Every so often, a light bulb goes off over the head of a local civic leader.
"Hey. We have common problems. We air the same grievances. We've got a common cause in the improvement of community. Why not join forces in such mutual aid? Why not an umbrella organization to demonstrate our strength in numbers?"
Such was the thought process behind such organizations as the Nassau County Civic Association, the Tri-Community Alliance (predecessor in interest to The Community Alliance), and the latest in a long line of civic umbrella groups to take the plunge into the turbid waters of community building, the Town of Hempstead Civic Council.
The latter's entry into the fray to better our lot evolves out of the North Bellmore Civic Association, and, more particularly, from a need to stem the tide of so-called "McMansions" as have sprung up over the last decade in the Town of Hempstead. A return to a more reasoned -- and sane -- zoning policy, and, if the group can save a few trees in the process, all the better.
So far, the Town of Hempstead Civic Council is off to an auspicious start. Only in its infancy, the organization, fueled by public sentiment, an experienced, battle-tested leadership, and Town officials grasping at anything in sight, trying to hold on to what little credibility they have left, has already secured a short-term moratorium on new building in the Town of Hempstead.
Possible shortcomings of any outgrowth of this ephemeral moratorium aside, should other civic and community groups in the Town of Hempstead sign on, leaving aside provincial distinctions, parochial partisanships, and, perhaps, philosophical differences? Absolutely.
After all, that's what The Community Alliance is all about, and when it comes to promoting the quality of life of our community as a whole, well, the more the merrier.
We wanted to say something profound here, the "whys" and "wherefores" of banding together as a focused, if not single-minded force.
Searching the archives, this blogger came upon the text of a speech delivered at an early 2004 meeting of the Tri-Community Alliance by one of its founding fathers, Seth Bykofsky, who is a former president of the West Hempstead Civic Association, and, until recently, co-chair of The Community Alliance.
We are republishing this address here, in its entirety (and with apologies to Seth for, not unwittingly, thrusting him into the limelight once again), because, as you will no doubt concur, we couldn't have said it better ourselves.
The time to band together, to work together, to take back our town together, is upon us.
There truly is no community without unity!
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Why Civic Associations Need To Cooperate With Each Other
A couple of years ago, speaking before a local civic association in Franklin Square, I was asked, by several of those in attendance, "Why do we need to work together to improve our community?" I was taken aback for a second. I assumed, after all, that it would be intuitive. "Strength in numbers. Speak with one, unified voice. Our problems are your problems." Of course, after a few minutes of that 'deer in the headlights' stare, I realized that I wasn't quite hitting the mark. Just as all politics is local, most issues confronted on the "community" level - whether related to code enforcement, business district revitalization, or the clean up of a pond or an abandoned lot - are perceived as local, the province of this or that civic group. "You want to come here and help us? Why?" Suspicious thoughts as "outsiders" are looked upon as unwelcome interlopers. "You stay in West Hempstead and worry about the Courtesy. We'll handle our own problems, thank you very much." Community is, indeed, sacrosanct.
Not long ago, when a Tri-Community Summit was first proposed, a local civic leader told me that he thought such a conclave would be a great idea, but "don't expect too much. They (the civic and business leaders) are like warlords. Very territorial. They are quite protective of their own turf." For a moment I felt as if I had left the security of Elmont, Franklin Square and West Hempstead for the uncertainty of the Afghan frontier. Have we not learned, in this enlightened society, that such divisiveness breeds only destruction? Have we not come to see, after years of life under the fiefdoms and the "clubs," that the real and beneficial changes come - if at all - only when the entirety stands as one? "Yes," I thought. "The whole must be greater than the sum of all of its parts." Silly me.
As I pore over the papers indigenous to each locale - The Elmont Herald, The Franklin Square Bulletin, The West Hempstead Beacon - I sense a common appeal. "Join your civic association. Band together to fight the evils of community. Together, we can make a difference." No less vivid is the call to action, echoed by each group with mounting fervor. "Fight the illegal rentals. Demand greater code enforcement. Bring business back to 'Main Street.'" And yet, this seemingly single mindset, placing us, definitively, on the right track, is often drowned out by the chorus of civic voices. Nowhere is this more evident than in the pages of our tri-community periodicals, The Herald of Elmont, Franklin Square and West Hempstead and The Three Village Times, where the many voices of community come together, if but on paper alone, only to fade into the background without significant impact.
The message of community is often lost in the din. What need be a common voice of the people, a concert in harmony, is, more often than not, singular sound bites from one group or another. The noise, while appropriate and necessary, is but chatter lost in the cosmos. Sure, as "local" organizations, we hold our own. We manage, after long and protracted battle, to close down the after-hours clubs on the Turnpike. We muster the energy to fight the mega gas stations and the car washes. We are most proficient in the piecemeal salvation of the trees, even as much of the forest is forever taken from us. In the more "global" arena, however, in attempting to address the issues that touch all of us, we make few inroads, and see little appreciable progress. Yes, we are on the right track. We must acknowledge, nevertheless, that even those on the right track are going to get hit by that train if they just stand still!
That quality of life which we value, that which we speak of longingly, is what our civic and business organizations most want to preserve and enhance. And yet, it is that very quality of life, that vision of suburbia, which, despite our best efforts and noble intentions, continues to slip away. Illegal accessory apartments proliferate. The condition of our "downtowns" deteriorates. Property taxes rise and aggravate. Elected officials promise to ameliorate. The suburban landscape so cherished, but for the occasional tree we are able to save, erodes before our eyes.
We live, or so it appears, in a dual society. Call it the two Americas, the two Counties, or, for that matter, the two Townships. One is of the privileged; those who seem to get everything they want, often without ever having to ask. The other - and I fear we on the south shore of Long Island, in general, and in the unincorporated areas of the Town, in particular, fall squarely in this category - is of the forgotten.
The forgotten are asked to bear the burdens and endure the hardships, to accept substandard services delivered at exorbitant expense, to witness the intrusion of urban ills, to be content with sprawl and decay, and, above all, to be patient. The forgotten are asked to wait for their roads to be paved, their parks to be maintained, their streets to be cleaned. The forgotten are told, "It won't happen overnight. The wheels turn slowly. We're on your side." The years go by. The names and faces change - and sometimes they don't - and here we stand, amidst the decline of the Turnpike, the Avenue and the Road - forgotten.
The question asked is no longer, "Should we work together?" but rather, "How can we work together effectively to bring about positive change in our collective community?" It is no longer a matter of "talk and walk" with our elected officials, but instead, a call to engage in a true partnership, with all levels of government, to cooperatively and decisively tackle the problems that we share.
The privileged have the time to wait, though they rarely have to. The forgotten, on the other hand, have little time before their voices are silenced, before they are overwhelmed by the insurmountable. The privileged have their special interest groups, their highly paid lobbyists, their monied Political Action Committees. And the forgotten? Well, we have the Tri-Community Alliance to make certain that we're all working together, that our collective voice is heard, that, ultimately, we are successful in getting the job done!