Activism for every attention span

Inspired by a readers' poll of top concerns, we show you how to improve our city, no matter how much-or how little-time you're willing to give.

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In this series
The MTA sucks
Overdevelopment is killing your neighborhood
People are hungry, and food is being wasted
The air is deadly
You’re an expendable drone
Homelessness
New York’s marriage—and divorce—laws are lame
The waterways are polluted
Affordable housing doesn’t exist







The MTA sucks

Your train never seems to be running on time (if it’s running), you spend rush hours pressed up against skeevy armpits, and the stations are filthy, hot and occasionally scented with human poop. And the MTA still wants to raise the fare! “Money is a major problem for the MTA,” explains Gene Russianoff, staff attorney for the NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign. “There’s a $500 million to $700 million hole in the 2009 budget because of massive debt and tanking real-estate taxes.” Yeah, yeah, whatever—my heart is bleeding. What can I actually do about the never-ending hikes?


You don’t have to be Abbie Hoffman to make sure your company uses the TransitChek program, in which you can put aside up to $115 pretaxes to pay for your commute. It essentially brings the cost of a 30-day unlimited MetroCard down by a third or a half, depending on your base salary (for info, visit transitcenter.com). Second, fill out those rider report cards the MTA offers. Third, praise or profane the powers that be in the Straphangers Campaign Rider Diaries, or write a letter to the MTA directly (do both at straphangers.org).


MTA board and committee meetings are open to the public, so if you’ve got the patience, those transit stiffs are your captive audience. You should arrive about 30 minutes ahead of time to register, and you must limit your reasoned argument to 120 seconds, but at least you can voice your opinions to someone other than the drunk guy lolling next to you on the B. Upcoming meetings are scheduled for the mornings of Monday 21 and Wednesday 23 at the MTA Headquarters (347 Madison Ave between 44th and 45th Sts, fifth-floor board room; mta.info/mta/news/calendar.htm). The Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee (pcac.org) is another rider-advocacy organization, despite being funded by the MTA. The group’s various councils meet monthly and the whole committee meets four times a year. All of these powwows, held at lunchtime in midtown, are open to the masses.


“This is like volunteering on steroids, but there are three open volunteer positions on the NYC Transit Riders Council, which is the official advisory body to the MTA,” says Bill Henderson, executive director of PCAC. “Council members are appointed by the public advocate and the mayor.” For consideration, contact Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum’s office and make your case (212-669-7200).

—Jaime Jordan

NEXT: "Overdevelopment is killing your neighborhood" »





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People are hungry, and food is being wasted

It’s no big revelation that New Yorkers like to eat, and it’s no big surprise that the restaurants we eat at tend to toss out a huge amount of our leftovers. Every day, City Harvest picks up more than 50,000 pounds of wasted edibles, delivering them to about 600 soup kitchens and food pantries. But rising food and fuel prices have hit such distribution groups hard, just as the real value of food stamps is declining and demand for food relief is going up. In addition to cleaning your plate, here’s how you can help.


Just ask for a doggie bag. “Many people doom themselves to waste food by the way they shop, make dinner or order in restaurants,” says Jonathan Bloom, who launched the blog Wasted Food (wastedfood.com) in 2006. “There’s a bit of a stigma in taking food home—people don’t want to seem gauche, so they throw away what could be tomorrow’s lunch.” Not the type to leave any leftovers? Then you’re in luck: This month, during two New York City Restaurant Weeks (Monday 21–July 25 and July 28–August 1), you can save food by eating food; a partnership with American Express means that diners who pay with their cards donate 50¢ of the price of their meal to City Harvest (cityharvest.org).


Moving? Cleaning? Donate those Goya cans hiding in the back of your kitchen cabinet. The Food Bank for New York City (foodbanknyc.org) can tell you where to bring them. Go to the website, look at the Individual Food Donations page and type in your zip code—you’ll get a list of local soup kitchens and pantries where you can drop off your boxes. No extra food? No problem. Many organizations can use financial donations as well. Skip your 4pm Yolato run and give a few bucks to people who are really hungry. Or contact the Food Bank of Central New York ((foodbankcny.org); it’ll help you auction off your car, then give you the tax deduction and use the proceeds for its operations.


Volunteer. The NYC Coalition Against Hunger website (nyccah.org) can match you with open slots at area pantries and kitchens (as can volunteer clearinghouse New York Cares; see nycares.org). Another option is to organize a food drive at your office or apartment block. The City Harvest website offers advice on planning a drive, from site selection to incentive tips, such as changing daily calls for food (for example, if it’s Tuesday, think tuna). You could also lean on your favorite restaurant to support a local food pantry or soup kitchen. Alert them to the tax-break potential and overhead-cost reductions, as well as the warm glow of altruism.

—Ben Walters

NEXT: "The air is deadly" »





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The air is deadly

Gotham is a top-ten city when it comes to national air-pollution levels. Cars, trucks and buses are the main ozone-killing and particle-pollution culprits, spewing millions of microscopic boogeymen into the air daily. And you’re breathing it in. But you can help curb the contaminants.


According to Clean Air NY (cleanairny.org), if one in ten auto commuters in the NYC metro area carpooled, worked from home or used public transit just once a week, ozone-damaging emissions would be reduced by about 5,100 tons weekly. To keep an eye on how New Yorkers are doing, sign up for the organization’s Air Quality Action Day Alerts (visit the website or text air to 42269), which notify subscribers when ozone pollution levels are expected to be high, so that you can take steps to avoid contributing to the damage. Some tips: Opt for the subway instead of a cab and try filling up the gas tank and driving after dark (sunlight and heat react more readily with gasoline, increasing pollutants).


Break out the old Huffy for Critical Mass, a grassroots group ride promoted by bike advocates Time’s Up (held on the last Friday of every month at 7pm, meet at the north end of Union Square Park; visit times-up.org). The ride raises awareness of the challenges and benefits of urban biking while visibly asserting New Yorkers’ right to pedal on car-crowded streets. “Bikes on the street put pressure on the city to make more space for bikes,” says Time’s Up executive director Bill DiPaola. Indeed, they do. On August 9, 16 and 23, the city will close Park Avenue to cars, trucks and buses for a few hours as part of a program called Summer Streets (nyc.gov/dot). In Brooklyn, over four consecutive Saturdays from Saturday 19 to August 9, a similar event, Williamsburg Walks, will close down—or, rather, open up—Bedford Avenue from Metropolitan Avenue to North 9th Street (billburg.com/walks).


Commute to work by bike or on foot—every day. “Walking or biking to work is possibly the single most important environmental action an American can take,” says Wiley Norvell, communications director of Transportation Alternatives. To facilitate the transition to two wheels, Bike New York (bikenewyork.org) offers free workshops to companies interested in exploring a cycler’s commute. Want to do even more? Dream up a new vision of city roadways for Transportation Alternatives’ “Designing the 21st Century Street” competition, which asks the public to rethink bike and pedestrian access at the Brooklyn intersection of Fourth Avenue and 9th Street (21stcenturystreet.org).

—Andrew Frisicano

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You’re an expendable drone

Many of us are overworked, underpaid and subject to blatant health risks at our jobs, but for some even the smallest peep of protest could result in being unceremoniously sacked. In this gloomy economic climate, that could leave a worker feeling very helpless and alone. And though the busy Starbucks and Duane Reades branches on every corner may make it seem otherwise, New Yorkers aren’t totally indifferent to the plight of wage slaves—just look at the siege mentality when it came to keeping the notoriously antiunion Wal-Mart out of the five boroughs. Here’s how you can throw off your chains and unite.


5 MINUTES!
Taking flyers from the inflatable-rat guardians helps you stay informed and buoys union efforts, but there are other easy options to fight the power. “Boycotting definitely helps,” says Matt McGowan, a member of the local chapter of Industrial Workers of the World. “Starbucks workers have been calling for boycotts because that place has been engaged in such awful behavior over the years,” he adds, referring to the IWW Starbucks Workers Union’s complaints about wages and employee treatment. While such boycotts aren’t responsible for the 600 stores the firm will shutter this year, all those $4 votes do subtract from the ubiquitous brand’s feel-good factor. The website for the New York branch of the IWW (iww.org/branches/us/ny/nyc) lists boycottworthy shops that have fired or otherwise harassed unionized workers.


Make a fashion statement by scoring jaunty pro-union rally wear such as caps, T-shirts, and classic buttons and lapel pins from service- and garment-industry workers union Unite Here (store.unitehere.org). And then educate yourself for future action with the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (212-227-6440, nycosh.org). The website can teach you about on-the-job health and safety rights (like whose fault it is when a crane falls on you), workers’ compensation (detailed in the 2007 New York State Workers Compensation Reform Law) and pending legislation that could affect you (like Intro 650, a City Council bill that would make it more difficult to indepedently monitor environmental hazards at work sites).


People might look at you funny if you start singing union anthems at your desk, but not if you’re a bona fide member of the New York City Labor Chorus (212-929-3232, nyclc.org), which sings—what else?—songs about workers’ struggles. Founding member Jeff Vogel (a bass and member of Local 1199) says, “We particularly need male voices. And some young blood. You don’t have to be a professional.” The next audition is on September 8 (and you don’t even need to be a union member to participate).

—Drew Toal

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Homelessness

Approximately 38,000 New Yorkers are currently in shelters or on the streets—an increase of nearly 10 percent since 2002. Advocacy groups say the current situation is a crisis unseen since the Great Depression, but the Department of Homeless Services claims minor victories—fewer junkies sleeping on subway grates!—while seemingly ignoring the overwhelming evidence that existing policy is deeply flawed. That’s where you come in.


Dropping a few quarters into a dirty cup isn’t going to even pay for a coffee (much less a beer). Instead, spend a few minutes educating yourself on the causes and statistics of homelessness in the city. “Darwin said, ‘Fortune favors the prepared mind,’ ” says Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness & Housing (iahh.org) executive director Marc Greenberg. “If New Yorkers are aware of the four factors affecting homelessness—producing housing, preventing homelessness, promoting income and providing services—they can be opportunistic when it’s time to act.” Greenberg suggests signing up for e-mail updates from the Empire State Housing Alliance (go to ariseorg.net and subscribe to the listserv) and the Coalition for the Homeless (coalitionforthehomeless.org). The NYC DHS posts a daily tally of those in shelters at its home page (nyc.gov/html/dhs).


A few hundred phone calls to City Hall would shake Bloomberg’s “just trust us” mentality. “We want New Yorkers to weigh in with their elected officials,” says Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst for the Coalition for the Homeless. Check the Coalition’s website for issues that require immediate action, a list of names and contact info of the officials involved, as well as the positions endorsed by the group (not to mention your phone-call script). Members of the advocacy group Picture the Homeless (picturethehomeless.org) are or have been homeless; and currently, PTH is soliciting support for legislation called “Housing, Not Warehousing,” which aims to encourage developers to set aside more real estate for residential use.


How better to advance homeless New Yorkers’ rights than by helping them help themselves? Skills training and mentoring help the disenfranchised support themselves and break the cycle of poverty and homelessness. “Our formerly homeless representatives speak to religious and civic groups about their lives on the streets and in shelters,” says IAHH’s Greenberg. “Becoming a mentor to one of these people is a powerful way to get involved.” Alternatively, you can request that a representative from the IAHH or PTH speak to your band, bar crew or ironic kickball team about public policy and its real effects on those it’s meant to serve. Or simply find out about the problem firsthand by volunteering to serve meals or monitor shelter conditions with the Coalition.

—Matt Schneiderman

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New York’s marriage—and divorce—laws are lame

In May, Governor David Paterson’s office directed state agencies to give out-of-state same-sex marriages “the same recognitions as any other legally performed union”—a pointed if partial corrective to the New York Court of Appeals’ rejection of gay marriage in 2006. The unique result is that queer New Yorkers can’t marry at home, but can get hitched elsewhere and be treated like spouses on their return. If some people struggle to tie the knot here, others face difficulty in untying it. New York is the only state without a no-fault divorce option, meaning that even couples wishing to split amicably must attribute blame, or undertake an official one-year separation that can increase the stress of a split. And that doesn’t even get into the issue of finances. In New York, there are no official income guidelines to which judges can refer in order to determine who should be paying what to their ex after the divorce. “The biggest single factor that would help the majority of New Yorkers would be guidance for [postmarital financial] maintenance,” says Catherine Douglass, executive director of inMotion, a New York City group that works with women unable to afford counsel in matrimonial, family and immigration law.


3 MINUTES!
Contact Governor Paterson’s office to praise his recognition of out-of-state same-sex unions (518-474-8390, ny.gov/governor). “It’s important that he hears from as many New Yorkers as possible that he made the right move,” says Sonia Ossorio, president of NOW-NYC, the local chapter of National Organization for Women. Putting pressure on state legislators is a major factor in bringing about comprehensive divorce reform and same-sex marriage in New York. Locate your representative via assembly.state.ny.us.


Volunteer your professional services to inMotion (inmotiononline.org). Those in the legal field are especially valuable, as are social workers and interpreters. Look for more suggestions on the website for the New York State Post-Marital Income Coalition (divorcereformny.org) when it launches later this month.


In the absence of same-sex marriage rights, the ACLU’s Get Busy, Get Equal website (gbge.aclu.org) contains tips on coordinating a grassroots campaign for domestic-partnership policies, from framing priorities to attracting support from religious groups. The New York branch is looking for volunteers to spearhead community letter-collecting projects. E-mail ebraudy@nyclu.org to get involved.

—Ben Walters

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The waterways are polluted

Environmental disasters like the 1950 Exxon oil spill in Greenpoint and GE’s release of PCBs into the Hudson from the 1940s through the ’70s have done no small damage to our waterways, but one of the biggest threats to the city’s bodies of H2O doesn’t come from corporations—it comes from nature. Every time it rains heavily, the area’s sewage-treatment facilities—including those in Coney Island, Red Hook and Jamaica Bay—overflow, accounting for 27 billion gallons of untreated runoff entering our rivers, bays and canals each year.


Duh. “Don’t litter on the street,” says Basil Seggos, chief investigator of clean-water advocacy group Riverkeeper (riverkeeper.org). Due to NYC’s frequent sewage-facility overflows, which number about 70 a year, he says, “Whatever gets thrown on the street winds up in the New York waterways. It may turn up miles away, but it’s there.” Properly disposing of electronics, batteries and CFL lightbulbs at city-run collection centers (nyc.gov/nycwasteless) will help keep heavy metals out of the water, too.


Get on the water regularly, and you’ll be inspired to maintain it. The Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club (gowanuscanal.org) is offering free canoeing in South Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal on Saturday 19 from 1 to 5pm (see the club’s online calendar for dates through October 18). After rowing the inlet, participants collect trash along the shoreline. Gloves and bags are provided; galoshes are recommended. Red Hook Boaters (redhookboaters.org) and Long Island City Community Boathouse (licboathouse.org) conduct similar free boat rides and shore cleanups around Upper New York Bay and the East River, respectively.


In the past, city initiatives have been aimed at expanding facilities to treat sewage faster, but recently, organizations like Riverkeeper and Storm Water Infrastructure Matters (SWIM) (bronxriver.org/swimmableNYC.cfm) have advocated for another solution: Since each urban tree can capture and retain more than 1,525 gallons a year, let’s reduce the amount of rain headed into New York’s sewers by increasing green spaces. Through the mayor’s MillionTreesNYC campaign (milliontreesnyc.org), citizens can learn how to plant and tend greenery on public and private property, as well as enroll in a program to become “stewards” for city trees.

—Andrew Frisicano

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