The community board problem found in today's New York City


By this time next month, the city’s transportation department will likely be well on its way to implementing a traffic plan it first proposed to northwest Bronxites last May to make the Broadway corridor safer for pedestrians — and they don’t care what anyone has to say about it.

That’s mostly because when representatives from the department came to the Community Board 8’s transportation committee, they were lambasted by residents and business owners alike for a plan they thought did not address some of their biggest concerns, like double parking and 18-wheelers barreling in from Yonkers. In fact, the plan garnered so much criticism from residents, CB8 actually had to break up the meeting into two sessions over as many months so everyone could feel like they said their piece before voting it down.

And despite the plain truth that the transportation department’s plan is perfectly fine — it is backed by a comprehensive street study, and some of the proven methods that have helped slow cars down around the city — it still highlights a glaring hole in the way New York City governs, and the tremendously undersized power community boards can play in the makeup of their own neighborhoods.

Before Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s big push to make New York’s power structure more centralized, community boards — and their district managers — each acted like individual municipal governments. In fact, in a 2013 obituary for longtime CB8 manager Grace Belkin, The Riverdale Press publisher emeritus Richard Stein said being a district manager was “more akin to mini-mayor.”

“As director of a ‘district cabinet,’ she coordinated all of the city services in the areas, as well as relations with utilities like Con Edison and Cablevision,” Stein wrote of Belkin.

Community boards were born in the ‘60s, along with the end of the Robert Moses era, in an attempt to bring New Yorkers closer to the legislative process. Community boards even play a role in the process of zoning and rezoning neighborhoods. But since Bloomberg’s move to recentralize city government, that role is essentially nominal.

Where once the role of a community board could affect real outcomes in the city, they are now virtually powerless, the Broadway corridor project is just one example.

Despite the perceived power of the community board — with its seemingly endless list of committees, votes and resolutions — the city is essentially under no obligation to listen to how community boards vote, or what resolutions they send out.

Just about the only agencies that routinely listen to the word of local community boards are the state liquor authority, and (occasionally) the parks department. And in the case of the Broadway corridor, it might not be a big deal to some folks — especially when you consider the transportation department’s plan is backed by good research and expert advice — but the habit of New York’s municipal agencies to simply ignore the opinions of community boards is how the citywide rezoning laws were passed in 2016, despite nearly every community board in the city moving against it.

That’s where the real problems come in. Because the worst thing that can happen with the new Broadway plan is traffic and double-parking issues don’t improve much. But when the city moves to make sweeping changes to its zoning laws to build so-called affordable housing, and it ignores all other community input, then the residents of lower-income sections of the city — like Marble Hill or Kingsbridge Heights — can get displaced, and priced out of their own homes.

The onus falls upon New Yorkers, both on and off the community board, to demand the city’s government stop making decisions while only pretending those most affected have a say in them. Surely, no matter how good any city plan is, someone in the community will dislike it. 

But those likes and dislikes are the results of real concerns and questions that New Yorkers need answered before the city can be allowed to change the social and physical landscape of a neighborhood.

The author, a former political reporter with The Riverdale Press, is a sociology doctoral student at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Anthony Capote,