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Manhattan: The Suburb


Many a NIMBY dispute begins its trajectory at a community-board meeting. Community boards were instituted in the fifties, primarily as a forum where objections to the projects of Robert Moses could be aired (even if they were pretty much ignored by the decision-makers of the day). There were isolated victories: One lower-Manhattan board succeeded in thwarting an expressway that would have swallowed much of SoHo. But in the past twenty years, after a couple of key restructurings in the city's government, the boards found themselves with more power over zoning and policy-making than anyone had ever anticipated.

Community-board meetings have a reputation for attracting garrulous eccentrics, but the boards have amassed real political clout, and each has its own characteristic obsessions. Some, like Two (in the West Village) and Four (representing Chelsea and West Clinton), are known for opposing new high-rises, hotels, and bars; others pretty much limit themselves to single issues: Until the latest Trump-tower controversy erupted, the traffic near the Queensboro Bridge took up much of Community Board Six's energies, for example.

The boards' activities are augmented by a growing army of community associations and freelance activists, defending their territory with an array of tactics; urban planners who work for the city have taken to calling these people bananas, another acronym that stands for Build Anything Not Anywhere Near Anything. In TriBeCa, residents led by Carole DeSaram of the TriBeCa Community Association have taken to hanging sheets out of windows to disrupt film shoots on their streets. "Next time," DeSaram says defiantly, "we're going to start using strobe lights out the windows and music." In Chelsea, the nonprofit Downtown Boathouse group got torpedoed this summer after it sought to store kayaks in a shed on Pier 64. Community activists feared that cars would be drawn to the area, and the plan was shelved. And in an industrial neighborhood in the West Village, FedEx has slammed into a wall of opposition in its attempt to expand a large, monolithic distribution center on Leroy Street. Ellen Peterson-Lewis is a local retiree who lives in a charming third-floor loft near the center and mainly objects to the look of the place: "The Village is a village. People don't just withdraw into their homes and lock the door."

Donald Trump's plan for a 72-story residential skyscraper near the United Nations has already attracted an impressive roster of celebrity detractors, like billionaire industrialist David Koch and Walter Cronkite. Madonna has joined local residents who are fighting plans to convert the old YMCA building on 63rd Street into a 41-story luxury development. In an affidavit, Madonna expressed fears that the project could very well "create a hazard for me and my child" while under construction. The plan is currently in limbo, the developers having postponed the closing until at least April.

Even four-star French restaurateur Daniel Boulud found himself on the receiving end of local wrath in the fall, when Community Board Eight debated his request for a liquor license at his new Restaurant Daniel on East 65th Street. Conjuring up a nightmare vision of double-parked limos and reckless drinking in the vicinity of Central Presbyterian Church, several of Boulud's new neighbors spoke forcefully in favor of the somewhat oxymoronic concept of a wine-free French restaurant. Says Boulud, "Before Daniel, there was a hotel here and a restaurant -- Le Cirque. The 5 percent of people who come in limousines come in the evening, when traffic is lighter." Boulud plans to appease neighbors by planting flowers and trees on the street. "I should receive a medal from the city," Boulud kids.

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