The Voters Speak: Yes to Bathrooms
In the Press
The bathrooms won.
Last week’s Metropolitan cover article, “Putting In Their 2 Cents,” chronicled an experiment in participatory budgeting, in which residents of each of four City Council districts decided how to spend roughly $1 million of their council member’s budgets for neighborhood improvements. Voting on the proposals ended last Sunday, and votes were tallied last week.
Keith Christiansen’s project, to improve the children’s bathrooms at Public School 124 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, won handily, earning 43 percent of the vote. “I’ve had students tell me no more holding it in,” said the principal, Annabelle Martinez. “The only thing that saddens me is that we have to go through a process like this to get bathrooms that respect children.”
Reworking the deadly crosswalk at Ocean Parkway and Church Avenue in the Kensington neighborhood of Brooklyn also won, with 27 percent of the vote. But a plan to create an extensive green corridor in East Flatbush did not garner enough votes to move forward.
Participatory budgeting, however, is as much about involving disenfranchised members of the public as it is about financing projects, and the elections were intended to draw maximum participation. People did not have to be registered to vote to cast ballots, and citizenship status and prior criminal convictions were irrelevant.
“This told people you could still have an opinion in your community if you’ve done your time. We’re not holding that against you,” said Kim Lloyd, who knocked on doors in a senior citizen housing complex in East Harlem. “If you’re an immigrant, you can still have an opinion in your community.”
To further increase participation, voting took place over several days, and efforts were made to reach people in their own languages. In Kensington, for instance, where there is a large population of Bangladeshi immigrants, fliers were translated into Bengali. This outreach particularly helped bring in women in the community.
“Men felt like they have a power that they can make a choice, but for the first time the women felt like, ‘Oh, I can do that too,’ ” said a resident, Annie Ferdous, who translated the voter information into Bengali. “They saw the ballot in Bengali and thought, ‘O.K., maybe I can understand and get involved.’ ”
In the Rockaways, Queens, organizers focused on reaching potential voters in an area known as “the buildings,” which are low-income residences, City Councilman Eric Ulrich’s office said. Volunteers focused on Bay Towers, where they did mailings, made phone calls and knocked on doors to invite residents to participate.
In the 2009 Council election, 1 percent of district voters had annual household incomes of less than $25,000, according to data provided by the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center. In the participatory budget process, 10 percent of the voters were from such households.
Meanwhile, in the district represented by Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, which includes East Harlem, 47 percent of the voters in the budget process were Latino, compared with 39 percent who voted from that district in the 2009 Council elections — and 21 percent who voted citywide that year, according to the data from the Justice Center and exit polls conducted by Edison Research.
In East Flatbush, staff members in Councilman Jumaane Williams’s office said they were surprised that the largest number of votes came from Flatbush Gardens, a low-income housing complex. The polling site was near where people pick up mail and do laundry.
“We’re hoping some of these methods translate into traditional civic engagement mechanisms,” said Sondra Youdelman, executive director of Community Voices Heard, a group that helps mobilize low-income New Yorkers and that worked on outreach for the budgeting vote.
Over all, the winning projects reflected the concerns, and the mobilization efforts, in the communities.
In Ms. Mark-Viverito’s Eighth Council District, which also includes the Upper West Side and Mott Haven, the Bronx, the proposal getting the most votes will benefit the elderly ($100,000 for Meals-on-Wheels vans), but voters also chose playground improvements in public housing complexes ($500,000).
In Mr. Ulrich’s district, the volunteer fire departments can expect some new equipment: an oxygen refill system ($60,000), a water pump to help with flooding ($39,000) and pagers ($48,000). These projects are among nine that voters in the district approved, at a cost of $1.37 million.
In City Council District 39, which reaches from Kensington to Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn and is represented by Brad Lander, schools and environment reigned. In addition to the stall doors and other improvements to the P.S. 124 bathrooms, winners included a community composting system in Gowanus ($165,000), 100 new street trees ($100,000) and path repairs in Prospect Park ($205,000).
Security was the primary concern for Mr. Williams’s district, the 45th, which reaches from East Flatbush to Midwood in Brooklyn. The proposal that drew the most votes was a $400,000 plan for security cameras at seven locations.
Residents also voted to spend $450,000 on two proposals that would add lights to each of the district’s parks and the field behind the Tilden Educational Campus, where, among the shadows, classmates of Marcus Monfiston, 16, a student there, have been attacked.
Mr. Monfiston, a junior at Kurt Hahn Expeditionary Learning School at Tilden HighSchool, plays football and baseball. He and some classmates created the proposal to add lights to their field and spent evenings convincing residents who also use the area after hours to vote for the project.
The son of a restaurant supervisor and a technician, Mr. Monfiston said he had wanted to be a pharmacist and a sales manager and many other things. But now that he has experienced a participatory budget cycle, his views are different. Mr. Monfiston thinks he might be drawn to politics.
“I was like, I can really make a change,” he said. “We’re not just here to go to school. We can be more, do more.”