This article is about local community boards, so chances are you won’t want to read any further. Yes, what follows is a whole column about those 50-member, strictly advisory boards that are assigned to each neighborhood in New York City, who, despite infighting and rabble rousing, strive for relevance in the scheme of city politics. Perhaps only the nerdiest of politicos follow these abstruse organizations, but their obscurity is symptomatic of the partisanship and obstructionism that has taken over pragmatic community organizing.
Community boards are lowest on the totem pole of city power. All their votes are non-binding, and all their members are appointed and usually hold other jobs. They are underfunded and often lack office space or proper staffing. The non-binding nature of their opinions on controversial land-use issues—legally required by the city charter—makes them an outlet for political lip service and leaves them ignored by press and most citizens. To gain significance, community boards, and all self-proclaimed “organizers” more generally, must forgo these types of political battles. They should adopt a pragmatic approach, narrowing their current roles as activists and anti-development rebels to non-partisan pursuers of commonsensical neighborhood improvements.
Community Board 9, which comprises Morningside Heights through West Harlem, has already accomplished two such projects. After almost 20 years of deliberation and political wrangling, West Harlem won the Harlem Piers, a two-acre waterfront park on West 125th Street, that was originally a proposal of CB9. The Manhattanville Community Center, a multi-million dollar complex used for after-school activities, senior citizen programming, and community meetings, was originally conceived by CB9 members as well. These types of non-partisan endeavors were aimed at addressing basic community needs—exogenous from an anti-development political agenda—and should be the focus of community organizing.
Perhaps the most important function of the boards is to link local residents, too busy with work and family to devote attention to politicking, with the political process. Community boards have connected individuals with problems as mundane as bedbugs to ones as serious as tenant harassment with proper city services, while providing valuable on-the-ground information to elected officials. As the board is composed of ordinary citizens with local jobs and homes, who remain in close contact with constituents, it is ideal to identify and address neighborhood needs, such as green space, parking, crime, or youth programs.
Unfortunately, attempts to engage in long-term battles with developers and politicians overshadow these practical goals. Community boards are currently obligated to present “197-A plans,” or grand schemes, though non-binding, for local development. They also issue non-binding opinions on land use issues, such as zoning changes and municipal development. Board stances on these issues—such as a now-approved plan to rezone 125th Street or Columbia’s Manhattanville expansion—are usually unnecessarily and unreasonably critical. Board members regularly take categorical stands against development without regard to nuance and often attempt to thwart projects altogether. Monthly meetings are famous for their bickering and lack of focus on specific issues, and instead usually consist of presentations from politicians paying lip service to mandatory city procedures and outraged board members shouting at them cathartically. Ultimately, the boards’ resolutions on these issues are non-binding, giving them no weight in the political process. In the face of pressing community needs, this futile squabbling wastes time and resources.
This combination of disempowerment and incompetence is fatal to the community boards’ enormous potential to improve people’s lives—and is the prime reason for their obscurity. The first step, then, toward infusing boards with significance is to narrow their responsibilities to concentrate on apolitical neighborhood projects, such as parks, public transportation efficiency and cleanliness, or access to proper nutrition. They are currently responsible for a wide range of community issues—from development plans to street fairs to city budgeting—which prevents them from engaging in careful study of local needs and the specific, practical plans that can solve them. Narrowing community boards’ formal duties, and consequently removing their partisan alignment, would permit more attention for improvement on an individualized basis.
The problem of maintaining a local perspective on land use and real estate proposals could be solved by adding neighborhood representatives to other institutions. For example, local representatives for each community district—whether they be organizers or urban planning experts—could sit in an advisory capacity on the City Planning Commission, the body with authority over zoning and land use plans. Other bodies could be created solely for this purpose. Alternative bodies could also be created for the assumption of these responsibilities from community boards. The change would ensure that the boards be able to address realistic goals.
If boards could adopt a more focused role, it would be reasonable to give them the binding authority necessary to make them significant players in the political process. Restricted to local projects and neighborhood outreach, community boards would have much greater political success in securing adequate funding and voting power. Absolved of partisan stances and uncompromising demands, community boards would gain legitimacy as voices for productive and feasible improvements in the lives of the individuals they purport to serve.
Daniel Amzallag is a Columbia College junior majoring in political science and English. Outside the Gates runs alternate Tuesdays.