ease of egress and ingress shapes the community we live in. Businesses (and the neighborhoods in which they are located) thrive with increased foot traffic; those that do not languish. This is how communities die.

I say all this by way of illustrating what's at stake when community process goes awry. The rezoning was a battle lost by commonsense voices speaking for my neighborhood. But every day, other outcomes are at stake that could lead to just as many more "C"s among us--and often, it's within our power to do something.

To borrow a slogan from the MTA (advertising copy is probably the only thing everyone will agree this entity does reasonably well): when you see something, say something. Call 311. Even if it is as trivial as a chicken running amok in the street (and for the record I have beheld just this). If the first operator you receive proves to be incompetent or disinterested, call again. Eventually you will get a good one.

But more importantly, do not forget your local community board. The wonderful thing about these bodies is that they are staffed entirely by volunteers who live in and/or have a business presence in the neighborhood. As a result, these individuals have first-hand, street-level knowledge about their respective neighborhoods our elected officials and municipal entities simply do not possess. With whom would you rather air an issue as arcane as speeding on Vandervoort Avenue: someone who has actually driven down it or someone who has to reference a map? (Although I would be remiss if I did not mention that my Assemblyman, Joseph Lentol, has amazing constituent services.)

While a sterling concept, the community board system has its share of flaws. It is an appointive position susceptible to political patronage. Secondly, community boards' decisions are entirely advisory and non-binding, and if nothing else this works wonders for fomenting cynicism and apathy. Take liquor licenses: if a drinking establishment has a history of being a nuisance, the public takes the time to make the community board aware of this and the community board, in turn, recommends unanimously that said establishment should not have its license renewed--but the State Liquor Authority renews it anyway. What does this say about the effectiveness of community process? Not much.

I want you to leave with one indisputable fact: a small forum making decisions on behalf of many does not carry much weight with our fair city. What benefits my neighborhood did get from the 2005 rezone were not the handiwork of our City agencies and elected officials; they were the result of ordinary people standing up by the hundreds to scare the living daylights out of those in positions of power. When confronted by a significant number of their constituents, our municipal authorities and elected officials often have no other choice than to listen. In this respect, community process is not unlike life in general: the most important part is showing up.

And if you happen to live in Brooklyn Community Board 1 you may very well behold the phenomenon that is our Public Safety Chair, Mieszko Kalita. He has quite a female fan following. But that is the subject of another article. o

Miss Heather is the author and editrice of the blog NewYorkShitty.com.