How block associations work to make NYC a city of neighbors

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We New Yorkers are not necessarily known for our neighborliness—according to New York magazine, we’d rather “endure an electric shock” than run into the strangers who share our apartment buildings and blocks. But our supposed aloofness doesn’t hold up when you consider the prevalence of block associations throughout the city—this list, from Manhattan’s Community Board 2, shows that there are dozens downtown alone. The sheer number of these groups of residents who live on the same street or within the same neighborhood reveal that we may be more friendly and civic-minded than we suspect.

Block associations are groups of residents who decide to collaborate to strengthen a block or area; they often form around a particular issue or set of issues--for example, an unscrupulous landlord or a green space that needs improved maintenance. Across NYC, locals have formed them to beautify neighborhoods, advocate for better crime prevention, and partner with other community groups. In Canarsie, for instance, area block and tenant associations united to form Canarsie Strong in the wake of Hurricane Sandy to help the neighborhood rebuild; today, the group hosts meetings to address ongoing revitalization and sustainability. But most important, says Arif Ullah, director of programs for the Citizens Committee for New York City, are the benefits of befriending one’s neighbors. “It’s about building greater resilience on the block, because people know each other better,” Ullah says.

Marie Laport, community outreach coordinator with the Bridge Street Development Corporation, agrees that a major advantage of forming a block association is strength in numbers. “We get an opportunity to talk about wanting to be stronger, and what that actually means and looks like in the world,” she says.

New Yorkers who are interested in starting a block association—provided that there isn’t already one they can join, which they can find out by contacting their community board—shouldn’t feel daunted by the process, says Ullah. “You just need to get together with a few people on your block and do outreach to residents, gauge their interest, and once you have a few people, declare yourself a block association and take it from there,” he explains.

The Citizens Committee provides an in-depth guide to the process that lays out tips for defining the issues that affect your block, building a group of motivated neighbors, and holding meetings. And the Bridge Street site outlines how your association can then make things official by adopting bylaws and presenting them to your community board and precinct’s community affairs unit.

When it comes to organizing a block association, there's no one-size-fits-all proposition. “Take into consideration whether you want an anarchist-type flat structure versus a board of directors,” Ullah says. “Think about whether you’ll have elections and how they’ll be held. Come up with the structures that work for your group.” Some, for instance, might opt to select a Board of Directors to oversee the association's work, and seek 501(c)3 status so that they can fundraise; others keep things more casual and choose not to have any leadership and follow a purely egalitarian process when it comes to decision-making. The requirements to join an association are generally simple; the Murray Hill Neighborhood Association, for instance, invites all locals and business to become members by paying annual dues. The rights conferred by membership vary based on how the association's governance is structured.

Arlene Harrison, who calls herself “the mayor of Gramercy Park,” founded the Gramercy Park Block Association in 1994, after her then-teenage son was beaten in front of her building. “Block associations usually start around a catalyst issue,” Harrison says, “and this community joined together and set up a block association to deal with the crime that was rampant in those days around the city.”

Since then, the association has grown to 2,000 members and was granted nonprofit status; it has tackled issues ranging from traffic congestion to panhandling to historic preservation, and also hosts a number of charity drives each year.

As crime has declined, Harrison says she now sees her main role as a steward of the area’s historic legacy. “If you run it well, with good people, then your focus can change,” she observes. The trick to building a successful and long-lasting block association, Harrison says, is to gather together as harmonious a group as possible, by collaborating with people who share your focus and agree on what needs to be accomplished in the area. 

Ullah adds that when it comes to organizing a block association, it’s not a one-size-fits-all proposition. “Take into consideration whether you want an anarchist-type flat structure versus a board of directors,” he says. “Think about whether you’ll have elections and how they’ll be held. Come up with the structures that work for your group.”

In Bed-Stuy—which has the highest concentration of block associations in the city, according to Ullah—the work of these groups often has a social justice dimension. Traditionally, Laport says, these associations have been mostly made up of homeowners, but lately, renters and owners alike are sharing resources.

"They realize they’re intricately linked and one is dependent on the other,” Laport says. “The displacement of one means the displacement of the other.”

Such collaboration between long-time residents can serve as a method of preservation in a neighborhood flooded with newcomers. Bed-Stuy is one of the city’s fastest-gentrifying areas, according to a report from the Furman Center; a lifelong resident recently wondered in the New York Daily News, “Is this how black Bed-Stuy dies?”

Laport notes that some locals are dismayed by gentrifiers who arrive in Bed-Stuy “like they’re pioneers and settlers, with an expectation of ease and comfort.” In response, block associations are adopting a “counter-colonial posture, which in some cases is about integrating new neighbors. We must orient these people, and humanize ourselves to these folks,” she says.

To this end, an alliance of 75 neighborhood associations will have its first meeting next month. Laport says that up for discussion will be how to adopt a collective posture on displacement, and how neighbors can help each other maintain their roots in a rapidly changing area.  

Ullah notes that when block associations take smaller steps, too, like working toward neighborhood beautification by caring for trees and keeping streets swept, it also enhances communities. “People take greater ownership of those blocks,” he says. “It makes people feel connected with each other. We’ve seen it over and over again.”

Harrison agrees that the primary function of block associations is to make a massive, often-anonymous metropolis feel friendlier and more familial. “It’s a vehicle for making a big city into a small town,” she says. “It’s about neighbors helping neighbors, and becoming a close-knit family.” 


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