Sunday, January 10, 2010

Representing SoHo

Ninety percent of the politicians give the other ten percent a bad reputation.
-- Henry Kissinger (1923 - )

The recent election, which replaced Alan Gerson with Margaret Chin, comes on the heels of State Senator Squadron’s success in replacing the decades-long incumbency of predecessor Marty Connor. Both Squadron and Chin received strong support from SoHo.
Squadron is now the Social Services Committee Chair in the Senate. While they are all democrats, there are differences even among democrats. Squadron appears to be on a fast track bringing him to statewide and possibly nationwide attention – in part, no doubt, owing to his close relationship with Chuck Schumer. Margaret Chin is a community activist and her City Council membership is too new to evaluate. Both are responsive new leaders.

Community Board #2 is, of course, another matter. For many years it was known as the Greenwich Village board despite the fact that, in theory, it also represents SoHo, Hudson Square, Chinatown and part of Little Italy and the East Village. Its members are appointed by the Borough President and various City Council members. It is certainly not an apolitical entity and is subject to very little scrutiny by the residents of its communities. Yet, it is supposed to be the entry-level forum for local democracy. The current Chair of Community Board #2 is Jo Hamilton.

What we do know is the fact that Marty Connor and Alan Gerson along with some members of the Community Board, which had ignored their base in SoHo -- were removed or were "fired."

From a SoHo perspective, then, the time has come to re-state some issues, which have not been resolved. It is important that we, once again, make those in political power aware of them.

Billboards and Art.

While there has been a recent uproar about a building on 12th street in Greenwich Village (Equinox Fitness Center) that has billboards plastered around its exterior, the decades-long effort to eliminate the unsightly signs in SoHo has been completely ignored. It’s no surprise that the Community Board, whose members are nominated and supported by elected politicians (who receive campaign contributions from the media companies which erect billboards), has dragged its feet.

Speaker Vallone of the City Council pushed through legislation, which called for fines up to $25,000 for illegal billboards and severely restricted them. Of course, the Department of Buildings is a neutered agency and there is no enforcement unit to exercise the mandate – even if there was a will to do so. Which it does not have, courtesy of the Mayor.

SoHo is an area that has thrived due to the history of art. An intelligent media person, a creative Department of Buildings Department manager or a community-minded bureaucrat in the Bloomberg administration – could propose the use of billboards to promote art or even display art.
Protection of the remnants of original community art has always been a dream of many “old-timers” in SoHo.
Attempts to have “Sunflower Park”, the location of the guerilla art sculptures which were unceremoniously ripped out of the asphalt at Broome Street and West Broadway after 40 years, renamed as Bob Bolles Park – has been ignored at all levels from the Community Board to the elected politicians. The art brought condo developments and upscale stores but nothing for its residents that made its place on the international map.
But, artistic minds like don’t exist in City government. Easier to bludgeon the residents into submission with beer ads or scantily clad, anexoric models on 50 feet high murals (as exist on Houston Street) – in open contravention of the laws, good sense or family values.

Another looming fight, which has been played out numerous times at the Community Board, is the issue of liquor licenses. Currently, the Moondance Diner location is the focus of repeated attempts to bypass the community on the issue of commentary and review – a problem that we are all to familiar with in SoHo (Trump SoHo is a good example).
There is also the larger issue of rampant development allowed by virtue of the fact that SoHo is still considered an M-1, manufacturing district – allowing hotels to be built without any review. Entreaties to place a moratorium on hotels or “hotel-condos” have fallen on deaf ears.

The fact that the liquor license committee chaired by Ray Lee and the Zoning committee chaired by David Reck, both of whom appear to suffer from the Stockholm syndrome, allow applicants to hold the community hostage to their whims. More community-minded professionals, such as Doris Diether, for example, (who formerly chaired Zoning) has been relegated to a back seat because she does not cater to developers' agendas. If the community is against a project, she finds a way to make their voices heard.
After years of complaints, which ultimately resulted in a few Town Hall hearings – we are back to square one with the same leadership issues and the same deaf ears at Community Board #2.

In essence, SoHo has no power over its own future. Special interests control our fate.

We call on our elected officials and Community Board #2 to celebrate art, change the way the media companies have changed our community for the debasing worst, and use some common sense in the treatment of SoHo – if they wish to remain.