By Wendy Davis
I am almost embarrassed to say that until I came to the Spirit in the summer of 1997, I had no idea what a community board was. I’m not sure I had ever even heard of one, though I had lived in the city for almost nine years. But I soon found out more than I ever imagined there was to know. For local residents, community boards are a forum to vent. For the members, they are a springboard to elected office. For politicians, showing up at a board meeting is cheap and easy public relations. And more importantly, for the journalists, they are a never-ending sconce of story ideas, not to mention entertainment.
In the newsroom, talking about the boards could take on the feel of insider baseball, as we gossiped about everything from the members’ personal lives to the quirks of the different board leaderships. (For the record, Community Board 4, encompassing Hell’s Kitchen and Chelsea, was at that time the most press-friendly, automatically emailing us agendas and proposed resolutions in advance of the meeting. But Midtown Board 5 was our favorite because there was always free food.)
Despite some superficial differences, the boards were remarkably similar. In my two years at the Spirit, as the crime rate fell while the economy soared, every community board on the West Side aggressively devoted themselves to preserving the peace in their neighborhoods. NIMBYS—Not in My Backyard—became BANANAS—Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything—which became NOTHING in My Backyard. A restaurant owner wanting to open a bar in SoHo would find himself facing opposition as fierce as if he had suggested putting a landfill along the Hudson.
And it was in this climate that, seemingly out of nowhere, motorcycle riders became Public Enemy No. 1 for a brief period in early 1998. All of a sudden, there was no problem more pressing, no quality-of-life violator more loathsome, than the noisy motorcyclist.
The downtown community board then started this war on bikers, plastering the Village with posters announcing “town meetings” about the problem. The board members begged police to set up random roadblocks to check decibel readings; one city Council member sponsored legislation that was supposedly going to make it easier to prosecute bikers who had been ticketed. At the height of this motorcycle campaign, a town meeting drew more than 200 people, including leaders of the local Hell’s Angels.
The bizarre anti-biker crusade, which was covered for the Spirit that spring in an article entitled “Uneasy Riders,” extended from the Village through Chelsea and led at least one bar to station a bouncer at the door whose job was to turn away motorcyclists.
And then just as mysteriously as it had started, the campaign seemed to end of its own momentum. There were no more town meetings—at least none that I was invited to again, although that could be because the Spirit ran an editorial making light of the whole anti-motorcycle fervor. But the issue always seemed to disappear from the community boards’ agendas. As far as we could tell, there were no further calls to arms against bikers and certainly no mass arrests or ticketing of motorcyclists.
Of course, community boards being what they are, I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole cycle—so to speak—repeated itself, with the wheels of community activism once again set in motion by an event as seemingly insignificant as a Harley without pipes roaring down Riverside Drive.
Wendy Davis, features editor of West Side Spirit from 1997-1998 and editor in 1998, went on to do legal writing at The New York Law Journal and other publications.