Column: Are City Council Hearings Better Than Broadway?

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There's no "behind the scenes" of a City Council hearing, particularly one as contentious and impassioned as the recent hearing on NYU's proposed expansion. Indeed the spectacle unfolded without pretense. (by Alissa Fleck) Last week at 8 a.m. on the morning of the hearing, plan opponents clutching massive, colorful banners flooded the City Hall steps in protest. They were tree-huggers, "village crazies," dejected faculty, curmudgeons and idealists alike. They fluttered their signs in the air while speakers growled into the microphone in front of them. Unfortunately the marriage of wind and a lackluster microphone muted most of the speeches. One speaker said: "NYU tells us they will create open space!" "IT'S A LIE!" shouted someone behind me. "IT'S A LIE!" joined others in chorus. At the rally's conclusion, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) Executive Director Andrew Berman, who, with his vehemence could have stepped straight out of a Kinks song, asked the press if they had any questions. Not a moment after he'd asked, protesters behind him broke out into raucous chant, replete with fist pumps. After a few minutes, Berman turned to the mass behind him: "Everybody get your regulation-sized signs," he said. He said something about how it would be a long day, I expected him to add few would make it out alive. The subsequent rally in support of the proposal consisted of approximately three people. "I'm in favor!" said one man, urging press people to come forward and ask him questions. They appeared reluctant, as though they were waiting on someone more noteworthy. As I tried to make my way into City Hall, a crazed bottleneck formed at the entrance. Security attempted to filter in an even number of supporters and opponents, but made exceptions for anyone who said they had to use the bathroom. As men in "BUILD IT!" shirts trickled in, protesters, well, protested. "Why do they get to go in and not us?" they demanded. So many protesters filled the balcony, a few lay down on the steps. A woman on the ground next to me, dressed for what could have been a day of gardening, appeared to slip in and out of consciousness. In the crowd, another woman turned around and addressed the man behind her: "You're a union guy, aren't you!" she said. "Look I need a job, I got a kid," he said. "I don't even really know what's going on." "That's the problem!" She attempted to unload one of her extra signs on him. "Come on, why don't you just take it?" A security officer tried to bring order by organizing testifiers. "Is there a Milton in the crowd?" he asked. "I'm Milton," said an older man in the balcony. "Are you in favor or opposition?" "What?" (It took a few more tries, as Milton was evidently hard of hearing.) "Are you in favor or opposition?" "OPPOSED ALL THE WAY!" he shouted down from the balcony. The crowd exploded with applause. "Another outbreak like that and you will be kicked out for the rest of the hearing," said the security officer. Council Member Mark Weprin insisted audience members use jazz hands only to express approval. The consistent reprimands and reminders to use jazz hands only did little to suppress the boos, hisses, laughter and chants which, when done in unison, could not be attributed to any single defiant individual. I briefly wandered down from the balcony to see if I could get closer to the proceedings. I walked into the ground floor section, only to be interrogated by a security guard. I told him I would just stand in the back for a moment. "No, you won't," he said. I walked back out of the chambers and a woman outside snarled (in reference to NYU President John Sexton): "Is he still SPOUTING that BULLSH*T?" "The bullsh*t is unbelievable!" responded another. Sexton's speech went something like this: "We need to be able to attract an outstanding genomicist." Laughter. (Maybe people think are envisioning someone studying adorable garden gnomes.) "It would be obstructive to build anywhere else." More laughter. "Many of our students work three jobs and it's because they want to be here." Riptide of laughter. "This is not a development project." Laughter plus a few audience members get booted. Often these proceedings boil down to sleights of rhetoric and shiftiness, as when extensive confusion ensued over the delineations between "green space," "open space," "open green space," "public space" and "public green space." Then there was the discussion during which I decided, three hours in, it was time for my personal intermission. With more highfalutin jargon and sophistication than a high-schooler being disciplined, but no less evasion and otherwise not much difference, Councilman Robert Jackson drilled Sexton on whether or not he was being honest. Filtering out the excess, it went roughly something like this: "But are you actually being as honest as possible?" "Yes, I am being honest." "Okay, but, are you actually being honest?"

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