Forty years ago, a group of Islanders from the four original building complexes assembled to form the Roosevelt Island Residents’ Association (RIRA) and give the Island a much needed voice. Their mission was to promote and defend residents’ interests. At the top of their agenda were transportation issues – there was no Tram until 1976 and no subway until 1989.
In the decades since, the Tram has become an integral part of Island life, including a shared fare system with the MTA. Our subway now connects us with more of the City than those first RIRA members could ever have dreamed of, thanks to the Second Avenue extension. And we have a long sought-after NYC Ferry stop. Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign kick-off took place at FDR Four Freedoms Park. And Cornell Tech has put us squarely on the map.
So what now?
We asked past and present RIRA members to reflect on why they believe RIRA is still necessary and what they are looking to accomplish in the next 40 years.
A Common Voice
For some RIRA representatives, the biggest challenge facing RIRA today is advocating for Islanders’ right to directly elect the members who sit on the governing board of the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC).
“Until our community actually has a direct and democratic voice in our governance, RIRA will be as relevant and needed as it ever was,” says RIRA Secretary Joyce Short, who has served on RIRA since 1994. “That’s why I continue to serve on the RIRA Common Council.”
Until there is some version of direct democracy on the RIOC board, argues Short, RIRA must serve as the common voice.
“Roosevelt Island is a peculiar place. Governor Pataki took us out of New York State’s budget and declared us ‘self-sufficient’ many years ago,” explains Short. “I became the RIRA Secretary back then because I recognized how important coalescing the community and speaking with a common voice actually was. Since we were eliminated from the budget, all the services we residents rely on are paid for, not by tax dollars, but by the land leases our rents support. The governing body who administers our funds, RIOC, is entirely appointed by the Governor, not elected by our residents.”
Former RIRA President Matthew Katz (2000-2004, 2006-2008, 2010-2012) agrees. “RIRA is our most direct participation in democracy,” he says. “RIRA fulfills a critical role on Roosevelt Island given that the State Public Benefit Corporation that renders most of the services, which elsewhere would be provided by elected local government, here is provided by RIOC, staffed, and led by [State] appointees.”
But for Ellen Polivy, who served as president from 2012-2014, getting Islanders to the polls for the elections they do have a say in is just as vital to ensuring that Islanders’ and RIRA’s voice continues to be heard.
“Only 300 votes were cast on the Island [in the last primary],” she points out. “This is alarming to elected officials who used to predictably come out to canvass because we were a community of voters. The result of a tiny turnout is that we lose relevance as a community with a united voice. RIRA must try harder to bring us together as a community of voters. A voter registration and get-out-the-vote campaign may be necessary, as a predictable voting public is a more engaged group.”
Is RIRA Still Necessary?
“As we have learned all too well in the past year, politics is a messy business. That is true, even at the lowest levels. At times, some have suggested disbanding RIRA because it was too contentious, or not worth the considerable time and effort for the, sometimes, meager results.
In my opinion, that would be a big mistake because, as we have also learned in the last year of protests, marches, and resulting election upsets, a collective voice speaks louder and more effectively. RIRA has the ear of RIOC, our local politicians, and even the mainstream media when the cause and our voices are strong enough and should never relinquish the opportunity to influence a decision on issues that matter.”
– Linda Heimer
Government Relations Chair, 1998-2000
For current RIRA President Jeff Escobar, preserving the Island’s sense of community is a big motivator for staying active in the organization. He says a personal goal of his has been to bridge the gap between various communities on the Island – as well as the chasm that exists between Island pioneers who have lived here since the 1970s or 1980s versus the Octagon and Southtown pioneers who arrived during the past decade.
Escobar wants to ensure that all Island residents enjoy what the original Island pioneers had – a sense of unity, community, and common purpose – even if that common purpose looks different in 2017 than it did in 1977.
Similarly, Southtown’s Melissa Wade believes that RIRA is a mechanism to maintain the Island’s organizing principles.
“Roosevelt Island was a carefully planned community and I think much of what was intended is worth preserving,” she says, listing accessibility, affordable housing, and the community’s diversity among those principles. “It feels like all of that is in jeopardy these days. Our Island has suddenly been brought into the spotlight, and others want to capitalize on what long-time Islanders have created, while overlooking the needs and desires of those who made this place a home.”
As to what RIRA has accomplished for the community, 10-year RIRA member Aaron Hamburger has a ready list.
According to Hamburger, RIRA’s advocacy was responsible for getting RIOC to put the Red Buses on a predictable schedule, to extend the Red Bus route to Southpoint Park, as well as convincing RIOC to eliminate bus fares entirely. With RIRA’s work, Hamburger says, the post office finally installed a mailbox in Southtown. He also points out that RIRA organizes the annual Egg Hunt, the Japanese Cherry Blossom festival, and ran the annual blood drive for many years.
Hamburger also credits RIRA’s activism for RIOC’s decision to include in its contract with the Roosevelt Island Garden Club a clause that restricts plots to Island residents only, freeing up an extra 15-20 percent of the plots for residents.
“I’m proud of the years I spent leading this organization and participating in its programs,” says Katz.
And that sense of activism continues. The Planning Committee’s David Lawson says his committee is midway through several large projects. “Under my leadership, the Planning committee has made recommendations on environment protection and transportation. The ferry has been an issue we have advocated for for many years. Bike lanes are being developed and we are now working on electric cars (See RIRA Column, page 3) while protecting air quality and green spaces on the Island.”
Why Did You Decide to Join RIRA?
“I didn’t get involved with RIRA until I heard about its Public Safety Committee and its plight to curb PSD Chief Keith Guerra’s brutal tactics.
I joined RIRA’s Public Safety Committee and found that its members, under the leadership of Erin Feely-Nahem, were dedicated and working hard to defend the residents from the brutality of Chief Guerra. I helped create the banners and posters, as well as organize marches and demonstrations which resulted in the removal of Guerra and the hiring of our current Chief McManus.
That’s when I realized RIRA promoted and defended the interests of our Island’s residents for a better quality of life. I joined RIRA shortly after. ”
– Adib Mansour, Chair
Children, Youth, and Education Committee
But to accomplish all of its goals, RIRA will need a fresh investment from the community. As of the November meeting, two Southtown representatives, Barbara and Sheldon Brooks, stepped down. The Manhattan Park delegation, which is allotted eight representatives, has only two, Christopher Gassman and Shuang Yu.
“I wish more Roosevelt Island residents would join and stick with RIRA” says Wade. “We have more power when we unite. This is a critical moment in Island history and much is needed to be said and done to ensure that this neighborhood doesn’t become a place unrecognizable from its original purpose, divorced from what’s truly best for its residents.”
One problem cited by several former and current members is the dynamics of Common Council meetings.
RIRA has always had a reputation for infighting, which turns away some prospective Council members. Former RIRA representative and current Roosevelt Island Historical Society President, Judy Berdy, says, “I was a member of RIRA for a few terms when I was new on the Island in the 1980s and again in the 1990s. There was terrible infighting and few things were accomplished. There is a limit to the times in one night I can stand to hear ‘point of order.’”
Wade agrees. “I know that criticism of RIRA exists. Is there infighting in RIRA? Sure. Is it infuriating at times when members seem to be campaigning for or against personal vendettas? Absolutely. However, in my opinion, there is no better mechanism than RIRA to roll up one’s sleeves and get involved with preserving or making this Island a great place to live for New Yorkers, not monied interests and, at the end of the day, I believe that 100 percent of the Common Council is united in that desire.”
For others, the infighting was the reason they ran for RIRA in the first place.
“I had heard there were a lot of tensions and frictions,” says Lawson, “And I wanted to contribute 20 years of senior diplomatic experience to support a more appeased RIRA, more reflective of our community diversity.”
Escobar, thrust into the presidency by Polivy’s resignation, has been intent on streamlining and bringing order to the group. His first words as RIRA President were, “I’m not going to stand for the yelling.”
In an interview before the first Council meeting he led as President, Escobar described his objective, “To get RIRA functioning collectively, to inspire members’ confidence in me, and to revitalize the Council and its program.” He added, “It’s up to the Council members how much or how little gets done.”
What Would You Change?
“It’s unusual for RIRA members, a few excluded, to come out to RIOC committee meetings or Community Board meetings, no matter how actively they’ve been invited or how useful the meeting might be to them. I think it’s a systemic problem.
They miss out on networking and getting to know the issues from all angles. RIOC committee meetings are where the work of RIOC gets done and where RIRA members get taken seriously and can have input.
Imagine if all of the RIRA committee members attended the relevant RIOC meetings. Those members could have real input and understanding of the issues RIOC is dealing with and, in turn, have more input. That’s how we remain relevant.”
– Ellen Polivy
A Job to Get Done
Short cites issues with RIOC as one of the reasons she remains. “Over the years, we’ve had both good and bad demagogues running the Governor’s fiefdom,” she says. “We’ve had drunks who gave away millions of dollars to developers, and acres of parkland. We’ve had thieves who stole our property. We’ve had bigots who tried to divide the community along racial lines. RIRA was the organization that represented the community’s interests and ousted bad appointees. And the need for RIRA’s vigilance has not changed.”
She points to RIOC’s recent decision to enter into a three-year $225,000 contract for holiday decorations as an example of the type of governmental waste RIRA should be guarding against.
Adib Mansour says he stays on RIRA to fulfill an ongoing commitment to support Island youth. “My mission is to promote leadership and pave the way for our youth to become successful pioneers in our community and beyond. In addition to supporting and showcasing our Island’s existing programs, the Children, Youth, and Education Committee acts as a sounding board – listening to the ideas of our community and helping to advance new projects.”
Escobar agrees, saying, “We [in RIRA] need to maintain community involvement, otherwise we are just talking to ourselves. The more ways RIRA can engage with the community, the better.” According to Escobar, that includes engaging the youth on the Island as much as possible. “At the end of the day, they’ll be living here.”
Meetings of the Common Council take place at 8:00 p.m., normally on the first Wednesday of every month, in the basement meeting room of the Good Shepherd Community Center. The sessions traditionally open with an opportunity for members of the public to make a short presentation to the Council. The sessions typically end around 10:00 p.m.