Thursday, January 15, 2009

More Than a Bike Lane

I was bringing it all back home. After a road trip that took me and Kittens Ablaze through nine southern cities in nine days, the goal was to dive back into the local political scene. The recession has had a pointed impact on the Greenpoint/Williamsburg area, halting the ooze of gentrification dead in its tracks, leaving unfilled condos floating empty in the sky. The rapid integration of weird-looking young people into an old Catholic community has often felt unnatural, but at least with the flow of the people slowing down, those already here will all get to know each other a little better. After all, we share the same concerns- affordable housing, reliable transportation services, and the survival of small businesses. I decided to check out the Community Board 1 meeting this past Tuesday night to see what was going down these days. I had heard that there was some dispute over the bike lanes on Kent Avenue

Community Boards are a New York institution long responsible for politically organizing the City’s many neighborhoods. There are 59 Community Boards throughout the City, with limited powers designated by the City Charter. Up to 50 voting members serve on each board, appointed to two-year terms by the Borough President, usually upon recommendations from the relevant local City Council members. Some complain that this renders them simply tools of machine politics, but when it comes to local issues, community members are generally on the same page in politically opposing City Hall, Albany or the Feds. When it comes to corporate interests, of course, things get more complicated. Incidentally, some credit the expansion of Community Board powers in the late 1960s and early 70s as a direct backlash against the Robert Moses era. And though Community Boards are often criticized for their ineffectiveness, Community Board 1 has a particularly strong reputation for organization and clout.

The meeting took place in a cafeteria on Ainslie street, and despite the innocuous-looking agenda, you could hear many of the 120 residents present whisper, “Stick around, it’s gonna be an interesting night.” After a laborious 45 minute presentation from the Parks Department and City Planning about a new riverfront policy, which apparently won’t affect CB 1 at all, since they pioneered the model being used, we were on to the main event, the public session.

My friends, it is hard to give a short version of the facts here, but it starts with a bike line.

Kent Avenue, which runs along the East River, is a widely used transportation belt on Brooklyn's western perimiter. When bike lanes appeared on Kent Avenue, to large community support, bike riders throughout Brooklyn rejoiced. Despite its convenience, connecting Greenpoint to Forte Greene and the Williamsburg Bridge through Williamsburg, Kent Avenue had been labeled a “death trap” for bikers, who shared the road with cars driving up to 50mph. Data supports the intuition that painted bike lanes significantly increase biker safety. One casualty of bike lanes, however, was parking spaces in the largely Hasidic Kent Avenue community. There was also an argument that small businesses were having trouble having supplies unloaded, but the obvious remedies to that problem, like replacing the “No Stopping” signs with “No Parking” signs,lead me to believe the real issue is parking. There is also a rumor that some Hasidic leaders were offended by scantily clad women riding past their community on the bikes, but I likewise find it hard to imagine that such a side-issue could generate such a furious policy argument.

Look, parking in New York is tough, even in Brooklyn, so the Hasidic community was understandably frustrated. And in their frustration, they pulled what seemed to be their considerable political strings, and convinced Borough President Marty Markowitz and Council Member David Yassky to send a letter to the Department of Transportation in early December to paint over some of the bike lines and reinstitute parking. Theoretically, bike lanes and parking can coexist on the same street, but bikers argues that the twin flanking dangers of people opening car doors and fast speeding cars make that an untenable remedy on Kent Avenue. When the public session began, nearly fifty people were lined up to testify on behalf of their bike lanes. They had another cause too.

Soon after the Markowitz/Yassky letter, CB 1’s Chairman of 30 years, Vinnie Abate, and his top deputy, Gerald Esposito, sent a letter, on CB 1 letterhead, seemingly in their official capacity, concurring that the bike lines had to be amended, in contravention of CB 1 vote that had been taken in November. When that letter and an accompanying article ran in the Brooklyn Eagle, CB 1 Transportation Committee Chair, Teresa Toro wrote to the paper to clarify that Abate had spoken for himself, and not for the Community Board. As her punishment for going to the press without coming to him first, Abate fired Toro, within his legal right, though on ethically questionable grounds, given that he was firing her for committing essentially the same infraction he had- going to the press without Board authorization. Additionally, Abate's transgression seemed worse, as it publicly altered CB 1's stance on the bike lanes without a proper Board vote.

Person after person testified to what a great leader and visionary Transportation Chair Toro had been. I have to confess I was a little taken aback. There was more testimony about how great she was than you are likely to come across at most weddings. Her accolades include serving as a liaison between the community and the MTA during the subway strike, working for the expansion of parking spaces in Greenpoint, and leading the proliferation of bike lanes throughout Williamsburg. I have met Toro once, and found her both friendly and incredibly knowledgeable on transportation issues. That Abate remained steadfast in his decision to fire her means that either there is some ego thing going on between them, in which case staging a Community Board meeting coup could not have helped her cause, or this stuff between the Hasidim and bikers is heavier than I originally thought.

For those of you who do not live in Williamsburg/Greenpoint, this story might have been about as interesting as one of my Student Assembly war stories. Indeed, the similarities were tremendous, and having been both the berated Chair and the angry dissident, it was not only fascinating to be the objective observer at this meeting, but also amusing to sit through an argument fueled entirely over the organizational consequences of airing disputes and grievances to the press, when in fact multiple members of the press sat there for THREE HOURS while CB 1 members essentially aired their disputes and grievances. I guess the nice thing about being a blogger ( a word still not recognized by this edition of Microsoft Word) is that while you aren’t given the status of being press, that lack of status can get you closer to the action than you might be otherwise allowed.

Anyway, this dispute is bigger than just the personalities involved for two reasons. First, the argument for more bike paths will continue to gain momentum, especially if service cuts make public transportation less attractive. Second, the meeting was an eye-opening introduction to the inner-workings of Community Boards, the New York City unit of governance that is closest to the people. While I understand the importance of organizational discipline in regard to contacting the press, the real question is whether it is appropriate for such an institution to mask its discussions and dissents. After all, if we don’t know what our own Community Board members are up to, who can we hold accountable in a democratic system? I feel privileged to live in CB 1, where most of the Board members seem to be good, progressive people, with an eye towards both the short-term and long-term needs of the community. But if the Obama campaign taught us anything, it is that our communities can always stand to be organized a little better.

The decision to fire Toro will not fade gently into the night. At its worst, it could fissure CB 1, perhaps reopening the wounds between the old guard and the new wave (though it should be noted that Toro and many of her allies are longtime residents). And, after all that, the Kent Avenue bike lines remain an unresolved issue in the fast-moving politics of Brooklyn, in the crippled New York City transportation infrastructure, another dagger threatening the quest for unity in the Age of Obama.

1 comment:

mitch said...

ironically (or appropriately), i read your post while driving in manhattan this morning (to get the car for the kittens ablaze mini tour!). and then i got into a car accident, but...

we studied the ravitch commission in class (concurrent with a visit from Jack Dean, director of planning of the MTA). One thing you didn't mention about the Ravitch report is about congestion financing (that got canned up in Albany). As a suburban New Yorker as a child, I initially balked at this idea but the more I learn about it and of its success in London (reduction of peak traffic by 30%, reducing bus congestion delays by 50%, increasing average travel speed by nearly 40%) - I think what it needed was better PR and a simultaneous promise of improved transit in exchange regardless of the additional cost- which is how it became palatable in London.