Editorial: Democracy for Dummies
Something is afoot when two very different community meetings, one on the Upper East Side and the other on the Upper West Side, both end in acrimony -- reflecting deep frustration that people are being shut out of decisions that profoundly affect their neighborhoods.
The most recent of last week’s meetings, in Yorkville on the Upper East Side, ended in a walkout by residents of the Holmes Towers housing development. The New York City Housing Authority has proposed selling off a playground at Holmes so developers can build new housing there — very little of which will be affordable to current Holmes residents. The neighborhood sought a meeting with NYCHA to hear about its plans.
But the meeting ended shortly after it began when it became clear to the residents that the meeting was a sham: NYCHA officials there seemed to them more intent on talking than listening, and the locals felt condescended to. They chose to walk out rather than participate in a bogus listening tour.
The previous night on the Upper West Side, the issue was very different, but the frustration was the same.
People who live near the Museum of Natural History got together to voice their concerns about an expansion of the museum that will swallow Theodore Roosebelt Park, which many of them love.
While the Upper West Siders didn’t walk out — it was, after all, their meeting — they did boo at and shout down their councilmember Helen Rosenthal. Noting that Rosenthal came out in favor of the museum expansion before any of the neighbors had a chance to voice their concerns, they felt that a deal had already been cut without their approval, and that their meeting to voice concerns was an empty exercise. (That view was reinforced when it emerged that Rosenthal had helped shepherd millions of dollars in city money for the museum’s expansion, a finding that enraged neighbors affected by the plan.)
At some point, there will be enough information out there to say for sure whether the Holmes deal and the museum expansion are good ideas. We’re not there yet.
But what is clear is that the institutions -- and the elected officials -- behind both projects aren’t doing nearly enough to include their communities in the decision-making process. Calling neighbors together to tell them what’s going to happen to them is not transparency. Claiming open-mindedness while already directing public money to a controversial expansion is disingenuous.
There’s a bigger context here that the people behind these projects are ignoring: the fabric of our city is being fundamentally transformed, and many, many people are feeling they have no voice in its transformation. Shadows are extending into Central Park, megatowers are going up in residential neighborhoods, lifers are being forced out of where they live.
No surprise people are frustrated. Cynical shows of neighborhood involvement, so evident last week, only add to that frustration.
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