I posed a question (that was sort of a trick) on Twitter:
“Which city am I? From 2010 to 2020:
- my population grew by ~18%
- my total number of housing units increased by 25%
- Bonus hint: I am surrounded on most sides by water.”
The answer is not legally a city—it’s a subdivision of NYC, Brooklyn’s Community District 1, where I live. It’s a geographically small chunk of northern Brooklyn comprising Williamsburg and Greenpoint. Despite this, operating within its political and civic spheres can have massive impacts. I’ll return to this at the end of the essay.
Residents of New York City who care about achieving a brighter future, a golden age, need to begin by paying attention to their block and their neighborhood—kind of like Brooklyn CD1. This is not only the best place to begin learning about the practical matters of service delivery (sanitation, fire, police, etc), but the best place to cut your teeth on politics (“social rule-making”). It’s also where you acquire the knowledge, social capital, and political capital that you’ll need to operate effectively at higher levels of government and politics.1
Local Government and Civics are Informationally and Psychologically Vital
I receive varying levels of incredulity when I first explain this to someone, especially someone who does not have a basic grasp on the nature of NYC’s government.
“How could a trash pick-up possibly be relevant to goals of larger systemic reform?”
“Why should I waste time on neighborhood level stuff when I can work directly at the city or state level?”2
“Neighborhood level things aren’t worth the cost of my time. I have more useful skills that would be better leveraged at higher levels of government.”
In my head, my response to these sentiments is this: “The fact that you cannot see the relationship between the hyperlocal and the macro realms in politics shows an extreme lack of sophistication that definitely means you need to spend more time learning the basics of politics and government.”3
But I generally don’t say this in person, I just give examples of the connection between local and non-local. For example: if you attend a local trash pickup, volunteer to do gardening work in your park, etc, and do these things a few times a month with some thought, several things happen:
- You learn concrete details about how your city works (or doesn’t) in ways that simply can’t occur otherwise; this is the kind of detailed, hands-on knowledge that properly informs law and your own personal model of soft power flows in your political system at varying levels.
- You inevitably run into hired, appointed, or elected government employees, and you can talk to them like the regular humans that they are (this is much harder at higher levels in the political system). They will no longer be abstract good guys or bad guys—they will be competent or incompetent humans just doing a job. Psychologically, this is a critical shift to make.
- You prove to yourself and others that you take politics seriously. You accrue social proof of work and social capital,4 and you build relationships with other people interested in the same work as you. This is easiest at the neighborhood level, and prepares you to do the same at other levels. Plenty of people say they like politics or are involved in the field, but how many actually show up to a civic or political event regularly? Almost none, relative to the total pool of claimants. If you show up regularly, you are already in the top 1%.
- You kindle civic pride, and realize that you can change your built environment with your own hands. You actually invest in the place that you want to hold political power over. As with point two, there is a critical psychological shift here if you allow it.
- You realize that the things that make your neighborhood better just happen to be the same things that are useful for acquiring hard political power. Some people like to shy away from this reality, but it’s true nonetheless. I think it’s a good thing; if you do good work for your community, then you potentially merit some hard political power.
Local Government and Civics Have Scaled Consequences
My Dear New Yorkers: you must wake up to the reality of scale.5 When you do something in our metropolis, even at the neighborhood level, it’s easy to impact tens of thousands of people, if not more. If you clean up a city block (and keep it clean!), you have improved the psychological profile of every pedestrian who travels that block, even if they don’t realize it; if you do it long enough you’ll start to change the way people value that block in dollars. If you improve your local park, you change the lives of each of its visitors. If you improve service delivery in your neighborhood, you change the lived experience of each neighbor.
You must stop conflating “neighborhood” or “local” with “small.”
There are many ways to slice NYC up into smaller neighborhood units, but for the purposes of this essay I’ll use the community district unit. The city is cut into 59 community districts, each of which is overseen by a community board of 50 appointees. I happen to live in Brooklyn’s Community District 1, which is mostly Williamsburg and Greenpoint—population 204,000.6
If you compare Brooklyn CD1 to US cities by population, it’s larger than many cities who have far more name recognition, and is far denser than any of them. Improving service and governance in this part of NYC impacts more people than the whole of Salt Lake City, and likely much faster due to its density. Further, since CD1 is firmly linked into the larger politics of NYC, things that happen here can cascade up to that level as well.
If you care about civic impact, you can have massive amounts of it at the neighborhood level in NYC, in a way that’s far more accessible than any other part of the country, or at other levels of government.
When I say “higher” here, I don’t mean “more important,” although that might or might not be true relevant to some specific goal. In the strict sense, I’m using the word as it relates to systems; “at a higher level in the overall system: higher scope, lower resolution.” You could compare this to the human body: a cell versus an organ versus an organ system versus the whole body. Each level is differently relevant, has different effects on the other levels, and has different affordances. ↩
I’m being generous here. Most people would question why you aren’t working at the federal level, and it wouldn’t occur to them to focus on the state or local level. ↩
Of course, there are things that do only exist primarily in certain parts of the political system. The federal government carries out monetary policy, for example. However, when people point this out to me, they’re more often poorly excusing their own inaction at the local level than properly justifying their exclusive focus on, say, the federal level. “All politics is local politics” is pretty, if not entirely, true, and there’s no getting around it. ↩
This is contingent on a few other things, like not being an absolute crank, jerk, or dummy. Although in some circles that really pays off. ↩
This number is pulled from the 2020 census, as presented in Brooklyn Community Board 1’s “Statements of Community District Needs and Community Board Budget Requests, Fiscal Year 2023,” pg.7 ↩