It’s not a smoke-filled back room; it’s a second floor, badly fluorescent-lit space. There aren’t any cigars, just a large bag of pretzels shared among the committee members. No secret deals are being made with the men and women working here; no money being passed around.
On the sidewalk below flow pedestrians, double-wide strollers, walkers, wheelchairs, dogs and skateboards. Cars, buses, motorcycles, skateboards, tourist cyclists and messenger bikes compete around dug-up streets, detours and construction cones. Under the streets our subways run, or notoriously don’t. These three levels are the turf of the Transportation Committee for Community Board 7.
Board members, all volunteers, prepare to plow through the agenda. Their loosened ties and slightly crumpled dresses reveal they’re coming from a long day of work. In the audience are architects, landlords, a Department of Transportation representative, the Lincoln Center BID rep, the NYPD precinct commissioner and Upper West Side citizens. There’s a bus line update we can’t quite get to because there are other more pressing agenda topics. A scant report is given on three subway elevators that may or may not be working and may or may not be inspected, three lines on a blank sheet because the board wasn’t given much information.
Then a young man, 15 years old, rolls in on his motorized wheelchair. Perched on the chair’s arm is a computer giving him access and opportunity to speak his mind. The tone and mood changes in the room as he enters. The teenager waits patiently for his agenda item to come up. He must be both patient and persistent, because he’s been waiting two years already.
He lives in a prewar building that has no ramp. His family began requesting one two years ago. The red tape finally leads here tonight. The committee volunteers are eager to help. The word “expedite” flies around the table. The architect drawings are brought up on an ancient project screen that creaks down from the ceiling. There’s a collective sigh of relief when the members discover the building is west enough of the Historical Landmark district, avoiding yet another approval, yet another vote from another committee. The members want to help, want to accomplish one small thing for one young man. There’s a hold up, though. Even after their approval, there’s a mandatory vote required by the entire Community Board 7 that’s not until November. Someone says if we don’t get this approved soon, it will be too late in the season to pour concrete, build the ramp. This will add another six months to an already long-awaited goal.
Everyone wants to raise their hand and vote for this young man to get his ramp, to approve one thing. With subways delays that have leapt from 20,000 to 60,000 a month, with elevators in disrepair, nonexistent or broken, with roads that are filled with construction from utilities, just this one thing would be progress.
The young man has his opportunity to speak. The voice comes out slightly computerized, but definitely a male teen’s timbre. He presses the screen, giving his name and age, then says, “I use a wheelchair. I use a motorized chair at home so I can drive myself. There are steps to get into my building. There’s a small ramp now but I can’t get in or out of my home in my motorized wheelchair. Please approve the ramp so I can drive my wheelchair outside. Thank you!”
I imagine him somehow getting each word entered into this piece of tech, so he can come here, and press one or two buttons. There are hours behind those few words; years. His independence to navigate these streets, to be a young man on his own, is at stake.
Small government groups like Manhattan’s community boards get things done, push things forward, make our streets safer, and therefore make us safer. There are appointed and non-appointed opportunities for residents to get involved to help. The agenda reveals a small slice of what the board needs to advocate for. Politics wasn’t always a dirty word: part of its ancient Latin roots is “community.” These are the people that represent us.