Wednesday, April 26, 2006

"Time to Unionize Communities" Norwood News 04/20/06

Norwood News Editorial, April 20 - May 3, 2006

Time to Unionize Communities

We New Yorkers live in a place where people identify themselves more often by the streets they live on or near than by the borough or the city they call home. That’s both good and bad — good because it reflects a very local sense of community, but bad because it can limit our connection to most of our fellow New Yorkers.

We were thinking about this during the recent Yankee Stadium debate. Last June, the City Council and the state legislature barely batted an eyelash before voting to allow a private company to take over more than 20 acres of public parkland. No public hearings were held. Then, when the city’s land use review process finally kicked in, and public hearings were held, local residents were at a severe disadvantage. Labor unions bused in their members to pack the hearing rooms.

It’s a strength of unionism that workers, acting together, can accomplish more than they can individually.

But the interests of labor unions, particularly the construction trades, don’t always coincide with those of neighborhoods.

Community organizations, however, rarely reach across geographic lines to offer a hand to groups facing similar challenges. But there’s no reason why they can’t.

What if every time parkland was threatened in the Bronx, concerned residents of Queens and Brooklyn showed up in solidarity? When the next poorly conceived development confronts say, Staten Islanders, what if Manhattanites and Bronxites took the ferry over to lend their support?

There are strong civic and grassroots groups in all the boroughs. We hope they begin talking to each other more to figure out how they can swap expertise and people power to stop ill-conceived projects like Yankee Stadium before they are rammed through by private developers and city officials.

Something sort of like this has begun to take shape. It’s called the 4-Borough Neighborhood Alliance and it started about a year ago when the borough historians of Queens and Brooklyn decided they had had enough of development devoid of community input.

The group is interested in changing how planning is done in the city. It favors a bill that Queens councilman Tony Avella will reportedly soon introduce, which would give more teeth to community district planning efforts — known as 197A plans — which are now mostly just advisory. “Our idea is to make the plans binding and to require the city provide policy input into them …,” said Robert Furman, a founder of the Alliance. “That way what’s produced is a policy document that everyone can live with and has some teeth, and will result in a development policy that’s consistent with the plans.”

The Alliance is also assisting communities around the city in their efforts to protect neighborhood character through rezoning.

But it is steering clear of controversies surrounding specific projects like Yankee Stadium for fear of alienating politicians whose support they need to enact systemic change.

That’s fine, but it leaves a clear opening for neighborhood-based grassroots and civic groups around the city to begin getting each other’s back on current boondoggles that don’t make good planning sense.

Unions have a right to organize and take action in solidarity with one another. But so do neighborhoods. They should exercise it.


By the way, Furman says the Alliance is having trouble recruiting Bronx members. He welcomes e-mails at


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