Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Jumping Juniper

The NY Times did an in-depth look at one of the most influential civic groups in Queens over the past weekend-and we get a glimpse of the importance of real grass roots activism (and not the phony stuff that's ginned up by the mayor's or EDC's money): "All manner of politicians have made it a point to show up at meetings of the Juniper Park Civic Association in Queens: City Council members; Representative Anthony D. Weiner, who represents parts of the borough; and even George E. Pataki when he was governor of New York. Mayors past and present have also made the trip — from Edward I. Koch to Rudolph W. Giuliani to Michael R. Bloomberg. In fact, Mr. Bloomberg, who has visited the group four times, once called it “the most successful civic association in the city.”

But the mayor may be learning that it is often wise to be careful who you compliment: "Even Mr. Bloomberg, who was twice named man of the year by the association, in 2003 and 2006, has fallen out of the group’s favor. In recent issues of The Juniper Berry, he has been blamed for things like crime (“We pay huge amounts in taxes and yet know that the police are short-staffed,” the group’s secretary, Robert Doocey, wrote in the December issue), construction violations (“The buck must stop at the desk of Mayor Michael Bloomberg,” its president, Robert F. Holden, wrote in September) and illegal immigration (“He thinks he could sustain the drain on our tax dollars by illegal aliens who do not pay taxes into the system,” Ms. Sciulli wrote in March)."

Just the kind of grass roots group that we like-not waiting for permission to speak, but telling the electeds what is expected of them: "Still, some of the tactics the association uses to make its arguments have provoked a backlash. “They either work very well with you or they don’t work well at all, depending on whether you agree with them,” said City Councilwoman Elizabeth S. Crowley, who represents the area. The Queens borough president, Helen M. Marshall, said the group’s persistence could sometimes be alienating. “I’ve seen them go after politicians who don’t do what they want, and it’s murder,” Ms. Marshall said."

The council member may be right, although she also may have inverted the cause and effect relationship in her observation-from what it should be, since people are elected to represent the folks and all politicians should recognize what it means to be called a public servant. But Juniper understands what its role is: "It is no surprise, then, that politicians are keen to pay the group proper respect by making time to accept the association’s invitations. “We’re watchdogs,” said Lorraine Sciulli, 75, the association’s first vice president and the editor of The Juniper Berry, the group’s 64-page quarterly magazine. “We’re the people who stand up and say: ‘Wait a minute! You can’t do that in our neighborhood.’ ”

If we had more Junipers we wouldn't have as many Malcolm Smiths or Greg Meeks-not to mention Brian McLaughlin and Tony Seminerio (or Michael Bloomberg). Which is why the folks at Willets Point United have been reaching out to all of the Queens civics on the development that would displace them forcibly from their property. As the Times article underscores, these civics understand intimately just how high handed the city can become. The key in the Willets Point situation, however, is to demonstrate how the development issues at the Iron Triangle-particularly the traffic and the fudging of the data analysis-are a harbinger of what faces so many other communities (are you catching all this Lombino?).

Of course, the Bloombergistas don't particularly like any demonstration of real democracy that holds them accountable: "Then came the Bloomberg administration’s denial of landmark status for St. Saviour’s, an old Gothic-style church in Maspeth that was bound for demolition, but was spared after the association intervened. It has been dismantled and will be reassembled at a local cemetery; Ms. Marshall’s office has set aside $1.4 million for the project. At a rally in July 2008 that the association organized to save the church, someone in the crowd had a sign with a noose and the words “reserved for,” followed by the names of several city officials, including Mr. Bloomberg. The administration threatened to cease dealing with the group if Mr. Holden did not apologize, which he refused to do. “Bloomberg is our mayor,” said Mr. Holden, a graphics design professor at New York City College of Technology. “We elected him, and we have a duty to hold his feet to the fire, which is exactly what we’ve been doing.”

The reaction from the mayor's people was not unexpected: "Stu Loeser, a spokesman for Mr. Bloomberg, did not want to publicly comment about the group’s views of the mayor except to say: “It’s great when civic groups honor the mayor. But they’re mistaken if they think that’s going to tip the balance in their favor.”

But the mayor will have to respond if all of the Queens civics present their elected officials with a united front against over development and eminent domain-something that we learned almost thirty years ago in our first successful effort in the East Bronx (defeating a Pathmark shopping center when all of the civics-from Zarega, to Pelham Bay, to Morris Park, to Throggs Neck, united in opposition; along with their neighborhood merchant associations).

But in Queens, Juniper's in your face attitude is inspiring-and we'll give its president the last word: "Mr. Holden said that City Hall no longer responded to his letters or complaints — for example, over what he said was the city’s failure to shovel public sidewalks after snowstorms. Mr. Bloomberg has also changed his position on the freight tunnel that Representative Nadler proposed: he is now a proponent. On recent balmy Wednesday morning, Mr. Holden was holed up in his home office in Middle Village, putting the final touches on the March/April cover of The Juniper Berry. It featured an illustration of Mr. Bloomberg conducting a freight train loaded with garbage bags under the headline, “City’s Waste Management Plan Dumps on Us.”