Sometimes New Yorkers don't agree with developments in their neighborhoods. (Note: This is probably a massive understatement.) But if you want to get beyond the debate and actually contribute, then we have good news: that's where your community board comes in.
Every NYC neighborhood has one—there are 59 different districts citywide—and their advisory responsibilities apply to important issues from zoning, landmarks, and transportation to parks and education. Each board, or CB, has 50 non-salaried members, who are appointed by either the borough president or the relevant City Council members.
That's right, no money and lots of fraught meetings—sounds fun, right? Well, if you want to wield a little bit of influence in your community and don't mind putting in the unpaid hours, then it's more than fun—it's a darn good way to make a difference. But spots don't open up that often, and there’s more interest than ever in joining, so here’s what you need to know before you get involved.
Start by showing up—and studying the issues.
First things first: Find your community board (there's a website for that, or type your address into NYCityMap and then click on "Neighborhood Information" when you scroll down in the right-hand window) and its monthly calendar. Then start small, by going to meetings of either some subcommittees or the full board.
"The best way to get involved with community boards is incrementally. Start attending meetings just as an audience member," says Robert Perris, district manager of Brooklyn's CB2. "Test the waters slowly. Community boards are sort of a unique animal, with their own individual dynamic. See if you like it, and whether you have the time, for that matter … Already being a participant in local community board is one of the best rationales for appointing someone as a full member. So work your way up into it."
Figure out what you feel passionate about: zoning regulations? Economic development? Libraries? Landmarking? That's how you can decide where to start as a vocal audience member-slash-committee participant. A major function delegated to community boards is the granting of liquor licenses, which in effect means creating or containing a neighborhood's after-hours scene. Community boards also have a say in things like environmental conditions—flood prevention is one example.
You can make a good impression right off the bat by familiarizing yourself with local issues, so keep up on the latest reporting from major newspapers as well as neighborhood blogs.
Become a public member and see how you like it.
A good way to get started in the community board world is to become a public member. There's no need to be appointed by the borough president or City Council member, and you don’t have to wait till an official opening comes along. Once you've started going to committee meetings as an engaged attendee and have gotten to know board members, the chair can appoint you as a public member, which means you can serve on the subcommittees.
Also, consider the makeup of the board you'd like to join. Some districts are more diverse, but other boards skew toward retirees or empty nesters. The goal is to get a range of ages, professions, and opinions on the board, so make it clear how you'd help achieve that goal.
Understand the time commitment, then proceed.
You've made it this far, and you want to make it official. But know this: Board positions don't open up that often. There are just 25 seats up for grabs every other year (so the whole board would get appointed or, more accurately, reappointed every two years).
But turnover is low, and there’s more demand to join than ever: According to the Wall Street Journal, Manhattan borough president Gale Brewer received more than 1,000 applications in 2017 for just 300 available community board seats—an increase of nearly 250 applicants from 2016.
Some community boards require you to serve on at least one subcommittee; others ask you to be a part of at least two. Committees meet once a month, and that's on top of the full board meeting every month, meaning we're talking 10 hours a month at the bare minimum.
"It's a volunteer position," Perris says. "And you do it because you find it satisfying. If it feels like work or a chore, you join a bowling league or something else instead."
Know the alternatives.
If, in the end, you've tried attending meetings and just aren't feeling it, Perris recommends checking out other organizations in your area, like neighborhood, civic, or block associations, which might target a specific area within a CB district or a particular issue, like youth services or open space.
Adds Perris, "If community boards are not your thing or don't fit your schedule, but you want to get involved, there are lots of ways." The city government maintains a long, comprehensive list of organizations looking for volunteers, so you can find one that matches your interests and skill set. (Or check out our list of small ways to improve New York City for things to do.)