Civic Leader Who Shook Up Madison Square Garden: Part II

Parisian-born Layla Law-Gisiko arrived in NYC in the 90s as a producer for French tv and soon plunged headlong into the civic swirl in her adopted city. The long serving member of Community Board 5–18 years and counting–was recently tapped to be the new president of the venerable City Club. While she lost in a crowded field in her one run for elected office in a democratic primary for the NYS Assembly last year, she’s not ruling out another run at some point down the road, although she says nothing is in the works are the moment on that front.

| 06 Sep 2023 | 01:17

This is the second in a two part series. For Part I, click here.

Layla Law-Gisiko has served on community board 5 for 18 years and is the current chairperson of its influential land use committee that played a prominent role in advocating for a new Penn Station and a shorter special permit for Madison Square Garden to sit atop the rail hub. While she thinks it would be great to have MSG vacate its position atop the overcrowded rail hub, she was gratified at the City Council’s land use committee recent vote for only a five year renewal of the permit MSG needs to continue to operate there. She also recently was named to be the new president of the City Club. She lost in a crowded field in the Democratic primary for an assembly seat once held by Richard Gottfried and won last year by Tony Simone.

Now, you recently took up a second job. But tell us a little bit about the City Club and your new role there.

Yes, it’s very exciting. The City Club is the oldest civic organization still in existence in New York City. Founded in 1892, it was really founded as a good government group more than a land use urbanism or preservation organization. It morphed and had numerous lives. It sort of goes through cycles and phases where it’s very active and then it goes a little bit dormant and then active again. So the club is coming out of a phase of dormancy. Before that, in the 80s, the club was run by a very, very powerful woman named Sally Goodgold. And she was just remarkable, she was just a the President, my job is really to reawaken. I think that the good government aspect is super important. And I think that, you know, it is very critical in all these different phases of, you know, this Penn Station saga, that we make sure that we have good, accountable, transparent government. It has not always been the case. We’ve had tremendous difficulties with ESD, the Empire State Development Corporation, the economic arm of the state of New York, that is incredibly opaque and very, very difficult agency to deal with. And we need to make sure that as we move forward with the various agencies that will be involved, that they remain, you know, good and transparent, and that we hold them accountable. So, in my capacity as the president of the City Club, this is something that I’m going to have fun doing.

In terms of Penn Station who is it who most needs to step up here?

Obviously, the Governor is very, very much needed in this. The other layer of government really is the federal government. None of this is going to happen without federal grants. These projects totally qualify for federal funding. That’s what federal funding is for, quite frankly. Amtrak is a federal corporation. So the feds are very much in the room. Who needs to step up? There is certainly an open position to grab and hopefully someone with the integrity and the courage that Dick Ravitch demonstrated will manifest himself or herself and will embrace this role. But we need someone that has the same persona as Dick Ravitch. He was really the incarnation of good governance and he’s sorely missed. And I’m hoping that his legacy will actually seep into someone of power who will See that this is what needs to happen.

You have a journalistic background. How does that help, or not help, in all the work you’ve been doing?

You know, it’s a lot of fun, because in a way, I am living a little vicariously through all the reporters who I talk to on a regular basis. And, you know, I think it helps tremendously, because I am able to talk to reporters and telling them what I think they need. And usually I’m, you know, pretty spot on. And I always thought, more conversations, but you know, I have information that may be of interest to your readers. That’s my favorite package line.

You know, one of the things that I think is challenging for the public and for journalists is how complicated this situation is. What does block 780 [a city block to the south of Penn Station between Seventh and Eight Avenues and bounded by 31st and 30th Streets] have to do with ‘through running?’ And what does all of that have to do with the special operating permit? What does any of it have to do with the MTA?

There’s so many parts to it. And it’s extremely hard to break them apart in a way that makes sense. But yeah, you find a way to do it.Because I’m not an engineer. Because I’m not an architect. Because I’m not a lawyer. Because I’m not an expert at anything. I think it gives me this ability to then explain these complex very intricate situations in a fairly clear way. But in the end it is actually not that complicated. there’s many cooks in the kitchen. There’s a lot at stake. The only complicated piece, which actually took me a while to understand. Is that the less tracks you have, the faster you move the trains. That to me was just so counterintuitive. How can you have more trains moving if you have less tracks and platforms at Penn? But actually, if you think for a quick second about how you create a traffic jam when you enter from an eight lane highway into a tunnel that has only two lanes, you see it, yeah, that creates a traffic jam. This is why you can’t move as fast. If you never have bottlenecks, then you can move super quickly. And with Penn Station, you have 21 tracks that actually need to, you know, get out and to, you know, two lanes in the tunnel. That’s why you slow down and creating an additional eight tracks that is going to slow down the traffic even more, which is why through-running, as counterintuitive as it is, isthe way to actually speed the traffic, move more people, move more trains. That’s the only complicated part. The rest? It is actually very much entangled but it is very simple. And the way to sum it up is a little bit of greed, a little bit of incompetence, a little bit of lack of foresight and a huge mistake 50 years ago. That’s why We are were we are.

You ran for office, for the state legislature, what did you learn from that? [Tony Simone, the current Assemblyman for the 75th Assembly District, won the Democratic primary in the battle to succeed the retiring Richard Gottfried on June 22, 2022. The crowded field, in addition to Law-Gisiko, included Harrison Marks, Christopher LeBron and Lowell Kern.]

I came out of it a better person. That’s absolutely for sure. A transformed person. It is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. The hardest. And no one can understand what it takes to run until you do it. It is the hardest thing ever. Childbirth? Piece of cake compared to running. Piece of cake. It was incredibly inspiring. Because the field work, being in the street, being in front of supermarkets and subways, and talking to people was just amazing. Absolutely amazing. People shared with me the stories of their hopes and their fears. And they told me about their families and their challenges and their health and their concerns. And, and it is just incredibly humbling, and also inspiring. I really want to make New York and make my neighborhood and my district and my community a better place.

Having the ability to get people to talk to you and tell them and tell you what they want and what they need and what they fear was just incredible. Would you ever do it again? Yeah. for the right job. Yeah, you know, it’s right now I am very, very happy where I am, you know, I have a great freedom to lead this community that I really deeply care about, I have gained a very, very thorough understanding of this whole situation at Penn Station and around. And I am the president of a very respected and important civic organization. I can do a lot of work. And that’s the only thing that matters to me. You know, I think that in a way, I’m maybe more effective where I am today, than if I was in office. And I don’t know, I’ll never know. I don’t know what I would have done if I had won this race. But I know that I am very effective where I am today. So will I run again? Likely. But I’m very, very happy where I am.

The one thing I will say is that there is, and this is something that I have seen when I was running for office, there is a distrust, apathy about electoral politics. And this is something that I think is dangerous. And I think this is something that we really need to mobilize to make sure that we get out of this fog. And my experience, you know, these 18 years spent attending countless meetings, reading thousands of pages of documents. It’s super boring, but at the same time, we are making an impact. Even when we lose we are making an impact. And this is something that is really really important to keep in mind. We need to remain mobilized. We need to remain organized. This is key. This is critical. We are a participatory democracy. And if we think otherwise, if we are disillusioned, this is really dangerous.