Gotham Gazette Tue, 15 Jun 2021 05:59:08 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Providers, Participants Scramble for Scaled Down Summer Youth Employment Program melissa life camp

Mayor de Blasio with local activists (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Every morning, Joaquin Soto wakes up to participate in Summer Bridge, New York City government’s 2020 summer youth employment program. Instead of commuting to a work site, Soto turns on his computer, attends Zoom meetings, watches videos on professional development, and takes quizzes to show what he’s learned.

“The application was really straightforward and very accessible,” said Soto, a 17-year-old from Cypress Hills. “But I feel like there’s definitely been some kind of trouble for people that are navigating it now and understanding the hours that are required, and what exactly is expected from them.”

Soto is one of 35,000 participants working in remote job placements for young people this year. In April, Mayor de Blasio cancelled the summer youth employment program, or SYEP, citing the uncertainty of COVID-19 and tough economic straits -- its removal would save the city roughly $124 million, as outlined in his April savings plan. But after much criticism and intense lobbying by youth, advocates, and other elected officials, he agreed to partially reinstate it at the eleventh hour, on June 30, after a tumultuous budget negotiation with the City Council that centered on dealing with the coronavirus fallout, the city’s dire financial picture given billions in lost tax revenue, an increase in gun violence, and calls to “defund the NYPD” amid renewed Black Lives Matter protests.

The push to save some version of the summer youth employment program included ideas for remote programming. The timing and scope of the summer jobs have proved challenging for teens and providers, though those involved generally feel appreciative to have work for youth at all given that the entire program was almost wiped away.

Once the city partially restored the youth employment initiative, the newly-named SYEP Summer Bridge 2020 program was set up for just five weeks, with the number of slots for young people cut from about 75,000 in last year’s SYEP to 35,000. The cost came to about $51 million in a public-private partnership among the city, the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City (a city-led nonprofit), and philanthropies. Participants scrambled to apply while organizations rushed to arrange programming for the almost-exclusively remote, scaled-down SYEP offering.

Once onboarded, the youth that did attain spots tackle the challenges of remote work, including completing hours on Hats & Ladders, a web program for professional development learning. SYEP Summer Bridge 2020 differs from the traditional SYEP because of its focus on online programming instead of in-person work. A DYCD spokesperson said students are participating remotely and the traditional “worksites,” or where providers place youth for in-person work, do not exist this year, although providers are working with over 90 organizations and business partners to administer programming.

Providers designed jobs for youth with the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) that had to be safe yet meaningful, while also managing a significant reduction in these temporary employees. The program features civic engagement skill-building, career exploration, and project-based learning on topics such as community service, COVID-19 recovery, and careers in STEAM. Older participants also complete a “workplace challenge,” where providers team up with organizations and agencies that give youth real-world, on-the-job problems to solve.

To have their say in the new program, advocacy groups like Teens Take Charge said they worked with DYCD to launch an advisory council with Summer Bridge participants. Researchers have also pointed to the importance of summer youth employment programs in providing skill development, career knowledge, and financial opportunities, and have shown that they lead to improved long-term criminal justice, academic, and employment outcomes.

The widely-celebrated growth of New York City’s SYEP to last year’s 75,000 slots was many years in the making, and last year over 150,000 youth applied. This year, DYCD received over 135,000 applications for its 35,000 Summer Bridge slots, according to Cynthia Malave-Baez, the director of the SYEP program. The city retained 115,000 opportunities for young people this summer overall, the mayor and City Council said, but not all fall under the umbrella of SYEP programming. The other experiences included paid positions as social distancing and Test and Trace ambassadors, and at summer camps for kids through the COMPASS initiative and Beacon and Cornerstone programs, according to the mayor.

As for SYEP’s future, providers and advocates have said they see an online summer with a smaller headcount as a one-time occurrence because of the pandemic. Brian Chen, the chief strategy officer from the Chinese-American Planning Council, said his organization aims to employ as many youth as possible and, if health and safety conditions permit, he would want to push for a full restoration of programming and possibly an expansion next year.

“In an ideal world, and speaking personally, if there was an opportunity for us to really service and enroll and enrich and empower every single youth that actually applied to the program, that would be kind of the North Star,” said Chen. “Are we going to continue to push for funding? Yeah. Is it 75,000? I would say that would be the baseline because we’ve reached that number not too long ago.”

Teens Have Their Say
Teens Take Charge led a significant part of SYEP advocacy, with a months-long campaign to reinstate the program and support from organizations and City Council members, and their involvement continued following passage of the city budget. The youth group, which is a program under nonprofit The Bell, provides programming for Summer Bridge participants for the first time this year.

Also, after what they called a “partial win” regarding the new youth employment program, Teens Take Charge proposed a youth advisory council to DYCD that would give recommendations and feedback on Summer Bridge, according to Jorge Morales, a 20-year-old alumni advisor and mentor for Teens Take Charge. He said the council has 13 young members, all current or former summer youth employment program participants. They had their first meeting on July 23 and will have two more, one in the middle of the program and another towards the end, according to Morales.

“We always told them, it’s very crucial you create programming that the youth are gonna want to do,” said Morales, who lives in Harlem. “Because if you’re creating programming that you think they’ll like, it doesn’t mean that they will like it.”

The youth council mostly works with the NYC Center for Youth Employment, which works as a private-public partnership to expand and improve opportunities for youth work experiences. The goal of each meeting, according to a CYE representative, is “for the city to understand young people's experience with the program to help inform planning for next year.”

“Teens Take Charge was instrumental both in organizing young people to advocate for this year's SYEP Summer Bridge and informing this new remote program model,” said David Fischer, the executive director of the Center for Youth Employment. “We're glad to be working with them to better understand how participants are experiencing Summer Bridge."

As for the program as a whole, Morales said the de Blasio administration should have expanded youth programming instead of cutting it. Some families rely on the stipend youth receive during the summer to pay for essentials, he stressed. On the timing, he described how the delay in a decision regarding SYEP led to uncertainty and insecurity, contributed to website crashes as students started applying, and sowed ambiguity around whether applicants had been accepted as DYCD held multiple lotteries.

“When this occurs, it’s truly affecting our most vulnerable communities and those that live in a lot of areas that are very dangerous,” said Morales. “When you take this source of revenue out, and there being very few jobs out in the city now because of covid, you don’t really give them many options here.”

Reflecting on the campaign Teens Take Charge ran since de Blasio’s announcement in April, Morales said the mayor never mentioned youth efforts to save the program, and members of the City Council, most notably Speaker Corey Johnson, declined to meet with them. A representative from the speaker’s office said Johnson receives hundreds of meeting requests during the budget process so he often has other members or staff attend meetings instead of or for him, and in this case Council Member Deborah Rose, the Staten Islander who chairs the Council’s youth services committee and was a leading voice for restoration of SYEP, met with members of Teens Take Charge. Johnson focused on saving summer youth employment because he and the Council knew SYEP was “a lifeline for many New York City youth,” according to Jennifer Fermino, the Council’s communications director.

“It was a hard fight, but ultimately the Council's painstaking advocacy restored $700 million in programs and services that had been cut from the Executive Budget - including SYEP,” Fermino said in a statement. “The Council was united on saving SYEP under the leadership of the Speaker and Council Member Debi Rose. The Council will continue advocating for New York City young people.”

The number of youth slots the Council restored were not enough, said Morales, and Teens Take Charge’s advocacy around employment for young people will continue in the next round of city funding.

“Regarding SYEP, we’re going to be fighting for it next year because we already see that fight starting, just because we know there’s still going to be discrepancies within budgets,” said Morales. “And people are still going to make excuses about not being able to afford a program that is so crucial for the youth.”

Participants Struggle Through Summer
Teens Take Charge is Soto’s placement for the summer. That means every day he signs on from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. to participate in Zoom meetings about advocacy work, an interest he said he  partially developed from working with IntegrateNYC, a student-led organization working towards equity and integration in schools.

Soto said he enjoys the daily meetings. He listed topics such as social media campaigns,  testimonies at hearings, and case studies throughout history as some of the focuses of these sessions, and also mentioned that the video calls are interactive so participants can share personal experiences related to their backgrounds, expanding learning beyond the planned lesson.

But when Soto finishes his video call, he faces hours of Hats & Ladders. The website provides short videos that explore career readiness and professional development. Soto said some subjects include dressing for a job, crafting a resume or managing a professional phone call. While he admits he likes that he can watch the videos on his own schedule throughout the week, Soto said building up to the 30-hour requirement of Hats & Ladders in the first three weeks, with videos running about five to ten minutes each, can become tiring.

“I just don’t think the website and watching videos that you’re getting kind of tested on is the best way,” said Soto. “It just kind of feels like school all over again. I’d rather have someone really talk about it on the Zoom call, live, where people can comment on it, et cetera.”

DYCD already had plans to include Hats & Ladders -- which the de Blasio administration called “a nationally recognized education software provider” -- as a supplement to youth programming even before the pivot to remote programming, according to Malave-Baez. She said DYCD decided to rely on the website’s videos more heavily to facilitate remote learning.

“But we realized SYEP has been around for many, many years and that we thought it was important to start leveraging the information that’s out there, and bring this aspect of career readiness and career exploration to the 21st century,” said Malave-Baez. “And that’s the opportunity that the Hats & Ladders platform gives us and gives young people.”

When Summer Bridge started, Soto said he felt confused about how to complete his hours. Participants engage in 60 to 90 hours of programming, with teens ages 14 to 15 completing 60 hours, and youth 16 to 24 completing 90 hours, according to DYCD documents.

Soto said he noticed a discrepancy. The program requires his age group to work 18 hours a week, but with two-hour daily meetings with Teens Take Charge and about 10 hours of Hats & Ladders videos, that adds up to 20 hours a week, said Soto. He also described not knowing at first if he needed to complete 10 hours every week, or if he could work up to the 30 hours as he wished, and that a 45-minute orientation call did not help define the details.

“I remember it was very unclear at first, but after that, it’s kind of just like they tell you the hours and you go about it yourself, and not much guidance, I would say,” said Soto. “I’ve been emailing a lot of people from SYEP and they’ve been saying they’re being more flexible with them. I mean, I have high hopes but in the beginning, honestly, it was difficult.”

Malave-Baez said DYCD tries to connect with youth through social media platforms and their hotline Youth Connect, which is a resource and referral service for all youth-related city programs, as well as instruct providers on how to support youth throughout the summer.

For Soto, who plans to attend Yale University this fall, the timing of the program proved tricky. When he participated in SYEP two years ago, he said it ended in mid-August, but now he finishes August 28. Soto must move to Connecticut during the last week of Summer Bridge, but said he’s unsure of how he will make up his hours.

Logistical issues aside, Soto still said he feels grateful the SYEP program can provide him with some pocket money as he heads to college. Teens who are 14 or 15 will receive a $700 stipend, while young people between the ages of 16 and 24 will collect a $1000 stipend, according to the DYCD website.

Providers Race to Create Programming
The Chinese-American Planning Council (CPC), usually relies on in-person summer work opportunities for youth, but this year pivoted to fully-online programming in just a few weeks. Chen said as the city shut down after the governor’s PAUSE order, the CPC reimagined SYEP without knowing if it would be reinstated.

“We wanted to ensure the youth and young adults, many of whom are from low-income backgrounds or from immigrant families that were hit very hard when the pandemic rolled around, at the time, initially, this was a safety net for them,” said Chen. “We didn’t want to discount the fact there wouldn’t be anything and for lack of a better term, that summer would be ‘cancelled’ for youth and young adults.”

The timing of Summer Bridge challenged CPC, Chen said. The organization mobilized with different providers to advocate for SYEP, pitch ideas, and hold meetings with DYCD, he said, between the mayor’s cancellation and budget deal reinstatement. He said his team learned the city saved part of the employment program the day the budget passed, and moved “really quickly from no offering to a virtual offering.” They brought back staff, got word out to community members, and briefed families and youth on Summer Bridge all while handling enrollment and attending workshops and training provided by DYCD.

“It was a lot to do in a very truncated period of time,” said Chen. “Just knowing that we had to adjust to the new deadlines but also trusting, that given our experience as an SYEP provider and just the capabilities of our team members and our staff to really get that done, we just powered through.”

Chen said CPC worked closely with DYCD to conceptualize a remote summer. Instead of working at an in-person location, he said youth receive work readiness training and career exploration activities online, and then providers will present them with real workplace challenges so they can think through solutions. The nature of the activities and challenges depends on the providers, but Chen said he appreciated DYCD’s flexibility on this summer’s work model. 

“As an organization and me personally speaking, I understand the challenges that the pandemic has brought in the decisions that had to be made on a macro and micro level,” said Chen. “If I had a magic wand, and if I had to change anything, it would just really be the city really coming up earlier on and committing to the restoration on the program to give providers and youth and young adults enough time to do the work that’s necessary. We’re here now, we move forward, right?”

DYCD holds weekly online meetings and one-on-one calls with providers as necessary, and has partners like representatives from Hats & Ladders available for questions, according to Malave-Baez.

Last year, CPC worked with 2,200 youth for SYEP, while this summer they employ about half, 1,100 young people.

The reduction of youth slots and shift to online learning has left providers and their advocates wondering how future summers will look. Nora Moran, United Neighborhood Houses Director of Policy and Advocacy, said the best way to run SYEP is through in-person work and she wants to ensure this summer is a one-time experience because of COVID-19.

“We’re obviously relieved and grateful that there was something back in place for young people this summer. It’s very distressing that we’re only serving half of SYEP this year as opposed to last summer, and it just makes you wonder what all of those 40,000 young people who don’t have a job this summer, what they’re doing,” said Moran. “We don’t want this to be an opportunity for the city to cut corners in the future and have a smaller and cheaper program.”

UNH represents over 40 settlement houses around the city, many of whom help run SYEP. Moran said UNH advocated for their constituents when the city cancelled summer youth jobs, and while it received strong support from City Council members, it also confronted mixed messaging from the mayor’s office and DYCD.

“Throughout the budget, the response from the mayor’s office and from DYCD went back and forth between we don’t have the funding to run this program and it’s unsafe to run this program given covid and given the need for social distancing,” said Moran. “So that was a challenge because it was hard to know what’s the problem that we’re trying to solve, is it funding or is it, you know, program design.”

At the height of renewed Black Lives Matter protests, and calls to “defund the police,” the mayor promised to move NYPD funding to youth and social services. Moran said it’s difficult to say with certainty that “there was a one-to-one move from one area of the city’s budget to another.”

“Something I will say is that we don’t have full funding for the summer youth employment program in FY 2021, the program is running at half capacity as it did the previous summer, young people are receiving stipends as opposed to an hourly wage so they technically took a pay cut,” said Moran. “Though the statement was made that the funding is going to be moved from the NYPD to support social services, the budget still came up short in a lot of key social service areas.”

Last year, SYEP collaborated with 67 providers, and this year works with 57 organizations on providing Summer Bridge programming, according to DYCD. In 2019, providers also  worked with over 13,000 worksites. This year, because of the nature of remote projects and career exploration activities, there are no traditional worksites, according to the DYCD.

The scope of the program this year, especially with the drop in funding and youth slots, tightened providers’ pockets. Michelle Jackson, the executive director of the Human Services Council, which represents a number of SYEP providers, explained how the city budget affects these organizations’ operating budgets for the whole year because providers run youth programs all the time, just with a summer component.

“So when you cut out two months of someone’s budget, you don’t cut out two months of expenses,” said Jackson. “You know, insurance is year-round, utilities are year-round, rent is year-round. So providers really scrambled to figure out how to cut two months out of their budgets, some by laying off staff, some by figuring out how to move people around, et cetera.”

Providers previously collaborated with worksites during SYEP to place youth in job environments such as offices or camps, but with a remote program, many worksites have grappled with fewer employees for their summer offerings. Some have none. City Growers, a nonprofit that teaches children about nature and urban agriculture and a former SYEP worksite, employed 20 participants last year but this summer had none.

With the absence of city-funded youth workers, Executive Director Becca Di Meo said City Growers used its own budget to hire former SYEP participants to help run a shortened, virtual camp this year. She said they are waiting for discretionary funding from City Council members to help with the rest of their programming, but filling the learning gap is a top priority of theirs while children remain stuck at home.

“Our summer camp supervisor has been sending me messages saying the turnout is great, the kids are having a lot of fun,” said Di Meo. “So I think a little goes a long way now in maybe ways that it hadn’t before.”

Research Support for SYEP
Boston’s development of its SYEP program this year contrasts to New York City in terms of its timing and preparation. Alicia Sasser Modestino, an associate professor at Northeastern University and an associate director of the college’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, described how she and her colleagues presented a plan to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and showed him the benefits for youth, especially in terms of reducing violence, based on their studies.

“We went to the mayor’s cabinet and presented not only our research on how impactful the summer jobs program is, but then also these four [program] tracks,” said Modestino, who teaches in Northeastern’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and its economics department. “And basically the mayor’s cabinet was like, ‘You had me at crime.’”

After receiving full support from the mayor on their plan, and an additional $4 million, Modestino and other key SYEP players worked as quickly as possible to start programming in early July. Youth participate in four tracks: Boston’s Blue Shirt program, which employs 500 youth for the beautification of outdoor areas; Earn and Learn, which allows students to take college-level courses for free while also receiving money; Peer-to-Peer COVID-19 Campaign, which engages youth in developing marketing materials around public health messages; and virtual internships, which facilitate a remote work opportunity for young people. Boston managed to expand its SYEP funding during COVID-19, totaling about 8,000 jobs.

Modestino’s team at Northeastern University researched the effects of SYEPs on youth for about five years. In the short-term, they survey what young people learn during a summer job, like writing resumes, interviewing, managing emotions, resolving conflict with peers, and imagining future plans and aspirations. In the long-term they track trajectories in terms of criminal justice, academic, and employment outcomes.

She said they found SYEPs reduce violent crime by 40 percent and property crime by 30 percent after young people participated in a summer youth employment program, which is linked to youth improving soft skills like conflict and emotional management as well as other effects of being employed such as job readiness skills, work habits and college aspirations . They also increase high school graduation rates by six percent, which they correlated with increased attendance after working a summer youth job that requires punctuality. Finally, they found a higher likelihood of employment and increased wages among Black and brown young adults from the ages of 18-24 who participated in SYEP.

Modestino said she and other stakeholders in SYEP will continue to study Boston’s summer youth employment program this year to see if the tracks they put in place replicated the outcomes of traditional summer employment opportunities. She stressed that, especially now during COVID-19, youth, particularly poorer or Black and brown youth, need SYEP to keep them engaged and provide gateways to opportunities.

“Even in good times this is a really good program to employ youth, especially low-income youth,” said Modestino. “So it’s been an important way for low-income youth to be able to get job experience that other wealthier, whiter kids living in the suburbs get on a routine basis because their parents brokered them a job."

by Melissa Lent, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Providers, Participants Scramble for Scaled Down Summer Youth Employment Program Tue, 18 Aug 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Teen Activists Pledge Protests If Mayor Doesn't Soon Announce Summer Youth Employment Program 3 activists pledge

Mayor de Blasio makes a summer youth employment announcement (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Teens Take Charge, a youth advocacy group, held a town hall Tuesday where its members demanded Mayor Bill de Blasio announce his decision regarding the Summer Youth Employment Program by Friday, June 26, or they will take to the streets to protest. 

“We’ve been screaming this message at the mayor for the past two-plus months,” said Kai-Lin Kwek-Rupp, one of the hosts of the town hall and leaders of Teens Take Charge, about the importance of SYEP and a clear plan from the mayor. “We need to make sure that we have constant pressure up until June 26, the last day of school, so that we really do get a commitment from him, and providers can start planning SYEP, and participants can start planning their summers.”

Amid the coronavirus shutdown and severe budget crunch, the mayor announced in April the cancellation of SYEP, which last summer offered 75,000 summer job placements at partner organizations for young adults across the city. City Department of Youth and Community Development Commissioner Bill Chong wrote a letter to nonprofits citing the uncertainty of COVID-19 as the main reason for the cancellation, while the mayor also cited the city’s cratering tax revenue based on mandated economic closures.

Since the mayor’s announcement, advocacy groups like Teens Take Charge and a variety of elected officials and others have criticized the decision and organized to reinstate SYEP for this summer. Teens Take Charge has held forums, including one with Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, written op-eds, interviewed with various media outlets, and pushed their supporters on social media to demand funding for SYEP. Along with the public advocate, more than half the City Council and over 100 SYEP providers have supported their cause, according to Teens Take Charge’s online tracker.

The significant blowback de Blasio received plus the eventually improving public health crisis led the mayor to say he was reconsidering SYEP and that his administration was in discussions about how to have a version of it in the age of social distancing and with many offices still mostly using a work-from-home model. 

“This is a particularly important initiative to people all over the city. The City Council has raised important ideas, proposals, ways of addressing how we revitalize the Summer Youth Employment Program in the context of this pandemic,” said de Blasio during a June 11 press conference. “That is an ongoing conversation with the City Council. That will be part of our budget decision making with the City Council over the next two weeks or so.”

With many arguing that some version of SYEP could take place and de Blasio saying it might be possible, Teens Take Charge also developed a proposal with HERE to HERE, ExpandED Schools, and dozens of SYEP providers on how to conduct a remote youth employment program. Their initiative, which they named the Youth Empowerment Summer, or YES, would combine public and private funding to provide 40,000 digital internships, with stipends ranging from $700 to $1,000, according to the proposal. They are looking to raise a total of almost $2.9 million in private investments and secure a little less than $50 million from the city in SYEP funding. The city projected to save about $124 million from cancelling SYEP, according to the executive budget de Blasio released in April.

With the Black Lives Matter movement’s resurgence, members of the City Council and Public Advocate Williams have called to move $1 billion from the police department’s $6 billion annual budget to youth and social services in the new city budget. SYEP has positively impacted Black communities, advocates and elected officials point out -- last year, almost half of SYEP participants identified as Black, according to DYCD’s numbers, which means more than 30,000 Black youth received work, wages, and growth opportunities.

De Blasio promised in early June to work with the City Council to move some funds from the NYPD towards youth and social services, but did not provide a target amount or any other specifics, instead saying he would be negotiating with the Council in crafting the new city budget due by July 1. 

During Tuesday’s town hall, Teens Take Charge invited former SYEP participants and organizations to speak on the importance of the program for youth development and organization capacity. The teens cited financial independence, skill-building, and career exploration as some of the benefits of the program. Nonprofits such as City Growers and Faith in New York said they base their summer programs on the inclusion of youth employees, and without them the programs cannot operate the same way.

Brooklyn State Senator Julie Salazar and City Council Member Carlos Menchacha, both Democrats, as is de Blasio, also attended the town hall to show their support.

“Budgets are a reflection of our priorities, it’s already been said, and it’s so true,” said Salazar. “Mayor de Blasio, show us that you care about young people. Show us that you care about their education, their future, and investing in them by continuing to fully fund SYEP.”

The town hall hosts, teens Carmen Lopez Villamil and Kwek-Rupp, saved their demand for the mayor until the end of the event. Lopez Villamil said if de Blasio fails to make an SYEP decision by Friday, Teens Take Charge will plan a protest near Gracie Mansion. She said this protest would most likely happen on Monday, June 29.

As of now, de Blasio and Deputy Mayor Phil Thompson have released the Neighborhood Opportunity Network Summer, or NeON Summer, as a summer youth employment alternative. The program offers six-week, paid learning opportunities to young people in certain low-income neighborhoods, youth on probation, and those who reside in the hardest-hit COVID-19 communities. However, Teens Take Charge noted that NeON Summer only serves a fraction of  New York City youth, with just 2,700 total slots.

The City Council also held a hearing Tuesday that included leadership of the Council’s Committee on Youth Services advocating for the reinstatement of SYEP. During her opening remarks, Council Member Deborah Rose, a Staten Island Democrat who serves as the chair of the committee, stressed the importance of the employment program and that the Council would keep putting pressure on de Blasio for New York City youth. 

“We know SYEP and other employment programs uplift impoverished youth who historically struggle to access the labor market,” said Rose. “Tragically these are the very youth whose communities have been ravaged the most by COVID-19, and whose futures we as a city must be investing in more than ever.

by Melissa Lent, Gotham Gazette
@melmollyrose @GothamGazette

Teen Activists Pledge Protests If Mayor Doesn't Soon Announce Summer Youth Employment Program Wed, 24 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Amid Blowback Over Planned Suspension, De Blasio Administration Explores Alternative Summer Youth Employment Program debi rose joins

Council Member Debi Rose with youth workers (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)

With New York City facing a massive budget gap and severe social restrictions because of the coronavirus pandemic, Mayor Bill de Blasio made the unpopular decision to suspend the Summer Youth Employment Program, which in past years gave tens of thousands of young people jobs over the summer. But as de Blasio faced swift and sweeping criticism for the move, administration officials testified before the City Council that an alternate plan is in the works and will be unveiled soon.

Over the last few years, at the urging of activists and elected officials, the de Blasio administration has significantly expanded SYEP, which gives summer jobs to youth between the ages of 14 and 24, many from low-income communities and communities of color. Last year, the city funded 75,000 slots in the program, and about twice as many youth applied for those jobs, which include placements in government, nonprofits, and businesses.

Facing a dire budget situation given the coronavirus shutdown and a projected $7.4 billion in lost revenue by the end of the 2021 fiscal year next June, de Blasio made the program one of the first victims of budget cuts. Suspending SYEP this year is expected to save the city $124 million, according to the mayor’s executive budget plan, which is now the subject of hearings and negotiations with the City Council.

De Blasio hasn’t completely ruled out a version of the program that can still be implemented if social distancing restrictions are still in place over the summer. “The Council cares deeply about SYEP. I care about it too. It's expanded greatly during my administration,” he said at his daily coronavirus briefing on May 5. “I've said, one, we don't have money right now. Two, we don't have a logistical framework to make it work because people can't gather and it is wholly dependent on people gathering in the same place. So I don't see a way to do it right now, but I'm always going to have an open door to the Council and budget adoption is not until the middle of June or later June. Things could change by then so don't see it now, but the conversation is open.”

The mayor’s decision was quickly greeted with outrage, especially from City Council Members who questioned the rationale behind cuts he made to various agency budgets. As several of them pointed out at a May 6 hearing on the mayor’s executive budget proposal, while the Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) saw almost all youth programs eliminated, the NYPD, with its nearly $6 billion budget, saw minimal reductions in planned spending.

[Read: City Council Questions De Blasio's Priorities at First Executive Budget Hearing]

Council members and advocates for SYEP have repeatedly noted that de Blasio’s characterization of the program requiring “people gathering in the same place” is not necessarily accurate, given that with so many workplaces going remote amid the city’s near-shutdown, so could these summer jobs, not to mention other safe opportunities for employment like outdoor, socially-distanced work.

At the May 6 hearing, Melanie Hartzog, director of the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget, went further than the mayor and said that DYCD and the Department of Education are actively exploring how to move forward with a remote program. “DYCD and the Department of Education are working in partnership for that and looking at different opportunities, on which there'll be more to come in the coming weeks,” she promised.

Later in the hearing, she addressed the larger spate of youth programs. “There are a number of remote learning opportunities that we're looking at as well as providing direct supports. So those plans are forthcoming. You will be hearing more from both agencies on what they intend to do,” she said.

The mayor’s office has offered little in the way of details. Siobhan Dingwall, a mayoral spokesperson, said in an email, “We are facing an unprecedented health crisis and the loss of $7.4 billion in tax revenue. Suspending SYEP this summer was a painful, but necessary, choice as we prioritize saving lives and the health and safety of New Yorkers. We will continue to work with our providers and the young people they serve to alleviate the effects of this suspension.”

The Staten Island Advance reported last month that Council Member Debi Rose, who chairs the Committee on Youth Services, was presenting the mayor and Council with her own proposal for a remote youth jobs program, funded at the same levels as the mayor’s initial budget proposal. Calls to Rose’s office for this story went unanswered.

On April 10 Rose reacted to de Blasio's "abrupt announcement" of SYEP suspension in a newsletter to constituents, saying the "program has a decades-long history of uplifting impoverished youth who would otherwise struggle to access the labor market, while providing an economic lifeline to their families" and that it would be a "devastating blow" to the students and their families, as well as the host organizations.

"Even in the midst of this crisis, this is unacceptable," Rose went on to say. She added that she had already asked de Blasio to "work with providers to explore new and creative ways to engage youth — and provide SYEP participants with some form of a paycheck. During this crisis that is magnifying glaring disparities in our city, it is even more imperative that we provide a safety net for these young people before they fall even farther behind."

Rose’s committee is holding a remote executive budget hearing on Wednesday where DYCD officials are expected to testify, though it’s unclear if they will present any plans for a remote jobs program. Dingwall, the mayoral spokesperson, did not respond when asked if those plans would be in place by the time the hearing is held.

A spokesperson for City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said in an email, “Speaker Johnson and the Council are very concerned about the proposed cuts to the SYEP and other youth programs. The Council has provided the administration with feedback on these cuts and looks forward to hearing their alternative proposals.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Amid Blowback Over Planned Suspension, De Blasio Administration Explores Alternative Summer Youth Employment Program Mon, 18 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
NYPD Pushes Back Against Calls to Reform Special Victims Division nypd council hearing rape

NYPD reps at Monday's hearing (photo: @NYCCouncil)

At a tense oversight hearing examining the NYPD's response to sex crimes on Monday, the NYPD opposed all four bills introduced by the City Council in response to a Department of Investigation report released two weeks earlier.

The bills seek to require evidence-based models to determine staffing levels for the Special Victims Division, more training for sex crimes detectives, and a digital, searchable case management system for the SVD.

On March 27, following a year-long investigation, the DOI released a report stating that the NYPD's Special Victims Division has been chronically understaffed for years, with only 67 detectives available to investigate roughly 5,600 sex crimes per year (ranging from rape to groping).

As a result, “a full exhaustive work effort [for every sex crime investigation] has not been possible," wrote Michael Osgood, Deputy Chief of the Special Victims Division, in one of the many internal correspondences Osgood sent to NYPD higher-ups asking for more investigators and included in the DOI report.

Osgood did not testify at the hearing.

Advocates, sexual assault survivors, a former Special Victims sergeant, and other members of the NYPD testified before the City Council regarding the NYPD's handling of sex crimes. While survivors, advocates, and the former Special Victims sergeant say the NYPD needs to act to improve the experience of victims who report their assaults, the NYPD claims no need for improvement.

The hearing was led by Council Members Donovan Richards, chair of the Committee on Public Safety, and Helen Rosenthal, chair of the Committee on Women.

Officially, the NYPD has 90 days to respond to the DOI's findings, which NYPD officials repeated several times at the hearing when asked specific questions.

But in an informal response issued on its website, the NYPD rebutted the DOI's findings, calling its report "an investigation in name only" and stating there are 85 detectives available to investigate adult sex crimes, not 67.

"The number of detectives assigned to actively investigate adult sex crimes is 67 (not 85) and the NYPD did not dispute that number last Friday when we discussed the report with NYPD officials," the DOI said in a statement issued in response.

By Monday morning, the NYPD had added another 20 detectives to the Special Victims Division, 15 from patrol, five from detectives squads. Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce said that brought the total number of detectives assigned to investigate adult sex crimes to 100 (but did not account for the 100 being less than the 20 he said they added and the 85 the NYPD previously asserted).

Boyce’s testimony indicates the city now has 100 detectives to investigate 5,600 sex crimes annually.

For comparison, homicide investigations are similar in length and complexity to sexual assault investigations, and the city's homicide squads had 101 detectives to investigate 282 homicides in 2017, according to the DOI report.

The DOI made 12 recommendations, including that the NYPD hire 73 additional detectives "to meet the minimum investigative capacity required by an evidence-backed and nationally-accepted staffing analysis model" known as the Prummel model.

The DOI also said the NYPD should increase training for adult sex crimes detectives, invest in a new case management system, and renovate or relocate the facilities of all the special victims units that handle adult sex crimes.

"Investigators are not properly trained, facilities are not suitable, and wait times are extensive. It is no wonder that victims don’t report more often," said Council Member Richards at Monday’s hearing. "And it seems that NYPD leadership is just fine with victims of sex crimes being ignored."

Chief of Patrol Terrence Monahan, Deputy Commissioner of Collaborative Policing Susan Herman, and Director of Legislative Affairs Oleg Chernyavsky testified before the Council. Chief of Detectives Boyce, who is on the verge of retirement from the NYPD, was also seated at the table and fielded questions. Though Council members said they wanted to hear from Chief Osgood as head of the Special Victims Division, the four NYPD officials seated at the table took virtually all of the questions, along with some terse interjections from Deputy Commissioner for Legal Matters Larry Byrne.

By and large, NYPD officials asserted that the department takes rape seriously, that both staffing and training are adequate, and that their electronic case management system is sufficient.

Chernyavsky said that the bills requiring additional training would "dilute the police commissioner’s authority by dictating a particular method and duration of training."

In response to Council Member Debi Rose's bill requiring the NYPD to use evidence-based models to determine appropriate staffing levels for the Special Victims Division, Chernyavsky said, "The requirements of this bill, however, erode and encroach upon the most basic responsibilities of the police commissioner to manage this agency and its personnel."

However, Chernyavsky's response ignores the fact that the head of the Special Victims Division requested additional staffing from multiple commissioners over the course of years. The DOI report includes dozens of pages of internal NYPD communications wherein Osgood repeatedly requests additional investigators to be added to the division.

As the DOI report notes, the caseload of the city's adult sex crimes detectives has increased by 65.3 percent since 2009, when there were 72 detectives.

"I cannot understand how anyone can argue with these recommendations," said retired Special Victims Sergeant Michael Bock, who worked with the division for years. "None will be detrimental to investigations. What are we afraid of?"

Bock appeared before the Council after the NYPD representatives, none of whom stayed to hear his testimony. The department left behind two people to monitor the rest of the hearing.

Despite assurances from the NYPD that the SVD is adequately staffed, that training is sufficient, and that the division's electronic case management system is adequate, the testimonies of many sexual assault victims and advocates indicate otherwise.

As one woman, Desdemona Meck, testified, "Two months after moving to New York City, two men attempted to rape me in the Bronx." A few hours after the assault, she received a rape kit and reported the rape to the precinct.

"The detective told me I have to learn to be smarter in New York City, that I should toughen up, and in the future not be so nice to strangers. She went on to ask me if I was positive I hadn't somehow made it seem as though the sex was something I had wanted."

Meck said the detective's reaction made her feel "shameful." Meck went on to identify both of the assailants through mugshots. The detective deterred Meck from bringing the case to trial. "She seemed confident in her belief that spending more time on the case would be a waste."

Advocates who testified at the hearing like Mary Haviland, Jane Manning, Christopher Bromson, and Angela Fernandez have worked very closely with both the NYPD and sexual assault victims for years. Some attend private meetings with NYPD officials, have attended trainings for Special Victims detectives and have likewise had those detectives attend their advocate trainings.

Haviland, executive director of the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault, is currently involved in an audit of closed sex crimes cases. Bromson, the executive director of the Crime Victims Treatment Center, and Manning, head of Women's Justice NOW, have assisted many sexual assault victims who have come to their organizations for help, often after reporting their rape to the NYPD goes awry.

"The fact that Chief Boyce could sit without a smile on his face and say that the SVD could follow up with victims is just not the reality," Haviland said. "They are not able to follow up with victims who come in. They are not able to give explanations for dropped cases or the results of rape kits."

"This issue of inadequate staff and inadequate training is something that advocates have been bringing up to the NYPD for years, we've been pleading for those things for years," said Manning.

Fernandez represents a different group of advocates who were largely not present at the hearing -- ones who work in hospitals running programs for sexual assault survivors. As the DOI report notes, sexual assault victims often have to wait hours to see a detective after reporting their assault and getting a rape kit done in a hospital. Detectives are supposed to come to the victim in the hospital, but that doesn't always happen.

"One service provider described how a client spent the entire night at a hospital waiting for an SVD detective to arrive," DOI investigators wrote in their report. "When no detective showed up, the victim, thoroughly discouraged, decided against reporting the crime to the police and went home."

Over the weekend, the NYPD rolled out a public awareness campaign aimed at increasing reporting of sex crimes.

Yet without more detectives assigned to investigate reported sex crimes, some victims who report their assaults will continue to suffer in the ways advocates and victims described at the hearing.

Both Council Members Rosenthal and Rose expressed concern over the NYPD's mixed messages -- at the same time they have put out a public awareness campaign to get more people to report their sexual assault, they have also been reluctant to add more staff to the division responsible for investigating those sexual assaults.

"With the increase in reporting, will there be enough personnel to handle these cases?" Rose asked. "It is imperative that they have enough staff to investigate these cases, to avoid the re-victimization of the people who step forward."

The NYPD's refusal to allocate adequate resources to the Special Victims Division has far-reaching consequences for victims of sexual assault and discourages victims of sexual assault from coming forward to report what happened to them. NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill did say recently that when he names a replacement for the retiring Boyce as chief of detectives, that person will do a full review of the SVD.

While the NYPD currently maintains that they have an adequate number of investigators staffing the SVD, Bock, the recently retired Special Victims sergeant, says otherwise.

"I really believe the DOI report nailed it. The NYPD's denial is upsetting," Bock said. "For a long time, the running joke in the [Special Victims] office was, 'Can I have another cinder block as I'm swimming in the pool?'...Having 20 open cases on your screen doesn't feel good."

by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

NYPD Pushes Back Against Calls to Reform Special Victims Division Mon, 09 Apr 2018 04:00:00 +0000
De Blasio Holds Town Hall as Week on Staten Island Nears Conclusion de blasio oddo staten island

De Blasio & Oddo on Staten Island (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

As Mayor Bill de Blasio’s week on Staten Island neared a close Thursday evening, City Council Member Debi Rose told a north shore town hall audience that “Staten Island can no longer use the moniker that we are ‘The Forgotten Borough.’” In opening remarks before introducing de Blasio at I.S. 27, Rose said that the mayor’s attention to the borough had negated that longtime, self-given nickname of neglect.

From Monday through Friday, de Blasio and his top aides are working out of Staten Island borough hall and holding events around the island, in what is the first of five such weeks in the mayor’s new “City Hall in Your Borough” initiative.

The week has included announcements of an expansion of neighborhood policing on the south shore; the proliferation of an electronics recycling pilot program that started mid-Island; and increased boarding options for the Staten Island Ferry. De Blasio held constituent office hours, participated in evening road repaving, visited a senior center, talked with a local family about their water bill, celebrated Passover at a synagogue, visited several top borough restaurants, and took in a concert.

“The mayor has shared our concerns and interests,” Rose said, calling de Blasio “responsive” and noting that people are apt to criticize but don’t give credit enough. Rose listed major concerns for her constituents: education, transportation, traffic, safety, recreation facilities, job creation, protecting the environment, and managing development and growth while maintaining Staten Island character -- most of which came up in the two-plus hours that de Blasio took more than 50 audience questions at Thursday’s town hall.

Rose, a Democrat, spoke just after Borough President James Oddo, a Republican, and state Senator Diane Savino, a member of the Independent Democratic Conference, who both stressed that Staten Islanders focus less on political party and more on getting things done. Oddo and de Blasio share a particularly close relationship going back to their days on the City Council, and they have appeared at a number of events together during the week. In his opening remarks the borough president briefly recounted how productive a week it has been and his appreciation that de Blasio immersed city government in Staten Island issues for the five days.

When he took the microphone, de Blasio noted his positive relationships with the borough’s elected officials and touted reductions in crime on Staten Island, thanking the NYPD, as well as a drop in traffic fatalities this year compared to the same period last year. He announced that a new Staten Island Ferry boat would be named after Sandy Ground, which was an African-American settlement dating back to the 1830s and a stop on the Underground Railroad. The mayor explained that his administration recently announced a new plan to combat the opioid epidemic and his ongoing focus on repaving streets, two very different but particular concerns for Staten Islanders.

Over the course of the town hall, de Blasio took a few general questions about city policy, but largely heard constituents’ local, specific concerns, from problems at a nearby elementary school to development along the north shore, a lack of transportation options, and police-community relations. He heard from constituents of diverse backgrounds and of all ages, including a high school student worried about protections for LGBT students and an elderly woman concerned about broken sidewalks.

The mayor, who at times was short and cranky with audience members who he wanted to ask their questions more quickly, gave frank answers, even when he disagreed with the questioner, and often called over different commissioners, NYPD representatives, and other aides to give more detailed answers after his general one. It was a similar scene to the dozens of prior town halls de Blasio has held all over the city during the past year and a half.

Thursday’s was de Blasio’s second Staten Island town hall -- he previously held one mid-Island with Republican Council Member Steven Matteo. De Blasio has promised to hold a town hall in all 51 City Council districts, leaving him one more on Staten Island, that of Republican Joe Borelli, who appeared with the mayor for the policing announcement on Monday.

Two themes among the wide variety of questions Thursday night were opportunity for community youth and development along the north shore. There were also a number of education and school-related questions. “[T]he youth, give them something to do,” one attendee said to de Blasio, and was met with applause from the audience. “I share that view so much so that...every middle school kid has free after-school,” de Blasio responded, touting one of his key education investments, though he told the audience that not enough families are taking advantage of the program.

“I can’t make a commitment to you tonight,” de Blasio said about a new community center for youth. “We’re making a benefit available exactly for that reason,” he added regarding young people not having enough to do. The mayor mentioned tutoring, homework help, recreation, and enrichment, but he encouraged audience members to spread the word about the program.

The north shore of Staten Island is home to much development -- as de Blasio decamped on borough hall, he was a stone's throw from ongoing construction of a new outlet mall, one of several changes that will remake the area. De Blasio insisted that the city will hold developers to their commitments and also previewed a rezoning of part of the north shore district that Rose represents, explaining that a ”rezoning offers the opportunity for a massive infusion of resources into a community,” including the types of amenities that some town hall participants were asking for, such as a new community center. He referenced the only community rezoning that has occurred during his administration, that of part of East New York, Brooklyn. It was not clear if the mayor was able to assuage the concerns of those who worry about new development and the loss of community "character."

Multiple attendees asked de Blasio about policing or police-community relations and de Blasio gave similar answers each time: explaining that he has worked to improve those relations through the implementation of the neighborhood policing model while also reaffirming his commitment to "quality-of-life policing," which is also known as Broken Windows policing, though the mayor rarely uses that term unprovoked. He stressed that crime is down while arrests and negative interactions between officers and New Yorkers are also down.

One constituent asked de Blasio what, if re-elected, his top three second-term priorities for Staten Island would be. De Blasio declined to make the answer local, instead explaining his goals for the city: continuing to drive crime down and improve police-community relations; improving schools through his “Equity and Excellence” agenda; and making the city more affordable though more rent-regulated housing and better-paying jobs.

The mayor will conclude his five days on Staten Island Friday with one public event: a tour of the community center at Mariner’s Harbor Houses, a NYCHA property, where he will also "make an announcement about the Cornerstone Program," according to his public schedule. Prior to that, he'll make his weekly appearance on WNYC radio's The Brian Lehrer Show, as he did his Monday evening spot on NY1's Road to City Hall television program.

Still, de Blasio has been very limited in dealing the media this week. The mayor took press questions at his Monday mid-day event in conjunction with his policing announcement on the south shore, but held no other question-and-answer session with reporters all week. He held several events open to the press, but did not allow questions, ignoring any that were asked by members of the media who attended.

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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De Blasio Holds Town Hall as Week on Staten Island Nears Conclusion Thu, 13 Apr 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Legislation Aimed at Holding City Accountable for Rezoning Commitments city hall rotunda during announcement

Announcement at City Hall (photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayor's Office)

With the recent passage of the East New York rezoning and community development plan, the city committed to revitalizing the neglected Brooklyn neighborhood by creating affordable housing, investing in community infrastructure, and promoting economic development. The first among 15 neighborhood rezonings planned by Mayor Bill de Blasio, East New York ushers in a new era of planned change and city promises.

As these rezoning and development plans progress, a parallel effort is moving through the City Council to ensure that the city is held to its word in making commitments to communities when modifying land-use rules and upzoning neighborhoods for development.

Last month, a bill was introduced in the City Council -- sponsored by Public Advocate Letitia James, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, and Council Members Rafael Espinal and Deborah Rose -- that would create a publicly accessible database of commitments made by the administration in any city-sponsored Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) application. The database and an accompanying annual report would allow elected officials and, perhaps more importantly, the general public to track the promises to communities made by the Mayor and city agencies.

The database and reports would provide regular updates on the progress of initiated projects and track projects left unfulfilled. Following the final passage of any city-sponsored land-use application, the commitments would be recorded on the database within 30 days.

“It will not only record commitments,” said Public Advocate James, “It’s an ongoing reminder of the commitment made by the city to the general public.”

James recognizes the need to push this bill at a time when the city is gearing up to rezone and redevelop those 15 neighborhoods across the city, starting with East New York, as part of an ambitious plan by Mayor Bill de Blasio to harness gentrification and create affordable housing in neighborhoods under strain from market forces.

The public advocate, formerly a Brooklyn City Council member, says she has seen a pattern in similar neighborhood rezonings in the past where guarantees made by the city routinely fell through the cracks. She cited Downtown Brooklyn, Williamsburg, and Greenpoint as a few areas where the city reneged on its pledges to provide ample community benefits while allowing real estate development. “I see all of these luxury condos that have gone up and no public benefits and amenities,” James said.

James’ vocal opposition to the Atlantic Yards redevelopment in Brooklyn was in part because of the city’s failure to ensure adequate community benefits particularly affordable housing.

“The bill is a transparency and accountability effort ensuring that promised benefits are delivered,” she added. James said the bill would be prospective and would not apply retroactively to any land use deals.

City Council Member Brad Lander is a “big fan of planning” and he gives the administration credit for the broad community development plan created for East New York. “There’s a lot of important parts to getting planning right,” he said.

One of those important parts, he believes, is tracking community commitments and the public advocate’s bill would make those commitments “visible, public, and online, and ensure regular tracking and reporting,” Lander said in support.

Of course, tracking does not necessarily mean that promises will definitely be kept, he said. “It’s very hard to mandate keeping of promises,” he said, pointing out that the Council can only make budget decisions for a one-year period and cannot control decisions made in later years by new elected officials. But he added that it provides people with a strong tool to hold the city publicly accountable.

If there’s any elected official now facing this, it’s Espinal, the Council member who represents a majority of the East New York area under the new rezoning plan. He was front and center in the negotiations with the de Blasio administration and managed to secure $267 million in capital funds for East New York under the plan (plus other investments through school and sewer construction that comes from other funding sources).

Ensuring that the capital projects outlined in the East New York deal are carried out is “one of the most important parts of the plan,” Espinal told Gotham Gazette shortly after it was voted through by the Council land use committee. “We want to make sure that the commitments that are made by the administration are kept, that the community residents are able to track this easily online so that we won’t be kept guessing on when these projects will start and when they’ll be completed.”

Espinal is hoping, and trying to see, that the bill passes before the East New York commitments are set in stone -- which he said would be 30 days after the full Council vote of April 20.

“We’re currently working with the administration in creating the template of what that (database) will look like so the bill is actually being worked on and it’s something that we hope to pass very soon,” Espinal said. “It’s gonna happen within a month or so.”

In a letter that listed the various capital commitments in the East New York plan, Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen said her office was working with the Mayor’s Office of Operations and city agencies to “develop a tool that will track the progress made against each commitment and make this information available online for the public.” These commitments, the letter states, will be posted on the city’s website within 30 days of the council’s full vote. MOO will also post an annual progress report online.

“Our goal from the beginning of the process has been to ensure that we create a clear set of commitments, which can be tracked by the community and the Council Member to ensure that we are honoring our commitments made as a part of rezoning,” the letter reads.

These efforts would become mandatory if James and the Speaker’s bill passes. Currently, there is no hearing set for the bill, which would go before the land use committee, but a spokesperson for Speaker Mark-Viverito said they expect to find a date soon. The bill will require one committee hearing to garner feedback from the de Blasio administration and the public, followed by another committee meeting for a vote and then a vote through the full Council.

“Obviously my interest would be to put this in place as quickly as possible,” Mark-Viverito told Gotham Gazette after a recent news conference at City Hall. “We want to be able to track whatever commitments are made on any new development deals or land use deals.”

Both James and Mark-Viverito said that they were having conversations with the administration on the bill. An aide for the speaker said there was a “a normal back and forth that the administration’s generally supported.”

And it appears the de Blasio administration is onboard. "We look forward to working closely with the City Council and Public Advocate on this important transparency measure," said Austin Finan, spokesperson for the mayor, in an email.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Legislation Aimed at Holding City Accountable for Rezoning Commitments Thu, 05 May 2016 04:00:00 +0000
All Aboard the BRT Express? bus mta photo m86

(photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit)

Google Maps estimated an hour-and-a-half for a trip from near City Hall to a location in Southeast Queens, leaving at 5:30 p.m. on a recent Tuesday. On the E train to its final stop and a bus crawling along jam-packed Merrick Boulevard, the trip took about an hour longer, two-and-a-half hours from door to door.

“Now you know what we go through every day,“ City Council Member I. Daneek Miller told Gotham Gazette following that night’s event, which he co-hosted with Council Member Donovan Richards and focused on, what else, transportation.

The commute to and from downtown Manhattan that the Council members and some of their constituents face was part of the motivation behind the town hall, set in the outer reaches of the city and called to examine the challenging state of public transit in St. Albans, Laurelton, and surrounding neighborhoods - often referred to as a “transportation desert.”

In a recent op-ed for Crain’s New York Business, Miller laid out the extent of the problem: people from Southeast Queens spend roughly 15 hours a week commuting, 238 percent more time than the average New Yorker.

The residents of the area share this plight with several other neighborhoods considered transportation deserts because of their lack of public transit options - places including the Rockaways, the North Bronx, and the South Shore of Staten Island.

With the subway map sure to stay mostly as it is, communities in greatest need of good transportation options that can get residents to the city’s main jobs centers are reliant on a bus system lacking in capacity and dependability. Even though 97 percent of the city‘s population lives within a quarter mile of a bus stop, the collective problems with the service--it is one of the slowest systems in the nation and the slowest among big cities--render residents far removed from subway lines and feeling helpless.

With increased scrutiny of transportation deserts and lengthy New York City commutes come increasing calls for creative bus solutions: with more selective bus service (SBS) and bus rapid transit (BRT) at the forefront.

transpo deserts[NYC "subway deserts" - map by Chris Whong)

According to an audit released by Comptroller Scott Stringer in April, buses are not just slow, they are also often late: Stringer‘s study revealed that more than 30 percent of the city’s express buses do not run on schedule. Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island are hit the hardest, the comptroller said. The report also found that the MTA had inconsistent inspection standards for wheelchair lifts across their bus fleet, which, in addition to failing disabled riders, also slows bus time.

“This is more than just a statistic,“ Stringer said at the press conference unveiling his audit, “a late bus could mean a missed job opportunity, missed wages, or missed time with children.“

One possible antidote for lagging buses and transit hungry commuters is Bus Rapid Transit, and the idea is gaining momentum, as the Miller-Richards town hall showed. The questions ahead are about political will and community buy-in toward expanding BRT in New York City. BRT was a piece of a recent City Council hearing on transportation deserts, but the city’s Department of Transportation has already been made to study BRT through a law passed in the Council and signed by Mayor de Blasio that will lead to a report on areas where BRT should be implemented.

Started in Curitiba, Brazil in 1974, BRT was originally formulated as a cheaper alternative for a city that didn‘t have the money to build a subway. In its fullest form BRT combines a variety of features to make it operate at a speed comparable to light rail (an option also talked about for Queens and Staten Island). Long accordion style buses--in Curitiba they hold up to 250 people--shoot up and down bus-only lanes of large streets, stopping at intervals akin to a subway line (rather than the shorter ones of typical bus service).

Traffic signals have sensors in order to hold green lights for buses approaching intersections. People pay their fare before they board the bus and stations often feature elevated platforms or curbsides that coincide with the floor of the bus, making it quick and easy for elderly or disabled people to board. All this amounts to more on time, reliable, and efficient bus service.

Since the turn of the century cities across the globe including Paris, Istanbul, Bogata, and Los Angeles have all adopted BRT to curb car use and improve public transit overall.

Now, Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to bring BRT to New York as part of his efforts to help the city’s lower and middle classes. The argument also goes, of course, that if workers have shorter and easier commutes they are more productive when they’re at work.

”Bus riders are the most neglected part of our transportation system,” de Blasio’s policy book from his 2013 mayoral campaign reads. “Bus Rapid Transit has the potential to save outer-borough commuters hours off their commute times every week and stimulate economic activity in neighborhoods the subway system doesn’t reach.”

While it’s been somewhat slow to materialize, de Blasio’s pledge to bring New York City a “world-class bus rapid transit system” has been gaining steam. When signing the BRT study bill in May, de Blasio reminded that, “We all know that mass transit is particularly critical for those New Yorkers for whom resources are very tight, whose incomes are very tight - mass transit is their lifeline. It connects them to jobs, schools, everything.”

In March the state-run MTA and the city’s Department of Transportation (DOT) announced the official plan for the city‘s first full-scale BRT route on Woodhaven Boulevard, in Queens. The project will stretch 14.4 miles, cost around $200 million, and be fully operational by 2017. (By contrast, the Second Avenue subway is supposed to cover 8.5 miles, cost upwards of $17 billion, and be done at a to-be-determined date.)

Previously the two organizations’ efforts to speed up bus time came in the form of Select Bus Service, a paired down version of BRT that also utilizes off-board fare collection, along with traffic signal priority, semi-exclusive bus lanes, and longer distances between stations. The first SBS route was launched in 2008 on the Bx12 on Fordham Road in the Bronx, and has enjoyed relative success. According to statistics collected by the MTA one year after the launch, running times increased up to 19 percent, ridership by 8 percent.

Over the past seven years the MTA and the DOT have added seven other SBS routes, including ones going up First Avenue and down Second Avenue in Manhattan. All routes have enjoyed faster service and a 2013 DOT report claimed that SBS had saved eight million hours of travel time.

Still, SBS is not BRT. The former appears more suited for the busier sections for the city, the latter for moving people from the city’s outer reaches to its transit and business hubs.

With the Woodhaven route, which will have exclusive lanes and robust, fully-outfitted stations with shelters, seats, and real-time information on bus arrivals (along with off-board fare collection and transit signal priority) the city is setting a new standard for its above-ground transportation. The fully exclusive bus lanes, which will also allow traffic signal priority to be more effective, are particularly exciting given that Kevin Ortiz, spokesperson for the MTA, told Gotham Gazette that traffic congestion and red lights are the top two causes for bus delays.

woodhaven2 int[Woodhaven BRT rendering, via NYC DOT]

The line, which will run north-south, perpendicular to the A, E, F, J, M, R, and 7 trains, is indicative of the type of improvements BRT could offer in the so-called “outer boroughs.” Joan Byron, Director of Policy at the Pratt Center for Community Development and a member of the advocacy group BRT for NYC, sees this improvement as imperative to the economic empowerment of New York’s outer-borough residents.

“We have a problem right now of people not being able to get to their jobs and employers not being able to get to their workforce. Work locations are shifting. Job growth is much faster in the boroughs than it is in Manhattan…and the subway system isn‘t set up to serve them. You can do things with BRT that would take decades to do with rail,“ Byron told Gotham Gazette.

As it stands, she explains, “if you live some place like Far Rockaway…the number of jobs that are within a reasonable commute range for you are much smaller than if you live someplace like Park Slope.”

The Woodhaven line plans to change that for its service area. BRT lines along the North Shore of Staten Island (something City Council Member Debbie Rose called “a necessity, not an amenity”) and Southern Brooklyn—two possible routes the MTA and DOT are investigating—would also serve similar purposes.

Council Member Donovan Richards, who represents part of the area the new BRT route will serve, sees this project as only the beginning. Ultimately, he wants a full-scale BRT network throughout the city, viewing the issue as one that is also key to environmental justice.

“[BRT] needs to become as natural as breathing air,“ he said to Gotham Gazette after the town hall. “We have got to remember that if we don’t get cars off the road, climate change is going to wipe out communities in New York City. Overall the city needs to adopt it,” he said, referring to BRT.

Car Ownership blog[Rates of car ownership, via NYC EDC]

Richards, along with city DOT officials, recently had lunch with and gave a tour of the planned Woodhaven route to a federal transportation secretary. U.S. Senator Charles Schumer has promised to push for federal funding.

The excitement continued into May when the mayor signed into law the new BRT-related bill.

According to the City Council website, “Under the bill, DOT would work with the MTA and gather input with the public to develop a citywide BRT plan, due to the Council no later than September 1, 2017. The plan would consider areas of the City in need of additional rapid transit options, strategies for serving growing neighborhoods, potential intra-borough and inter-borough BRT corridors DOT plans to establish by 2027, strategies for integrating BRT with other transit routes, and the anticipated operating costs of additional BRT lines.”

SBS may continue to expand, and many note that it is a version of BRT, but the extent to which a strong BRT system will be implemented is unclear. In several other cities where the system has achieved success, says Joan Byron of Pratt, the build of these cities naturally accommodated the necessary BRT infrastructure.

“The places where that has been done, places like Bogota, Columbia, that model was implemented exactly in the parts of the city that have kind of a post-World War II physical fabric and development pattern. The street there for the main bus line, the Transmillenial, is twelve lanes wide. Pedestrians cross that street on over-passes. It wasn’t a big jump to put dedicated lanes in the center region and to have physical stations that are actually enclosed.”

Woodhaven Boulevard, eight lanes wide and notoriously hazardous for pedestrians (the station islands to be installed in the middle of the avenue also act as a safety measure), is at least somewhat similar.

Council Member Brad Lander, the lead sponsor of the BRT bill, sees Manhattan’s First and Second Avenues as streets also appropriate for the full BRT service, especially given the MTA‘s recent announcement to forgo $1 billion in funding for the Second Avenue Subway project.

Most buses, though, don‘t operate on streets the width of a small highway (even dedicating a full lane of First or Second Avenue could prove quite contentious). For these routes Lander and Byron see smaller BRT-like features being incorporated into bus operation citywide on a case-by-case basis.

“The simple idea of off-board fare payment, that’s something we want to get to on every city bus,” Lander told Gotham Gazette. After that, he said, what is doable will depend on infrastructure features and funding.

Lander cited the SBS M86 route, the MTA‘s latest SBS addition, as a prime example. Even though there is not enough room for a dedicated bus lane (the bus runs crosstown on 86th Street in Manhattan), the MTA has already installed off-board fare collection and plans to add bus bulbs - protruding, bulges of sidewalk in front of bus stops, constructed so that the bus doesn‘t have to pull over when it picks up passengers. Stations are also equipped with real-time bus arrival information. A similar approach could be effective on smaller streets in the outer boroughs as well.

imgres[A bus bulb, via]

Council Member Daneek Miller is impatient, saying that his transit-starved constituents can’t wait a decade for BRT lines.

“There are 300,000 people in Southeast Queens who it’s talking an hour-and-a-half, an hour-and-forty-five minutes to get to their job in the city, who can’t wait 20 years for a change,” Miller said after his town hall.

Miller, who ran a transportation workers union before joining the Council, takes a slightly more cynical view of SBS. He says the recent buzz around BRT has led the city to overlook basic adaptations that could yield considerable results, like those he outlined in his op-ed, such as fare reform on the LIRR. For his constituents, Miller said, “BRT might be the second best answer. I can get to City Hall in 50 [minutes] on the LIRR; it takes me an hour-and-40-minutes using public transportation.”

Still, Miller certainly wants to see extended express bus service to Downtown Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn. He acknowledges infrastructure challenges of implementing BRT in some places, saying “We don‘t want to put square pegs in a round hole,” and that it is essential to have all the components, otherwise it won’t be BRT, but a “glorified express bus service.”

With an eye toward communities like those represented by his colleagues Miller and Richards, Lander points to the need for more options for commuters. Citing “low-income New Yorkers and communities of color” that “have disproportionately long commute times,” Lander said at the May bill-signing that “New Yorkers across the city – especially in transit-starved, outer-borough neighborhoods – need more mass-transit options. This law, and subsequent exploration of a Bus Rapid Transit network, will significantly improve public transportation access in the parts of NYC that need it most, at a cost we can afford, and help insure a more sustainable future.”

BRT and SBS advocates, like Lander, stand confident that their plan will deliver, and sooner than projected.

“I think it’s going to accelerate,“ said Byron. “For every elected official that will stand up and say ‘I want BRT in my district now,’ which all the Council members along the Q52, Q53 routes have said, you’ll get others that say, ‘Forget it, my constituents ride the bus,‘” Byron said, referring to hesitant Council members who she thinks will acquiesce.

When asked about the twelve year timeline in his BRT bill, a charged Lander replied, “the city - the DOT with the MTA - is already rolling out BRT at a pretty rapid rate...we are not waiting.“

by Colin O’Connor

All Aboard the BRT Express? Mon, 16 Nov 2015 19:06:12 +0000
Does Staten Island Get Its Fair Share? si wheel

Rendering of proposed New York Wheel on Staten Island

There may be no other borough that has the local pride and identity felt by Staten Islanders. To be a Staten Islander often means to be of New York City and to be disconnected from New York City. It often means to know your family, but wonder if you were switched at birth.

Since New York City adopted its outer boroughs in 1898, Staten Island has always been the odd child out. Even for a city of islands, Staten Island seems, and is, far away. It is the enigma of New York City in virtually every aspect - at least most of it is, as the stereotypes of Staten Island sometimes belie its diversity.

Stand Island sits apart, though. Even the island accent is a bit more bombastic — more expressive, even — than the standard New York intonation. It’s important to have your voice stand out when you’re struggling to be heard.

The Staten Island existence has been, and continues to be, in some part dominated by its uneasy relationship with the larger city it is a part of, and the ongoing struggle its residents and elected representatives engage in to ensure that “the forgotten borough” gets its fair share.

Perhaps it’s fitting that Staten Island is the size of a key at the bottom left of the MTA subway map, which, of course, shows few lines cutting through the borough. It is a borough geographically far from the others, and population-wise, nowhere near a fifth of New York, with just under 500,000 residents in a city of over eight million. While much of the city is chasing rent, Staten Island has higher home ownership than any other borough, and its residents rely heavily on cars. For the most part, Islanders are big supporters of law enforcement, and it is a suburbia to many current and retired uniforms.

This is not to say that Staten Island is homogenous, of course. It is not.

The Island, aka Richmond County, looks more like America than the rest of New York City. Or, as Joe Borelli, one of only four Staten Islanders who serve in the 150-seat New York State Assembly, told Gotham Gazette, “New York looks at Staten Island weird, but it’s the rest of the country who’s looking at New York weird.”

It is the only borough with a clear white majority, at 77 percent of the population, compared to 12 percent African-American and 18 percent Latino, according to recent census figures. And the racial divide is stark: the North Shore is far more ethnically diverse and less wealthy than the South Shore and much of Mid-Island, with a reliance on public housing and apartment complexes to accommodate booming immigration populations. Staten Island has more registered Democrats, but most of its elected officials are Republican. This ruling conservatism makes it an outlier.

There’s been a longstanding feeling of disconnect, both figuratively and literally, between the residents of Staten Island and City Hall — pleas unheard, problems ignored. There is an ongoing sense on Staten Island that things simply aren’t fair.

It is the only borough without a full-service public hospital. Its transportation system, as many residents will tell you, is abysmal: besides the ferry, there is no direct route to Manhattan. Commuters are left with the more expensive buses that route through Brooklyn, and the always congested, pricey Verrazano Bridge, whose toll now stands at $5.50 each way (at the resident discount). The only intra-borough train in existence is the SI Rail, while no train operates from east to west. And the borough has been left with spots of land that are widely inaccessible by public transit.

The discontent is about funding, for sure, but not just about the money. It’s simply often part of what it means to be a Staten Islander - a sense of otherness, of not being understood or served by the public servants who are supposed to represent the *entire* city. But the question is: has the borough really been shortchanged? Under Mayor de Blasio or anyone else. That’s up for debate.

And Gotham Gazette is not the only entity looking for answers. Last week, the College of Staten Island announced that a $20,000 study will be conducted into whether or not the “forgotten borough” is truly forgotten. Pushed by City Council Member Steven Matteo and his predecessor as Minority Leader, Vincent Ignizio, the Council-funded research will essentially evaluate city services to see if Staten Island is getting its fair share. So, next time its delegates negotiate the city budget or other upcoming policy, the island will have a better idea of where it stands.

Well before that study gets underway, we set out to assess how much of its due Staten Island receives.


As is the case with the current mayor, Bill de Blasio, Staten Island often votes against the city grain — it was the only borough de Blasio lost in his landslide 2013 victory over Republican Joe Lhota. In the City Council, Staten Island has three seats of the 51, which are allotted by population. Brooklyn has 16. “We have less representatives in the Council and Albany, which puts us at a disadvantage,” Borelli argued.

So, in late July, the small City Council delegation from Staten Island — Council Members Debi Rose, former Council Minority Leader Vincent Ignizio, and Steven Matteo — held a press conference alongside elected officials to announce big news for the borough: $30 million of Council funding in the Fiscal Year 2016 budget for capital and expense projects across the island.

The new infusion of cash would be pooled by Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s office, the Staten Island council member delegation, and the Borough President’s office. Causes from libraries and school lunches to the Snug Harbor Cultural Center were getting a financial boost. A Council spokesperson also pointed out efforts in last year’s budget to increase ferry service and establish business improvement districts.

“This Council recognizes the important contributions of Staten Island and is thrilled to invest back into the borough in order to strengthen New York City as a whole,” Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito noted.

“I thank Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and my colleagues in the Staten Island delegation for being partners in crafting a budget that responds to the real needs of Staten Islanders,” Council Member Rose added. Rose is the lone Democrat representing Staten Island in the Council, she is African-American and hails from the North Shore.

In the grand scheme of things, though, the $30 million jackpot is due more nuanced analysis. The new city budget includes a total of $78.6 billion for expenses. Then there’s $13.9 billion for capital projects across the city. Much of the full picture of what Staten Island receives is buried deep in those amounts, through mayoral agencies and city operations. This fogs up how the $30 million factors into a larger total, and what it means on the local level.

Take, for example, the funds for the borough presidents. James Oddo, Staten Island borough president and former member of the City Council, received the smallest BP allotment, $4.2 million, while Eric Adams, of Brooklyn, has $5.8 million to work with. Yet, per capita, Oddo has more money than any other BP. Adams has $5.8 million to spend on 2.6 million people, about five times the population of its somewhat distant neighbor.

ignizio oddo si heynowjo

(former SI Council Members Ignizio, foreground, & Oddo)

Generally, it’s quite difficult to break the city budget down borough-by-borough, so much so that the College of Staten Island needs a well-resourced study to get to the bottom of this. You cannot flip open city budget documents to see a full accounting of what resources are devoted to each borough - it’s just not so easy to decipher how much of FDNY or Department of Health expenses are going to serve Staten Islanders, though estimates are surely possible.

Still, there’s the concept of insurance, that as part of the larger city, Staten Islanders can believe that there are virtually unlimited resources available were they to need them. Though, one need not look further than Superstorm Sandy to see the complicated nature of such a point.

There are many complicating factors to really trying to suss out how the city allocates resources.

“Let’s say a nonprofit agency based in Manhattan provides some of its services in the Bronx. The value of the contract for the work in the Bronx would show up in the Manhattan district where the agency is located,” Doug Turetsky, a spokesperson for the Independent Budget Office, told Gotham Gazette. “Another problem with these statements, or assigning dollars to a particular location, comes up with NYPD. An officer may be assigned to a particular precinct and that’s where he or she gets paid from, but on any given day that officer may be working in any part of the city.”

Turetsky was referring to what are known as District Resource Statements, which are provided by the Office of Management and Budget. These show analyses of the funds dedicated to the districts in every borough by each agency - but, as Turetsky explained, they don’t necessarily give the full picture of what Staten Island is getting, or, perhaps, not getting from the city.

Instead, Turetsky pointed to Community Board Geographic Reports, which are also OMB documents. This is a fuller borough-by-borough breakdown of the major agencies in the city (e.g. Parks and Recreation, Sanitation, NYPD). So, to get an idea of how Staten Island stacks up, looking at an agency like Parks and Recreation can be helpful.

According to the latest Community Board Geographic Report, for FY 2016, which began July 1, the funds for Staten Island borough-wide parks and rec total upwards of $1.8 million, with 27 full-time park employee positions. Queens, meanwhile, has $3.9 million allocated for borough-wide recreation, with 47 full-time positions. Around the same budget increase is set to occur next year for both boroughs: $55,000.

Staten Island parks see about half the funding of Queens’ while the borough has more park land, but many fewer residents. The island boasts the title of “Greenest Borough,” having 113 city parks, which, with state parks included, constitute a third of the island’s land mass, 12,400 acres in total. Queens has more parks, but covering fewer total acres: 284 parks, 7,000 acres. Queens, though, has 2.3 million residents, while Staten Island has just over 500,000.

It is no surprise that in every category for the Department of Sanitation, meanwhile, Staten Island ranks lowest out of the boroughs — less people, less garbage.

That’s the main obstacle in comparing Staten Island, in general, with the rest of the city: the demands are completely different. Brooklyn, for comparison, serves nearly 300,000 students in its public schools, while Staten Island has 60,000 students. Speaking with Joseph Viteritti, the chair of the Urban Affairs and Planning Department at CUNY Hunter, about this, Gotham Gazette asked him how to sort through this reality and analyze any discrepancies. “It’s very hard to answer that,” he responded. “You can’t do a straight budget analysis, because the budget is driven by demand.”

And it’s not all about population, of course. Yes, Staten Island police districts may have smaller budgets, but if areas in Brooklyn have higher concentrations of violent crime, then it makes sense that Brooklyn precincts receive a bigger piece of the pie. The same applies to schools, sanitation, parks, and so on. Think about Manhattan, Viteritti said. Even with the smallest land mass of the five boroughs, it is home to Wall Street, countless skyscrapers, Central Park, and 1.6 million people; not to mention the hordes upon hordes of tourists.

“Of course Manhattan gets more money from the city [than Staten Island],” he explained. “How can you even compare the two?”


Joe Borelli, the Assembly member set to soon replace Ignizio in the City Council, says Staten Island’s blues arise from its uniqueness. He says the problems faced by residents are unlike those anywhere else in New York. “Since as far back as the American Revolution,” Borelli muses, “Station Island was different, and disconnected.”

And though there are sections of Queens and other boroughs that resemble large swaths of Staten Island, there’s nowhere in the city with the combination of characteristics of the island, including its remoteness, limited public transportation, and more.

As a result of “the failures of urban liberalism” in the 1960s and 1970s, Borelli argues, his home island served as a refuge for white flight as crime skyrocketed elsewhere. This is why on the island, “everyone you know is related to a cop,” Borelli added. Yet, after Manhattan and other parts of the city regained social stability, many of the developments achieved over the past decade-plus have failed to make it across the Verrazano.

For example, the ferries that now ride up and down the East River, servicing the re-emergence of neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Long Island City. Albeit suspended until 2017, even Rockaway Beach, at the far southeast corner of Queens, had some sort of ferry service (in addition to the A train). Residents on the South Shore of Staten Island, on the other hand, are still waiting to be picked up.

Then there’s bikes. While Mayor Michael Bloomberg peppered the city with bike lanes and pedestrian plazas throughout the 2000s, Staten Island watched from the sidelines: the borough is more car-dependent than any other, with a far distance between the North and South shores. Hylan Boulevard, which is arguably the busiest thoroughfare in the whole borough, has rows of perpetually empty bike racks, which the city spent $60,000 to build, because a solid portion of the avenue has no lane dedicated to cyclists.

Whether Staten Islanders wanted bike racks—or lanes, for that matter—is up for debate. But the situation, Borelli explained, demonstrates this “general distaste” of residents towards the city’s larger urban planning ideas, of which they’ve been largely left out of. It is this uneven growth that has driven Borelli’s current (and unopposed) campaign to fill the empty seat left by Ignizio, who recently became the CEO of Catholic Charities on Staten Island. "Somebody has to speak for the millions of outer-borough, middle class homeowners that are lately placed on the back burner of city policy,” Borelli told DNAinfo, referring to more than just Staten Island woes.

When asked about the stark differences — population, size, demand — between Staten Island and the other boroughs, Borelli said that, yes, those things are true, but shouldn’t be the reasoning behind neglect. He then listed conundrums that could happen few places in the city but Staten Island. Parks built without sidewalks leading to them. Bike lanes delayed because of too much brush blocking them. Nearly $5 million spent on replacing trees.

“We have a lot of resources, but they’re left vacant or without funding,” Borelli argued. “We have more parkland than any other borough, and somehow have less of the Parks budget than everyone else. Where else can you ride an ATV in the city?”

“Find me a property anywhere else where the city builds a park but doesn’t put sidewalks in,” he continued. “It just doesn’t make any sense.”

This frustration, as expressed by Borelli, is part of the Staten Island id. In 1993, it came to a boiling point when Staten Island attempted to secede from New York City. The referendum effort, led by State Senator John Marchi, was, of course, a culmination of built-up emotions, but the immediate catalyst was the approval of a new City Charter in 1989, which did away with the Board of Estimate. Instead of having one vote of five, like every other borough, Staten Island now had just three City Council members to represent its interests across the Narrows. The borough arose in protest.

At the time, Joe Viteritti was the staff director of a commission that looked into the economic self-sustainability of Staten Island, or if an island with the population of a small city could manage alone without the help of sister boroughs and City Hall. The studies showed that it was feasible, Viteritto says, but his team also found that, in 1993, the cost of Staten Island to the city outpaced the revenue it generated by about $200 million. In other words, the city was putting more into Staten Island than it was receiving.

“These analyses point to the surprising conclusion that separation of Staten Island from New York would actually provide budget relief for the city,” he wrote then, in City Journal. “From a strictly economic perspective, the other four boroughs would come out ahead.”

This didn’t convince either Mayor Ed Koch or Mayor David Dinkins, both of whom strongly opposed the referendum. When Governor Mario Cuomo let the legislation proceed in Albany, Koch said the Democratic leader was “plunging a dagger into the city’s heart.” But it wasn’t up to him.

“Honestly, the only reason secession didn’t go through is that the legislation needed approval in the State Assembly, and it didn’t get it,” Viteritti told Gotham Gazette. “Cuomo, and then Pataki, were ready to sign it. [Former Assembly Speaker from Manhattan] Sheldon Silver bears sole responsibility for why Staten Island is not its own independent city right now.”

Now, over twenty years later, Viteritti doesn’t know if things are the same on Staten Island. The most immediate demands of the secession movement were met, and, in many ways, that’s why everyone Gotham Gazette spoke with for this article said Rudy Giuliani is still the most popular mayor on the island, by far.

Giuliani, a Republican, had a 1994 platform aimed at addressing the island’s two main grievances: making the Staten Island ferry free and closing the Fresh Kills dump (both were eventually accomplished). “To think, what was more symbolic to Staten Islanders than a place where the city can leave all of its garbage?” Doug Muzzio quipped.

At the time, Muzzio, a political scientist at CUNY Baruch and longtime city expert, was tasked with polling Staten Island residents. He said a “victim narrative” existed, in which residents felt their input surpassed the output (later found to be untrue) and, in return, they got the city’s garbage. While their transportation issues are “legitimate” reasons to be angry, Muzzio added, “Staten Islanders have always thought they were forgotten, and if they did get city services, they were ill-timed,” he said. This is part of the island’s “mythology” - too little, too late.

Yet, to Muzzio, Giuliani fit the Staten Island mold. His last name sounded like it was cut from the borough’s fabric. He was close with the renowned Borough President then, Guy Molinari. He was incredibly pro-NYPD, and he was a Republican. Staten Islanders still reminisce about the Giuliani days as a time when the island was truly a part of the city. In a recent tweet, James Oddo, the current BP, named the Giuliani Years as one of the few times in its history when “Staten Island was treated better than fairly.”

The same can almost be said about Bloomberg. Once again, a Republican, if only in his early mayoral years, and very close with the law enforcement base. To Staten Islanders, Bloomberg’s reign was praised for lower crime rates, much-needed rezoning and development, and finally, a focus on fixing their vast parkland. His property tax hike wasn’t received well, but, like with the rest of New Yorkers, maybe it will be down the line.

"I think his legacy is not fully baked,” now former Council Member Ignizio said when Bloomberg left office. “I think coming from Rudy Giuliani, who was wildly popular on Staten Island...following that act was tough.”

More controversially, Bloomberg was mayor during Superstorm Sandy, a storm that devastated Staten Island, perhaps more so than any other borough. It left millions of dollars worth of damages, and still, to this day, has residents rebuilding their homes. Bloomberg’s attention to the disaster was received well, but his funding program — Build It Back — was not. The initiative, which was meant to siphon federal funds to those not insured, hadn’t issued a single check or broke ground on any related construction programs when he left office.

It was an utter failure in Staten Islanders’ eyes. And one that was saved by an unlikely, if quite unpopular, new figure who Islanders did not want elected and are still coming to terms with.


There were all the ingredients for Staten Island scorn: a persecuted policeman, a progressive mayor the borough didn’t vote for, and a publicly drawn-out war that put the hometown base and new city leader on opposite sides. Not to mention that it happened just minutes from the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, and for all the world to see. The death of Eric Garner at the hands of Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo set off what had already been a begrudged populace. Within a year of his mayoralty, de Blasio had lost any goodwill many Staten Islanders had extended him, largely because of his comments in the aftermath of the grand jury’s decision not to indict Pantaleo.

Since then, his administration has made efforts to make it clear that City Hall does care about the mid-Island and South Shore constituency, with more visits, more funds for extensive capital projects, and a continued overhaul of Build it Back that finally has the program up and running - though many still find the pace too slow. Even with a 19 percent approval rating amongst Islanders, de Blasio seems set on establishing some island credentials, even against all odds. A progressive Democrat, from Brooklyn; at least he has the Italian last name.

"Mayor de Blasio has invested nearly $5 million a year to deliver 24/7 half-hour Staten Island ferry service, added over $240 million to improve road conditions, brought faster [snow] plowing to Staten Island residential streets, and improved the Build it Back program so residents are finally receiving checks and rebuilding their homes,” Monica Klein, a deputy press secretary for de Blasio, said in a statement to Gotham Gazette, “showing time and again that he is committed to improving the lives of Staten Islanders and giving the borough the attention it deserves.”

For the announcement on the repaving efforts, de Blasio made a trip to Staten Island after mounting criticism that he had zigzagged the country while spending little time in the “forgotten borough.” But praise was in the air from Staten Island officials. “Mayor de Blasio heard our pleas for help and delivered, and we are thankful for his commitment to improving our roads,” BP Oddo said, alongside the mayor, and a large "pave baby pave" sign from the borough president's office.


pave baby pave heynowjo

(via BP Oddo)

Still, many car-owning Islanders happy about new investments in roads may continue to point to de Blasio’s handling of the Eric Garner saga and a perceived lack of support for the NYPD. They are likely to pin any upticks in crime or perceived quality-of-life issues to the mayor’s legacy; a sentiment that is true across the city, but most acute on Staten Island. But regardless of what happens between the mayor and Islanders, there are strong forces at work that could drastically change just about everything on and about the island.

In April, the New York Times beat the gentrification drum with a headline that read, “Staten Island’s Turning Point?” The writer, C.J. Hughes, pointed out major developments that will mark the island coast in the near future: the New York Wheel (a massive London-Eye-esque ferris wheel), Empire Outlets (a huge mall complex), and numerous stores, coffee shops, and breweries. Not to mention a condo complex called Lighthouse Point and another called URL Staten Island, which, along with the Wheel and outlets, have been deemed the “core four” by The Real Deal, a development-focused publication.

While some are excited and see jobs afoot, others are skeptical. One resident remarked, “I like the small-town vibe, and I don’t mind that there’s a little bit of grit.”

Linda Baran, the director of the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce, says that the impending development is a conversation that the borough has yet to have. What will it do if thousands of New Yorkers start to move in, once again escaping the mainland, this time because of high rents, not crime? The spike in prices is something that “resonates through every conversation,” she said. Is Staten Island really ready for that?

“There is no dialogue about how the borough should receive the people coming in,” Baran told Gotham Gazette. “Now the idea is to bring new businesses here so people don’t have to leave.”

Baran argued that development could solve one of the main issues the island faces, and has always faced: vacancy. The shore, she said, is lined with empty industrial lots, which are not only a blight on the islandscape, but bad for business. She’s hoping that development will bring more attention to major borough-wide concerns, like infrastructure and healthcare, as it has in Brooklyn and Queens.

She added that the de Blasio administration has done a fine job of cutting red tape for small businesses, but other City Council-backed measures, like paid sick leave and ‘ban the box’ legislation disallowing background checks, are “good initiatives,” but have left Staten Island owners weary of City Hall intrusion. “I think the city has talked about fixing the business community here,” she told me. “But the businesses aren’t seeing that just yet.”

Still, Baran touched upon what could be a new chapter in the Staten Island mystique. After feeling forgotten for decades, this could be the future the island has longed for; one where it is on an equal playing field, both economically and culturally, with its borough brethren. There is a fear — or irony — that the borough could be on its way to getting more than it bargained for, with high-rise condos and public attractions threatening the Staten Island way of life, causing more traffic. Be careful what you ask for, some seem to be saying.

“We were always used to being last on the totem pole,” Baran said. “We were an escape for everyone. And now, the boroughs are saturated, and growth is a good thing.”

She paused, then said, “Things are changing.”


John Surico is a freelance metro reporter. His reporting has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and here, for Gotham Gazette. He lives in Queens. Find him on Twitter @JohnSurico


Does Staten Island Get Its Fair Share? Fri, 14 Aug 2015 05:00:00 +0000