By SEAN EGAN
September 28, 2016
An atmosphere of creativity along the High Line made for picture-perfect brainstorming on the afternoon of Sat., Sept. 17. That’s when, and where, District 3 City Councilmember Corey Johnson held the kickoff event for the third year of Participatory Budgeting (PB) — an initiative which gives residents more control over how their tax dollars are spent, by setting aside about $1 million in capital funds for projects proposed, developed, and voted for by community members.
Johnson began the event by noting that with around 2 million people living and working in the area on a weekly basis, “there’s a lot of wear and tear on the things we hold near and dear.” PB therefore, he noted, offers an opportunity for the community to improve these facilities. “This is real grassroots democracy in action,” Johnson proclaimed, as he listed off winning projects from years past (highlights included real-time rider information at bus stops, new trees district-wide, and the creation of a new “pocket park” on W. 20th St., btw. Sixth & Seventh Aves.).
“PB is also bringing the community together; it’s really about you,” Johnson furthered. “You get to come together, meet your neighbors, and make your community a better place.”
After watching a short video explaining PB in broad strokes, those assembled (several dozen strong) broke down into five groups that rotated between informational tables, in order learn about different aspects of the process. At one station, Johnson’s Chief of Staff, Matt Green, showed off a model for raised pedestrian crosswalks that helped the project get funded in PB’s first year; at others, people learned of the voting process, project proposals, and the Youth Participatory Budgeting Council (people ages 14 and up are able to engage in the process). Attendees were encouraged to develop proposals and volunteer to be “budget delegates” — individuals who would help facilitate the PB process, and take leadership roles at events like project expos.
As the afternoon wore on, other local political figures showed up to praise Johnson and the PB process, including State Senator Brad Hoylman and Public Advocate Letitia James.
“Participatory Budgeting is about real money, real power, and real democracy,” James told Chelsea Now as she surveyed the gathering, noting that she’s been able to see the benefits of PB in her own district. “It works,” she added. “It allows all voices to be on the same footing.”
All ideas, indeed, were on the same footing during the brainstorming session — where everyone was encouraged to write their suggestions out on large poster paper, and then vote on their favorites using stickers. Popular suggestions would be considered for potential development/ballot inclusion in the future.
Oscar Pagoda, a local resident and member of Community Board 4, was one of the first in attendance to eagerly write his down. He proposed new locker rooms for New York City Lab & Museum High School (333 W. 17th St., btw. Eighth & Ninth Aves.), his old school, whose gym was recently improved through PB. “If you’re going to renovate the gym, why not the locker rooms too?” he asked, noting that the current locker rooms are outdated, take away from gym classes, and “promote truancy.” Pagoda also advocated replacing the old overhead projectors at Manhattan Village Academy (a school he taught at; 43 W. 22nd St., btw. Fifth & Sixth Aves.) with more modern SmartBoards.
School improvement was also on Ilene Budin’s mind. Inspired by her conversations with the school-age teens at the event that lamented their schools’ lack of funds for extracurricular activities, she suggested providing New York City Lab & Museum School with film and video equipment. An alum of NYU’s film school, she thought, “It’d be cool for money to be set aside for film cameras,” so students could explore the art form.
The environment and green space was also an issue for those in attendance. Pagoda suggested fixing the sprinkler system at the green play area at Fulton Houses. Soho resident Shino Tanikawa, who works with the Soil and Water Conservation District, suggested installing green roofs on buildings throughout the district, which would help combat issues such as sewer overflow and pollution of the Hudson River. The planting of more trees was suggested multiple times, and for a variety of areas.
In the end, members of Johnson’s staff presented all the suggestions culled from the brainstorming session, and wrapped the event off with a raffle, giving away prizes, including PB T-shirts and “Coffee with Corey.”
“One thing you see by looking around the room is that more people are engaging with PB every year,” Johnson wrote Chelsea Now after the kickoff. “It makes sense that the more people know about PB, the more they want to get involved. We’ve funded some important community projects over the last two years, and I look forward to seeing what ideas people have this year as we kick things off.”