BY HIBA SOHAIL | For the second consecutive month, COVID-19’s social distancing precautions compelled Manhattan Community Board 4 (CB4) to hold their monthly full board meeting in the digital realm, via Zoom.
The Wednesday, June 3 meeting started with a somber statement about white privilege. CB4 Chair Lowell Kern told those in attendance that not only does COVID-19 disproportionately affect people of color, but that people of color are also murdered, disproportionately, by officers meant to protect us. The threats in our community have become multifaceted: systemic racism, a lack of leadership on the federal and state level, and economic devastation due to the pandemic, and, more recently, looters who are using the current situation for personal gain.
Kern reminded board members that they have a moral obligation to fulfill, as community leaders. He proposed sending a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio, imploring him to tell the NYPD to leave protestors alone, and instead focus on looters. The questions posed by board members and general attendees at this month’s meetings were heavy: What can we do to combat racism? How do we help our small businesses? How do we collectively step up to combat the disruption of daily life in New York City? The board is open to new, diverse solutions.
On the topic of members, Inge Ivchenko will be resigning as a board member to focus on other professional projects, but will stay on as a public member. This month’s presentation was led by Ivchenko. She praised Chelsea’s Avenues: The World School for its commendable work in helping the community (via making masks, among other things), and encouraged Avenues to continue to be a beacon of hope. Moran Jones, Director of Community Engagement and Partnerships at Avenues, also partook in the meeting, by showing a video of Girl Scouts Troop 3762, who raised funding for the city, and thanking CB4 for their support.
The public session mainly focused on the haphazardness of Open Streets (a NYC initiative to open certain streets to pedestrians and bikes for certain periods of the day), the need for residents to know what’s being implemented in advance, and pushed back against the plan to close a lane on the West Side Highway.
The general consensus was that Chelsea is in dire need of proper notification about city plans before they are implemented. In terms of Open Streets not being utilized correctly, Posh Bar & Lounge on W 51st St. seemed to be a main culprit for many, as people were carrying out alcohol from the bar and sitting on the stoops near it, resulting in a “huge block party,” as attendee Jon Mandel described. One attendee phoned in to affirm that the NYPD did nothing to stop “young men in red hats” who were screaming “horrible” things to people at Clement Clarke Moore Park (W. 22 St., at 10th Ave.).
Segueing to the portion of the meeting devoted to reports from loal elected officials, New York State Assemblymember Richard Gottfried took the time to advocate for the repeal of 50-A, a section of the New York Civil Rights Law that deems the “personnel records” of police officers, firefighters, and corrections officers “confidential and not subject to inspection or review” without the officer’s permission. Gottfried had voted ‘NO’ on the original 50-A law in 1976 and he assured the public that police reform will be a main topic when the State Senate convenes. He highlighted the disparity of New York’s tax brackets, stating that “working class New Yorkers are over-taxed AND under-served.” Gottfried finished by highlighting the need to deal with the economic consequences of COVID-19 and generate more revenue to save CUNY, as it has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic, laying off adjunct professors in droves. (He also recommended It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, if anyone needs anything to read!)
New York State Senator Brad Hoylman then took the Zoom podium and empahasized, “It is so important that white people listen … to the voices of Black constituents, New Yorkers, and Americans because that’s something we haven’t done enough.” He explained the importance of the “confluence of Pride and the Black Lives Matter movement” at this moment, given that the original Stonewall movement “began as riots and rebellions against police brutality led by people like Marsha P. Johnson, a trans-black woman.”
Hoylman assured New Yorkers that the State Senate will be looking at a package of bills against police brutality, including one that he has sponsored which will require the collection of information about those charged with misdemeanors including ethnicity and requires police to make public when someone has died in custody. He then shifted focus to COVID-19: The Senate recently passed bills that will protect tenants from eviction during this time and gave sexual abuse survivors to report their cases.
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer expressed support for the Black Lives Matter protests but said that the NYPD has been taken aback by the number of out of state cars coming in to loot local businesses. She plans on continuing to fight for the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), whose funding was cut with the revelation of de Blasio’s budget proposal in May and reimagining SYEP’s initiation in a socially distanced world. Brewer emphasized that CB4, along with CB5, is the “center of the arts,” and theaters “really need support” at this time.
New York City Councilmember Helen Rosenthal then said while it is obvious that the NYPD does not need more officers, she is unsure if cutting their budget will have a positive effect. She instead recommended police be trained properly, and be mandated to serve 90 hours of community service each time they move to a new precinct.
The meeting then turned to discussing the proposed letters. Most of them were fairly self-explanatory and uncontroversial, but Item 10—a letter from the Transportation Planning Committee, pushing for Hudson River Greenway to be expanded from 14th to 55th Streets, to provide more space to cycists and practice physical distancing—caused quite a discussion.
Open Streets seems to be a sore subject for the Community Board, and Item 10 only added onto safety and health concerns that were caused by Open Streets, namely surrounding Posh Bar & Lounge. Board member Christine Berthet said, “The sooner we curtail such activity, the better we will be.” Board members also debated about how the use of public transportation after COVID-19 would look like, and whether the Greenway was too dangerous to add a bike lane. Others said the Greenway was too congested, and closing a lane would only increase car traffic.
Since Item 10 was under intense scrutiny, Kern suggested that members vote on Item 10 separately, not as a bundle with the rest of the items. The executive committee then presented a letter urging the City to temporarily allow restaurants and retailers impacted by store capacity limits to utilize roadway space for their operation in an effort to alleviate the impact of COVID-19. The meeting concluded about three hours, with all items being passed, including Item 10, which had 14 board members voting “NO” and 35 voting “YES.”
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