Written by Boris Berlin
Photography by Rei Perovic
I am happy to be part of a several year long initiative which morphed into different goals throughout the process and taught me a lot about practical, applied democracy on a local level.
The initiative started with the goal of preserving a beloved space we used as an unofficial dog run for years, to make it an official dog run with proper gates and fences. However, this dog run was doomed by an impeding construction project for a pedestrian bridge.
We collected over a thousand signatures on three separate signature drives throughout a span of two years. When we found out that the construction project had been years in development and was approved by the local community board long ago, we decided not to fight the construction even though we had a large constituency of people already utilizing the space. Knowing our position and clout, the local politicians and the community board were eager to come to a solution.
Intent was expressed to recreate a small dog run at the bridge location if there was enough space after the construction. But knowing the plans in detail, we were well aware that there would be even less space than before the construction which already was only very small run to start with.
A meeting with Council member Mark Levine led to a swift agreement to create a temporary dog run, with the possibility of keeping it a permanent small dog run if no substantial resistance from residents comes forth. Also, we were promised that we would get a larger, permanent dog run at the park location once the pedestrian bridge was built, at which point one of the parking lots at the landing area would be closed and thus additional space freed up.
None of the solutions gave us what we really wanted: Our beloved dog run at that so picturesque and convenient original location. After we ceded to preserve the dog run at that location, any solution thereafter was a compromise.
However, I saw this as a practical exercise in applied democracy, and thus compromise was the order of the day. The community board had voted on the bridge years ago, and part of democracy was honoring that I came too late to the bargaining table to hinder that.
As the area around the pedestrian bridge was prepared for construction commencing, it came to my attention that several very tall 150-year old trees were marked for destruction. I contacted Assemblyman Farrell who took the issue seriously and met with me immediately at the location together with Margaret Bracken, the NYC Dept. of Parks & Recreation Landscape Architect/Chief of Design & Construction. We came to the conclusion that indeed several of the trees I pointed out were needlessly marked for take-down. The beautiful canopy those tall trees create would not have grown back for a generation, so I saw the rescue and preservation of what turned out to be four large trees to be my biggest single-handed achievement in practical local democracy, and my proudest one. The solution was swift and decisive. In the end, one of the promised four trees was taken down by the construction crew, so only three tall trees made it, but luckily those are the trees that create the beautiful canopy.
The constructive collaboration of all involved parties, and the efficiency in creating the temporary dog run serve as my most positive experiences in the democratic process and local politics. Special thanks to Assemblyman Herman D. Farrell and Council member Mark Levine and their staff, the Parks Department and Riverside Park Conservancy, Community Board 9, and the Puppy Brigade. This was a wonderful experience in democracy at its best, with helpful collaboration and great efficiency.