Categorized | Featured, Manhattan, Politics

East Harlem Takes Budget Into Its Own Hands

The renovation of this playground at the Robert F. Wagner Houses is one of many projects proposed at last night's participatory budget meeting.   Photo credit: Nathan McDermott/GlobalCityNYC

The renovation of this playground at the Robert F. Wagner Houses is one of many projects proposed at a participatory budgeting meeting. Photo Credit: Nathan McDermott/GlobalCityNYC

One million dollars isn’t much in a city that allocated $75 billion for next year’s budget, but for some East Harlem residents, it was enough to warrant meeting in a cramped, dimly lit community center last night. The reason? They get to choose how it’s spent.

The process, called participatory budgeting, allows community members themselves to decide how a portion of city funds is spent in their neighborhood. In City Hall, bureaucrats and politicians may determine how many billions go towards education or transportation, but in the Robert F. Wagner public housing complex, where the meeting took place, local residents are in charge.

With a PowerPoint projector and a white blanket taped to a brick wall in lieu of a screen, Max Cantarero — the director of community affairs for City Council Member and Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito — stood before the nearly three dozen residents who showed up for the meeting and explained some of the rules: No project could cost less than $35,000 or more than the full million and the money had to go to one-time costs for a capital project, like infrastructure or renovations.

Cantarero said participatory budgeting projects in the past have included renovation work for the Jefferson Houses’ senior center, playground upgrades in a nearby park and classroom renovations at a nearby school..

The assembled crowd split in to four groups, each at a gray, plastic folding table. Then the debates began.

Katie Harris proposed that a vacant plot of land that’s part of the Wagner Houses property become a small garden for the nearby senior center. A resident of Wagner and 81 years old, she’s also been the Tenants Association president for 25 years.

“My vision is to give seniors more activity and be a part of the community,” Harris said. “With some of this money, we could provide a canopy and garden as a recess area for seniors so they don’t just have to stay inside and play bingo.”

Others in Harris’ group proposed renovating and expanding a playground outside the Wagner Houses.

Exequiel Guevara, 18, and Jorge Garcia, 17,  attended the meeting to learn more about the community. Residents as young as 14 years old get to participate in the decision.

“One of the proposals was for a computer lab to teach the elderly how to use computers,” Garcia said. “I really liked that one.”

Guevara, on the other hand, liked one idea of transforming a pier on on the East River at FDR Drive in to a common area and small park.

Tiffany Vega, general manager at Hi-Arts, a nonprofit that produces hip-hop inspired dance theatre and other art for the urban community, asked for funding. “We’re going to have two theaters that are going to be available in March, and are hoping to get funding for the lights and sound package,” Vega said. “Most of our programming is free or very affordable. We’ll have dance pieces, workshops and plays, financial literacy for artists.”

Then Lorraine Knox stood. “I live at the Jefferson Houses, and we have a day care center that’s been closed for a couple of years,” she said. “I think we should renovate it and turn it in to a youth center.”

After each group championed their funding ideas, Cantarero had to end the meeting at 8 p.m., after more than two hours, but said he was pleased with the results.

“It went really well, we had a great turnout,” Cantarero said. “The most important part is that community residents share their ideas on how the budgeting can be allocated within the district. Plus, a lot of people are really interested in becoming budget delegates.”

There are still three more community meetings to be held in East Harlem in October before delegates begin meeting in November. Afterward, delegates will meet with their community a final time to clarify what the most popular projects are before residents eventually vote in a special election this spring to select the projects to receive funding.




Leave a Reply