How can the Roosevelt Island Residents’ Association (RIRA) better serve a changing Island? And are they actively working to attract new members?
These were some of the questions posed by Southtown representative Dave Evans at the group’s May Common Council meeting. The answers could be critical in shaping the organization’s future and reversing the group’s dwindling roster. Elections for Common Council members, held every two years, will take place in the fall.
Forty years ago, a group of residents from the four original building complexes (Westview, Island House, Rivercross, and what is now Roosevelt Landings) formed RIRA in hopes of giving Islanders a much-needed voice. They allocated each building one seat per 130 apartments, rounded to the nearest seat.
Their original mission, as stated in the RIRA constitution, was to represent the interests of everyone who lives in residential housing on the Island to governmental, quasi-governmental, and private institutions that develop policy affecting Roosevelt Island and its residents – as well as to those that supervise or manage our housing and operations – and to ensure that the health and safety and quality of life in our community are maintained and improved.
At the top of RIRA’s agenda in the beginning 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. And we have a long sought-after NYC Ferry stop.
Another quest was for resident representation on the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation’s Board of Directors. There, too, they found some success. Prior to the recent resignation of three resident Board members, we had five residents ostensibly representing our interests to RIOC.
So what now?
“At about this time of the year, as we exhale, we should take an opportunity to look at ourselves in the context of a new Roosevelt Island,” said Evans. “The Island has changed a great deal, and is still changing. We need to examine how to decrease the attrition rate, and take the opportunity, with new terms coming, to form a plan to attract new folks.” He also suggested the group reflect on what services they offer and what the rest of the Island expects from them. “Let’s brainstorm - how can we better move this organization forward.”
It was an exercise in self-awareness and practicality for a group that has often been criticized for lacking both.
At its induction in 2016, the current RIRA Common Council boasted 40 members, including alternates. Only 13 members were in attendance at the April 2018 session. May was slightly better, but still fewer than 20 members sat at the rectangular white tables in the basement of the Good Shepherd community center, where the group meets on the first Wednesday of every month.
The 2016-2018 RIRA Common Council, at its inauguration in 2016
Some Council members from the class of 2016 resigned, most notably longtime members Joyce Short and Aaron Hamburger. The 4 River Road representative, Jim Bates, passed away earlier this term. Many others, however, just stopped showing up, and were removed from the Council roster. As of the May meeting there were just 25 representatives, including some alternates, still listed as part of the organization.
RIRA President Jeffrey Escobar says the group’s shrinking roster is part of a typical ebb and flow that occurs towards the end of every term. “It always happens around this time. In the last quarter of the term, people drop off,” he says. He doesn’t see it as a sign that the community at large doesn’t care. In fact, he cites the success of this year’s Cherry Blossom Festival, and the conversations and upward progression of our local public school, PS/IS 217, as proof of the community’s stability.
He does agree, though, that the makeup of the Island has changed. In his view, the problem with attrition isn’t that the Island’s population has become more transient, but rather that residents are simply busier than before. He thinks many residents assume that “someone else will do it.”
For Evans, the primary concern is recruitment. “We’re not bringing in fresh blood,” he told members. The north end of the Island is relatively disconnected. Southtown has a number of representatives, but not new ones.”
Several Council members suggested it might be time to redefine how the group draws its members.
“Originally, the Island was all Mitchell-Lama [buildings] with floor captains and a building culture with long-term residents,” said Frank Farance, a 22-year RIRA veteran and currently third alternate for Island House.
Southtown representative Janet Falk thinks this system has become outdated. “Maybe we’ve outgrown the building model,” she said. “In the formative stages of the Island community, 40 years ago, people very much identified with the building and community that they found there. Over time, that arbitrary identification with the building may be less relevant because the Island is so much bigger. People may identify with Roosevelt Island, and not their building.”
Falk believes there are many Island organizations whose interests may not be currently represented at the RIRA table.
“We have religious organizations; those communities communicate among themselves. We also have the Roosevelt Island Parents Network (RIPN). I think that we should find a way to connect with these existing communities within our total population because they are talking to each other and they may want to bring issues to the fore,” said Falk. “At one time we had someone from the RIPN who was a member. There may be dialogue going on there that we’re not aware of. There should be a more formal mechanism to finding out – these group’s interests may align and they may not be aware of one another.”
Southtown representative Jim Livornese, a Midterm addition to RIRA, agreed. “When I talk about the Island, I don’t really identify with my building. The building model has a turfy kind of feel to it. It’s not as inclusive.” He would like to see more programs and events for residents who currently feel less involved. “There is a lot for the seniors and a lot for young families. I don’t see a lot for that middle, pulling the rest of us in to do stuff.”
He also thinks the organization doesn’t do a good job of getting their mission and their needs to the rest of the Island.
“As a new person, I don’t think there is an awareness of what RIRA does,” he said. “RIRA has a public relations problem that is impacting its success. It takes a lot to have the quality of life that we have, and I don’t know that many people see the mechanics behind that. The types of people that I observe walking around the Island are the types that would contribute to their community, but they don’t know how to do it.” He also thinks that some more political and divisive topics RIRA discusses turn people off.
Escobar strongly believes the group still serves an important role, though that role may need to expand with time. “RIRA started as a lobbying organization, but now we do have RIOC representation. We do have to safeguard it, but we also have to be advocates to ensure our programmatic needs,” he says. “RIRA continues to provide a venue to voice opinions in an advisory capacity.”
The question is whether that voice is loud enough to be heard. During the recent RI sign debate, RIRA provided RIOC with a unanimous resolution against the sign, but the RIOC board authorized it anyway. Still, Escobar is hopeful for the future. “We may be ignored at first, but we will continue the conversation.”
Escobar wants to find ways to renew and revitalize the organization and is working to introduce RIRA to surrounding communities in Long Island City and Astoria to form some partnerships there.
The conversation will be continued at the next meeting. Evans wants to gather a group of interested participants to work during RIRA’s summer hiatus on these issues. “My hope is that we will form a new team consisting of former RIRA presidents, and some selected committee chairpeople, as well as others,” says Evans. The goal would be to put together a white paper answering, “Where is RIRA now? Where do we think we will be tomorrow? How we will get there? And how will we sustain ourselves?”
“Sometimes it’s good to look at ourselves in the mirror,” says Evans.