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What’s the relationship between liquor licenses and local democracy? The city’s 59 community boards mete out approvals, but they were intended as a framework for citizen participation in planning and land use decisions. Set in motion in the churn of urban renewal, the idea was to give citizens a say in the dramatic physical changes affecting their neighborhoods. In practice, when it comes to making decisions about the city’s future, community boards’ hands have been tied from the start. The official conduits for input in planning and land use may be strictly advisory, but that doesn’t mean they’re no place for participation. Meanwhile, from redevelopment coalitions to community benefit agreements, New Yorkers find other formulations for their desires. Below, Rebecca Amato looks at the aspirations and evolution of the city’s community boards, and at the many other ways that New Yorkers have demanded a voice and a say in the shape of their neighborhoods.
Participation will resuscitate the asthmatic democracy of American cities! The inclusion of ordinary New Yorkers in municipal decision-making will reflect the people’s will! Who could argue with such declarations? After all, what is a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” as Lincoln so potently put it, if not one in which the people have clear mechanisms for participation? At a time when New Yorkers are braving controversial rezonings, gentrification pressures, overloaded infrastructure, climate change threats, and rising homelessness — and as the nation endures a stunning test of democracy’s resilience — calls for local community control and lively citizen participation are increasingly alluring. This energy echoes, in many ways, the moment when community boards were established in New York City decades ago. Yet, if one were to rate community boards on their ability to represent their constituencies, influence policy, or corral democratic feeling around specific community issues, the results would be mixed. Just as they provide a platform of inclusion for “the people” — a legitimized place for that elusive participation that we so desperately believe will keep our democracy afloat — community boards also have a history of being painfully ineffective, even undemocratic, when it comes to forging monumental urban policies. And in a city driven by real estate activity, planning and development are two of the areas in which the boards’ role and validity are most vexing.
What are community boards, after all? They are committees of between twenty and fifty members, half recommended by city councilmembers and all appointed by a Borough President, to advise city government on the issues that directly affect New York City’s community districts. Districts, in turn, are small, defined areas of the city, the boundaries of which are determined by city officials according to factors such as police precincts, census tracts, school districts, population density, and topography. Just as each area of New York City is both woven into the city fabric and a distinct entity, so districts and boards advise on topics common to the whole city, such as land use and budgeting, as well as those specific to their district’s concerns. (For instance, Brooklyn’s Community Board 4 has a committee focused specifically on public safety, while Manhattan’s Community Board 1 has one for landmarking.) Boards hold monthly public meetings, while specialized committees within the board often host additional ones. Despite the wide range of issues they cover, each board operates with a relatively meager budget and small staff, including an appointed District Manager who fields initial requests and applications from community members or those hoping to launch any project in the district requiring a permit.
Restaurateurs seeking liquor licenses, artists proposing murals, and architects testifying to the design of a new commercial complex all appeal to the board. So, too, do those lodging complaints about boozy restaurants, unattractive public art, and construction noise. All it takes is an e-mail through the board’s individual page on NYC.GOV, a face-to-face conversation at the local district office, or a visit to a monthly meeting. For this reason, community boards are the most local, government-sponsored audience for New Yorkers to air out grievances or assign praise over how their city functions. But their power is limited to this: They listen and advise, but, ultimately, they do not decide what city government will do. In fact, their impotence is built-in: in the New York City Charter, “assist,” “evaluate”, and “consult” are the only actions a community board can take.
Understanding how community boards came to be in New York, and what they’ve done in the 40-some years since their establishment, speaks to both their special promise and their particular constraints. In 1938, good government and antipoverty groups such as the Citizens Union, Citizens Housing Council, Municipal Art Society, and Welfare Council of New York, all of which were dedicated to eliminating government corruption and improving urban policy, started calling for municipal decentralization and stronger instruments for citizen participation. The ward system, which had sustained New York’s infamously corrupt Tammany politicians and their systems of patronage in an earlier era, had been dissolved that year, but no form of local governance had immediately replaced it. In an influential essay, “Citizen Groups: Tools of Democracy,” Howard P. Jones, Executive Director of the National Municipal League in New York, a national urban reform group, insisted that “it is of the most vital importance to [the individual citizen] and to democracy that [governmental] organizations be his organizations, guided by him and dedicated to the public welfare as construed by him.” Ten years later, the government watchdog group Citizens Union echoed that sentiment in a report titled “Hometown in the Great City”, suggesting subdividing the boroughs into districts to better include citizens in community planning and combat the transience that plagued residents of the vast and increasingly diverse city. According to the report’s author, Neva Deardorff, a social welfare advocate and statistician, lacking a sense of “home” and the power to influence their surroundings through democratic means, New Yorkers might be tempted instead to invest their energies in less constructive behaviors (presumably crime and other antisocial activities) than democratic deliberation.
Just as city officials began to take note of these ideas and consider testing them, they were also busy managing the wrecking ball of urban renewal, which began to reshape the familiar cityscape and disturb New Yorkers’ “sense of home” in ways large and small. The City Planning Commission first proposed the concept of “planning districts” on December 4, 1950 — about a year and a half after the federal Housing Act of 1949 ushered in the era of urban renewal. The commission hoped a local districting system would allow citizens the opportunity to participate directly in the development and maintenance of the city. Affirming that “New York is really many cities within a City,” the Commission declared that hyperlocal needs such as improved garbage removal and playground repair might be more properly understood by a select board of citizen advisors, rather than a single, party-affiliated official. Such a board would work directly with municipal departments on sanitation, hospitals, schools, libraries, and local street systems, as well as zoning, land use, and housing. This last part – zoning, land use, and housing – was emphasized once urban renewal legislation went into effect. Manhattan Borough President Robert F. Wagner, who was chair of the City Planning Commission when it issued the 1950 memorandum, and who tested the planning district model in Manhattan, was elected mayor in 1954. He introduced the planning district system to the entire city immediately after.
The timing was crucial. As urban renewal brought energetic investment of federal dollars in urban and suburban infrastructure and housing, planners and city leaders were authorized to reimagine modern, efficient metropolitan regions that would glorify their own visions for the cities of the future. Likewise, as historian Samuel Zipp has argued, it would serve as a Cold War statement of American values and free-market creativity in triumphant contrast to Soviet-style Communism. Such grandiose objectives, however, rarely took into account the impact of redevelopment on ordinary people. Many New Yorkers, particularly those living in poverty and precarity already, saw their homes and livelihoods quite literally bulldozed. City residents protested the lack of communication from city government, displacement, ineffective relocation services, and the loss of inexpensive rental housing and local institutions. If city leaders were accused of hubris in designing a city that had no relationship to its people, community planning boards offered city dwellers a seat at the planning table. As it happened federal lawmakers revised the Housing Act to require “citizen participation” in renewal planning the same year Wagner became mayor and expanded the district system. Like Wagner and his allies, federal officials expected that mechanisms for democratic participation would make urban redevelopment more palatable, if not less controversial.
Even at this early stage, though, both the good intentions and the limitations of the community board concept were on display. Community Board 3, which extended from 14th Street to the Brooklyn Bridge and Bowery/Fourth Avenue to the East River, included seasoned community advocates with decades of professional experience and technical expertise, particularly when it came to housing and planning. Helen Hall from Henry Street Settlement, Harold Murray of the Educational Alliance, Helen Harris of United Neighborhood Houses, New York State Supreme Court Justice Jacob Markowitz, and several representatives of local houses of worship were early members; in the following years, similarly celebrated civic leaders, along with business owners and public school officials, comprised the board. (Notably, the board lacked racial and ethnic diversity at a time when the area included a rapidly growing population of Puerto Rican, African American, and other Hispanic residents. According to historian Marci Reaven, who has written extensively and brilliantly about community boards in this period, they tended to be “white, middle class, and professional, and more male than female.”) The group met every other month at Ratner’s delicatessen and drew up recommendations on a host of topics from healthcare to playgrounds based on their own investigations.
Despite its designated role as the vehicle for citizen participation, Community Board 3 struggled to effectively communicate with city planners. In 1958, the city’s Housing and Redevelopment Board announced the designation of the Seward Park Extension Urban Renewal Area between Delancey and Grand Streets, just east of Essex Street, as an “extension” to the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area already under development south of Grand. Robert Moses and his Slum Clearance Committee judged both sites to be sources of “blight and other nuisance conditions” and, with the help of one of Moses’s favored developers, United Housing Foundation, they were to be replaced with modern, middle-class cooperative apartment buildings, parks, playgrounds, and commercial spaces.
While this plan progressed without incident at the Seward Park site, the extension was a different matter. First, the Slum Clearance Committee was dissolved in 1960 in response to citywide critiques of Moses’s brand of top-down urban renewal. Mayor Wagner then appointed a new Housing and Redevelopment Board to administer the renewal process in a more tactful, community preservation-oriented manner, leading to the retreat of United Housing Foundation. Other bureaucratic delays followed, including a series of modifications to the original plan and a search for sponsors to develop different sections of the area. Tenements located on the 19.65 acre site deteriorated dramatically. As early as 1962, Community Board 3 voiced concerns with the borough president’s office about the extension, noting that landlords were refusing to make repairs to buildings that were slated to be demolished. By 1964, the board was desperate, calling on the borough president to pressure the federal Housing and Home Finance Agency to “secure action” and hold a public hearing explaining “the reasons for the many delays in the construction of Seward Park Extension.” They demanded that a relocation plan be put in motion for current tenants, both residential and commercial, and demonstrated their distaste for plans to plow a Lower Manhattan Expressway through a portion of the site and over the Williamsburg Bridge. As a result of the board’s appeals, exactly nothing happened. Other things did, though. The expressway was demapped in 1972 after a decade of grassroots community protest on the Lower West Side, with the dramatic leadership of urbanist and Greenwich Village resident Jane Jacobs. Residents of the extension site were relocated, but not in any efficient, organized, or just way. And the Seward Park Extension Urban Renewal Area, once cleared of businesses, homes, and people in 1967, remained mostly fallow and contentious for another forty years. The community board was effectively powerless.
While efforts were made to increase the role of community boards and embolden their advisory power, particularly under the administration of Mayor John Lindsay, little changed in practice. Lindsay, who advocated for decentralization of city operations, introduced Local Law 37 in 1968 to ensure that boards had greater access to city officials, as well as more opportunity to hear from their constituents through well-publicized, regular, and open meetings. However, commenting on the impact of the law five years later, the New York State Charter Revision Commission noted that boards still “exercised only minor influence on governmental responsiveness” and, in fact, “they had little impact on city policy.” The Commission recommended that community boards be provided with adequate staffing to handle permits and meet regularly with service agents, such as the local fire, police, and parks department. These recommendations were approved by voter referendum and made it into a 1975 revision of the NYC charter.
Most promising, and ultimately most disappointing, about the 1975 revision were the provisions made for community participation in land use planning. The new Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP) required that community boards review all land use proposals submitted to or by the city for their district. Under section 197-A of the charter, boards could also develop alternative master plans in response to city proposals, with expert help (if they could find planners who would agree to work for little to no pay, that is, since no revision substantially increased a board’s budget). Yet even the process of reviewing land-use proposals and, in ideal scenarios, developing democratically conceived, technically brilliant alternative plans with broad participation from community residents, was no guarantee that community boards’ wishes would be granted. What a community board advised for land use was only one brief stop on a long planning pathway that included the City Planning Commission, the Borough President, the City Council, and the Mayor. (And, in recent years, many critics would contend that the Real Estate Board of New York is also an unofficial and majority partner in this process.) Since section 197-A was added to the charter, only seventeen community master plans have been approved.
Most other board-initiated plans or modifications have been tangled in the weeds of technical, budgetary, and legal constraints, although boards are sometimes successful in having their advisory role upgraded from negligible to fairly substantial. This often has to do with the perceived importance of the issue being reviewed and the security of elected officials’ seats, not to mention the professional acuity and persuasive power of individual board members and District Managers. An influential board is one that can navigate the city’s bureaucracy, contribute technical skills such as budget analysis to the board’s agenda, and put pressure on the city’s decision-makers by rallying its community around specific issues. The downzoning of Elmhurst-Corona in 1989 and the defeat of a Queens megastore plan in 1996 were both fought and won by local community boards. But whether credit should go solely or primarily to a community board for community planning triumphs is debatable. For example, the 2013 approval of a development plan for the Seward Park Extension Urban Renewal Area was celebrated as a success for Community Board 3. But plenty would also argue that the board’s influence was only as strong as the support of State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who for years had blocked site development that was displeasing to his political base. Still others, would assign the win to the grassroots Seward Park Redevelopment Corporation (SPARC), led by displaced residents of the site, for finally reaching a deal that delivered the substantial amount of low-income housing the community had demanded for decades.
As was the case when Jane Jacobs and her neighbors marched against the construction of a Lower Manhattan Expressway, or when SPARC rallied for just development on the Lower East Side, community planning has been most effective when organized organically around a single issue and, perhaps ironically, free from the community board. Perhaps one of the most successful plans to emerge in the last thirty years was initiated by a self-motivated group of South Bronx tenants, business owners, and homeowners called Nos Quedamos (“We Stay”) who defied the City Planning Commission’s 1992 urban renewal project for their neighborhood. The Planning Commission’s objective was to reinvent the Melrose neighborhood and replace large swaths of its vacant and burnt-out lots — as well as occupied homes and businesses — with middle-income private housing that would have been unaffordable to most existing residents. Neighborhood advocates learned about the plan at a community meeting, organized themselves in response, and developed their own Melrose Commons Community Plan. This locally-sourced plan called for dense, mixed-income, and mixed-use development that preserved cultural assets, provided affordable housing to the predominantly low-income neighborhood population, and eliminated displacement. Nos Quedamos’s proposal passed through the city’s ULURP process in 1994 to great fanfare, despite the many financial glitches that followed. (In over twenty years, only about half of the expected residential units have been constructed.) Significantly, the entire deal unfolded independently from the community board. Indeed, a 197-A plan was never submitted for Melrose Commons because the community board, which was the only entity that could put such a plan forward, did not produce the alternate plan, although it did eventually approve it.
The story is specific, but illustrative. When it comes to citizen participation in planning, the community board often represents a mere fragment of the people-power and almost none of the material or legal power necessary to represent deep community sentiments and affect change. At best, as Peter Marcuse puts it, it can “throw some sand into the smaller wheels of government,” or, if a particularly progressive proposal is submitted for review, like the Melrose Commons Community Plan, a board can rubber stamp it. Whether they are seen as impotent or unrepresentative, or barely visible at all to their neighbors, community boards do not often capture the civic imagination and commitment of large groups of New Yorkers. And even when a community board is ready to fight for its own interests against developers and city planners with often opposing agendas, it takes volumes more than the board’s efforts to attract the city’s attention.
Boards have protested their lack of power — particularly that of the veto — over the years, most notably during the first waves of gentrification-related displacement under Mayor Ed Koch in the 1980s. Koch argued such power would likely halt development entirely — and New York City post-fiscal crisis could not afford to let that happen. But other cities offer a counterpoint. Take Detroit: In late 2016, the city introduced a new ordinance that requires all developers to sign a community benefits agreement with the city before breaking ground. The agreement could require developers to provide anything from public space to jobs to affordable housing – whatever the city determines would benefit the community. The “city” in this case is a nine-member neighborhood advisory group appointed by city officials upon nomination from neighbors. Two members of the group are to be selected directly by residents with no interference from city management. Of course, only time will tell if this new muscle behind community demands has a significant cooling effect on development in Detroit; for now, the widely-reported development boom seems unlikely to abate.
So what kind of participation tips the scales when it comes to the implementation of city policy? Community boards, at least when it comes to planning and at least as they have so far functioned, are not that kind of participation. They offer a stage for simulating active citizenship: The public is invited to sign up and speak for an allotted period of time at board meetings, Robert’s Rules of Order are fiercely followed, and the precise wording of board resolutions are passionately debated. But the board alone cannot translate that participation into actionable policy or practice. Community board meetings can be educational and they can be fun; they can inspire democratic feeling, but they are not necessarily where democracy lives. Instead, it lives in our own willingness as New Yorkers to take responsibility for what the city does by paying attention, showing up, attending neighborhood meetings, voting, staying informed, and, yes, resisting.
When Yolanda Garcia, one of the founders of Nos Quedamos, told the City Planning Commission that its strategy for rebuilding Melrose would result in excessive displacement and was not acceptable — “You can’t throw people away,” she declared — she was reminding New Yorkers that government only works for people if people relentlessly and single-mindedly demand it. For Nos Quedamos, that meant organizing meetings (168 in one year) to collect community feedback, meet with city officials, and lobby politicians for support. For other communities, that means appointing a representative local body to negotiate a community benefits agreement (CBA) with potential developers, as the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance (KARA), a coalition of northwest Bronx organizations, did when the Kingsbridge Armory was marked for development. Does the city ignore, delay, or obstruct these efforts anyway? Sometimes. But that does not mean democracy does not work, or that people cannot overcome the bureaucratic obstacles and distractions set in their path. It just means that democratic practice occurs in more places, and often with more vigor, outside the systems that only – or mostly – pay it lip service.
One day, community boards may win their veto power. They may be elected by their constituents rather than appointed by city officials. They may continue to be appointed by city officials, but in such a way that is more representative of the communities they serve. But until that day comes, we have to participate anyway. And whether it is through our community board or our local school, at demonstrations or through on-line petitions, democratic community control, ultimately, is in our hands. Will our asthmatic democracy be saved? Who knows. But the stakes are high and the worst we can do is wait and see.
Howard P. Jones “Citizen Groups, Tool of Democracy.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 199 (1938): 176-82. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1021037.
Samuel Zipp, Manhattan Projects: The Rise and Fall of Urban Renewal in Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 5.
Marci Reaven, “Citizen participation in city planning, New York City, 1945–1975,” (Doctoral Dissertation, New York University, 2009), 397.
Other Lower East Side civic groups did, however, affect how urban renewal unfolded in that neighborhood. The Cooper Square Committee (CSC), led by community activist Frances Golden and advocacy planner Walter Thabit, was founded in 1959 to defeat a Moses-initiated redevelopment plan that would have displaced hundreds of low-income Lower East Side residents. The CSC produced an alternate plan for the area to minimize displacement and provide a large proportion of low-income, as well as middle-income housing for residents. This alternate plan was approved by the city in 1971.
State Charter Revision Commission, 1973, quoted in Eugene B. Rumer, Dmitri Trenin, Huasheng Zhao, Community Power in a Postreform City: Politics in New York City (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2007): 124-25.
Silver, on the other hand, just had corruption charges against him overturned. See Russ Beutner, “They Kept a Lower East Side Lot Vacant for Decades,” New York Times, March 21, 2014.
Readers who may ask why Nos Quedamos’s proposal was more successful than those submitted for the redevelopment of the Seward Park Extension Urban Renewal site might note not only the different time periods (1960s v. 1980s), but also the entrenched inter-ethnic antagonisms in this part of the Lower East Side.
Marcuse, P. (1987), “Neighborhood Policy and the Distribution of Power: New York City’s Community Boards.” Policy Studies Journal, 16: 277–289.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.