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In Yearlong Crown Heights Rezoning Fight, Activists Earn Respect and Ire

By Rachel Holliday Smith | May 7, 2015 7:31am | Updated on May 8, 2015 5:41pm
 Alicia Boyd, leader of the activist group Movement to Protect the People, shouted down Community Board 9 at a meeting in February that addressed rezoning in the district, which covers southern Crown Heights and Prospect-Lefferts Gardens.
Alicia Boyd, leader of the activist group Movement to Protect the People, shouted down Community Board 9 at a meeting in February that addressed rezoning in the district, which covers southern Crown Heights and Prospect-Lefferts Gardens.
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DNAinfo/Rachel Holliday Smith

CROWN HEIGHTS — Last September, a woman with a booming voice and shock of curly gray hair walked into the middle of a Community Board 9 meeting and slammed down papers serving the executive board and District Manager Pearl Miles with a lawsuit.

“This community board has been hiding behind all kinds of bulls--t!” shouted Alicia Boyd, head of neighborhood activist group Movement to Protect the People, which had recently been formed to protest the board’s effort to study rezoning parts of Crown Heights and Prospect-Lefferts Gardens.

“We are not playing!”

It was the first appearance at a full board meeting by MTOPP, as well as the public’s first real glimpse of the group’s divisive, vocal and highly effective leader.

 Brooklyn Community Board 9 members and attendees of a CB9 land use committee meeting watch as activist Alicia Boyd of Movement to Protect the People is led out of the meeting by police.
Brooklyn Community Board 9 members and attendees of a CB9 land use committee meeting watch as activist Alicia Boyd of Movement to Protect the People is led out of the meeting by police.
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DNAinfo/Rachel Holliday Smith

With dogged persistence, Boyd and her supporters have made themselves a conspicuous and constant presence at CB9 meetings, leading a series of disruptive actions over several months that have effectively stopped the rezoning process in its tracks.

It's been more than a year since CB9 sent a resolution to the Department of City Planning asking the agency to start studying land-use changes in its district — the beginning of a series of pre-ordained steps required to rezone any part of the city.

Since then, the effort has gone nowhere.

In fact, after MTOPP showed up and forced a vote that rescinded the board's original resolution, the goal is farther away than ever — caught in a never-ending fight over redrafting the document that pits Boyd and her supporters against CB9 in meeting after meeting.

What started as a literal shuffling of a paper between CB9 and City Planning has ballooned into a fraught, circus-like battle. MTOPP has used a range of controversial tactics to steer the fate of the rezoning effort, including noisemakers, whistles, chanting and racially charged rhetoric. One of their fliers accused “Uncle Toms” of selling out “the Black Area To the White Developers," while another detailed "Incidents of White Men attacking Black Women in CB9."

Boyd, inexorably linked to MTOPP as its creator and sustainer, has also made many eyebrow-raising accusations — like when she claimed a 6-year-old boy she brought to a CB9 gathering would be sexually molested in a city shelter after an eviction removed him from the neighborhood.

But even given MTOPP’s tactics, many acknowledge Boyd’s drive has elevated the level of debate on the zoning issue.

“You can’t not have a strong reaction to Alicia,” said CB9 member Fred Baptiste. “I think that she’s driven a lot of the neighbors in terms of becoming activists and learning more and understanding ... so, to that extent, she’s been very valuable."

Even Boyd’s harshest critics admit she has chutzpah and cannot be ignored. In the same breath, CB9’s interim chairwoman Laura Imperiale described Boyd as both “despicable” and “a force to be reckoned with.” Imperiale took over the lead CB9 spot in early March when former chairman Dwayne Nicholson resigned abruptly amid the rezoning fight. He has not publicly offered a reason for the departure.

Boyd herself did not respond to email, phone and in-person requests for interviews.

The board has mostly answered MTOPP's protests with silence, even recruiting officers from the 71st Precinct to help control meetings when things got hectic. Shortly after MTOPP’s first appearance in September, NYPD officers began attending CB9 meetings at the board’s request. At a meeting in October, officers enforced a room-capacity limit, effectively barring MTOPP and Boyd from entering. A week later, the board cut a meeting short without allowing public comment, with members leaving out of a side door while MTOPP shouted them down. Twice this spring, the NYPD has removed Boyd from CB9 meetings, once issuing her a summons for disorderly conduct.

Critics of the board say CB9 is partially to blame for setting the stage for MTOPP's rise by acting "somewhere between incompetent and corrupt," as one protester put it. In recent months, the board has botched simple things like rescheduling meetings, as well as much more important matters, like the outcome of board votes. In November, MTOPP unearthed records showing that CB9 District Manager Miles changed the outcome of the vote to rescind the original rezoning resolution by incorrectly tallying the roll call. At the time, she acknowledged the error, leading the vote to be corrected and the document rescinded.

“You could say that it’s not progress or you could say that she did something historic,” said Esteban Giron, a tenant advocate, Crown Heights resident and newly appointed member of CB9’s land use committee. He said he's rarely, if ever, heard of a person or group stopping a rezoning request from moving forward once it's been submitted to City Planning.

MTOPP's demands often change from week to week, but one has remained consistent: include community input.

It was spoken plainly by Boyd at a February CB9 meeting after a tense back-and-forth with Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo, who asked her after minutes of heckling and raised voices, "What do you want to have happen here?"

“I would like to have the community to have a voice in this process!" Boyd shouted in response.

Months later, Cumbo said of the exchange: “I’ve never been in a situation where anyone — and I’m 40 years old — has approached speaking to me in such a disrespectful manner in my entire life.”

Looking back, those involved with crafting the original rezoning resolution differ in opinion about how much input the community had in its creation.

CB9 member Diana Richardson, the board's treasurer at the time, voted to rescind the resolution in September because she "thought is was only right," she said at a recent candidate's forum for an Assembly seat in the district. But, she noted, "We were at the table for a very long time with a lot of community groups talking about this zoning study. It did not happen in a vacuum."

Interim chairwoman Imperiale said the letter was never discussed at the committee level, but felt those that had requested zoning changes — including the Prospect Park East Network, a group formed in opposition to a 23-story residential project at 626 Flatbush Ave. — “were satisfied with the language.”

However, Suki Cheong, a member of PPEN and Prospect-Lefferts Gardens resident, said the resolution reminded her of “one of those big omnibus bills” in Congress where “you’re not really sure how the sausage gets made.”

CB9 member Baptiste remembered the discussion and vote happening in quick succession, saying, “I don’t think, as a community, we had formalized a dialogue about it.

“There wasn’t enough outreach and engagement,” he added.

But those with criticisms of the resolution kept quiet — until MTOPP showed up.

“All of a sudden, we get all of these people — 60 to 80 people in the room — all complaining that they don’t know what’s going on, they don’t want us to move forward,” recalled former board chairman Nicholson. “And it’s like, where did these people come from?

At first, MTOPP specifically demanded the removal of Empire Boulevard from the rezoning study. Many of MTOPP’s core members are homeowners on Sterling Street, located one block south of the boulevard, and they raised concerns about tall towers — or "monstrosities," as Boyd put it in a recent interview with The Village Voice — in their backyards.

But as the months dragged on, their concerns expanded to include gentrification in general, displacement of longtime residents, the affect of big real estate money on local politicians and the inclusion of community input in any rezoning considerations.

And increasingly, MTOPP set its sights on the board itself, which in meeting after meeting did not engage with the protesters. Questions from MTOPP about simple parliamentary procedure, how long public comment periods would be, which board members ran CB9’s committees and how, precisely, the rezoning resolution had been written were met with repeated silence from the board’s leaders.

As the battle continued, MTOPP and Boyd ramped up the rhetoric.

At a November meeting, to explain “why I carry on the way that I carry on,” Boyd brought a 6-year-old boy whose family faced eviction to the front of the room, claiming he would face the city’s shelter system and, consequently, sexual molestation as a result of displacement.

“This young man will now have to be a part of the homeless population," she said. "That means that when these children — 60,000 of our children — will go into the shelters and be put out of their homes, they will suffer. They will suffer… you know. You’ve been there. You know what it’s like to be abused as a child. You know what it’s like to be sexually molested and victimized. That’s what these children are going to face."

At an information session with City Planning on January 22, the group distributed fliers claiming “The Uncle Toms Are Selling Us OUT!” and that “They want to sell the Black Area To the White Developers” while leaving “The Jewish Area” alone.

Just last week, MTOPP member Lorraine Thomas detailed seven incidents of "white men" on CB9 harassing black women from the group. These included members "aggressively" moving toward them and giving them the middle finger, troubling facts given that "black women during slavery were whipped, tortured, raped, murdered and subjected to unspeakable cruelty by the hands of white men," she said.

"That particular type of slavery is over," Thomas said.

Though Boyd is most known for spearheading attention-grabbing protests at board meetings, her effort extends far beyond CB9.

She keeps up MTOPP's mailing list, sending emails — sometimes multiple times a day — detailing the group’s claims about the board’s latest transgressions. She creates informational packets, petitions and posters to spread the word about the rezoning issue. She hosts MTOPP planning meetings at her home on Sterling Street, according to those who have attended. She even tried to bring the cause to elected office, asking the community to vote for her as an off-ballot candidate in the area's state Senate election last fall. (She received 11 write-in votes, according to election records.) 

“I don’t know what Alicia’s motivations are or if she really means what she says when she talks about displacement, but she’s educated herself in terms of how those things work… and she definitely understands," said CB9 committee member Giron. "She understands more than most of the people on the community board."

Now that the rezoning process has been halted, no one seems to know how to get it started again — or even if CB9 should.

At an April 20 land use committee meeting, board members were expected to re-vote to accept a new draft of the resolution. But when the committee failed to reach a quorum, that never happened.

That didn’t bother interim chairwoman Imperiale, who said a new draft of the letter to City Planning — the document at the heart of the monthslong fight at the board — isn’t her priority right now.

“At this point, I’m not even sure if it matters if it goes forward or not,” she said after the meeting.

“At the end of the day, we’re just advisory,” she noted of CB9, adding that “the bigger game in town is the mayor’s housing plan,” alluding to the mayor's goal to build 80,000 new units of affordable housing by 2024, some of it in newly rezoned neighborhoods. Many residents of CB9 operate under the assumption the city is eyeing the district for the same treatment.

Tim Thomas, a local blogger and CB9 member, suggested in a recent post that the board do “nothing” moving forward, in light of MTOPP’s rhetoric “only becoming more incendiary.”

At a board meeting last week, he suggested CB9 ditch the resolution and refocus its energy on restructuring its executive board and by-laws.

"It's become clear to me that any new move toward change with a capital C is going to be perceived as an assault," he said. "For all intents and purposes, I feel we've been shut down."

Giron had similar thoughts.

“I think it’s finally starting to set in that this is not going away. You’re not going to just come up with a draft every meeting and expect for it to go through,” he said.

Cumbo, however, maintained that the study is “critical” — especially given the “very unregulated” development in Crown Heights — and thinks the community “should move forward.”

“Forward could mean anything. It means you could do nothing or you could do a study or not do a study. But at the end of the day, you’re not stopping progress. So, that’s the hard part about this — is that you’re not going to stop the development that’s going on in that particular community.”

Cumbo said she has not ruled out the possibility of submitting a rezoning study request to City Planning herself, as she stated during the February CB9 meeting to loud booing from MTOPP.

“It would be naive to think that we’re going to move forward with a process that everybody’s going to be either happy with, or even neutral with,” she said.