Keep complaining, it’s working; Survey backs it up
By Brad Hoylman
For a community board chairperson like me, it was the equivalent of the knock at the door from the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes people. The reporter from The New York Times called me a couple of weeks ago to tell me that she was writing a story on why residents in Community Board 2 are among the “most satisfied” in the city.
I nearly dropped the telephone. Our district — the proud capital of kvetching, the neighborhood of NIMBYism — among the most satisfied?
It’s true, the Times reporter said. The Mayor’s Office of Operations and the public advocate conducted the first-ever Citywide Customer Survey of more than 100,000 randomly selected New York City households last June in order to assess their opinions of city services. According to the results, C.B. 2 ranks (along with C.B. 8 on the Upper East Side) as the most satisfied in ratings of neighborhoods as a place to live, overall quality of life and overall quality of New York City government services. The Citywide Customer Survey, which was hailed in an accompanying press release as “the largest municipal services survey ever conducted in the United States and the first of its kind in New York City,” can be accessed on the nyc.gov Web site.
According to the survey, 87 percent of respondents in C.B. 2 rated their neighborhood as an excellent or good place to live; this compares to 59 percent citywide. Seventy-four percent of C.B. 2 respondents said that overall quality of life was either excellent or good (compared to only 51 percent citywide), and 54 percent said that New York City government services were either excellent or good (compared to 42 percent citywide).
The survey, for all of its thoroughness, however, doesn’t explain why residents in C.B. 2 are generally more satisfied than those in other parts of the city. In fact, the anecdotal evidence might suggest exactly the opposite. For one, Bob Gormley, the district manager for the community board, says that the board office receives between 25 to 50 calls a day — a large portion of these being complaints. And residents of C.B. 2 are well known for their passionate viewpoints on a whole host of issues, ranging from complex zoning and land use proposals to alternate-side parking regulations. Public forums on hot issues like school overcrowding or new liquor license applications are often standing-room-only affairs. And did you happen to attend any of the meetings over the last year on the plans for a new St. Vincent’s Hospital-and-condominium complex? Hundreds of people spoke. While it was a civilized gathering, it was the first time — but maybe not the last — that a member of the public lunged toward me. (He later apologized.)
While we have strong points of view, I guess it doesn’t mean that we’re always unhappy with the results. Maybe our high level of satisfaction has to do with all of those thoughtful and sensible reforms put into place on local community boards over the last few years by Borough President Scott Stringer, or the hard-working staff at C.B. 2, or — dare I say — the community board’s current leadership.
Another explanation is the halo effect from having officials represent the district who have the clout and experience to get things done for their constituents. Not only do we have Speaker Christine Quinn representing a large portion of C.B. 2, but we also have a senior member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Jerrold Nadler; the chairperson of the State Senate Health Committee, Tom Duane; and the chairperson of the Assembly’s Higher Education Committee, Deborah Glick; not to mention dynamic newer leadership from Councilmembers Rosie Mendez and Alan Gerson — himself a former chairperson of C.B. 2 — and newly elected State Senator Daniel Squadron. That’s a lot of government firepower for one community board!
Still, I think there is a deeper reason why we’re more satisfied in C.B. 2, and it goes back to all of that complaining that we’re known for. Basically, we know what we want, and we’re not afraid to ask for it. This isn’t a new phenomenon. C.B. 2’s largest neighborhood is the Village, after all — where political organizing and protest date back to the early 1900s. More recently, it’s the legacy of Jane Jacobs and the grassroots activists who saved Washington Square Park from Robert Moses’ bulldozers that informs much of the spirit of our local activism. And that activism is channeled through a highly organized network of block associations, precinct councils, parks groups, business associations, political clubs, parent organizations, tenant groups and preservationists.
Therefore, it’s a bit of a paradox that explains our satisfaction. Yes, we do complain a lot. But we’re so good at it we often get our way. And we have strong backup from our elected officials, local community groups and the community board to help.
So keep complaining. It’ll make all of our neighborhoods a little better.
Hoylman is chairperson, Community Board 2