Community Board 8

Community Board 8

My experience with Community Board 8 began last summer. I was talking to Jimmy Burton, who lives on Lincoln Place between Nostrand and New York Avenues, about pressing issues in the neighborhood and he told me there was a need for speed bumps on Lincoln Place on his block and the next one, Lincoln between New York and Brooklyn Avenues, and also for a turn light on Eastern Parkway for cars going north on New York Avenue. So I said we should get a petition going and take it to the proper authorities. Jimmy sits in his front yard during the warm weather and everyone walks by. Having been in the neighborhood for most of his life, he knows everyone; so he took over the task of getting the signatures and after a while he had gathered over a hundred. Next came the question: where should the petition go? Luckily, down the block from me lives Vilma Zuniga, who is a member of Community Board 8; she told me to take the petition to their offices at 1291 St. Marks Avenue. This I did and had an interesting talk with Julia Neale who is on the staff. She said the speed bumps were possible in a year or two but the turn light would be hard to get, first because I would need to take the petition to Community Board 9 as their border covers the half of Eastern Parkway the petition dealt with, and second be because getting a traffic light is hard, the last instance she knew of took nineteen years. Nevertheless I filed the petition with Julia and Khalid Nixon at Community Board 9.

While in the Community Board office I acquired a pamphlet that told me more about community boards. Citywide there are 59 boards, and in Brooklyn there are eighteen of them. Members are appointed by the borough president in consultation with members of the City Council. Together all the community boards in New York City exist under the Mayor's Community Affairs Unit headed by Commissioner Marco A. Carrion. Boards meet once a month to find out about community concerns. The board hires a District Manager, who gets a salary, and a staff. The manager is to be an overseer of the community serving as “a municipal manager, information source, community organizer, mediator and advocate.” The manager can also be a liaison between the community and the various city agencies.” The District Manager of Community Board 8 is Michelle George.

The Community Board also has subcommittees that do most of the day-to-day work. There are SLAC for liquor licenses, Economic Development, Environment/Sanitation/Transportation, Health/Human Services, Housing, Parks, Public Safety, Seniors, and Youth and Education. These committees report back to the Board, and the Board mostly accepts their recommendations. I fount out more about the Board by doing an interview with Meredith Staton for a feature I run called Elders of Crown Heights. Meredith is a long time resident of Hampton Place and is a board member. He also sits on the SLAC and Transportation Committee. He gave me some insight into how the subcommittees work. I have since encountered him at CB8 meetings that I have attended and at a meeting of the Transportation Committee, a raucous affair dealing with an attempt by residents to make St. Johns Place one way between New York and Rogers Avenues (see the article, “St. Johns One Way” posted Nov. 29). Meredith is well-known for shouting out when he is asked to cast a verbal vote. His long experience in the post office and police as well as community affairs makes him someone always worth talking to. He has a perspective born of long experience.

My next encounter with CB8 came when I got a notice that there was a proposal to renovate the old St. Gregory's School, less than a block away from where I live. The school has been sitting empty since 2010. A company had leased the building and wanted to expand it and turn it into luxury apartments. There was a meeting of the Land Use committee on September 6 at 778 Classon Avenue to consider the proposal from the point of view of the building having been given Landmark status. It was another noisy meeting at which many members of the community protested, concerned about noise, congestion, safety and ruining the architectural lines between the nearby church and the school. The Land Use recommended denying the proposal as written. At the CB8 meeting on September 13, the board rejected the proposal and asked for a new one created according to certain concerns. The bishop who attended the meeting seemed disappointed as St. Gregory's Church would have gotten money for much needed repairs.

It was at the September 13 meeting that I heard an account from Robyn Berland about how her dog Ralphie was killed at the edge of Brower Park by an off-leash dog coming out of the park. I got in touch with Robyn and followed the story. She organized a large meeting at the Brooklyn Children's Museum, which unfortunately could not agree on a course of action (see “Brower Park Dog Meeting”, posted December 2). I ran into Robyn walking her surviving dog on St. Johns Place – not in Brower Park. At the community board meeting the chair expressed sorrow for Robyn's loss. This was in contrast to the meeting she organized where one dog owner said the she had heard Ralphie was an aggressive dog, and thus seemed to be suggesting that it was natural that he should be killed by a pit bull charging out of the park.

Also at the behest of one of the organizers on St. Johns place seeking to make the street safer, I went to a meeting of the Transportation Committee at BNIA on Sterling Place on November 27. It was another wild meeting. The St. Johns people want to make the narrow section of St. Johns between New York and Rogers Avenues one way and reroute west bound traffic to some other street. The obvious way to do this is to would be to send that traffic over to Sterling Place for those two blocks and then meet up with Sterling at Rogers where the bus traffic currently goes. Residents from Sterling Place showed up at the meeting, and their objections and clamor predominated, which like the dog meeting did not decide anything.

So this brings us to my most recent experience with CB8. It took place at 1000 Dean Street on the evening of December 13. The meeting happened somewhat backward as board members were late showing up, so much business was done while waiting for a quorum. There was an announcement of a mentoring program by Alison Hunt who passed out brochures to those who might be interested. There followed a long list of announcements by community groups, representatives of politicians and churches. Toy drives, clothing giveaways, Christmas light competitions, holiday parties and expressions of holiday wishes were what I remember the most. Following that were “Action Items” about zoning and construction with terminology and references that were incomprehensible to me and then applications for liquor licenses. The Land Use committee and the SLAC committee made recommendations that were accepted. Some businesses and developers got what they wanted and some did not. There followed reports from the other subcommittees. Some had nothing to report; others reported when their next meetings would be. There was not much of substance. After this, the meeting, mostly chaired by Robert Witherwax, a vice chair, and Nizjoni Granville, the chairwoman, was adjourned. Witherwax had hoped to get all the business done in a hour and offered to buy everyone a beer if this could be accomplished. In fact the meeting took two hours, and there were no free beers.

In conclusion, I would say that there are positive and negative things to be said about Community Board 8. One good thing is that it really is a forum for people in the community to express their views and concerns. It was important to find out about the death of Ralphie; the St. Johns residents could formulate proposals to make their street a safer one. It is also clear that CB8 does have an effect on how the community lives, but this is largely a matter of giving permission or not. The St. Gregory's developers were turned down; various other developers were given permission to proceed. The Community Board doesn't seem to do organizing itself though it does have a mandate to do just that – it is much more a forum than an action committee even though it has the right to be an advocate. Another criticism is that its meetings tend to bring out those with a passionate commitment and a shortage of tolerance and civility. The meetings about St. Gregory's School and the effort to make St. Johns one-way were shouting matches as was the the meeting at the Children's Museum to deal with the unleashed dog attack in Brower Park. It is the angry and the disgruntled who seem to show up. Even-tempered citizens seem to have no taste for such meetings and often will not come back for a second helping. Lastly there is no avoiding the fact that these meetings are tedious. All voting is done by roll call which takes quite a while. At times one yearns for a show of hands. Also many items are just not of general interest. If some have a passionate intensity, others languish in the doldrums. Those active on the board seem to be older people for whom time moves in a different way than for the young. One does see young people at the meetings and they do seem to be active in a back up non-profit called Friends of Community Board 8 which provides research and technical backing. The young folk at the meetings seem to come out of general interest or to pursue some particular item with which they have an involvement. On the other hand,the meetings are invaluable as a source of information. Collecting all the handouts on the side tables will tell one a lot. There are a plethora of community groups and politicians doing all kinds of things, and it is worth it find out what they are up to.

My advice would be to go to these meetings, preferably with a friend or two. Go chat people up who seem interesting and maybe get active on some subcommittee that deals with issues you are interested in. You may meet some people you will be glad to know and perhaps even figure out how one gets things done despite that some parts of the meetings are hard to follow, despite the shouting, despite the very slow pace. This is democracy in action –messy, human, often not edifying, but it definitely beats the alternative, rule by dictate through an opaque bureaucracy. As a famous writer once put it: “Two Cheers for Democracy.”

Attached is list of Community Board 8 meetings from January to June 2019. Also one can go to www.brooklyncb8.org to find out more. All meetings begin at 7pm.

UpdatesJonathan Judge