ONE CENTRE STREET In his first day as the city’s public advocate, Bill de Blasio, former Councilman for Brooklyn’s 39th District, announced a new department within his office to work with advocacy organizations throughout the five boroughs and to help citizens navigate the city bureaucracy.
"Too often," said de Blasio, "city agencies and government look at community organizers as people to avoid, not to work with."
The definition of a community organizer is a matter of debate, but Wikipedia defines community organizing as "a process by which people living in proximity to each other are brought together in an organization to act in their shared self-interest."
It’s fairly safe to say that de Blasio has a more positive view of community organizing than former mayor Rudy Giuliani, who uttered the phrase sarcastically at last year’s Republican National Convention to the jeers of the crowd.
One well-known example of a Brooklyn-based activist community organization isMake the Road by Walking,which works on housing, civil rights and landlord/tenant issues in low-income and minority neighborhoods. One of its representatives, Andrew Friedman,was at de Blasio’s press conference Monday.
He expressed that de Blasio’s staff would "act like community organizers." For example, Friedman said, when fielding a call about lack of heat in an apartment building, staffers shouldn’t stop at that, but also should ask questions like, "Do the other residents in your building also not have heat?" and try to get them together.
In response to a question by this reporter, de Blasio said his office would also act with older, more established neighborhood associations, whose agendas are often less activist.
In general, de Blasio stressed, he wants to connect with members of the public because they often have answers to problems that bureaucrats don’t. When he was first campaigning for City Council in Park Slope, for example, a resident suggested trash cans that have tops on them and won’t overflow. That resident’s comments were later translated into reality when de Blasio was elected.
In a like-minded vein, de Blasio also announced his intention to have ordinary citizens report to his office on the status of building sites, which often generate noise, dust and other problems. Of course, the Department of Buildings only has so many inspectors.
De Blasio freely admitted that he is operating under strained circumstances because the Public Advocate’s Office’s budget was cut by nearly 40 percent last year, much more than most city agencies. He believes that "watchdog" agencies such as his should be funded from another source that the Mayor’s Office, since the position of public advocate was created to keep a check on the actions of the mayor and mayoral agencies.
Asked by one reporter whether his new department would be duplicating the 311 phone service, de Blasio answered, "I think 311 is good for helping people with simple problems, but not with complicated problems." Several new City Council members who have a background of community organizing were at the press conference. Among them were two Brooklyn council members, Jumaane Williams (D-Bedford-Stuyvesant) and Steve Levin (D-Brooklyn Heights/Downtown).
"I applaud Public Advocate Bill de Blasio for taking this important step to broaden what his office can do for the people of our city," said Williams.
Manhattan Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez (D-Washington Heights/Inwood) put a class-based dynamic on citizen complaints. "I have a building in my district on Academy Street where people didn’t have gas for three years," he said. "That would be inconceivable for the Upper West Side or the Upper East Side. The city sends representatives to every meeting in those areas."