Car Fight

Last night’s public hearing on the proposed NASCAR track on Staten Island turned into a melee. Union members, many of whom were apparently shipped in by the developer, shouted down and physically intimidated community people who had come out to voice concerns about the project. New York 1 showed video last night of one particularly huge union guy throwing Staten Island Councilmember Andrew Lanza into a headlock and wrestling the microphone out of his hands. The scene looked more like a drunken bar fight than a community meeting. NY1 hasn’t put the video on its web site [Update: Here is the NY1 footage. Pretty incredible], but ABC 7 caught some of the action and put it online. The NYPD rolled in and shut down the meeting after just a half an hour.

For anyone who has attended official public hearings on Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards project, the scene looked familiar: Real estate developer buses in project supporters. Supporters shout down and intimidate community members. The democratic process and opportunity for thoughtful community input is undermined.

In my personal politics I have always sympathized with labor. My grandfather was so proud of getting beat up by New York City police during a 1930’s strike that he had a formal portrait taken of himself with his head wrapped in bandages and his arm in a sling. But these days, I’m finding it difficult to support New York City’s unions as their members stomp public meetings and prevent well-meaning, thoughtful community people from participating in New York City’s development processes. Increasingly, it seems that the building trades unions serve as little more than muscle for New York City’s big developers and corporate interests. That’s definitely not what Grandpa Abe got his head bashed-in for.

It is also worth noting that last night’s ruckus started as Councilmember Lanza began talking about his community’s traffic and transportation concerns.

If, as Robert Yaro wrote in the Gotham Gazette, New York City is going to add another one million people in the next 25 years, development, construction, and increased density is essential and inevitable. Yet, virtually every big development project across the city is being fought by neighborhood and community groups on the grounds that any new development will bring too much traffic.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Urban development doesn’t have to be the enemy of neighborhood quality of life. But until New York City puts in place a thoughtful, long-term, community-oriented plan for reducing motor vehicle traffic and improving more efficient modes of transportation, New York City’s growth is going to be bogged down by neighborhood-level battles like the one we saw on Staten Island last night. So, what is it going to take for Mayor Bloomberg to notice that his administration’s development agenda, and ultimately, his legacy, is being hindered by a lack of any sort of cohesive, citywide transportation strategy? Perhaps we’ll get an answer in June when Mayor Bloomberg plans to make a major speech on land-use and transportation.

  • New York City is going to add another one million people in the next 25 years, development, construction, and increased density is essential and inevitable…

    But the pain of doing it in a splipshod, developer driven way with no clear ground rules or organizing principles is not inevitable. Or at least I would like to think that it isn’t.

    Great post.

    I also sympathize with labor, because despite the fact that I’m a yuppie, I’m in the same boat as anyone who must work for a living — no employment security and no real wage increases in about a decade.

    I also sympathize with people who are finding they can’t afford to live in the neighborhoods they know and love.

    But I have no sympathy for thugs, and I’m not sympathetic to people who rush to the side of developers to support these projects in the name of jobs and affordable housing. They should know better.

    Even if they believed the rosey economic projections and “guarantees” of affordable housing, do they really think that becoming dependent on the table scraps of the real estate elites is the best way to build a sustainable future? Are we going to absolve our government of the responsibility to come up with strategic solutions to the shrinking pool of living wage jobs and affordable places to live in this city? Do we give them a pass as long as the flaks supporting the project of the moment repeat empty promises enough so that we believe them?

    Perhaps I don’t want to know the answer. If our nation can’t deal with our fossil fuel problem even though it’s been staring us in the face for 50 years, then why would deal with the related issue of how we best use our limited space. Most Americans still be lieve in unlimited everything. We don’t like constraints.

    Still, althought it’s probably just naive optimism on my part, I sense a “smart development” movement coalescing city wide. I’m seeing more people from other neighborhoods and boroughs at the public forums on Atlantic Yards, and they are making connections between that project and whatever project threatens their neighborhood’s quality of life.

    I need to do my part and fight for good development everywhere, not just in my immediate vicinity.

    Thanks for reporting on the NASCAR meeting. As always, you are leading by example.

  • Eric M.

    Jobs, Housing & Hemis!

  • Almost all unions, or at least almost all of the ways they function, are an anachronism today. The nation’s economy and the global economy have fundamentally shifted, and will continue to shift, from the monolithic corporation/labor union/government cooperation model of post-WWII to a dynamic, primarily information and service economy in developed countries. The constellation of rust belt cities can blame their cycle of poverty to the exodus of manufacturing jobs to the sun belt caused in large part by unrealistic union demands.

    As a city employee, it really irks me that I have to be a union member whether I like it or not. Not to mention the fact that city employees get paid way more than their private sector counterparts with almost no accountability to show results – this place is a circus of overpaid goof-offs, which doesn’t give me much motivation. As a result of the well-intentioned civil service & unionized system, city government in NYC has turned into a hulking Rube Goldberg machine capable of losing 99% of input into a bureaucratic black hole.

  • interesting, jiva. what city agency do you work for, if you don’t mind saying?

  • Well, just to take a step back from my earlier comments, perhaps I was too harsh. I just get very frustrated by the inefficiency, opacity, unaccountability, and overall non-private-sector-ness of the public sector. There are many great people who work here and in all city government. And I’m sure productivity varies quite a bit from one work group to another. And perhaps the city doesn’t lose 99% of input, just 50% ūüėČ

    I’m mum on my agency, but let me mention that I just witnessed a heated discussion of minute changes to our health benefits package by people who put a lot less discernable effort into their work! LOL

  • Eric M.

    Jiva’s experiences in City government may explain why I saw one guy digging a ditch while literally ten guys stood around and watched during some road construction on Brooklyn’s Sixth Ave. last week.

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  • Being raised pro-Union I too am torn in my support for unions. I often see that it’s not all “worker’s rights vs. big business”. In New York City, all too often it’s big business and the unions working together against the interests of city as a whole. In many cases, the unions seem very short-sighted. If we focus on buidling more mass-transportation and smarter development projects, who in the end will get the work? The unions. If they ‘re smart they’ll realize that in the end, they can have their jobs and have a great city to live in as well.

  • New York City is going to add another one million people in the next 25 years, development, construction, and increased density is essential and inevitable…


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