Act Local

New York’s Community Boards are the first level of city government. That might sound like small potatoes, but what they weigh in on­—streets, land use, parks, liquor licenses and a lot more—help define the character of a neighborhood. For decades, Transportation Alternatives has worked closely with community boards on all sorts of issues, but in the last few years they’ve gone a step further, designing and implementing a program to help regular people learn about the different ways to get involved with their community board and apply for a seat. Reclaim sat down with T.A.’s Safety Campaign Director, Lindsey Ganson, and General Counsel, Juan Martinez, who run the community board outreach program, to learn more.
Give us your elevator pitch: Why are community boards a big deal?
Lindsey Ganson: They’re responsible for a lot of what makes a neighborhood a neighborhood. If you’re the type of person who walks around your block thinking ‘Why that?’ or ‘Why not this?’ or ‘Someone should…’ then they’re the place to be.
Juan Martinez: They’re an opportunity for local people to determine what their neighborhood looks like and, more importantly, what it will look like down the road.
LG: And community boards are a great place to meet like-minded people and learn about a neighborhood.
JM: And now, by law, any transportation project more than four blocks—as well as bike lanes of any length—need to be apprised and evaluated by a community board. And even though the board’s approval isn’t necessary, it’s hugely influential.
LG: And they’re also an incubator for future elected officials.
Whoa! That’s a long elevator pitch. Can you tell us why T.A. started the program?
LG: Over the years, we’ve spent so many hours in community board meetings, talking about buses and bikes and sidewalks and plazas and stop signs, and we were always telling members to show up and make their voices heard. Eventually some dedicated folks who showed up a lot asked us how people got on to their community board, so we started looking into it. It’s not hard—you fill out an application, and you’re appointed by a City Council member or the Borough President—but the paperwork wasn’t easy to find and there’s something daunting about the whole endeavor, so we set out to make the process a little more friendly.
How many people has T.A. helped with this program over the years?
JM: Hundreds have attended and about 20 have been appointed to their board.
Image courtesy Andrew Hinderaker
And what have those people helped make happen?
LG: Way more fine-grain stuff than I can list, as well as some huge projects like the protected bike lanes on First and Second avenues, the Lafayette Avenue bike lane in Brooklyn, major bike and pedestrian projects in Western Queens—
JM: One of my favorites is the community board in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, that voted down a DOT proposal for bike lanes. Then, because of a few committed members who organized and communicated and convinced, the board came back to the DOT a year later with an even more ambitious project of their own making.
So being a community board member can make a huge difference?
JM: Absolutely. One member who cares about an issue can make real changes, and they can change the entire discussion around something like bikes and sidewalks and traffic by injecting some fresh ideas and hard facts.
LG: But you don’t have to be a voting member. That’s the top of the pyramid: you have a lot of power and a lot of responsibility up there. Sometimes it’s too big of a time commitment, but lots of boards have public members. They’re a step down in terms of power and responsibility, but they still have a big say. Even people who regularly show up and speak in the public comments period; they can introduce new ideas, change minds and meet with the representatives that local elected officials send to every meeting. Some of T.A.’s most ambitious projects were made possible by small interactions like that.
Any sage advice for people who might be interested in attending a meeting?
LG: Something is going to happen whether you show up or not, so you might as well have a say.
JM: It’s all about the power. Do it for the power.