NYCommons: A Tool To Help Grassroots Groups

NYCommons: A Tool To Help Grassroots Groups

In urban development, gentrification is a very important process that can transform the city, both socially and economically. Gentrification process in urban areas has several positive aspects (buildings are renovated and beautified, there are more jobs opportunities, more retail and service business, etc.) but also some negatives ones such as the loss of affordable housing and public assets (including parks, park buildings, former schools, library buildings, community gardens, etc.) and city-owned vacant lots are in the crosshairs of developers. This is the case of the Lower East Side in NYC that it is now one of the hottest real estate markets in Manhattan.

According to Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, the state chapter of the national civic engagement and government accountability organization, in urban development, communities play the role of underdog, on the contrary, the government and real estate developers run the show (especially the latter).

So, it is important to analyze what set of organizing tools community-led organizations have built to help grassroots groups compete with private real estate developers when it comes to determining the future of publicly owned assets across the city.

An interesting example is given by Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center, a group that provides legal, participatory research and policy support to strengthen the work of grassroots and community-based groups in New York City to dismantle racial, economic and social oppression and 596 Acres, an organization that builds tools to help neighbors see vacant lots as opportunities and create needed green spaces that become focal points for community organizing and civic engagement. These groups, in collaboration with Common Cause New York, are working on a huge project, named NYCommons.

According to the website, NYCommons is basically a new online map and database of all the public assets that helps New Yorkers impact decisions about public land and buildings in their neighborhoods and provides some type of potential real estate development opportunity. According to this statement, it’s hard to define precisely what it includes, but Paula Segal, founder of 596 Acres claims that, if it is true that in cities most of infrastructure and assets are shared (the subways, the roads, the sidewalks, the water, housing, etc.) so, the platform goes on and on to the point where privately owned property can start to seem like the real outlier.

This idea was born about three or four years ago, Mrs. Lerner says, when NYCommons partners started to see a pattern in the organizing around the future of public assets (i.e. a proposed soccer stadium in Queens, the Midtown Library in Manhattan and the main Brooklyn Public Library Branch). They “started thinking about the fact that all of these separate challenges had similar underlying policy issues that have to do with how does government think about commonly owned, shared assets.” In fact, although residents were spending a lot of time and energy, often they didn’t received benefits from these proposals involving public assets.

At the same time, there was some movement: 596 Acres supported some grassroots groups that organized around 36 former publicly owned vacant lots, which turned in declared permanent parks at the end of 2015. In addition to this, 596 Acres has developed a number of tools and created resources around city-owned vacant land: we are talking about Living Lots NYC and Urban Reviewer. The former is an online map and database that provides a useful platform for organizers to connect and maintain records of organizing activity around each lot, the latter is a catalogue of over 150 urban renewal plans that NYC adopted to get federal funding for making way for new public and private development.

In accordance with that, the specific purpose of NYCommons is indeed to create an expanded tool set to serve grassroots organizing around the broader universe of public assets in NYC. They decided to start by asking people in 10 neighborhoods and they finally found a great deal of interest for sharing best practices and connecting with others doing similar work. For testing their job, NYCommons chose three neighborhoods for pilot including the Sara D. Roosevelt Park in Lower East Side. This park presents a very strong story of citizen empowerment and, over time, that participation has contributed to the creation of Sara D. Roosevelt Park Community Coalition (SDRPC) with the aim to bring “together local stakeholders who seek to foster community-based stewardship by providing a voice for all who love the park and the communities it serves”.

Kathleen Webster, long-term resident on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and president of the SDRPC affirms that documentation, workshop facilitation and other resources to begin developing a tool kit provided by NYCommons were very helpful as a draft basis from which to go. The fact that all pilot sites will continue to shape the final NYCommons tool kit and the online platform and this pushes other sites to upload their data into the platform is the strenght of this project. Organizing track records provide vital talking points for future hearings and op-eds and community meetings.

In conclusion, the words of Mrs. Lerner are suitable to describe the characteristics of this projects: “Hopefully NYCommons can provide an entrée into a fairly sophisticated, experienced, citywide network of groups who are all thinking along the same lines, putting pressure on government to be responsive, with a similar vocabulary and set of expectations about public assets serving the public”.



NYCommons è solo l’ultimo degli strumenti forniti ai gruppi grassroots di New York che lavorano per garantire ai cittadini la libera fruizione di spazi pubblici con un alto valore sociale. Nello specifico, si tratta di una mappa e un database online continuamente aggiornati secondo la dinamica bottom-up per mappare gli assets pubblici di NYC.

A new Silicon Valley in upper Manhattan?

A new Silicon Valley in upper Manhattan?

redlogoHarlem is one of New York’s most famous neighborhoods, known as a major African-American residential, cultural and business center. In the past, it has suffered a series of economic boom-and-bust cycles, with significant population shifts accompanying each cycle. In the last decades, residents have been experiencing the effect of gentrification and displacement of the area.

But even so, Harlem community is strong and vibrant: an example is East Harlem Neighborhood Plan (organized by Hester Street CollaborativeNeighborhoods First Found and Center for Urban Pedagogy), a community-led initiative that expressed a community-oriented approach in urban planning. This approach is consistent with the aim of promoting a new institutional and economic system based on the model of collaborative urban governance. The development plan tried to replace the number of losing affordable housing and added more benefits into the community, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said. Their mission is to provide leadership in sustainable, technology led, economic development for emerging urban communities.

Turning to another issue, such as broadband access affordability, it is important to remember Silicon Harlem, a for-profit social venture that got started in 2008 that is pushing to make Harlem a hub of technology and innovation that will will thrive and inspire the global digital economy. Co-founder and CEO Clayton Banks said that high-speed Web is “the electrification of the 21st century”, so “the most pressing issue regarding broadband is affordability”.

According to Silicon Harlem website, this social venture “is an ecosystem that is inclusive and driven by positive growth” and “the Technological Future of Harlem is a comprehensive set of steps needed to transform the community”. The idea of “a hub of technology and innovation” means establishing co-working spaces, gigabit infrastructure, securing investment capital, and hosting monthly meetups for boosting economic and social advancement in a neighborhood that has become increasingly multi-ethnic. New York University’s Furman Center, indeed, claims that, for example in Central Harlem, Black people were 77% in 2000 and they decreased to 55% in 2014, while Hispanic slightly increased from 17% in 2000 to 24% in 2014 and White rocketed up to 15% from 2% in the same period. These data are also important because they showed neighborhood incomes and educations levels on the rise.

Then, Apps Youth Leadership Academy (AYLA) is another program created to enhance the skills and prepare students for their careers in global digital economy. According to the website, The Academy launched in 2014 and put 20 High School students through a 7 week summer program. The students learned a variety of critical skills including: how to build a mobile app, how to build a website, how to manage as a team, how to pitch an idea, basics of coding, basics of design, problem solving and feedback, and much more. Bolstering the technology proficiency of students is important in U.S. because there are 5 million households with school-age children but without broadband access.

Another interesting initiative is “Mission Possible” program created by WeWork and Silicon Harlem: here Harlem-based entrepreneurs can win office space and networking chances and opportunities:

  • Three to 12 months of space at WeWork Harlem;
  • Access to WeWork’ 80,000 members;
  • Participation in Demo Day pitch competition and other events;
  • Mentorship and professional advice from members and industry experts;
  • Reduced rates on health, payment processing, accounting, legal advice, etc.

Finally, CNBC reports that New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer considers broadband access the key to turn Harlem into the next Silicon Valley. In his opinion, broadband access creates wealth because it is inherently better to invest in human capital (especially for women and minorities) than merely to raise the minimum wage.

On this matter, Carrie Sheffield affirms that there is a diversity problem in technology: in Dropbox, Google, Facebook and Twitter only one or two percent of employees are black compared to African-Americans comprising 13 percent of the U.S. population. Moreover, according to CB Insights, a 2014 list of top tech venture capital firms shows just 1.54 percent of investors were black, and just 1 percent of tech startup founders were black. This isn’t to say we need rigid, racial quotas in tech, and in fact, economics tells us that sort of rigidity is bad for consumers. The key point is to build a robust culture around STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math) and it is precisely what Silicon Harlem is doing in Harlem and in other cities such as Newark, Philadelphia and Haarlem.

According to this view, Silicon Harlem really have an opportunity to lower crime in Harlem, the potential to lower unemployment rates, increase quality education opportunities and grow jobs and bolster the neighborhood’s reputation as both a cultural and business force.