Students ask residents “what needs fixing in Park Slope”

Danilda Diaz, 48, spent her Saturday afternoon, March 5, walking up and down the streets of the Historical District of Park Slope. In spite of the 40-degree weather and the frigid wind, Diaz walked for more than 3 hours with an Ipad in hand and approached more than 40 people. Diaz is one of the 12 City College of New York Students who will be spending the next few months conducting pedestrian surveys in Brooklyn Community Board 6-Park Slope, Gowanus, Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Red Hook and Columbia Waterfront.

The surveys are part of the Community Needs Assessment Project, organized by Professor Mary Lutz from the Center for Worker Education. The study is intended to help community boards provide a better service for New York City residents, she said.

“Most of the people serving in these community boards are publicly minded people who have other jobs and don’t have time to go out and canvas the area and find out what people really need,” she said.

The members of Brooklyn Community Board 6 have decided to partner with Lutz because they think the project, part of an Arts and Sciences 6-credit course, can help them better identify the needs and concerns of the community, District Manager Craig Hammerman said.

The students in the course, Lutz said, have one academic semester to conduct the interviews and produce a final report for the board.

“We do it that way to make it of maximum utility to the community board, which has by New York City charter a mandate to produce a needs assessment every year,” she said.

To complete the project on time, the students spent the first few weeks of the semester learning some interviewing skills and then took on the streets of the district. They have already completed the first two rounds of interviews, both of them in Park Slope.

During the second round of interviews, March 5, the students approached about 200 people and surveyed about 32 people. Lutz said the cold weather, 40, might have being the reason behind the low success rate.

One of the residents interviewed was Aly Conclyn, who said the questionnaire was a very effective way to get direct feedback from the people in the community.

“The issues brought up in the survey are definitely important,” she said. “But I guess people don’t take the time to think about them on a regular basis.”

Chary Jackson, a 22-year-old employee at an ice cream store on 5th Avenue, said that the most important problem in the neighborhood is the lack of diversity.

“When I was growing up, there used to be crack heads and stuff around here. As time went on things started to change, but it seems like it started to only change for the white people,” he said. “When rents went up they forced Black and Hispanic people out of their houses.”

Rapid Change

Long-time Park Slope resident Chary Jackson talks about how much the neighborhood has changed in just a few years

Like Jackson, participants are always interviewed on the street. This is sometimes problematic, Lutz said, because some students are reluctant to approach people from other races and backgrounds, which can compromise the accuracy of the survey.

Student Jasmine Perez said that talking to strangers is a bit difficult for her because she tends to be shy.

“Sometimes I get a little nervous, but I am hoping that as time goes on I will be able to approach anyone,” she said.

Diaz, on the other hand, said that her outgoing personality is a big advantage.

“I am not shy, as you can tell,” she said. “So talking to people on the street is really not a problem for me.”

One difference that Lutz has noticed between this community district and others, she said, is that residents are more civically engaged. After the first round of interviews on February 27, she received emails from two residents who were concerned about a few issues not covered in the survey, she added.

“There are more property owners here,” she said. “That makes a difference because they have a stake in the neighborhood.”

Before going to Brooklyn Community Board 6, Lutz had partnered with: Brooklyn Community Boards 2 and 14 (Downtown Brooklyn and Flatbush), and Manhattan Community Boards 9 and 1 (West Harlem and Downtown)-this last one in collaboration with professor Michael Levine from Pace University.

District managers from the different boards said that the survey was helpful and that they would have not been able to carry such a study on their own.

For instance, Brooklyn Community Board 2 members were able to see the difference in the priorities of residents depending on their income category- from $19,000 to $35,000 and from $100,000 to $270,000, said Board President Robert Perris in the final report written by student Jennifer Stevenson.

He also said that he was surprised to find out that the respondents with the higher income, and therefore presumably the most financially stable, were in general the most concerned with retail affordability.

The top two suggestions from residents in Brooklyn Community Board 2 were: to hire a planner in charge of dealing with development projects and to increase funding for afterschool, Saturday and Summer programs for children, the final report said.

Lutz said she came up with the idea for the project under the Bloomberg administration.

“Bloomberg’s basic approach was that community boards could just dry up and fly away in the wind,” she said.

But she thinks community boards are direct vehicles for people to express what they really want and need, she said.

“The information that comes from community boards feeds up the ladder to people who have the power to actually create a new budget or demarcate the zoning laws,” she said. “So those kind of people, in my opinion, need to have their feet held to the fire and this survey is one of the ways of producing the information that can do that.”

Lutz thinks that every community board in the city would benefit from the Community Needs Assessment, she said. She realizes, however, that she won’t be able to cover them all, she added.

“I am 67 years old, there are 59 community boards in the city. I am trying to recruit more people so that they  can carry on the job I started years ago,” she said.

“The information that comes from the community boards feeds up the ladder to people who have the power to actually create a new budget or demarcate the zoning laws. So those kind of people, in my opinion, need to have their feet held to the fire and this survey is one of the ways of producing the information that can do that,” Lutz said.