Ah, the community board. Staples of hyperlocal New York City politics, they’re advisory boards designed to listen to the needs and complaints of the community, solve what problems they can, and advise elected officials and city agencies on what the community wants to see.
They’re made up of committees — traffic and transportation, land use, housing, among others. Each is headed by a chair, while the board itself is led by its own.
This summer, after three years from Rosemary Ginty, Community Board 8 promoted her vice chair — Laura Spalter — into the top spot. It was the first contested chair election since Dan Padernacht defeated then vice chair Maria Khury in 2014, outlasting former economic development committee chair Sergio Villaverde, in the vote.
A former public schoolteacher at P.S. 80-Isobel Rooney Middle School in Norwood, and a 26-year member of the board, Spalter has had plenty of experience with local governance and city agencies.
“I worked on civics even with my students, we attended community meetings, and I taught them how to protest, and they wrote the newspaper,” she said. “I just worked it in. We painted over graffiti around our school. I’ve just always been civic-minded, I guess.”
As the board resumed meetings for the new fiscal year last month, Spalter officially took the gavel, although she admits the board already had been working for months. Those efforts ranged from encouraging neighbors to fill out the census, to working with the CB8’s new racial equity committee, which was formed last July.
The community board provides a sense of hyperlocal representation outsiders might not expect of the nation’s largest city. There are 59 total community boards in the city, with 12 of them here in the Bronx. Each typically hold up to 50 members.
That means just under 3,000 people in the city could be serving on a community board, each representing about 2,800 people themselves. The number of people represented by council members are in the tens of thousands, while borough presidents and the mayor count constituents in the millions.
Making that work, Spalter said, requires many moving parts.
“We are the liaison with the agencies, and the board is inundated with complaints that will go to one of the 13 standing committees,” she said. “Parks, public safety, land use, T&T. Look at the front page of this week’s paper with the speeding cars. We’re the first stop.”
When people have worries or complaints, Spalter said, they come to the board for help.
“We, ourselves, don’t solve the problems,” she said. “What we do is we work very closely with the agencies, city agencies, to try to get those problems solved.”
There were a lot of complaints this summer from people living near parks, Spalter said. With bars and restaurants closed — at least on the inside — would-be customers instead gathered in green spaces and on streets, playing music and drinking at what some said were all hours of night.
It was fun, Spalter said, but it also kept neighbors awake at night. So did fireworks, an issue all over the city for a good part of the summer.
“This crossed into public safety with the 5-0 and the parks department, so we just stick to it,” Spalter said. “We just keep meeting with the elected officials, with the agencies, with the constituents, with the groups involved.”
It can be frustrating to serve as an advisory board without much real power, Spalter said, but she’s an optimist. With their monthly committee meetings and work alongside city agencies, Spalter feels the board has made real change in the years she’s served.
More recently, in fact, she joined longtime land use chair Charles Moerdler testifying before the city’s standards and appeals board against what they described as an “inappropriate” seven-story apartment building developers are pushing to build on Terrace View Avenue in Marble Hill.
They’ll return to standards and appears to discuss it further in December, Spalter added.
Land use and zoning are often hot-button issues in this part of the Bronx, especially as neighbors fight large, high-density buildings like the one slated to replace Spuyten Duyvil’s Villa Rosa Bonheur on Palisade Avenue.
“There’s a huge push for build, build, build,” Spalter said. “Density changes the character of the neighborhood, however, and they don’t build a school to keep up with the density. On the other hand, people are pressing for more affordable housing.”
Spalter expects to see many issues with zoning and development during her tenure as chair, but after years on the land use committee, she’s ready to tackle them.
The board also continues its quest to move out of its North Riverdale office space to new digs somewhere more central for the community board’s coverage area. While its current office has been largely empty during the pandemic, Spalter looks forward to the day the board can gather in-person again, rather than just meeting via online videochat.
In the meantime, the board also is working to expand its social media presence, getting more people aware and involved in meetings. That includes posting CB8 meeting times and agendas on the board’s Facebook page, as well as using social media channels to spread the word about other events going on in the area —mostly virtually, for now.
“I’m proud to lead the board, I’m honored to lead the board through this challenging time,” Spalter said. “I think I am going to be depending on the tremendous talent that we have on the board and collaborations with board members. I feel that that is a tremendous strength that we have, and that I want to elevate.”