Across The Fence: The Year In Neighborhoods

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From Brooklyn rezoning clashes to Staten Island mafia sweeps, the news in New York happens borough by borough, block by block. No one can possibly keep up with it all – that’s where the countless community newspapers come in. To fill out our understanding of the year that was, we took a look at these papers over the past year and gathered a Top Ten of local stories that shaped 2009.

Flatbush, Brooklyn: Rezoned

After half a decade of free-flowing cash and few-holds-barred construction, 2009 presented the city with a new question: How to manage development, after the bubble has burst. Residents of Flatbush took the opportunity to protect the architectural character of their Victorian neighborhood, pushing through a rezoning plan that aimed to limit development, save the community’s detached, single-family homes with their trademark, time-warp eaves and porches, and provide incentives for affordable housing.
The neighborhood newspaper Flatbush Life chronicled the process, which ended in a City Council victory on July 29. Community Board 14 Chair Alvin Berk says he hopes the win can serve as an example of smart, neighborhood-specific community planning. “Flatbush has a special character; there’s a sense of being in a small village,” he said. “That was on the line.”

Hunts Point, Bronx: Saving the Strip

Last year, when the Hunts Point Chamber of Commerce wanted Christmas lights on the neighborhood’s Southern Boulevard commercial strip, members had to go from door to door, asking for donations. The lights didn’t go up until nearly the end of December.

In 2009, after more than five years of local lobbying and then another year of administrative gearing-up, Hunts Point saw its Business Improvement District (BID) become operational, bankrolling community projects with specially allocated tax funds. This year, Christmas lights went up the day after Thanksgiving.

According to the Hunts Point Express, the BID has also paid for cleaner streets, graffiti removal and new trees along the strip. There’s a plan to install security cameras early next year. The hope, says John Robert, the district manager for Bronx Community Board 2, is that a safer, spruced-up strip will entice residents to shop locally. “Back when the Bronx was burning, The Boulevard survived,” he says. “It’s a symbol of the endurance of the area and now, with this BID, it’ll be here forever.”

Castleton Corners, Staten Island: Goodbye to the Postmark

In July, Staten Island lost its postmark. Despite lobbying from residents and a direct appeal from U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, the U.S. Postal Service canceled mail processing at the Castleton Corners’ Manor Road, according to the Staten Island Advance. The post office continues to provide retail services, but letters headed to off-Island destinations are now trucked to East New York, where they get marked “Brooklyn.”

Flushing, Queens: Crooked Politicians

In May, Flushing said goodbye to its longest-standing and most powerful political figure. Brian McLaughlin, the area’s seven-term assemblyman and head of the New York City Central Labor Council, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for racketeering and fraud – including taking money from a Queens Little League team. The Queens Chronicle reported on the ruling, and then picked the story back up later in the year, when information supplied by McLaughlin led to the indictment on fraud charges of 31-year Assemblyman Anthony Seminerio, also of Queens.

Harlem, Manhattan: Columbia v. Neighbors

On December 3, the appeals division of the New York State Supreme Court put a halt to Columbia University’s plans to expand its Harlem campus – at least for now. In a scathing ruling, the court repudiated the use of eminent domain to serve the interests of a private institution, and slammed the university for making what it called a “bad faith” claim of neighborhood blight in order to justify its proposed land seizure.

The Columbia Spectator, which energetically covered the entire conflict, reported the big news, even drawing comparisons to the city’s other high-profile drama over eminent domain.
Boro Park, Brooklyn: Ending the Silence on Sex Abuse

Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish communities made the national news in 2009 after the borough’s district attorney launched an effort to prosecute sexual abusers who, according to advocates in the community, have long been protected by a tradition of silence.

In April, The Jewish Daily Forward brought the story back home with an in-depth profile of one Boro Park victim-turned-activist. Ben Hirsch, president of the advocacy group Survivors for Justice, says that the ongoing media attention has forced Orthodox institutions to acknowledge the severity of childhood sexual abuse in the community, and given victims license to demand prosecution of their abusers. “In the words of Justice Louis Brandeis,” Hirsch wrote in an e-mail, “‘sunlight is the best disinfectant.’”

Kingsbridge, Bronx: Redeveloping the Armory

After more than four years, the fight over the Kingsbridge Armory ended last week when the City Council shot down a Bloomberg-backed plan to redevelop it into a multimillion dollar shopping mall. The Armory had sat empty for more than a decade when the Mayor proposed his plan to sell it to the mega development group The Related Companies for $5 million. In 2005, residents of the neighborhood (more than a third of whom live below the poverty line, according to a 2008 piece in the Norwood News) organized the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance (KARA) to demand that the developers commit to providing living wage jobs at $10 per hour.

The developers refused, arguing that wage demands would prevent them from attracting top retailers to the mall. Negotiations fell apart, and the City Council finally killed the plan with a vote of 45 to one. It was the first time since Mayor Bloomberg took office that the Council has squashed an Administration-backed development initiative. The Bronx Times Reporter kept track of local residents’ opinions on the matter.

New Dorp, Staten Island: Mafia Sweep

New Dorp found itself at the heart of a 22-person mafia sweep in November, with Islanders accused of a range of schemes that allegedly included a loan-sharking operation run out of the neighborhood’s Night Gallery bar.

According to the Staten Island Advance, 11 borough residents were caught up in the sweep, including two of the Island’s most prominent business owners and NYC Department of Sanitation Deputy Chief Frederick Grimaldi, who was charged with leaking contract bids in exchange for money.

Fresh Meadows, Queens: Swine Flu Panic

In April, Fresh Meadows found itself at the epicenter of the H1N1 epidemic when 45 students at the neighborhood’s St. Francis Preparatory School tested positive for the virus, and hundreds more turned up with similar symptoms. Amid fears of a deadly pandemic, administrators closed the school for a week, though none of the St. Francis students developed serious complications from the illness.

The story was international, but The Queens Courier kept it close to home, interviewing the students in the middle of the fray.

New Yorkers’ swine flu fears seem to have died down – last week, the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene made swine flu vaccinations available to all city residents, regardless of age, due to slowing demand from the department’s original target populations.

Chinatown, Manhattan: Margaret Chin Wins Race for City Council

In September, Margaret Chin unseated two-term City Council incumbent Alan Gerson in the District 1 Democratic primary, setting her up to become the first Asian American to represent Manhattan’s Chinatown. The Downtown Express endorsed Chin, pointing to her record as a tenants’ rights activist and community organizer, and covered the story through election night.

– Abigail Kramer

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