On Tuesday night, Community Board 7 voted in favor of the Department of Transportation’s plan to redesign Amsterdam Avenue. This was the culmination of several years of work and ideas from community members, safe streets activists, and the community board. For those of us who have been fighting for these street redesigns for the past 10 years, the evening had a deja vu feeling to it, and it wasn’t lost on us that it was Groundhog Day. In fact, our neighborhood won’t see the full build-out of Amsterdam Avenue spanning from 59th-110th until at least 2017. When all is said and done, our neighborhood will benefit from the slower speeds, more organized and orderly traffic, pedestrian islands, and, of course, a protected bike lane. Although the resolution passed and the ultimate outcome of the meeting was positive, the tone and tenor of the meeting were anything but positive.
An estimated 100 people were waiting either in the hallway or outside the door of Goddard-Riverside, all trying to attend the meeting. The fire marshals were called, and the people in the hallway and outside were ordered to leave. While it’s understandable that people waiting in the hallway and crowding into the meeting could be a fire hazard, it was disappointing to witness people being turned away at the door and treated like they were a nuisance. It is the community board’s responsibility to provide a space that accommodates the community, not just the people who show up early to a meeting, and Goddard-Riverside is an inadequate space for a meeting with this level of interest. Those people who couldn’t get inside never got their voices heard, nor were they allowed to listen. In an attempt to be heard, they shouted “We’re for the redesign!” and “Vote YES!”, while a few people inside the meeting retorted with “Get their zip codes!” and “If they don’t live here, they shouldn’t be allowed in!”
The community board leadership implored those in the hallway and outside to leave. Although this fiasco was a slight interruption to our meeting, these people were in no way a nuisance. They had every right to be in that meeting. In fact, they are the community, so they were the meeting. They were the people who cared enough to show up, and it’s our responsibility as a community to include their voices. Many of those shunned at the door went to the windows to try to listen, holding up their signs in support of the redesign.
After the DOT’s presentation, the community board chair announced that she would allow five people to speak for the resolution and then five people to speak against the resolution. This was a terrible idea. First of all, this scenario gives the impression that there were an equal number of people on both sides of the issue, which was completely inaccurate. The people for the resolution outnumbered the people against by large numbers. We could have easily signed up another 100 people to speak for the resolution but chose not to in the interest of time. This idea of five speakers for and five against was akin to our media’s coverage of climate change, and their quest to portray a “balanced” perspective. When 97 percent of scientists are for something and 3 percent are against, you can still find people to speak for and against; but that doesn’t mean that an equal number of absolute people are for or against something. This was misleading to the community and to the community board members.
Furthermore, the chair’s decision to allow people to “cede” their time to others was inequitable. These types of decisions open a can of worms in that hundreds of people could sign up, cede their time, and, taken to an absurd extreme, one or two people could speak for the entire public session. If you say 1 minute of speaking time, it should be limited to 1 minute of speaking time. Otherwise, people take advantage of the system, and inequities creep in.
Finally, and most importantly, the people in this community who screamed “Zip Code” and “you should turn people away that don’t live here” were terrifying. Those comments are offensive and xenophobic. Streets are actually public space. They don’t belong to any particular person or community. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of the people in the room do live in CB7’s district, as evidenced by their comments. But, we shouldn’t shame and shun people from other communities for joining our conversation. Maybe they have children in schools here; maybe they work here or shop here; maybe they cycle through our district on their way to work. The point is, it doesn’t really matter where people live. We all use our streets and all have a say in how they function. It’s not like we ask drivers whether or not they are from our neighborhood while using “our” streets. As a community, we need to be very careful with the way we include some and exclude others. A progressive and inclusive community does not close its borders. Tuesday night showed a side of our community that was not only against changing our streets; they were against anyone who was an “other.”
Lisa Sladkus is an Upper West Side parent and former co-leader of the Upper West Side Streets Renaissance.