Lincoln Place Meeting

The Castle and the Open City

The Lincoln Civic Block Association had its monthly meeting on March 21. There was the usual agenda of items but two of them stuck out to me as especially revealing. One was called “Update on budget” and the other one was “Trash pickup.” The update on the budget was presented by Eytan Kurshan and it revealed that he had spent some time doing research into what the income and expenses might be in the rest of the year. His figures were very rough but they did give an outline. There is currently about $40,000 in the bank. Eytan estimated that it would take $10,000 just to do basic maintenance another $40,000 to replace windows and $20,000 to repair the roof. Thus total repairs would be about $70,000. Eytan believed there would be income from rents, parking and dues of about $50,000. Thus it should be possible to do maintenance and repairs and still have some money left over. This was good to hear, but what was revealing is that there was nothing in this budget for other activities. Thus, in this account of the budget it seemed that the LCBA exists for one reason and one reason alone, and that is to manage the building it owns at 284 New York Avenue.

For the old board that finished its tenure at the end of December this was completely true with the added feature that there was never any talk of a budget. However, every time something came up that needed money, the executive board either said no or they gave a very reduced amount that was a cut in the budget. Thus, over the summer, there was the Greenest Block in Brooklyn contest in which Lincoln Place won second prize. The LCBA contributed nothing. Althea and Perri and a group of others organized this project and got their own funding. Next came the Block Party organized by Oshun Layne. In her case she went before the general meeting and members of the executive committee asked for cuts in her budget, telling her she did not need this and did not need that. Oshun did not want to have a party that was a dim repetition of the one the previous year, so she did her own fund raising and got volunteers on her own and held a great party. The same pattern occurred with Sip and Celebrate which was to congratulate the winners of the Greenest Block contest. Residents organized it largely without the Association, the same with the Halloween Party and same with the Christmas Party. These were all very popular events that got a lot of people involved.

So enthusiastic were the people on the block that they wanted to run for the Executive Committee and that is when they ran into trouble. In October several people were nominated to all the positions but when November came only two were considered qualified and there was no one to run for five positions. An attempt to have a special meeting to vote in volunteers who were not qualified was rejected. And when the new year came Ken Marable, elected 12-3 to be president with no competition, declared he was filling all the positions by appointment until there could be elections. He did not reveal this until the first meeting in January. That meeting was attended by about 50 people, the next meeting had about 25, the one after that in March had 20. In other words without elected representatives interest in the association is waning. One irony is that, except for one person, none of the people Ken appointed were qualified to be elected, and several of them were people who had not been active at all.

Another interesting point is that all the members of the old Executive Board were people who had been appointed. Jesse Hamilton appointed Ken as acting president and all the others had been appointed by Hamilton at various times, and they had served for years and years without elections. I have come to think of this group as residents of a Castle. The Castle is not democratic; it came about by appointment. It is not activist. It does not originate any plans or projects. In fact its main activity has been to say no to what other people want to do. Other than saying “No,” its main purpose is to preserve the building the Association owns. That is what it wants money for. And it needs that money because the LCBA lost its non-profit status back in 2010, possibly because it could not remain a non-profit and also have political meetings which is what was happening back then.

The Castle has many rules that keep other people out. One has to have attended three meetings of the Association to vote in an election, three meetings to vote on the By Laws, four meetings to run for office. The attitude of the Castle is one of suspicion of outsiders. Outsiders have to pay their dues and find out the ways of the Association and then they might be let in, but thus far there have not been elections in years. The way to get in is by appointment.

The other group that I call the Open City is made of residents who want to do things that improve the neighborhood and get people involved. They are allowed to do this if they put up the money, put in the work, and do all the organizing. The Castle people look on in bemusement, but they don't do much. They are mostly older and not up to doing a lot of work and their main job is to protect the Castle.

My own experience of this problem came when I found out the the Association has a mandate to keep the area clean. Having a group of interns who already clean Nostrand Avenue I brought them over to the area and started cleaning up three times a week. Open City people were delighted and I made many friends. As of yesterday (March 21) I have accumulated $600 in contributions from 12 people to pay my interns at a rate of $13.50/hour, and there are still pledges from five people who have not yet made their donation. In other words there are 17 people who want this service. However, members of the Castle do not. Their position is homeowners should clean the area in front of their own houses and if all homeowners did that the area would be clean. This is a piece of fantasy. First because there are about 270 buildings in the area and there are only about 80 members of LCBA. So 190 houses are places where LCBA has no sway. Second, many of the members are couples living in one place, so that further reduces the number of LCBA houses. Third, many members are tenants and not landlords and tenants don't usually regard clean up as their job. The super or some other person should do it. Fourth many LCBA members are aged and cannot do clean up work and many others have full time jobs and children and they cannot do clean up work either. Fifth, the Castle people say homeowners “should” do clean up, but none of them lift a finger to go around and encourage them to do this work. In other words they wish this would be done, but none of them would organize to do it. What they really mean is that the LCBA money should go to the upkeep of the building and not to anything else.

This is a struggle between generations; mostly old versus mostly young, and between two points of view, one mostly defensive and the other mostly open, activist, and engaged. In the long run there can be only one outcome. The Castle people will lose. They are old, they offer little, and in a fair open election they would lose. However, there are two ways that loss might happen. One is they lower the draw bridge and let the Open City people in or they keep turning them away and the Open City people create their own organization that does what they want. They do have the energy, time and money to spend. There is some indication that the result will be the latter. Thus far this year only 17 families representing 27 people have paid their dues, this in an organization that has something like 80-90 people on its mailing list and could, if it were open, have a hundred more. Also as fewer and fewer people come to meetings, there will be fewer voters and fewer people able to run for office. The loss of interest in LCBA is palpable. There is a By Laws Committee reviewing the By Laws. I am a member and not allowed to reveal what goes on there. But the Castle people have a majority, and I would say if they maintain the current By Laws, there will be even further erosion of interest in the LCBA. As interest wanes on the one hand, all the activities that people want will go on in different structures. The Castle and the Open City may come to a parting of the ways.

– John DeWind

UpdatesJonathan Judge