In urban development, gentrification is a very important process that can transform the city, both socially and economically. Gentrification process in urban areas has several positive aspects (buildings are renovated and beautified, there are more jobs opportunities, more retail and service business, etc.) but also some negatives ones such as the loss of affordable housing and public assets (including parks, park buildings, former schools, library buildings, community gardens, etc.) and city-owned vacant lots are in the crosshairs of developers. This is the case of the Lower East Side in NYC that it is now one of the hottest real estate markets in Manhattan.
According to Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, the state chapter of the national civic engagement and government accountability organization, in urban development, communities play the role of underdog, on the contrary, the government and real estate developers run the show (especially the latter).
So, it is important to analyze what set of organizing tools community-led organizations have built to help grassroots groups compete with private real estate developers when it comes to determining the future of publicly owned assets across the city.
An interesting example is given by Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center, a group that provides legal, participatory research and policy support to strengthen the work of grassroots and community-based groups in New York City to dismantle racial, economic and social oppression and 596 Acres, an organization that builds tools to help neighbors see vacant lots as opportunities and create needed green spaces that become focal points for community organizing and civic engagement. These groups, in collaboration with Common Cause New York, are working on a huge project, named NYCommons.
According to the website, NYCommons is basically a new online map and database of all the public assets that helps New Yorkers impact decisions about public land and buildings in their neighborhoods and provides some type of potential real estate development opportunity. According to this statement, it’s hard to define precisely what it includes, but Paula Segal, founder of 596 Acres claims that, if it is true that in cities most of infrastructure and assets are shared (the subways, the roads, the sidewalks, the water, housing, etc.) so, the platform goes on and on to the point where privately owned property can start to seem like the real outlier.
This idea was born about three or four years ago, Mrs. Lerner says, when NYCommons partners started to see a pattern in the organizing around the future of public assets (i.e. a proposed soccer stadium in Queens, the Midtown Library in Manhattan and the main Brooklyn Public Library Branch). They “started thinking about the fact that all of these separate challenges had similar underlying policy issues that have to do with how does government think about commonly owned, shared assets.” In fact, although residents were spending a lot of time and energy, often they didn’t received benefits from these proposals involving public assets.
At the same time, there was some movement: 596 Acres supported some grassroots groups that organized around 36 former publicly owned vacant lots, which turned in declared permanent parks at the end of 2015. In addition to this, 596 Acres has developed a number of tools and created resources around city-owned vacant land: we are talking about Living Lots NYC and Urban Reviewer. The former is an online map and database that provides a useful platform for organizers to connect and maintain records of organizing activity around each lot, the latter is a catalogue of over 150 urban renewal plans that NYC adopted to get federal funding for making way for new public and private development.
In accordance with that, the specific purpose of NYCommons is indeed to create an expanded tool set to serve grassroots organizing around the broader universe of public assets in NYC. They decided to start by asking people in 10 neighborhoods and they finally found a great deal of interest for sharing best practices and connecting with others doing similar work. For testing their job, NYCommons chose three neighborhoods for pilot including the Sara D. Roosevelt Park in Lower East Side. This park presents a very strong story of citizen empowerment and, over time, that participation has contributed to the creation of Sara D. Roosevelt Park Community Coalition (SDRPC) with the aim to bring “together local stakeholders who seek to foster community-based stewardship by providing a voice for all who love the park and the communities it serves”.
Kathleen Webster, long-term resident on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and president of the SDRPC affirms that documentation, workshop facilitation and other resources to begin developing a tool kit provided by NYCommons were very helpful as a draft basis from which to go. The fact that all pilot sites will continue to shape the final NYCommons tool kit and the online platform and this pushes other sites to upload their data into the platform is the strenght of this project. Organizing track records provide vital talking points for future hearings and op-eds and community meetings.
In conclusion, the words of Mrs. Lerner are suitable to describe the characteristics of this projects: “Hopefully NYCommons can provide an entrée into a fairly sophisticated, experienced, citywide network of groups who are all thinking along the same lines, putting pressure on government to be responsive, with a similar vocabulary and set of expectations about public assets serving the public”.
NYCommons è solo l’ultimo degli strumenti forniti ai gruppi grassroots di New York che lavorano per garantire ai cittadini la libera fruizione di spazi pubblici con un alto valore sociale. Nello specifico, si tratta di una mappa e un database online continuamente aggiornati secondo la dinamica bottom-up per mappare gli assets pubblici di NYC.