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Columbia Spectator Staff

In my two-and-a-half years at Spec, I reported on bitter political rivalries, academic cheating scandals, underfunded public schools and the effects of gun violence.

I think I learned the most, however, from my very first beat: Community Board 7, the great deliberative body of the Upper West Side.

As a freshman from Wisconsin head over heels in love with New York, I wanted to understand how the city worked, how and why neighborhoods became they way they are. Covering CB7 for Spec, first as a newbie reporter and then as a news deputy in charge of our Upper West Side coverage, gave me the opportunity to watch that process close-up.

The 59 community boards around New York play a mostly advisory role, giving locals the chance to have a say on zoning and business issues in their neighborhood. They're the lowest rung on the totem pole of city government, and their decisions have a tendency to be ignored by higher-ups.

But community boards are a forum for people from a neighborhood to come together and talk about all the little problems that define New York life, from the restaurant down the street blasting music at 4 a.m. to the new apartment building blocking out the sunlight.

CB7 meetings, the first Tuesday night of every month, invariably careen off the agenda, stretching to 10 or 11 p.m. Passionate shouting matches are not uncommon, especially when the discussion turns to bike lanes, the most controversial of topics. Just by showing up and listening and chatting with people, I would always come home with an interesting story idea or two.

It wasn't all little things: CB7 allows residents to be heard on major proposals that shape the Upper West Side, from big real estate developments to regulations protecting the mom-and-pop stores that make the neighborhood special.

Some say community boards are an example of "NIMBYism"—a "Not In My Backyard" response to local development—or that they aren't representative of the neighborhoods they cover. Those are often fair criticisms, and good local reporting means hitting the streets and talking to other people, not just going to meetings. Proposals to reform community boards have gained traction in recent weeks.

But it was clear to me that the people who came out to CB7 each month cared deeply about their community, and all of them wanted to make their neighborhood a better place, whatever that meant to them.

Covering these most local of stories taught me lessons about reporting that still apply whether I'm writing about news on the Upper West Side or around the globe.

I learned how to build relationships and trust with the people I covered, one story at a time.

I learned that no matter how insignificant a story might seem to me, there's always someone who's personally affected by it, someone for whom it's the biggest news in the city. It was my job to take what I was writing about as seriously as that person, to care about it as much as they did.

And I learned that the first step toward being a good reporter is the same as the first step toward being a good neighbor: you show up, and sit, and listen. And listen. And listen some more.

One of the best parts of covering a late-night CB7 meeting was always hurrying back to the Spec office and rushing to write up the latest news as the paper came together around me. It was that nightly hustle and excitement that always made Spec more important than finishing an essay or doing my readings.

I'm thankful for the many, many friends who made that office on 112th Street such a fun place to be, especially: Jeremy, for his calm presence and humor even during the most stressful times. Emma, for her appreciation of punny captions and dogged reporting. Sammy, for his unassuming but always inspiring leadership. Finn, for assigning me a story about turtles at my first Spec meeting and pushing me to do my best for the next two-and-a-half years. And Gina and Jill, for sharing unforgettable bylines, reporting adventures, ups and downs, and late night pints of ice cream on Low Steps.

Spec was our own little community, and I'm glad I had the chance to call it home.

Casey Tolan is a senior at Columbia College majoring in Urban Studies. He was a deputy news editor for the 136th volume and the city news editor for the 137th volume.

Senior Column Community Board 7