A Community Bored
2001-11-05-014 Title
Manhattan Community Board 8

Mark Mentovai

As you begin reading, I request that you take three steps back. Why? That’s what I was asked to do at the 2001 October 4 general meeting of Community Board 8 in Manhattan. Before the meeting began, I was informed not-so-politely that “the first three rows are reserved for board members.” Fine. They’re entitled to set the rules of their little club as they see fit, so I took a seat in the fourth row. By the same token, I’m entitled to write as I see fit, so I shall politely inform you, the reader, that you must be three steps away from the text as you read. I want to make sure that reading my account of the board meeting is uncomfortable for you as sitting through it was for me. If you’re myopic, I’ll let you keep your glasses on.

It’s a good thing you’re wearing your glasses, because I want you to take a look around. The auditorium in the Hunter School of Social Work looks like it can seat well over 200, all but the first three rows are nearly empty. Perhaps mere mortals are banned from the front because if everyone were allowed near the stage, the room would appear more pathetically sparse than it does on this fine evening. With the agenda in hand, I quickly divide the rest of the attendees into three groups, based primarily on dress and outward appearance. One group, sporting suits, is made up of the presenters – people from organizations with official business to conduct, and a presentation prepared for the board. Another group, equal in number, is dressed more casually. These are the residents of the area covered by the community board.

I’ve saved the most interesting group for last: there was one woman in attendance dressed completely in black, a black wig, a large amount of silver-colored jewelry, and a thick cake of pasty-white face makeup. And fangs. She didn’t say a single word for the entire meeting, other than to ask for help when her unnecessarily high boots become caught in a coat hanger draped over the seat in front of her. She did manage to stay for the entire meeting, however, which is apparently more than all but three non-board members, myself included, could stomach. Even some board members left early. The first board member to leave wasn’t even seated in the first three rows.

Just before 7pm, when the meeting is scheduled to begin, one of the presenters asked Ken Moltner, the board’s chairman, how long the meeting is expected to last. “The latest was half-past-midnight, but tonight won’t be nearly as late. I won’t let it go on that long.” The same woman that told me to stay out of the first three rows made the same request of the presenter. Moltner called the board to order at 7:05, and my spirits rose. He was more prompt than I expected, and he seemed to want to move things along. “Maybe it won’t be so bad after all, maybe it’ll finish by 8:30 or 9,” I thought to myself.

It can’t finish before 9, though, because Moltner would like to take a moment to honor the victims of the recent terrorist attack, and to express gratitude for the heroic efforts of the emergency workers. It’s only fair that I mention this, since all of the speakers at the meeting managed to begin by spending time discussing it. Not that it should go unmentioned, but the amount of time at the meeting dedicated to honoring and expressing gratitude comprised a good portion of the three hour-long meeting. Then again, it’s a statement like this that makes a true politician, and what more is the community board than a training ground for politicians? Many people that were in attendance, from the committee chairs to the delegates from local elected officials’ offices, are engaged in politics at some level. The “moment of silence” was particularly meaningful to all, or at least it would have been, had it truly been a single moment. Of course, it couldn’t have been just one, all of the junior politicians in attendance wanted to be responsible for their own moments.

The public session of the meeting eventually began. Those interested in the public hearing on the Spence School were asked to wait until that part of the meeting is called. I could feel the anticipation in the room building, as any topic that must be put off in this manner surely must be hot. The few people who signed up to speak on non-Spence matters were informally called from the list. One woman complained about garbage in front of “Yorkshire Towers” at 305-315 East 86th Street, saying that the supermarket in the first floor of the building lets garbage sit out all day. She then complained about the noise generated by private garbage trucks at night, and the scaffolding now surrounding the building.

One resident complained about garbage and scaffolding in front of 305-315 East 86th Street.
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This issue was of particular interest to me, because the supermarket that she made out to be the filthiest, most disgusting entity in the neighborhood is my regular supermarket. It’s a little bit farther from where I live than some other supermarkets, but I consciously chose it because I perceived it to be larger, cleaner, and much more well-stocked than some of the other choices. I have never noticed garbage in front of it. As for the rest of her complaints, practically the entire city has to listen to private garbage trucks late at night, this is a problem better discussed and resolved at a level larger than a single building or supermarket. Finally, the scaffolding has only been present for several months, and it is the type supported by poles only at the curb, without any obstructions in the middle of the sidewalk. Truthfully, it prevents light from reaching the sidewalk, but we can imagine that it is there for a reason – perhaps the building management wishes to address the problems created by white brick construction. Certainly even a permanent scaffold is more desirable than a crumbling building. I could think of many examples of more offensive scaffolding that presents more of an impediment to the public good in the same neighborhood. It’s obvious that this complainant was only then becoming concerned because she lives very close to the building in question. After she finished speaking, she left.

The scaffolding presents an obstruction to two pedestrians on East 86th Street.
2001-11-05-008

By this point, it was also obvious that Jane Roe Doe had been appropriately cast in the role of obnoxious loudmouth board member. She took the opportunity to agree incredibly strongly with the resident, as she would do with everyone else presenting an issue throughout the evening, except for those that she would disagree incredibly strongly with. Her name has been changed here, in the hope that my path will never cross hers again.

The public session came to an end, and the board and community members were regaled with reports presented by people from various elected officials’ offices. Aside from the fact that all of the presenters mentioned the terrorist attacks of 2001 September 11, these reports were incredibly uneventful. The only thing that prevented this portion from being a complete lullaby was Roe Doe, who interrupted each and every speaker to ask the same question. Apparently, a public hearing regarding Memorial Sloan-Kettering’s proposed new tower, which would lie within the boundaries of this district, was scheduled for the following week. Roe Doe took issue with this date, because it fell on a Jewish holiday. She asked each speaker whether or not it would be rescheduled. One by one, the presenters furnished her with the same answer: a separate session would be held at a later date. Armed with this knowledge, she continued asking them each the question, one by one, until there were no more. The representatives from the elected officials’ offices then left.

Moltner then gave a brief report, followed by an even shorter report given by the woman who made me move my sarcastic rear end before the meeting began. I learned that she, Liz McKee, was the acting district manager. Hearing the word “acting” made me feel much better. The bulk of her report focused on how the real district manager was doing after having given birth a month earlier. It’s safe to say that her report was of universal interest. Roe Doe surprisingly managed to remain silent for this portion of the meeting.

We now come to my favorite part of the meeting, the part in which it becomes clear that either democracy was truly at work in this overly political environment, or that someone invited Mel Brooks and forgot to tell me. According to the board, it was nearing the time at which committee chairpersons were to be elected. Of course, it would not suffice to elect the chairs directly, an event of such monumental importance must be handled through a level of indirection: they must be appropriately nominated. Surely, chaos would ensue if the entire board were permitted to nominate the candidates. For this reason, the board needed to create a nominating committee. It’s only natural that the nominating committee was to be elected by the members of the board. As you might expect at this point, it would be insufficient to simply hold an election, rather, the candidates for the nominating committee must first themselves be nominated.

Considering the situation at length, I detected a catch-22: the nominating committee must nominate candidates for committee chairs, but surely the nominating committee itself requires a chair to function properly. If the nominating committee has no chairperson, it must immediately nominate one, but it has no business nominating without a proper chairperson. Is your head spinning yet? I made a wise decision to keep this newly discovered paradox to myself, not wanting to prolong my agony (or anyone else’s) any longer. It feels like a nightmare, but I assure you, it’s not. Pinch yourself if you don’t believe me. Better yet, nominate members for a committee and then vote for those nominees, giving the victors the power to nominate a pool of people who might potentially pinch you, from which you will then vote for one who will be privileged with the opportunity to pinch you. It’s not a nightmare. It’s democracy in action. This could only happen in America. More accurately, this could only happen in Manhattan Community Board 8.

Moltner was quick to make this situation out as an utter mockery of democracy, and tried to push it along as painlessly as he could, but not without opposition from board members such as Roe Doe, who were even quicker at citing the board’s by-laws. A torturous eternity of “I nominate such-and-such” followed by “I accept your nomination” followed. After what seemed like the entire board had been nominated, the vote was conducted, but not without much quarreling over how it should be handled. “Write seven names on a piece of paper, then sign it and print your name,” urged Moltner. “What if we write more or less than seven?” asked one member, obviously unsure of her mathematical prowess. “Who are the candidates again?” asked Roe Doe, three times. Yes, it’s true, there are those living among us for which “everyone” is too difficult a concept.

A group of presenters representing Rockefeller University then gave a presentation on a proposed new building on their property along Hospital Row. The plans for the actual building had not yet been submitted for ULURP review, but the university felt that it would be prudent to inform the community ahead of time. Reading between the lines, it’s likely that the university didn’t want to incite disapproval of an already hostile community board by making its members feel as if the plans were created without first informing the board. Roe Doe’s cries, along the lines of “You can’t put it there! That’s the entrance to New York Presbyterian!” were largely ignored by the presenters. Good for them. Still, the overall attitude was that the board would not support the university’s plans for expansion. Board members likened the expansion to the Memorial Sloan-Kettering project that they also opposed. After their presentation was over, the representatives left.

The Smithers Mansion, at 56 East 93rd Street, is under renovation.
2001-11-05-001

If this were a larger event, the emcee would have then be heard booming over the P.A.: “And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for, let’s get a round of applause for…the Spence School Public Hearing!” Instead, we had Moltner, who invited a lawyer for Buttrick White & Burtis, the architectural firm involved in remodeling the Spence School, to speak. He presented the plans, which require a variance to build 240 square feet of a fifth floor not as-of-right. This is part of a much larger renovation to the Smithers Mansion at 56 East 93rd Street, the issue of the renovation had been brought before the board the past. The board disapproved of the renovation then, but the Landmarks Preservation Commission still approved, and so work began. This public hearing was to discuss a change in the plans for remodeling. Trying to push things along, Moltner reminded everyone that only this one variance was open for discussion, and previous matters should not be considered. Unsurprisingly, few listened.

A group who made no attempt to hide their identities as residents who have a view of the Spence School had a strong opposition to the expansion for obvious reasons. They stated that the extension would create an additional shadow in their backyards, and passed around a picture so that everyone in attendance could see how invasive the fifth floor would be. These were false arguments, though: the 24 feet that a variance would be required for are along the south side of the building, and would be flush with the existing fourth floor, so the impact on light would be nonexistent. Furthermore, the picture that they passed around is of a part of the mansion outside of the area that a variance is required for. The picture shows only a part of building whose expansion has already been approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission and was not up for discussion. I thought that these facts were too important to go unnoticed, so I pointed them out. The board seemed surprised that a member of the public had a comment that was neither a question nor a complaint. Nevertheless, Roe Doe proclaimed her support for the residents, and the rest of the board expressed agreement with their votes. Throughout the vote, I couldn’t help but smile at the lunacy of supporting residents for the sake of supporting residents, even if their logic was faulty. Apparently, the Buttrick White & Burtis lawyer felt the same way, since he was grinning as well while watching the board vote his variance down, right before he and the community members arguing against the variance left. It is of little consequence, though, as the Landmarks Preservation Commission will no doubt approve this minor variance as they did the last major set of variances anyway.

When I went to the Spence School to look at the property and its surroundings, I was hoping to confirm my argument that the small part of the building for which the variance was requested would not have any effect on anyone’s backyard. Instead, I found that it is impossible for the area under consideration to be seen without entering the backyards immediately behind the area. In other words, the community board voted against an institution of education serving many children in favor of at most three or four residents upset over ten feet.

East 94th Street is part of the Carnegie Hill Historic District; Madison Avenue is part of the Expanded Carnegie Hill Historic District.
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While in the area, I also noticed something that struck me as odd about the street sign blades at the corner of Madison Avenue and East 94th Street. The blades, the white-on-brown type used on Landmarks Preservation Commission-sanctioned “historic districts,” identify East 94th Street as part of the “Carnegie Hill Historic District,” but identify Madison Avenue as part of the “Expanded Carnegie Hill Historic District.” I particularly enjoyed this, hypothesizing that two blocks were added to the existing Carnegie Hill district and given the name “expanded” with the support of the community board, because residents in the area wanted the protections of landmark districts applied to their home.

Stroller-wielding mothers of the neighborhood cautiously navigate the dangerous obstruction created by a sidewalk café on Second Avenue.
2001-11-05-013

The next item on the agenda was a presentation given by the Department of Consumer Affairs, regarding sidewalk cafés. Although it was planned as a session to discuss what was being done about unlicensed sidewalk cafés, it instead became a session for Roe Doe and Elizabeth Ashby, co-chairperson of the Landmarks Committee, to list, off the tops of their heads, unlicensed sidewalk cafés that they feel should somehow be punished. The board’s position, apparently, is that sidewalk cafés present an unnecessary obstruction. This is unsurprising, since it’s already been established that the board supports residents and ignores the needs of commercial and other users of the district. The Consumer Affairs presenters then left.

Finally, three of the committees presented their recommendations to the entire board, which then voted on them. This should have been a simple matter, as the board unsurprisingly voted to support the committee recommendations in all instances, but of course it wasn’t that simple. Roe Doe led the members inquiring about whether or not a “yes” vote was an indication of support or condemnation of a motion to oppose a particular issue. She also complained after a vote was conducted because she wasn’t aware that included all of the issues that it did. By the time the third committee, the Transportation Committee, was to present its recommendations, its co-chairperson, M. Barry Schneider, simply indicated that the recommendations had been distributed on a piece of paper. The vote was conducted, the members were in support, and the meeting went on.

As her new business, Roe Doe mentioned that the farmer’s market which was formerly held twice weekly at the World Trade Center site had moved uptown, to a space on a narrow sidewalk outside a church in the district covered by the community board. She wanted the board to vote on whether or not they supported the move of the market to that location. They voted, and as it turned out, were in near-unanimous support. It’s interesting how a community board opposed to sidewalk cafés on a wide sidewalk because they present an obstruction can support peddlers on a narrow sidewalk. Then again, this fits in with the anti-commerce, anti-expansion attitude of this community board observed in The New York Times and The New York Observer.

Finally, after 10pm, the meeting was adjourned. I flipped on the 11 o’clock news and watched complete coverage of the board meeting. The next day’s New York Times’ front page described the entire meeting in great detail. 60 Minutes had an in-depth report that weekend as well. Even Andy Rooney took a break from his weekly satirical piece to take a serious look at the inner workings of the nominating committee.

Now let’s return from that parallel universe and find out what really happened.

Nothing.

The New York Observer had a small piece referencing the one issue from the meeting that was unofficial and that no vote was taken on: the proposed Rockefeller University expansion. Perhaps the fanged woman in black was the Observer’s reporter. (I must admit, the thought had crossed my mind during the meeting while I was trying to figure out who was who.) None of the other major media outlets had any coverage of the meeting or anything discussed at the meeting.

Manhattan Community Board 8 has a public-access cable television show that airs monthly. I tuned in to the one that aired in October and was disappointed to find that it was several months stale. At least watching the board members fumble through their sentences was worth something in its entertainment value. Just like the full board meeting, this reviewer gives the televised program two thumbs up: “a free comedy show, see it before it sells out!”

From my experience with Manhattan Community Board 8, I have learned the following important lessons that hopefully I will keep with me throughout my life:

The one public service that the community board does provide is that it pacifies the likes of Roe Doe, who would no doubt find another forum to air their agendas in if the board did not exist. At least with the board, such people are given the false sense of capability and power, so that they can be kept out of the larger (citywide, statewide, national, or international) political arenas. It takes a truly dedicated professional to nominate a nominating committee at such sophisticated levels of government.

This paper is now adjourned. Thank you for not leaving before the end.


Pick a different trade.

Mark Mentovai
2001 November 6
2005 February 22