2012-08-31 / Columnists

Rock Solid

Fighting The Imperial City
Commentary By Vivian Rattay Carter

As many residents of Rockaway know, a meeting took place last Wednesday, August 22, at the Knights of Columbus Hall on Beach 90 Street. The event was initiated by a mass email circulated in the community by Vince Castellano, former chair of Community Board 14, with the subject line, “Rockaway Beach Needs a Voice.” Castellano also sent the invitation to this newspaper, and it was published in the letters column on Friday, August 17.

Once the discussions had concluded, after almost every person present took the opportunity to speak for at least a minute or two, there was a consensus that those present are not satisfied with the quality of life on the peninsula, and that many feel it is too difficult to effect positive change through present governmental channels, such as the Community Board, City Council Participatory Budgeting process, and ad hoc groups like the Rockaway Task Force. Are existing homeowners’ and civic associations part of the solution?

A desire for accountability and transparency on the part of homeowners’ and civic groups was expressed over and over at the meeting.

Many agreed that the need for civic engagement is not confined to zip code 11693, shared by Rockaway Beach and the community of Broad Channel. Some said they thought a peninsula-wide civic group should be formed. Others declared that was unworkable, for various reasons.

At the conclusion of the meeting, a committee of 19 residents offered to serve on an exploratory committee to suggest a procedure for organizing the group.

For readers who might not be aware, the directory of community service organizations in the most recent “Newcomer’s Guide” published by The Wave several years ago, lists short descriptions for a number of groups one could categorize as “homeowners” or “civics” professing to provide a forum for solving general problems in particular neighborhoods.

I am not including fraternal, environmental, recreational, or other specialized groups in this discussion. It should be noted that some existing groups are missing from the list for various reasons, including three residents’ associations in the 11697 zip code for Breezy Point, Rockaway Point, and Roxbury. Also keep in mind that there are numerous cooperatives and condominium complexes on the peninsula, with tens of thousands of residents, that have elected boards or tenants’ associations. These are not included in The Wave’s booklet, either. If you live in one of those buildings, you probably receive notices in your mailbox of board meetings affecting you. The conclusion I have reached is that plenty of volunteer time is already expended on attempting to maintain the quality of life here in our community.

The nine neighborhoods that presently have their advocacy groups established include Arverne, Bayswater, Belle Harbor, Broad Channel, Deerfield Area, Frank Avenue, Neponsit, Rockaway Beach, and Rockaway Park (now called “Rockaway Civic.”) When newer civics spring up, as happens from time to time, they often don’t stand the test of time, or ever end up in directory listings.

Six of the groups in the list meet “as needed” or “generally” on a set schedule. Only two of them, Broad Channel and Frank Avenue, list a regular monthly time and place for their meetings.

Speaking of Broad Channel, let’s look at that community of 1200-1400 households and their civic, which is a good model.

The population is only about 2500, yet due to its location, the community enjoys excellent transportation links (both train lines, the Rockaway Park Shuttle and the Far Rockaway A-Train stop there, plus all Rockaway express buses). They have their own branch library, tennis and basketball courts, little league sports facility, and at least three good-sized halls of churches and veterans’ groups are available for meetings. More than a dozen stores of various types serve residents¸ and three of the 50 members of Community Board 14 live in Broad Channel.

Because the community is geographically compact, they have been able to call on regular volunteers to deliver their newsletters and meeting notices to the doorsteps of all homeowners. Their meetings are generally well-attended. I’ve seen anywhere from 20 to over 150 at any given meeting.

That’s an impressive percentage of local households!

After listening to all of the speakers at last week’s meeting in Rockaway Beach, it was obvious to me that there is no shortage of articulate voices proposing creative solutions to civic issues. Read the letters column of The Wave each week—it’s packed with great ideas for change. I have reached the disappointing conclusion that we cannot move forward and improve our quality of life in Rockaway without some radical reforms in city government, particularly in the area of improving transparency and accountability on land use decisions.

I agree that it is important for our civic groups to be effective and united. We face a massive, uncaring beast that, upon its formation in the late 1890s, was called, ironically enough, “The Imperial City.” The Rockaway community seems powerless to fight several recent land use controversies due to something called “as of right” zoning.

No local body has any right to advance notice or consultation on whether a vacant parochial school becomes a “transient” hotel, a charter school, a mental health care facility, a community garden, or a jail? Does “as of right” go that far? You must be kidding me! If so, it sounds like developers are the only ones who have rights, and the existing residents and homeowners are just plain out of luck.

The Imperial City, indeed.

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