2011-02-18 / Columnists

Rock Solid

Is It ‘The Real Thing’?
Commentary by Vivian Rattay Carter

Have you ever noticed those fake potted plants – the ones that look so real that you blink in amazement? Well, the leaders of one local civic organization have lately been discussing the difference between grass and Astroturf. I don’t mean this in a figurative sense, but in a literal one. There is a stupendous regular expense associated with maintaining the 20-block long center malls of Rockaway Beach Boulevard in the west end – for the sprinkler system to water the grass and trees, plus the cost of “mow, blow and go” guys to keep the lawns neat.

The question is – would anybody notice if a fake took the place of the real thing? Is there a difference between grass and Astroturf? How much do people value the real thing?

Would you notice, and do you care? If that grass on the “commons” is so valuable to west-enders, why don’t more of them join and pay their dues to the homeowners’ groups now saddled with these maintenance costs? They could also volunteer to tend the grass themselves, before the groups end up spending every dime of their dues money on mall maintenance.

If Coca-Cola taught my generation anything, it’s that there’s value in “the real thing.” Let’s change the topic from grass to “grass roots,” as in civic involvement. Do we value real democratic involvement in our country, or here in our own local community? If not, it doesn’t seem right for us to give advice to the Egyptian people as they replace a deposed autocrat with a new, undefined democratic system.

Our own “Little King,” as he was labeled by a writer in last week’s letters column, is hard at work. Last April, Mayor Bloomberg kicked off a big citywide waterfront planning extravaganza and plunged local activists into a year’s worth of meetings all over the city. Main meetings spawned other sub-meetings, and committee meetings to prepare for submeetings. A lot of time, effort, and money were expended by volunteers to provide input to government agencies with the power to affect our neighborhoods, including City Planning, the Economic Development Corporation and the Department of Environmental Protection.

The agenda on the table was broad and wide – not just recreation, but storm water management, transportation improvements and mitigation of sea-level rise. As anyone who has attended such meetings can attest, the quality of comments from the public varies widely.

We fare only slightly better with monthly community board meetings, when 50 “Little Kings” from discrete neighborhoods and constituencies convene to pontificate on things large and small (mostly small). Somehow, good things get done. The Stop and Shop is a magnificent new store! But the jury’s still out on Arverne-By-The-Sea, one of the other signature efforts of the community board. Will all of the units be sold, or will many of them sit unoccupied and begin to deteriorate? The market will decide.

The Mayor’s recent Rockaway town hall with a complete bevy of city commissioners was hosted by the Bayswater Civic. Rumor has it that the event was intended to be a private audience just for the members of that group. If less than $50 a year for membership can buy that kind of access, perhaps it’s a worthwhile investment. Don’t forget, this is the Mayor who wants to do away with community boards. Where does that leave the rest of us, who were allowed in to listen, but were not given the right to ask a question? Not even Jon Gaska of the community board or Lew Simon, Mr. “Most Likely to Succeed” (Audrey Pheffer) in the State Assembly, got any respect.

What are the alternatives? Is the green grass of existing civic involvement on the peninsula merely Astroturf? Is there any possibility of improving the community through existing democratic processes? Some have been looking to the not-for-profit Rockaway Waterfront Alliance for the answers. Jeanne Dupont, head of RWA, has been organizing meetings to seek ideas on how to plan the peninsula, since she hasn’t lived here long enough or been involved in enough grindingly normal activities to have any cogent ideas of her own to suggest. She doesn’t claim to have the answers. She wants the COMMUNITY to give her the ideas, and then she’s offered herself as the expert to carry out the plan. But remember, she was not elected (or appointed) by anyone but herself.

Some people are convinced Jeanne’s the savior of the Rockaways, but she admits to getting all her ideas from the community. May be time to follow Chinese proverb: true leader knows the way, shows the way, and goes the way. If you have to sponsor “visioning” meetings to create a road map, your ability to lead is questionable, in my opinion.

And unfortunately, RWA is no bastion of democracy. At least the Bayswater Civic holds an annual meeting, no doubt, when dues-paying members elect the board. No such procedure exists within RWA. Jeanne as Executive Director reports to the seven- member board, headed by her husband, John Nishimoto. There are no other members or democratic meetings. This seems to be the preferred structure for effective not-for-profits these days. In the State of New York, with a minimum of three board members, you can seek millions in grant money, crowd-sourcing those pesky things like “ideas” and actual work to the unpaid volunteer masses. The leaders of such groups become mere marketing and grant-seeking machines and cheerleaders for the volunteers.

Of course, RWA’s slick organizational structure has decades to go before it proves itself. Pete Sammon, president of the Neponsit Property Owners Association, has apparently been in office for more than four decades. Neponsit has always been exclusive, and hasn’t changed in four decades. That must be what the homeowners want, as they keep electing him at each annual meeting. At least it’s a democratic structure.

But there’s a big difference between maintaining the status quo and changing it. Change is much harder to achieve. The mayor’s waterfront meetings have now run their course. A local task force appointed by our City Council members has also dropped out of the picture after seeking ideas from volunteers. The peninsula is no closer to realizing concrete improvements in our quality of life.

Anyone with lengthy experience attempting to promote change from within organizations knows that it is messy, and in some cases, impossible. So the marketing miracles, quick political fixes, and grant-generating success stories of the day, are often just creating the illusion of success.

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