Op-Ed: With Gigi Li’s Re-Election to Chair CB3, We Need to Look at the Big Picture

Posted on: July 1st, 2014 at 9:22 am by
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Amidst the hyperbolic anger over Gigi Li’s re-election to Chair of Community Board 3 — community anger is always hyperbolic — it might be worthwhile looking at the big picture. Gigi’s missteps, after all, were no worse than previous chairs’, although past chairs were blamed only on their own faults; in this election, Gigi was blamed, unfairly I thought, for everything, whether she was at fault or not.

In particular, the blame for the “suspension” of a community group (i.e. the LES Dwellers), the most frequently cited misstep, should be placed squarely on the District Manager (“DM”) who should have known better. Gigi should have known better too, but the DM is paid to protect the process; the chair is a mere citizen volunteer. Whether for the sake of zeal or doing good or of ambition or opportunity or grandiosity or desire to please the public or merely because of the nature of public office itself, office holders are inclined to view themselves as problem-solvers, not servants in a public-legal process. Gigi is no exception.

Gigi is also blamed for the SPURA result, although the compromise was conducted by David McWater with the blessings of those who were dispossessed nearly fifty years ago as well as all the local housing advocates except GOLES. Gigi fell in line, but bear in mind that that line was long and inevitable.

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LeRoy McCarthy argues his case for “Beastie Boys Square”

She has developed enough political acumen to set aside her ideological preferences and respect the community process in Chinatown, and that’s good. In the past, when CB3 wanted to know what Chinatown needed, it would ask Asian American for Equality (AAFE), as if Chinatown were a monolith representable by one octopus organization. At least CB3 is beginning to recognize that there are complex interests in Chinatown and many communities within it.

On the other hand, Gigi’s inclinations bend too far towards authority. She has objected to me, for example, to the violent language of an important Chinatown labor organization, little appreciating that labor at the invisible bottom of poverty must agitate loudly just to be heard. She is less sensitive to the coercive violence of management that, well-dressed and well-spoken, sits alongside authority at elegant banquets, although management’s violent force against labor is real and physical, however demurly silent in its smart suit. So I am not a Gigi partisan, but I have watched her set aside her personal preferences to work for the benefit of the community process. That’s a good public servant, regardless of the motive.

For what it’s worth, I’ve seen Gigi handle the Executive Committee openly, intelligently, effectively and fairly. If there is trouble in CB3, it’s permanent government. The District Manager works long and hard, knows a lot, and has intervened to help many local groups and individuals when it has suited her. An interventionist District Manager runs the risk of choosing selectively and even obstructing local activism. If the DM is human, that’s going to happen. And, of course, it has.

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David McWater resigning from CB3, September 2013

When corrected on the law, the DM has been intransigent. She bears significant responsibility for the weakening of the Alcoholic Beverage Control law, buying into a legislative change initiated by the SLA Chief Commissioner designed to disguise a real weakening of the law (deleting “community” in the phrase “in the community and public interest” which concerns not the advisory CB, but the liquor license itself — in other words, the deletion disarms the community before the court of law where it matters, not at the toothless advisory CB). That’s how legislation is done — the bad is hidden beneath an empty shell all painted up for the ambitious office holders to present to the public. A DM should know this, and I warned her about it as well as other points of law over the years, to no avail. No one knows everything — I certainly don’t — and I don’t expect anyone to, but to the extent that a DM is interventionist, a DM can be an obstacle to the community; Stetzer would be a truly great DM if she could allow herself to be corrected.

So what is the big picture? It’s not what’s seen, but what’s missing. The struggle between residents and bar owners with their callow clientele is covered daily; the struggles in the projects not so much. Grand Street and the East Village gentrifiers are heard clearly in the chambers of power; it’s easy to forget that CD3 is one of the poorest districts in the city. The presence of AAFE is highly visible throughout CD3, but Chinatown labor is invisible to CB3.

The Chinatown Working Group with the Pratt Center has been cobbling together a comprehensive protective plan, including several rezonings, for the residents of the NYCHA properties and Chinatown including the LES south of Grand Street and the NYCHA properties all the way up to 14th Street. Property owners are undermining the effort as we speak. Where is the public outrage over their defection? That’s the big picture, the invisible picture.

-Written by esteemed neighborhood activist Rob Hollander

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