When the Big Apple went sour, two men found a simple solution

The Citizens Committee for New York City has become one of America’s oldest and most successful micro-funding organizations, backing citizen-led projects from urban gardens to recycling efforts.

By , TruthAtlas

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    Pictured: Members of the Bainbridge Homeowners Tenants Block Association. Since 1975 the Citizens Committee for New York City has given more than $60 million in small grants of $500 to $3,000 each to citizen groups to improve their neighborhoods.
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[This article first appeared on TruthAtlas.com. TruthAtlas is an online news source featuring multimedia stories about people and ideas making the world a better place. Learn more at www.truthatlas.com.]

 When walking through the canyons of Wall Street, marveling at the changes wrought by creative movers-and-shakers and financiers, it can be hard to remember when the city was flat broke. Not only that, it was dangerous, dirty, drug-ridden, and severely lacking in many basic services locals now take for granted.

Back then, in 1975 to be precise, New York Senator Jacob Javits and Newsweek magazine editor-in-chief Osborn Elliot had a simple yet stunning idea. Because the city was so strapped for funding, why not go to the source itself—and ask locals to step up and improve their neighborhoods on their own?

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From that humble idea, The Citizens Committee for New York City (CCNYC) was founded, and it has become one of America’s oldest and most successful micro-funding organizations. Since its inception, over $60 million in grants have been awarded. In 2013, over $911,180 in grants to improve various neighborhoods were given out to 482 resident-led projects in New York City, and there were 51 different workshops—on topics ranging from community organizing, grass-roots fundraising, caring for street trees, urban farming, immigrant affairs (particularly needed for those just arriving in this country), and racial justice in schools. They even teach people how to get coffee donated from Dunkin Donuts during neighborhood meetings and events.

What makes CCNYC so unique is its hands-off/hands-on approach. By offering grants, workshops, equipment shares, and advice/technical support, CCNYC enables locals to come up with their own solutions to issues in their neighborhoods. By fine-tuning the requests, grant recipients are then given the freedom to implement the funds as they see fit. No idea is too small. It is a brilliant way to encourage local volunteering, community engagement, and the power of civic pride.

Peter Kostmayer, 67, CCNYC’s CEO, grew up in New York City and graduated from Columbia University before becoming a seven-term Democratic Congressman in the US House of Representatives while he was living in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. He brings his deep knowledge of government and an ability to deal with paper-pushers to the group.

“We are the only organization in New York City that gives out small grants to ordinary people,” Peter explains from his office on Water Street in lower Manhattan, a few minutes’ walk from the Stock Exchange. “We receive hundreds of applications, and we give out grants of $500 to $3,000 so these applicants can do it themselves. The majority of the grants go to the underserved but no less deserving. Eighty percent have nowhere else to go but here. And eighty-four percent of the grants are given to women—they’re mothers and grandmothers and they care about their families.

“We have no funding from the government – people do it on their own,” he adds, mentioning that their 2014 benefit raised $1.3 million. “It’s not welfare, and we are not service providers. We simply help fill a gap in city services. Everyone who applies for and is given a grant must take responsibility for fulfilling their mission.”

He tells of the three African-American women in their eighties who live in public housing and were determined to do something about the need for recycling in their building, which has no trash chute, unlike most city high-rises. Residents were forced to take all their trash downstairs on their own, and for the elderly, infirm, and those with large families, this was often difficult to do. They were given a $500 grant so they could talk about recycling, and they knocked on doors and told everyone — bringing the families together in the building in a unique and heartfelt way.

Or in the Parkchester section of the Bronx – which used to be heavily Jewish and is now predominantly South Asian Muslims—a remarkable imam went to the rabbi and offered his congregation space to worship in the mosque. They applied for a grant to renovate the space and brought in local youngsters to help with the work.

CCNYC also knows that one of the easiest ways to help locals get to know each other is over food. They provide grants for neighborhood pot lucks, for planting flowers and trees, as well as creating community gardens where a plot can be rented for a nominal fee and a family can live off the produce for months. Neighborhood beautification and maintenance is an ideal way to instill pride in the streets and allow locals to stay connected.

After one presentation in a Bronx school, a grant was given to clean up an abandoned lot next door. The locals cleaned up the trash and planted trees and flowers. It’s not only become a park for the entire community, but an outdoor botany classroom for the students.

Equally important is helping to deter crime. As government sources and law enforcement are, understandably, unable to donate funding to individual citizens, they can funnel it instead through CCNYC for such things as trainings for a community watch. 

“The late Tip O’Neill famously said that ‘All politics is local,’” Peter says. “It isn’t just about what goes on in D.C., but in local communities if the garbage isn’t picked up, the houses are foreclosed, pedestrians need there to be speed bumps on the streets. In the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, we gave a grant for a banner that read ‘Lincoln Park Block Association.’ Neighbors kept their eyes open, and crime went down.

“There are 400 neighborhoods in New York City, and each one is the key to a better world,” Peter adds. “It all starts around the block, and we’re lucky to have so many diverse communities with a strong infrastructure. Little things can make a huge difference. Every year, residents see an issue and come together to address it with support from us. We give them the seed money and watch them grow bigger.”

And watch them become a cohesive, thriving community.

“As soon as the power went out during Hurricane Sandy, the members of the Rockaway Youth Initiative walked up to the top of their high-rises and knocked on every door to check on the inhabitants, asking if they needed water or medications,” Peter says. “They offered to carry people down the stairs so they could get picked up by family members. We knew we needed to make the money available that night, and we were able to apply for funding later.

“We’re nimble,” he says with a smile, “because we can circumvent bureaucracy.”

• For more information visit www.citizensnyc.org.

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