If your New Year’s resolution is to get more involved in the neighborhood, applications to join your local community board are now open, giving the opportunity to serve as a decision-maker without the headache of running for office. Here’s what you need to know, and Manhattan Community Board 4 (MCB4) members from Hell’s Kitchen tell us why they took the leap, what they love about it — and why they want West Siders to join their ranks.
Who’s Actually On a Community Board?
Any New Yorker over the age of 16 who lives, works, attends school or owns a business in a specific community board area is eligible to apply to join one of the city’s 59 organizations. Community board appointments are determined by the borough president — in Manhattan, that’s Mark Levine.
Levine’s office has provided an online application, open through March 17, 2023. Applicants must initially answer questions about their neighborhood, occupation and interest in joining a board as well as provide a resume. New applicants have to submit a number of short essays. The office may also contact candidates for an additional interview prior to appointment.
Why MCB4’s Members Joined
W42ST spoke to longstanding and newer members about what drew them to make the commitment. For Board Chair Jeffrey LeFrancois, a member since 2016, a previous job in local politics piqued his interest. “I’ve been working with Community Board 4 since 2009 or 2010 as the liaison from Assemblymember Dick Gottfried’s office,” said LeFrancois. “I like helping people and I like making a difference in the community.
“I also like working with big groups and with people, which some folks would consider torture,” he added. “I consider it a pleasure. Getting things done is messy and takes work, but I believe, with progress as our guide, that we need to keep moving things forward. And I think our community board is a great way to be a part of doing that.”
For some, the ability to join virtual meetings has made the time commitment more possible and accessible — especially for parents. Charlie Todd, who joined the board in 2022, had been attending virtual Transportation Committee meetings as a resident when he saw that applications were open. “I was debating whether it was something I was ready to jump into, or I should wait until my children were a little bit older,” said Todd. “But then I thought, ‘well, I’m already going to a lot of these meetings as a resident to voice my opinion — I might as well see if I can have a vote too.’”
As a busy family therapist and parent of multiple children, Aurora Cruz didn’t think she had the time. “I’d wanted to join for years, and I finally had a break in my professional career,” said Cruz, who heard about the community boards through a graduate school organizing class. “After talking to a friend who serves on a different community board, I realized that even though it’s a commitment, you have to find the time if it’s something you want to be involved in. And so I put in an application last year, joined, and I’ve really enjoyed my time.”
Other members, like Housing, Health and Human Services Committee Co-Chair Maria Ortiz, were inspired by graduate school. In 2013, “I was attending Fordham’s Graduate School of Social Service and taking a social work history class on community organizing leadership,” said Ortiz, “I had learned about a community board meeting about housing, and I wanted to join. I went to the meeting and I really liked the way it was handled — I remember that there was someone fairly abrasive at the meeting and the co-chairs handled them really well. After that, I decided to join, I’ve lived in the community my whole life and I wanted to do more.”
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Carl Wilson, a member since 2022 and a former staffer for then City Council member Corey Johnson, found his way to the community board through his work as a political liaison. “I had a front row seat into how things worked, and when I left that position, I was still very much interested in being involved in community affairs and continue the work, so I decided to apply.”
And Why MCB4’s Members Love Their Work
MCB4 members highlighted the ability to propose, discuss and vote on actionable local change as civically fulfilling, with many reflecting on community projects that they were proud to have had a hand in bringing to life. “My favorite memory of serving on the community board has got to be the Hartley House,” said Ortiz. The historic youth and senior services center was in danger of shuttering before the community board and local elected officials were able to save it. “We got to save a resource in the community,” she added. Expanding affordable senior housing in the area is still a top priority for the Housing Committee.
Both LeFrancois and Todd cited the community board’s many transportation projects as being key points of pride, describing the recently expanded 9th Avenue sidewalk to the completed 8th Avenue bike lane and potential 10th Avenue bike lane as life-saving initiatives. “I’m thrilled to serve with Christine Berthet and Dale Corvino as our Co-Chairs of the Transportation Committee,” said Todd.
“I think they’re both very progressive and visionary leaders when it comes to transportation. I remember as a resident, I went to that meeting about extending the 8th Avenue bike lane and I had in my head, based on things I’d seen on Gothamist or social media about other community boards that, ‘the community board will be against the bike lane and the DOT will be for it’. And when I got to the meeting, I realized, ‘Oh, the community board wants the bike lane to be better and they’re fighting the DOT to make it better’. I think that’s not always the case on boards in other parts of the city, and it was really eye-opening to me,” he added.
LeFrancois said the community board’s wide-ranging, ambitious new housing plan is a point of pride for the group. “There are 59 community boards in the city. There’s only one with a housing plan.”
Even when there are difficult conversations to be had, members say the work is worth it. “Last month we had a bit of a contentious issue around a dog park in Chelsea,” said Wilson. “I enjoy being part of the group that worked very hard to try to settle that in a way that was beneficial to both sides. I really enjoy trying to hear both sides out and try to figure out some sort of compromise that tries to take in the interest of all the stakeholders. It’s rewarding.”
There are plenty of happy moments, too, said Wilson, who serves on the Waterfront, Parks & Environment Committee, “It’s a lot of Hudson River Park advocacy, which is hugely connected to our district and makes people happy.”
Cruz said that connecting live with neighbors through MCB4 initiatives was the most fulfilling part of her time on the board. “Maria Ortiz put together a coat and diaper drive for the influx of migrants in the neighborhood. After being able to contribute even a drop in the bucket to this flourishing community, and have conversations and coffee with our new neighbors, I left feeling totally energized and full of life,” she added that participating with her 13-year old stepson showed her that the community board has an impact on future generations, too.
“He hadn’t initially wanted to go, but by the second day he was ecstatic and pulling me out the door,” said Cruz. “He was really excited to talk to the families and be able to share that opportunity of service to people just [arrived] in our community.”
How Much Time will I Have to Give (and is It On Zoom)?
Community Board 4 members are required to attend three meetings a month: one full board meeting and two committee meetings. Members are expected to join at least two committees based on their areas of interest:
- Business Licenses & Permits
- Chelsea Land Use
- Clinton / Hell’s Kitchen Land Use
- Housing, Health & Human Services
- Waterfront, Parks & Environment
- Arts, Culture, Education and Street Life
- Transportation Planning
- Task Forces and Working Groups
Each committee meets once a month on Zoom. And although 100 percent remote meetings will end on January 23, they will continue to be hybrid, with the option to join virtually.
I’m In! How Do I Get Started?
If you’re interested in learning more before applying, LeFrancois and the other members recommended checking out the MCB4 website and attending meetings, which are publicly streamed on Zoom and can be watched live or taped on the community board’s YouTube channel.
“I’ll emphasize that some of them are very, very long,” said LeFrancois. “And that’s just the nature of public process and public meetings, but I know Board 4 works hard to respect people’s time, and also makes people feel good about the work that they’re doing.”
Although the appointment is certainly a time commitment, it is possible to manage your availability, revealed Cruz. “Try not to overextend yourself,” she said, adding that by being “frugal with your time” you can still participate fully in the board’s initiatives.
Ortiz added that prospective and new members should feel encouraged to reach out to longtime chairs and committee members, “Get to know people who have been there for a while, and ask questions.”
For anyone interested, volunteering and connecting with fellow residents, members of MCB4 or not, is a good way to learn more and build relationships with neighbors. “I’ve been to some in-person walking tours, and that’s been nice to get to know some members there,” said Todd. “I think a hybrid future will really help us connect — so you’re not having a debate with someone over Zoom who you’ve never met in person.”
“It’s hugely rewarding,” added LeFrancois. “To see the tangible difference that the board can make is really meaningful and important — and it makes the work worthwhile .”
Added Wilson: “I have volunteered on political campaigns and other organizations, but the community board is some of the most fulfilling work I’ve done.”