President of Lincoln Square BID, Monica Blum, on tree lightings, bike lanes, and Mayor Koch
Most that goes on from West 58th to 70th streets is, literally, Monica Blum's business. As president of the Lincoln Square Business Improvement District for 17 years, a typical day for her can consist of picking up litter, calling 311, and helping people who were once homeless find jobs. At the moment, the 69-year-old is also prepping for the city's largest holiday festival, Winter's Eve, which is hosted by her BID. The restaurants and stores on the Upper West Side contribute to the success of the annual outdoor extravaganza, held on December 2nd this year. (Full disclosure: my father owns a restaurant that participates in the festival). The event is near to Blum's heart since it was her brainchild 14 years ago, when Lincoln Center lit its tree and afterwards, neighbors were left without a continuation of the celebration. Now, guests can enjoy Nutella hot chocolate from Arpeggio, mini burgers from P.J. Clarke's and guacamole from Rosa Mexicano, to name just a few of the 33 local restaurant participants. Music from schools like La Guardia High School and organizations such as the West Side Y will add to the magic in the air along Broadway. Blum summed up the evening, and her pride in the district, perfectly when she said, "Our real goal is to turn Lincoln Square into a small town for one night."
Whose idea was Winter's Eve?
I went to Lincoln Center's tree lighting with a woman who had been producing it, and when it was over, we heard all these people saying, "What do we do now?" In those days, a lot of the businesses were new, so we thought it would be a great way to introduce people to all the stores and restaurants. We use the stores as performance venues. There will be music this year in Gracious Home, Century 21, Raymour & Flanigan, and Bed Bath & Beyond. The whole idea is to bring the community together.
Explain the importance of local restaurant participation. Food is a big draw. What's interesting is that we have the fanciest restaurants but also smaller ones, and promote them all. The restaurants provide the food, staff, and decorations, and we let them keep the proceeds. Nobody's selling for more than four dollars, but a lot of places make a decent amount, at least to cover their costs. We feel that's important because we're a business improvement district, so we want to support our businesses.
You're a proponent of the arts and hired many performers for the evening.
A lot of our budget for this event goes to talent. I believe that you should pay artists. I'm very proud of the fact that I've been invited to be at a dance symposium in February to speak about the role that BIDs can play to support dance and the arts. In the case of Brian Stokes Mitchell [who will perform at Dante Park], we have a partnership with the Actors Fund, so we'll make a contribution to them.
This event is definitely kid friendly. Where can kids go to participate in the festivities?
The American Bible Society lets us use its space for free and we book musicians for kids. In addition, we have all sorts of craft tables. Magnolia Bakery donates mini cupcakes at the children's venue too.
Walk us through a typical day for you.
People who run BIDs tend to be nuts about litter on the streets. Not too long ago, Ralph [Memoli, Vice President] went out and ordered rubber gloves because we pick up garbage if we see it. If I see something wrong - a pothole, a tree limb that's down - I'll deal with it right away. We have a fair number of disenfranchised sleeping on the streets. We'll report that to 311. Part of our job is making sure that the flowers are blooming in the Broadway malls [medians along the avenue] and the planters. It's a signature effort of ours. When I started, the malls were barren and filled with litter. We hire a crew every single day from Goddard Riverside Community Center - formerly homeless, mentally ill - to clean the malls.
What are some big changes you've seen in the neighborhood?
The restaurants. When we first started, there were very few interesting ones. We had O'Neill's and Shun Lee, but there really wasn't a lot. Between the now high-end dining at Time Warner, and Lincoln Center opening up all these other restaurants, we've expanded on the food end. And, of course, the Lincoln Center redevelopment has really transformed this neighborhood.
What's a recent issue you've gotten backlash about?
The only thing I got real backlash about was the bike lanes, because I have real concerns about the way they've been designed. I'm a bike rider; I believe in safe bike riding. But I don't think, initially, that there was appropriate outreach to the business community. It's made it much more challenging for businesses to get deliveries. They have to look at how they do it so it doesn't negatively affect businesses.
In 2011, did you get complaints about the Century 21 replacing the Barnes & Noble on Broadway?
We got a lot of complaints about losing a bookstore. And then we lost another [Borders] at Time Warner, so we have no bookstore now. Century 21 is very community minded. They support us and were very quick to embrace our organization.
You started your career in government at Mayor Koch's congressional office. How did that come about?
My first job out of graduate school was at the Anti-Defamation League. There was a woman there who was a close friend of someone working for Koch, and she said they were looking for someone to work in his New York office. I went for an interview and started there in the fall of 1969. On weekends, I gave out literature at subways when he was campaigning. In the very early years, we played hostess at his apartment when he would have people over. I did scheduling and then every Friday - I'll never forget this - I would have to call all the television stations and say, "Would you like to have Ed Koch on your talk show?"
When Koch was elected, you became Assistant to the Mayor.
When he became mayor, I left the Department of Investigation to join his City Hall staff. Ed Koch and my colleagues were really wonderful to me when my first husband died suddenly of a brain aneurysm in May of 1978. They kept me extremely busy. About a year later, I met my husband Bob Lemieux at City Hall - he was working at the Office of Management and Budget. We were on opposite sides of an issue; I wanted to spend money and he didn't! We got married in 1981 and always said that we owed our meeting to Ed Koch.
You also worked for the Board of Education. What was your position there?
I was an assistant to the chancellor for personnel and labor. I was going to law school at the time. When I became a lawyer, I became the deputy director of the chancellor's office of labor relations.
What is the greatest perk of your job?
I get no perks, but I have a wonderful staff and a great board. I don't have too many problems; this district is a great one. I love coming to work every day.