Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Put Me In, Beep!

Columbia Spectator
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Put Me In, Beep!
By Jimmy Vielkind
Issue date: 12/6/06 Section: News

Monday's candidates' night forum at Community Board 9 got me thinking-maybe I should apply for a seat on CB9.A quick spin around the Internet led me to an application on the Web site of Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who, with some input from local city council members, appoints the 50 members that make up each of the dozen boards in Manhattan.

They serve as the most local form of government-liaisons for citizens with a city bureaucracy that is as layered as an onion and, at times, just as pungent. The residents, workers, and employees who make up the boards are charged with advising on decisions about long-term planning and land use, as well as the daily administrations of their districts, which deal with everything from street fairs to trash pickup.

Gripping, I know. But the best show in Harlem, I'm convinced, is not open mic at the Apollo. It's not a movie in the Magic Johnson Theater. It's not a set at the Showman or a pick-up game in the Rucker. It's a CB9 meeting. They even have free coffee (or, they have yet to yell at me for taking the coffee-my tax dollars at work).

The application started easily enough. Name. Age. Gender. Address. Attend school within the district (check). Employment information (tugs collar). Then it got more philosophical.

"What do you think are the three most pressing issues facing the Community Board you are applying for?"Well, there's that multi-billion-dollar expansion plan Columbia is pushing. It's a pretty big issue. The fact that the district is shedding units of affordable housing like an aging golden retriever is a big deal.

And there's the omnipresent creep of gentrification on this neighborhood.I checked "yes" for having attended a board meeting in the past 12 months, but I had to ponder the question, "What did you learn or what was your experience?"

Well, there was the time the police were called, and the room seemed on the verge of a brouhaha sparked by the proposed removal of an errant board member. I remember things becoming very heated and expecting the worst until former chair Maritta Dunn shouted the situation under control.

I remember the night that Columbia University President Lee Bollinger addressed the board in April 2004. It was standing room only, and attendees had the chance to react after their first glimpses of several renderings of the proposed Manhattanville campus.

And there was also the night that the new West Side Market building was approved, when I learned for the first time what a variance was, and what it meant to build something "as-of-right."

Unable to hone in on one experience, I instead focused on the lessons learned. For three years, CB9 meetings have been an audited class in local democracy-both its strengths and challenges-and the affairs of our local community. Starting at 6:30 p.m. on the last Thursday of each month.

The last question, "What do you hope to accomplish by serving on the Community Board?" was a meta zinger that reminded me of applying to college. I thought about it the most.

I want to build off of what I've learned as a Spectator of the board meetings and join the diverse group of people that sits up front in the low-ceilinged, linoleum-floored room on 125th Street that is home to the board offices and meetings. The members include a Cuban exile, an artist, a certified public accountant, tenant activists, business owners, and Harlem's first registered doctor of philosophy in communications design.

In her speech on Monday about why she should continue serving as second vice chair, Patricia Jones described working on the board as "boring, tedious, technical, but often times fun and always addressing business that must be done."

I couldn't agree more. If it weren't for this journalism thing, I'd sign up in a sec.

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