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Lessons on activism for the preservation movement, and reflections on the AY example

At the 15th annual Historic Districts Council (HDC) conference, Communities and Cornices: Preservation in a Political World, held March 7, Dick Dadey, executive director of the Citizens Union (CU), offered some general observations on effective advocacy.

The lessons apply not only for historic preservationists, but also, to my mind, offer context regarding the Atlantic Yards battle.

(Here's his PowerPoint.)

From LGBT to CU

Dadey described his background in activism, first in LGBT issues, then as a lobbyist on issues like homelessness, health care, housing, and reproductive rights. He then became involved in the Brooklyn Heights Association, the longstanding civic group in his neighborhood. “I wanted to be connected to the city in which I lived.”

He became executive director of the Parks Council, then, for the last five years, executive director of the 112-year-old CU, a longstanding watchdog organization, with its focus on political reform, campaign finance, ethics, and transparency.

Beyond CU’s watchdog role, Dadey said, “we try to be a constructive critic.” CU led the fight against putting a subway under Central Park, help support the effort to build the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and led the effort to enact permanent voter registration, a seeming no-brainer that supplanted an era in which everyone had to register before each election and Tammany Hall controlled things. CU also led the fight against discriminatory City Council district lines and helped get rid of the Board of Estimate, which gave power to each borough president.

And CU launched Gotham Gazette), an online news source that covers civic issues often overlooked by the press.

On Atlantic Yards, however, CU has been quite cautious, calling in December 2006 for a "limited delay" in approving the project, saying "we believe that economic development is needed so that the city can continue to be a dynamic place of business and meet the needs of a growing population.” Evidence, then and now, that AY would provide economic development is questionable.

(Photo by Jesse A. Ward)

Elements of good government

What is good government, Dadey asked rhetorically. He listed multiple factors: transparency, accountability, responsiveness to the people, effectiveness, acting in the public interest.

“Good government cannot function unless the citizens are paying attention,” he said. Thus the importance of advocacy. (And, I’d argue, journalism.)

Effective advocacy

Dadey listed what he called “the five P’s of effective advocacy.”

Principle: you need to have a set of principles that guide your work. HDC and other preservation groups, he said, have a very strong set of principles.

Purpose: a principled organization or effort needs to know what it’s asking for.

(In the Atlantic Yards context, it’s a very big ask, in fact, impossible. Hence lawsuits.)

Pragmatic: it’s not just about being passionate, and knowing your cause, but being wise in how you speak about it.

(Atlantic Yards diehard opponents at times have made common cause with “mend-it-don’t-end-it critics like BrooklynSpeaks.)

Political: “which is not a phrase a lot of us like to use,” when fighting for these principles… but being political, knowing what tactics to use and how to use them successfully.

(AY opponents have been unsucessful in getting project opponents like Assembly candidate Bill Batson and Congressional candidate Chris Owens elected, but longstanding opponent State Senator Velmanette Montgomery was reelected easily. Now City Council Member Letitia James, the leading opponent, faces a challenge.)

People: “How do the issues we care about affect the daily lives of people who live there?

(AY opponents certainly have recruited people in the immediate area of the project, but have not drawn large numbers from beyond.)

The importance of listening

The biggest lesson he learned, Dadey said, was this: “In order for people to hear what you are saying, you have to get them to listen to you first.” He explained that advocates sometimes “get so caught up in the rightness of our cause” they sometimes forget to figure out whether their audience cares.

(In the case of AY, there’s a constituency limited by geography--those closest to the project site who’d be most affected by its impact. Beyond that, the opposition has not recruited followers, for example, in the working-class black community, but, then again, most of those project supporters in that community are connected to groups that expect to gain from the project. Had media outlets reported or editorialized more critically, or had a deep-pocketed opponent like Cablevision entered the fray, as with the West Side Stadium, more people might have been outraged by the deal.)

Historic preservation, Dadey said, is an important part of New York, but it must be presented as a common interest, not a self-interest, and alliances must be built.


Dadey pointed out that “it’s not so much what you say, but how you say it.” For example, CU is involved in increasing the public oversight of police conduct, much of which is racially charged. However, the legislation to be introduced will be led not by legislators of color but white City Council members. “We don’t want it to be seen as a racial issue,” he said.

“You may not want to turn opponents into enemies,” Dadey said. “There may be people who don’t support you today… but don’t go around and make the leap and conclude they’re your enemy… because you need to build effective relationships long-term.”

(That’s an interesting observation in the AY fight. There’s more personal bitterness--as Daily News columnist Errol Louis has observed--than in many conflicts, partly because some personalities are particularly combative. Then again, the stakes are very high--and there has been some detente.)

Dadey said activists should provide solutions, not just opposition.

(In the case of AY, the UNITY plan is an alternative, though it has not gone through any public process yet and is not backed by the powers that be.)

What are important tactics? Both legal efforts and the deployment of money.

“It’s distasteful to know the huge impact money has,” Dadey said, but it can’t be ignored. Advocates can spend money on issue advertising and contributions to candidates who support their cause, in this case, historic preservation.

Elected officials and candidates care about two things, he said: money and votes.

(In the case of AY, the money went more to lawsuits than anything else.)

Successful campaigns

Dadey described how different tactics contributed to successful campaigns. The Parks 2001 campaign aimed to ensure that every mayoral and City Council candidate supported 1% of the city budget to be spent on city parks, at a time when the ratio was .4% and parks without private funding (e.g., Central Park and Prospect Park) were neglected.

What made this effective, Dadey reflected, is that a citywide issue was turned into a neighborhood one, as the Parks Council created, for each district, a brochure that analyzed all the parks in it. The campaign stressed that parks were less pastoral, green space as places used by kids, places that, when well-maintained and actively used, raise property values, reduce crime, enhance health, and create community.

While the issue may initially have seemed like an amenity, he said, the establishment of broad value and importance brought in nontraditional allies. While the campaign was initially sidetracked because of 9/11-related budget cuts, today the city spends double what it spent seven years ago.

By contract, the ACT UP story illustrates importance of other tactics and other approaches. Both the government and closeted gay leaders weren’t doing enough about the AIDS crisis, Dadey recalled, so ACT UP took to the streets.

While the group was criticized for in-your-face tactics like getting arrested and blocking traffic, the “bad cop” tactics strengthened the hand of others working on the issue.

Fighting back

Dadey mentioned some other examples. Robert Moses’s Manhattan expressway plans were stopped by the alternative vision (and organizing) of people like Jane Jacobs. The Westway project, backed by the political power structure, was finally defeated in the courts. (The ruling was on a seemingly tangential issue, the effect on striped bass.)

Sometimes scandals can help, he said, citing the effort to achieve public campaign financing.

Other campaigns take time. The Housing First campaign of 2001 campaign called for more affordable housing and didn’t result in immediate success. But Mayor Mike Bloomberg did commit to building more affordable housing.

Dadey described some missteps by Bloomberg. Had the mayor given up his West Side Stadium plans and allowed for a stadium to be built in Queens, New York likely would’ve been the United States candidate for the Olympics. Similarly, his call for congestion pricing is another issue suffered from intransigence on the part of advocates.

Lesson for preservationists

So, what are the lessons? Dadey asked, “Are you arguing for preservation for preservation’s sake along, and is that enough to win?” Beyond that, what’s the public interest and how does the issue affect people? Is the movement about buildings, or neighborhoods, or people?

“There’s no right answer,” Dadey allowed, ‘but it’s important, in your advocacy, in trying to win support, to think through these issues.”

He said preservationists had to transform “what is arguably a narrow interest... and make it seem a vital public interest.”

He asked the audience what they were doing. Among the answers: educating the public; citing the value of neighborhoods; and emphasizing property values.

What are the issues preservation should be linked to? Among the answers: economic development; green efforts; and zoning reform.

A recent controversy

Dadey brought up the fight to preserve the modernist building at 2 Columbus Circle, now the Museum of Arts and Design. “I can understand why it was important to the movement, but why should it be important to the residents of the city, particularly when people saw what happened after it was renovated,” he asked. “To the uninformed observer, which is better?”

(Photo by David Heald)

The answer, he was told, came down to issues of public process and transparency; the Landmarks Preservation Commission wouldn’t even hold a public hearing.

Before and after pictures

Dadey recommended that activists show before and after pictures to illustrate the impact of development, as with the Dock Street development planned for DUMBO.

(Atlantic Yards has never been portrayed in the New York Times in neighborhood scale), even as promotional literature distorts the perspective.

Defending growth

One audience member said, “I’m not a fan of ugly buildings… but the Manhattan is the home of verticality.”

Dadey noted that the question is key to future success of the city, which “depends on a level of growth that some in this audience may not support.”

(Indeed, initial opponents of AY--and some--wanted to keep the area all small-scale. Most eventually came to back the highly dense--but not as dense, nor as extensive--UNITY plan.)

Most preservation movements are too reactionary, one audience member suggested. If the community figured out what it wanted to be, then it could encourage people to do compatible development.

(That may be true, but there’s also a question of structures to get such planning off the ground. After all, in the case of AY, there had been no attempt to market the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Vanderbilt Yard.)

Finding Plan B

Dadey suggested that advocates make historic preservation a public interest, talking about tourism, economic development, public safety, and people. They should explain to elected officials why they should care.

They should recognize, he said, that sometimes outright victory is not always possible, which means there should be a Plan B.

(In the case of Atlantic Yards, however, the Plan B seems to be the long leash granted by the government to the developer, which allows a much smaller project built over a much longer time, and leads the developer to assert that "we control the pace." And the fight will likely go to the end.)