Call it the power of people. Or democracy in action. Just don’t call it ineffective.
A few years ago, Steven Zirinsky thought it would be terrific if his Upper West Side block had historic-looking streetlights instead of the standard-issue (ugly) ones. Zirinsky, who serves on the board of his co-op on West 104th Street, knew that co-ops can attack many projects but also realized that this one was far beyond the board’s reach.
But The West 104th Street Block Association could do something. The coverage area runs from West End Avenue to Riverside Drive and encompasses about 500 households – a mixture of single-family brownstones, rentals, and co-ops. The block association raised roughly $10,000 from neighbors and completed the streetlight project about two years ago.
If you live in New York City, you may want to become part of a block association. These semi-formal organizations are catalysts for a wide range of activities: they host yard sales and holiday parties, plant flowers and trees, lobby politicians and police for security, and get involved in other neighborhood issues. Most raise money through donations from individual residents, boards, and businesses. Some have dues.
Co-op and condo boards can support their block association by contributing money and/or encouraging their residents and shareholders to get active with their time – or their checkbooks. And those who live in co-ops and condos have the most to gain because they have an ownership stake.
“The homeowners are the ones who should be the most involved because it is more to their advantage to make the block as beautiful and as safe as it can be,” says Richard Eric Weigle, president of the Grove Street Block Association (GSBA) in Greenwich Village. Weigle’s group spends a great deal of time, energy, and money on beautification objectives such as tree and flower plantings and repair projects.
“All of this directly impacts real estate values,” says Weigle, who has lived in the same rent-stabilized apartment for 33 years. “I expect a lot more from the co-op and condo owners than the renters,” Weigle observes with a laugh. He says that he tells them: “If you don’t want to work, then write me a check, if you don’t have the money, you should [donate some time and] help me.”
Margery Reifler, who previously served on the board at her co-op at 2 Grove Street, is active in the GSBA and notes that one of the advantages of a block association is the strength in numbers. If there is a problem on the block concerning a noisy bar, or crime or safety, or a questionable development, the block association carries more weight with officials than an individual or single property does.
“The clout we have as a group goes a long way,” Reifler says. To that end, she notes that her local association is also a member of an umbrella group, The Greenwich Village Block Associations, which encompasses about 35 associations in that area. “Our power is incredibly expanded because of that.”
The umbrella group has been key in securing donations from movie production companies that shoot films in the area, says Reifler, who adds that the group has sent out e-mails to residents alerting them to upcoming inconveniences that will be caused by the filming.
Similarly, The Atlantic Avenue Betterment Association in Brooklyn has been key in keeping residents informed about parking and traffic difficulties in the busy area, as well as the Atlantic Yards development project in the neighborhood.
“We try to get involved with what’s going on in our entire neighborhood, not just the block,” explains Carolyn Casey, who lives in the Ex-Lax Building, a 57-unit co-op on Atlantic Avenue, and served on her board for about nine years. The group has also invited local politicians, school board officials, and other governmental types to come in “and listen to our gripes,” she adds.
Also in Brooklyn, The Hoyt Street Block Association has hosted community get-togethers, meetings with politicians and police, and events ranging from cultural parties to fashion shows, says Margaret Cusack, president of the group. Every year, the block association runs a giant plant sale to raise money for beautification projects and other plans. When it was formed about 30 years ago, the block association took an abandoned lot and turned it into a park with flowers, trees, and plantings. Cusack, who lives in a brownstone, says the advantages for everyone are obvious. “It has become a jewel for the entire neighborhood to enjoy.”
Block associations can also help co-ops and condos with more practical matters. Security is a big issue at The West 104th Street Block Association. For about ten years, the group has paid a private security guard to walk the area six nights a week from about 4 PM to midnight. Zirinsky says the co-op board contributes about $6,000 a year for the service and the money is raised by assessing the shareholders in the 81-unit building. “People have always been very supportive of it,” he says.
Hanna Rubin, president of the block association who also lives in a co-op, says the guard is helpful even though several of the buildings have doormen. “Our block gets a lot of traffic and it’s not a short block,” she says, adding: “It has definitely had a deterrent effect to have a guard around.”
Kirk Arrowood, the secretary of his co-op board at the 169-unit 65 Morton Street who serves on the Morton Street Block Association, reports a different challenge. Not long ago, the corporation needed to replace a gate that connected the co-op’s two buildings. Because the complex has protected status, the board had to go through the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. Fortunately, a member of the association had some contacts with the commission because of his activism in the neighborhood and could assist the board in navigation.
“It really helped to have someone who could guide us,” says Arrowood. He echoed the words of many co-op and condo residents who are active on their blocks about the importance of the groups.
“As a shareholder, many of the things you are concerned about have to do with the value of your property. And that’s more than just the building. It’s about the beauty of the block.” H
How do you get involved? You can search online for your block association, or if it doesn’t exist, you can learn about forming your own by calling one in your area. (Try the web-hosting site www.neighborhoodlink.com.)