A parent protests the co-location of charter school Upper West Success Academy at a hearing last year. Upper West Siders who protested that school lost the battle, and then lost in court.
Like most Upper West Siders, you probably cast your vote in this year’s election knowing it would have little practical effect. The presidential candidates paid no attention to New York state, because the outcome here was a foregone conclusion, and the state assembly and state senate elections were mostly uncontested or uneventful.
But in 2013, voters on the Upper West Side get to make some big choices and our opinions will actually matter. Voters get to select a new mayor, and at least one new City Council member from the Upper West Side. There are five people vying to represent Upper West Siders who live below 96th Street on the council, and many of them have already been campaigning for months.
Democratic candidates in citywide elections know that the neighborhood has one of the largest concentrations of Democratic voters in the city. That’s why they stand outside Fairway shaking hands every election year.
But after election years, Upper West Siders don’t necessarily get special attention. The neighborhood has some diligent representatives, but that doesn’t always translate into real political power. When residents and local boards protested the idea of a charter school setting up shop in the middle of another school (co-locating) last year, the city did it anyway. When the Department of Homeless Services decided to put a large adult homeless shelter across from a public school, neighbors protested, but their complaints fell on deaf ears — in fact, the DHS still hasn’t met with the community about the shelter (in Carroll Gardens, where a similar shelter was proposed, DHS reps showed up to meet with residents). This neighborhood hasn’t had a new school built in more than 30 years; in some areas of the neighborhood, students have had to take classes in temporary trailers because of overcrowding. Decisions about development and other issues in the neighborhood at the city level sometimes overrule local boards. Those are just a few examples of political decisions that have bypassed the community’s interests.
Candidates are already starting to test the waters here. Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who is expected to run for mayor, spoke at a town hall meeting at Symphony Space last month, and gave a stump speech about his plans for expanding early childhood education and raising taxes on people who make more than $500,000 to finance education. De Blasio (pictured at right) was shocked when he learned how many shelters and supportive housing units are located on the Upper West side in the 90’s and low-100’s. He promised to look into it and get back to Neighborhood in the Nineties, the advocacy organization that put on the forum.
That’s just one example of why folks might want to get involved in the next year, and how they might be able to spur change. After next year, it’s unlikely that West Siders will have this much influence again for several years (incumbent council members and mayors are generally harder to unseat).
The mayoral election is wide open in 2013 — if the candidates sense a grassroots shift on an issue, they’re going to have to respond.
Here are some of the issues where locals could actually have a say:
How should the remaining parcels of land in the neighborhood be developed? Do we need more large developments, or should development be limited?
Should local school boards have more say in how our schools are structured and whether more charter schools are added? Should there be more charter schools, or fewer? Should the city build a new school on the Upper West Side, or give parents a guarantee about class sizes in public schools? What about the increasing difficulty of getting into gifted & talented classes?
Are current tax rates fair? Do they bring in enough revenue? Too much?
What will the candidates do about the use of no-bid contracts to place homeless shelters without public review (like on West 95th Street)? Will the city enforce “fair share” requirements that supposedly keep one neighborhood from having more shelters than others?
What can the city do about rising public transit fares?
Should rent regulations like rent control be strengthened or weakened?
Is “stop-and-frisk” a fair and effective system of policing? Should there be more police on the streets?
Do we want more protected bike lanes in the neighborhood?
Food for thought! If enough people raise their voices about these issues in a coordinated way, the candidates will have to listen (and let us know if you plan to get active, so we can cover your efforts).
If you think of other issues that demand action, let us know in the comments. If you plan to get involved, let us know how!
Photos by Avi.