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December 11th, 2008

SOHO POLITICS: THE MEAN STREETS OF SOHO & POLITICAL REALITY.

by D. Clark MacPherson

The problem with political jokes is they get elected.
—Henry Cate VII

Now that the main political season is over we begin again with the rounds of phone calls—from aides and politicians as well as hopefuls. Once an office has been secured, longevity becomes the order of the day. And, that, my friends, means money. Few people understand the dirty business of complying with or circumnavigating the election laws in order to raise enough money to either hold on to an office just won, or move on to a better position. It almost doesn’t seem to matter what the job pays. Bloomberg is a good example of that. In fact he’s reported to have spent nearly $100 million to become Mayor, a position that pays approximately $200,000.

Influence, power, quid pro quos and hubris seem to be the coin of the political realm.

The pecking order, once you move out of neighborhood block associations and political activism, starts with the Community Board. City Council members or the Borough President recommends people for membership. The Chair of the Community Board can also recommend someone but he does not have the power to appoint a regular member. He can appoint what is called a Public Member, however, someone whose vote is limited.

While many meetings take place and many issues are reviewed, few decisions are binding. City agencies require a review at the Community Boards, as do developers and applicants seeking liquor licenses—but few decisions are either final or binding on their own. It is an avowedly advisory body. The problems with Community Boards, however, have nothing to do with the advisory nature of their efforts. And there are many dedicated people who tirelessly work for nothing to better their community.

The big black hole with Community Boards is that they don’t represent the community. They represent appointees of the City Council and they represent the wishes of the Borough President.

SoHo is represented by a small handful of people appointed by Alan Gerson, the Councilmember who lives in Greenwich Village or Scott Stringer, the Borough President. While Gerson has spent millions of dollars on Village parks, he has repeatedly been asked to fund small arts related projects such as Bob Bolles Park in SoHo. In eight years, not a dime has been allocated. Questions have been asked after the recent term-limits fiasco as to why Gerson has supported Bloomberg’s blatant rejections of Democracy. Has he, like Christine Quinn, been promised a Golden Parachute (Quinn was reportedly offered a Deputy Mayor slot) for selling us out and supporting term-limits for his own future job offer?

The predominant representation on Community Board #2 (CB2), which includes SoHo, is comprised of residents of Greenwich Village. Efforts to include a larger balance of representation have been rejected, yet money, fealty and glamour comes from SoHo. And, while there are community groups in SoHo, the average resident has no connection to the Community Board—there is minimal outreach and no attempt to bring the community into its deliberations. SoHo has become the playground and testing ground for everything from oversaturation of bars and nightlife to obstacle courses on its streets in the name of Green energy. Party people drink on the sidewalks and people who live in the outer boroughs as well as Greenwich Village decide how many bike paths are painted on our streets and obstacle courses are created.

Currently, Brad Hoylman, a protégé of Christine Quinn, is Chair of Community Board #2. He’s bright, articulate, and plans to run for Quinn’s City Council seat—depending upon how and when the term-limits scenario plays out. Since Bloomberg has carefully purchased his mayoral future by supporting non-profit organizations with large private checks and offering term extensions to the City Council members, there was only the media left to sway. Apart from owning a media company, Murdoch and Zuckerman were reportedly supportive. Ergo, we have a “popular” Mayor. Everyone says so!

So, Hoylman has some real power in the sense that he could make a difference on CB2. Downtown could benefit if he chose to take tough stands on a variety of issues— from illegal billboards to air pollution. The fact that he works for a company that is supported by real estate and development interests has thus far not appeared to matter. Although the St. Vincent’s controversy, wherein the Rudin people want to build condos in a sensitive hospital location, could be telling about Hoylman’s allegiances. There are some in the Village who feel that the Community Board has given up too much, too soon.

Committees on Community Board #2, like the former Business Committee which approves liquor licenses (now called the S.L.A. Licensing Committee), the Street Fair Committee and last, but not least, the Traffic and Transportation Committee—have been comprised of few, or no, members from SoHo.

And this is where all of the above seems to come together.

Community Boards are populated by people who wish to be considered important in the view of their peers—until recently entitled to the prefix Honorable in front of their names. And since few people in the community know very much about the Boards or when they meet, what they discuss, or how little power is vested in what they do, it often has about as much relevance as a Scout Troop on a march. There are no uniforms and becoming a committee Chair is the equivalent of a merit badge.

What is not humorous at all, however, is that the Boards have one essentially sub rosa function—to continue to raise money for the Council Members and the Borough President. Or, to at least muffle any criticism about their performance. True Democracy is weak, to say the least.

Here’s the problem.

Fundraising is a one-way street. Politicians expect people to contribute money and those who contribute are either donating money in order to keep their jobs—as in being a member of the Community Board—or they raise lots of money in order to achieve more status. It helps if there’s a block association or neighborhood group behind you. Then there’s an even greater expectation of more money and perhaps some votes as well for the politician.

The fact is that most politicians forget your name, even after hosting a fundraiser. Don’t ever expect a thank you for raising or donating money because it is expected. In fact, save your money if you think it will have any effect, or benefit your cause. Democrats are no better than Republicans in this regard.

But, if you criticize those in power, your connection to the community is of little import. Your value to the Community Board is then less than zero. A few important and courageous Community Board members, like Julie Nadel, a member of the Hudson River Park Trust (HRPT), found that out the hard way. She spoke out about the need for an open process and accountability on the HRPT and on Community Board #1, and she’s about to be forced out in favor of a more compliant member—rumored to be Jim Solomon, Chair of the CB2 Chinatown Committee. So much for transparency in Downtown politics. Governor Paterson please take note. Only professional asskissers need apply here.

So, with a lack of real clout on a political entity (Community Board) that is really a large, but essentially powerless, society of backslappers whose main raison d’etre for politicians is an elaborate fundraising machine— who cares?

Well, we all should care. Why? Because it COULD be more. And, there is just enough drivel that flows from those endless meetings—that City agencies draw their power from manipulating them. Most agencies have an easier time with a compliant committee and a compliant Community Board. Its makes their jobs easier and gets their agenda accomplished faster.

Community Boards will never be depoliticized but the people who they claim to represent can hold them accountable.

For example, the Traffic and Transportation Committee is comprised of Greenwich Village folks who take their jobs seriously. For the most part, they interface with the Department of Transportation, the City agency that regulates our streets, parking, traffic grids and vehicular issues. But keep the Stockholm effect in mind.

The Commissioner has a relative on the CB2 Committee, not exactly a conflict of interest. The Vice Chair, Ian Dutton, is a bike enthusiast – someone who is seen as a person who will champion bike lanes who lives in the South Village. Shirley Secunda, the Chair of the committee, is a Villager at heart.

There are no members from SoHo. Yet, SoHo, has become the idiot sibling where traffic plans are tested. SoHo has become the neighborhood where bikers from Brooklyn and commuters from Staten Island have decided to test their traffic patterns. Broadway in SoHo, for example, is home to the only idiot islands that turn that main thoroughfare into a one-lane street. Why? Because it slows down traffic for the Staten Island commuters.

Residents have decided NONE of the plans for SoHo. NONE of the traffic plans have resolved the one issue that SoHo has been screaming about for a decade—the safety of pedestrians!

The Department of Transportation decides what they want to do and with minimal discussions (and great support from members of the Transportation Committee who do not allow disagreement from SoHo)—implement their plans. No one in SoHo knew about the Broadway islands and no one in SoHo knew about the destruction of Grand Street for bikers. It’s interesting to note that when Commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn, who is the current ruler of D.O.T., has press conferences to announce plans for SoHo, Mr. White of Transportation Alternatives (a bike advocacy organization) appears in photo ops—but no one from SoHo is ever invited, even when it affects our community.

Much of the current “planning” involving SoHo dates back to the reign of Iris Weinshall, Senator Schumer’s wife, when the Houston Street Reconstruction was in its planning stages. THAT was the street, which was to originally have provided a cross-Manhattan route for bikes. Even bike enthusiasts were in favor of that wide street with curbs to protects them. It was rejected because of a study in—are you ready—Idaho, that claimed it was unsafe. What we wound up with are bike routes, installed without notice and meetings with the community on narrow clogged streets in SoHo—with the help of a politicized Community Board. We now have horrendous, chopped up streets that are ruining businesses (no parking or stopping allowed anytime), which is confusing motorists and limiting the flow of traffic in an area that is already overburdened by the Holland Tunnel.

Caregivers pushing baby carriages, elderly crossing the street, and parents taking their children for a walk can not do so without being accosted by cars, trucks, buses, and now bikes. We have new green pathways carved out of our streets, which makes an insane state of confusion just for the benefit of bikers – and no crosswalks for pedestrians. Residents cannot legally pull over their cars where they live to load or unload groceries or drop off children safely. In the few areas where there are crosswalks, there are no D.O.T. officers to protect them. Try to cross the street on weekends at West Broadway and Broome Street, if you dare. No tickets are given out and pedestrians who cross where there are D.O.T. officers are often ignored if there is less than 4 inches between cars— even when the person has the light.

But, step on a green pathway and an irate biker will scream at you or hit you since many head the wrong way on these paths.

So, shall we paint green swaths on all Village thoroughfares, place protrusions in the middle of those streets, and park cars practically in the middle of the street and eliminate parking in most areas? Remember, many of these streets are in landmarked areas. We have broken streets, missing cobblestones, decaying sidewalks, missing crosswalks and no protection from D.O.T. officers.

Let the cars, trucks AND the bikes wait until we can breathe the air and cross the street safely in SoHo. How about that Mr. Bloomberg, Ms. Quinn, Mr. Gerson, Ms. Secunda and Mr. Dutton? How about making life safe for parents and pedestrians before trying to turn SoHo into a party Mall for the pleasure of bikers—or by paying off politicians Downtown at fundraisers?

How about a park—one park for our kids —instead of spending millions in the Village? SoHo residents are very pissed off about the treatment by CB2, D.O.T. and the politicians.

SoHo is an industrial, gothic-flavored, gritty, arts community—where people gravitated to 50 years ago—in order to live Bohemian lives. It’s also a place where tourists have fun—and then go home. Are we expected to tolerate those who don’t live here, telling us how to live our lives and shape our community? Are we a testing ground for yuppies who have decided that SoHo is their personal party spot where they can arrange street parties and bike— and have decided that they will do their testing on our turf—even if we don’t want them?

If you live in SoHo, stop supporting politicians like Alan Gerson, Scott Stringer, or Christine Quinn who sell us out—and let those politicians who have recently benefited from our votes know, like State Senator Daniel Squadron—that we want action. Dismantle this attack on our streets. Let them know that they need to seek out the residents, not pseudo-organizations or the Community Board which does not speak for us. We want reform of the Community Boards as a fundraising machine that panders to special interests, we want a voice in Albany, and we want SoHo to be treated with respect and appreciation, not used and abused for personal agendas.

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