New Yorkers come together to clean up their streets
''It's my block, and if I'm going to live on it, I'd like it to be the best block around.''
That is the sentiment of members of block associations all over New York City. Literally thousands of New Yorkers are rolling up their sleeves and tackling every kind of neighborhood need, from personal safety to cleanup campaigns, from recreational facilities and beautification projects to care programs for children and the elderly.
A block association is an organized gathering of neighbors who get to know each other and talk about grass-roots issues of importance to them such as housing conditions, safety, and sanitation.
Block associations have been around for about a century, but their recent growth and success have evoked notice from many other US cities that are now looking in to see what New York is doing right. Currently there are 2,000 block associations in Manhattan alone, and almost 14,000 in the five boroughs of New York City.
Nothing much deters an energetic, well-organized block association whose members have a glint in their eye and steel in their resolve. They are tireless, civic-minded watchdogs and hard-working supporters of a higher quality of urban life.
Many observers feel that the block association movement has been one of the most positive and formidable forces for good the city has yet experienced. It has returned some of the city's earlier amenities, they say, and has brought back a small-town sense of knowing one's neighbors and of caring about them and sharing with them.
''New York is still no utopia,'' says one enthusiastic block association member, bending to pick up trash out of the ivy beds around the trees her group had planted. ''But it is certainly a lot neater and cleaner than it was, and it's improving all the time.''
The scope of projects is as wide and varied as the blocks represented. Jules Schulback, president of the Lex/61st Street Association, maintains Dial-a-Neighbor, explaining, ''In a city this size everyone needs a number they can call if they need assistance or a friendly visit. We provide that 24-hour number for our members.''
Mr. Schulback came to New York as a German refugee 40 years ago and has never ceased to love and appreciate it. ''We first banded together here to fight a discotheque coming to our block,'' he explains. ''Having won that battle, we went on to plant trees, work on garbage problems, and clean up sidewalks. Some of us think of our street as our outdoor living room, and we want to look after it and make it prettier.''
Harry Schwartz, president of the Riverside Drive Residents Association, says most of his group's work has revolved around improving neighborhood safety. ''We've seen street crime go down steeply as a result,'' he says. The association hires a guard from a private security service five evenings a week. Its members have sought better police protection and have invited police security surveys of the buildings on the block. They have also repaired all the street lights.
Other block associations in Upper Manhattan are concerned with cleaning out hangouts of dope peddlers, protecting their children, and taking care of their elderly. The 151st Street Broad-Am Block Association is opening a new recreation center this month that can accommodate 45 or 50 youngsters on Saturdays and offer sewing sessions to elders during the week. This association also arranges Saturday museum trips around the city for children on the block and allows them to push big brooms on cleanup days.
Members of a West 84th Street block association have their block closed to traffic and play volleyball in the street every Thursday night. Those who don't play come out to watch and visit with each other. One member has even researched and written a history of the block, which has now been published.
Projects under way in other associations include removing graffiti, gardening , cleaning local parks, painting murals, constructing benches and installing bike racks, converting empty lots and backyards into play areas, and protecting older residents against crime.
But block associations have a social side, too. Warm weather brings block parties, festivals, and fairs. Craftsmen display their wares. Actors play on improvised stages. The good smells of ethnic cooking waft over the crowds, and music and dancing show off New York at its lighthearted best. There will be 5, 000 such outdoor events before next Oct. l, including popular sidewalk sweeps.
If anybody in town could be dubbed ''Mr. Block Association'' it would have to be Mort Berkowitz, community affairs director of the nonprofit, nonpartisan, and privately funded Citizens Committee for New York City. He travels the city from one end to the other, from neighborhood to neighborhood, giving talks and showing people how to organize themselves. He has been a guiding hand in the formation of 4,000 new block associations since the committee was established in 1975 in direct response to the city's fiscal crisis.
''A block association,'' Mr. Berkowitz explains, ''gives people who might otherwise feel powerless the chance to speak up and to effect change and improvement of their street. It develops pride, and it brings a mammoth, impersonal city down to a manageable, personal size.''
On April 3 Mr. Berkowitz will be one of those presiding over the Sixth Annual Block and Neighborhood Association Conference at New York University. A series of workshops will show how to develop leadership skills, hold block parties, organize tenant associations, monitor city services, and give other useful assistance.
The Citizens Committee, Mr. Berkowitz explains, encourages neighborhood self-help projects, recruits volunteers for city and private agencies and helps match public needs with private corporate means. Chase Manhattan Bank has this year given $50,000 to promote the block association program, and designer Mollie Parnis has for eight years sponsored the ''Dress Up Your Neighborhood Contest.''
The Citizens Committee, 3 West 29th Street, New York City 10001, has published seven free booklets for distribution to block associations or those interested in forming one. One of these lend-a-hand booklets is published in English, Spanish, French, German, Russian, and Yiddish.