UWS Participatory Budgeting Boosts Libraries, Schools, Firehouse

Lincoln Center’s Library for the Performing Arts will receive technology upgrades through City Councilmember Helen Rosenthal’s participatory budgeting process. | Photo courtesy of New York Public Library

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA Grassroots democracy can be seen in action on the Upper West Side. City Councilmembers Helen Rosenthal and Mark Levine announced winners of their respective participatory budgeting efforts where residents decide what’s to be done with around $1 million in discretionary funds in their district. Thousands of Upper West Siders voted this spring for projects ranging from technology upgrades at libraries and schools to window replacements at a firehouse.

“This is always an exciting time of year,” Levine, who represents District 7, said in a written statement. “It’s truly amazing to see how our community comes together to get things done through this process.”

NYCHA’s General Ulysses S. Grant Houses in Morningside Heights is gaining a new playground and improved outdoor lighting due to participatory budgeting in City Councilmember Mark Levine’s district. | Photo courtesy of Wikis Take Manhattan 2009

Project winners in Levine’s district include $500,000 for external lighting at the New York City Housing Authority’s Grant Houses on Broadway in Morningside Heights; $60,000 for bus countdown clocks along Broadway; $200,000 for computers, printers, Wi-Fi, projectors, and audio systems at George Bruce, Hamilton Grange, and Bloomingdale public libraries; and a total of $400,000 for technology upgrades at M.S. 54 Booker T. Washington and P.S. 36 Margaret Douglas schools.

“This year’s winners represent an incredible cross section of projects from across my district, from libraries at all three 7th District libraries to technology upgrades at M.S. 54 on the Upper West Side and P.S. 36 in Harlem,” Levine added.

A record-breaking 2,079 District 7 residents voted this spring. In Councilmember Rosenthal’s District 6, a record 3,583 residents voted, nearly 500 more than last year.

“P.B. is a chance for the community to partake in the democratic process in its purest form,” Rosenthal said by email. “People often feel their representatives are not listening to them. P.B. opens the door, giving them a chance not just to vote directly on, but to actually help come up with the projects that will improve their community and make it more vibrant.”

The highest number of votes in Rosenthal’s district went to technology upgrades at three Upper West Side libraries: St. Agnes, Riverside, and the Lincoln Center’s Library for the Performing Arts. Voters allocated $200,000 toward self-checkout kiosks, laptop and desktop computers, printers, and Wi-Fi upgrades.

Between District 6 and 7, six public libraries will get $400,000 worth of technology upgrades.

The Bloomingdale Public Library on W. 100th St. will also get a technology upgrade through partipatory budgeting in Councilmember Levine’s district. | Photo courtesy of New York Public Library

“The New York Public Library is honored that our branches have been selected by New Yorkers to receive vital funding that will support important technology improvements,” said a spokesperson for the library system. “In the spirit of such democracy, we thank our City Council Members and their constituents for this wonderful consideration. It remains our privilege and pleasure to serve the vibrant communities of this great city.”

Rosenthal’s constituents also voted for $250,000 to purchase smart boards, Mac desktops, tables, and chairs for the technology lab and 12 classrooms at P.S. 166 | The Richard Rodgers School of the Arts and Technology; $42,000 to purchase 35 tree guards to protect Upper West Side sidewalk trees less than two years old; and $500,000 to replace windows at the Engine Company 74 Firehouse.

The landmarked firehouse on W. 83rd St. suffers from windows that are are dilapidated — some propped up with blocks of woods, patched with cardboard, and their caulking likely asbestos-contaminated. The new windows will improve firefighters’ working conditions and be energy-efficient while maintaining the building’s historic character.

The Participatory Budgeting Project, a nonprofit organization that supports governments and public institutions in launching such programs, has helped spread the grassroots budgeting movement across 1,500 cities in the US and Canada — including Chicago, Boston, and Greensboro, North Carolina. The effort caught fire in New York in 2014, driven especially by councilmembers first elected the year before, such as Rosenthal and Levine. The program involves team of volunteers developing proposals after consulting community groups and city agencies on the district’s needs.

The cash — typically around $1 million — must go toward “brick and mortar” projects on city-owned property such as libraries, schools, and public housing, not toward salaries or services.

“Participatory budgeting engages our community in the governing process by giving residents the ability to decide what improvements they want to see in their neighborhood,” Levine said.

After a few seasons of participatory budgeting, Levine’s constituents are seeing their votes translated to action. This summer, Grant Houses, just below W. 125th St. on Broadway, will open a playground built with participatory funding secured back in 2015. Another half-million dollars will add external lighting at the houses.

“I can’t wait to cut that ribbon,” Levine said.

In 2015, Rosenthal’s constituents voted to fund a mobile food pantry for the West Side Campaign Against Hunger.

“Through the mobile pantry and its other programs, WSCAH strives to ensure that our most vulnerable residents have options,” the councilmember said. “They can choose between a wide selection of healthy foods, and they have access to supportive services as well.”

“This is a wonderful example of the community’s priorities in action,” Rosenthal added.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *