According to a recent census report, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and Dominicans represent 52% of the population in East Harlem. (Considering the large presence of undocumented Spanish-speaking immigrants in the neighborhood, the percentage of Hispanics is probably more.)
Despite such high numbers, local stakeholders report that less than one-third of Community Board 11 members are Latino. The imbalance is worsened, they say, by the fact that only four Hispanics serve on the board’s Executive Committee.
As a result, concerned East Harlem residents have launched a campaign for more Latino representation on the board. The group has gathered over 500 electronic and hand-signed petition signatures since mid-February and published an open letter to Manhattan Borough President Scott M. Stringer and Council members Melissa Mark-Viverito and Inez Dickens that reads, in part:
“The Latino community has helped build, shape and grow East Harlem for more than a century and must be allowed to play a more pivotal role in the neighborhood’s development. We call for more Latino representation on Community Board 11 so that it can better serve the needs and concerns of its constituency. We ask the Borough President and local Council members to demonstrate cultural sensitivity and appoint a more equitable number of Latinos.”
Yma Rodríguez is one of several board members who have been vocal about their concerns. “If you look at other boards you will see that most operate with more equitable representation,” she said. “That is the ideal we are working towards.”
Debbie Quiñones, another board member, said the petition drive has been well received in the community. She and other stakeholders are continuing to gather signatures, which they plan to present to the Borough President.
When asked about any impact the campaign might have on race relations, Quiñones says “The issue is leadership equity, plain and simple. Many non-Latinos understand that and have been very supportive.”
The Word on the Street (and the Web)
While Rodríguez and Quiñones are leading the drive, Celia Ramirez, Peggy Morales, Carlos Díaz, Edwin Marcial and other board members have endorsed the effort. “We need more Latinos on Community Board 11! Fair is Fair!” Marcial declared.
The campaign has also garnered support from local business owners such as Poets Den theatre manager Raphael Benavides and East Harlem Journal publisher Alberto Cappas and East Harlem historians such as Arlene Dávila, Christopher Bell, and José B. Rivera.
María Domínguez, Olga Ayala, Lina Puerta, Tanya Torres, Clemente Flores, Francisco Pérez, Gonzalo Casals and others within the local arts community have also signed the petition.
From Morristown, Florida to Detroit, Michigan to Maunabo, Puerto Rico, dozens of former East Harlem residents are also chiming in on the issue – via the Internet.
Kelly Vilar, who was born and raised in East Harlem and now lives on Staten Island, spoke plainly. “It’s a shame that those who are making appointments need to be reminded that Latinos are a huge part of the economic, political, and cultural life of East Harlem. There should be no question of their representation on the Community Board.”
Another former resident, Ruben Estrada, described how he and many others fought diligently in the late 60s and early 70s to ensure that the community was fairly represented. “Puerto Rican trailblazers led the way for those who now control community board appointments,” he posted. “I hope our work was not in vain.”
The Manhattan Borough President has long touted his commitment to reform and disdain for community boards that are “unbalanced in relation to district populations.”
When questioned about contradictory claims made by East Harlem residents, Stringer spokeswoman Audrey Gelman told DNAinfo reporter Jeff Mays:
“Borough President Stringer looks forward to working with the petitioners to attract the best and the brightest to Community Board 11 through our process of merit-based selection.
“Over the past seven years, the Borough President has appointed 630 new members to Community Boards, and the number of African-American, Latino and Asian-American board members has increased by 40 percent.”
Yma Rodríguez and other stakeholders were then invited to meet with some of Stringer’s staff on March 11 to discuss concerns they say are “very much in line with the Borough President’s vision.”
Although Stringer’s Chief of Staff Alaina Gilligo would not guarantee an increase in the number of Hispanic board members during the meeting, she did acknowledge that his office does receive applications from many qualified Latinos every year and assured attendees that their concern about representation was an important issue that would be “taken under consideration.”
“We discussed the redistricting and rezoning that’s coming our way,” Rodríguez reported, “driving home the point that Latinos must be allowed to play a more integral role in the decision-making process.
Although no promises were made, Yma says she is “confident that – like any intelligent and culturally sensitive leader – the Borough President understands the gravity of the situation and will do the right thing for the East Harlem community.”
In contrast, Community Board 11 Chair Matthew Washington – who did not respond to our inquiry – told DNAinfo that he though Stringer was doing a good job of “appointing people who want to advance our community.”
‘It brings comfort when there are people who look like us and have the same background as us, but ultimately we want to make sure we have the right people on the community board.’[Washington] also said he chooses committee chairs based on skill alone. ‘I look at individuals who have a capacity to chair a committee and skills that drive it.’”
Some disagree, however, and insist that committee assignments do not reflect local demographics. “The Borough President has no authority over internal board matters. It’s ultimately our responsibility to reform the decision-making process and to implement new policies – not Stringer,” one member noted. “With that said, nothing will change without the Borough President taking the first step. His appointments will set the tone for the future of the board.”
The list of this year’s appointees to Community Board 11 will be announced on April 1. All eyes are now on Stringer, waiting to see whether his legacy of reform will survive this hurdle.
Community boards evolved from a protocol established by former Manhattan Borough President Robert F. Wagner, who in 1951 formed 12 volunteer “community planning councils” to advise him on land use and budgetary issues.
The 1963 New York City Charter made citizen advisory groups a requisite for every borough, and the councils were eventually renamed “community boards.”
There are currently 59 boards in New York City – each with their own budget, staff, and office. Community boards are self-governing, but must comply with all laws outlined in the New York City Charter.
Each board is made up of 50 volunteers selected by the Borough President; City Council persons nominate half of the membership from their respective districts. Appointees serve staggered two-year periods with no term limits. They must be New York City residents and live, work or have a significant interest in the district they serve.
Community Boards have no legal authority, but they can influence legislators, local stakeholders, and developers on crucial policy issues such as zoning, development, public safety, and delivery of city services.
CB 11’s boundaries are not based on Federal, state, or city legislative lines, but rather the U.S. Census map of East Harlem – which runs from North 96th Street to East 143rd Street and East of Fifth Avenue to the East River. Randall’s Island is also part of the district.
This article by Marina Ortiz was originally published in The East Harlem Journal on March 23, 2013.