I've met a lot of great folks in my year-and-a-half of blogging. I've gotten to know my hometown a lot better. I've watched and listened to people, old and new, with big ideas and enormous passion for civic issues. There's tons of energy 'round here, and no shortage of brains either. But something happened a few years back that I just got to share, because in researching the "story" I found myself wondering if there is some sort of strange curse pulsing through the sewers of northeastern Flatbush, that ensures that the kind of pollyanna chutzpah affecting other parts of Brooklyn will never happen here. Maybe it SHOULDN'T happen here, and that's what the good Lord's trying to tell us! So relax, and let me tell you the tale of an effort towards economic development some years ago that went horribly awry.
I recently sat down with Mark Dicus, whose name was once almost synonymous with post-millenial "change" in PLG. Half a dozen years ago Mark, w/his budding family in tow, took a look around the 'hood and wondered why it seemed stuck in time - as in the late '80s early '90s time - and so few "amenities" were taking hold like in other parts of the borough. theQ's memory of the time was that NYC was regaining that pre-9/11 swagger, and new businesses were sprouting up, along with a renewed vigor in the real estate market all over town. People were buying and flipping houses again, and banks were lending with quite a bit of, how did Alan Greenspan put it? Froth. (Yes, the stodgy Chairman of the Federal Reserve used the word "froth." Turns out, froth fairly understated the circumstances, but the fall of Lehman was a couple years off, so the nation's expert money guy could be forgiven for missing the meaning of a few leading indicators. Like froth.)
So our neighbor Mark says hey, other neighborhoods are creating environments favorable to business, and its working, so why not here? They're cleaning up their streets, making them safer, strengthening retail corridors, changing the ethos for business and hoping that all boats rise. He founded PLUS (Prospect Lefferts United for Services), a name he almost instantly regretted, but it's so hard changing a name after it sticks, and to my ear PLUS sounds pretty good, even if the phrase behind the acronym is pretty odd. PLUS quickly distinguished itself by cleaning up around Lincoln Road, encouraging places like K-Dog and Enduro to open up, finding some money to help businesses put up new gates and awnings (ever wondered why Papa & Sons and that deli on Lincoln near Ocean look so relatively upscale? Thank PLUS!), helping get the ArtMart thing off the ground w/PLG Arts...PLUS was cooking with gas and seemed headed for greater things. It had a seven-or-so member Board, and in researching this true story, the Q poured over the public listserve of PLUS (it's still up there on the Yahoo), and I must say there is ample evidence of a lively and upbeat and diverse group, meeting regularly, getting pumped and doing some pretty great work, especially for a bunch of volunteers receiving no remuneration. So...what happened?
The downfall started when Dicus found a grant opportunity too good to pass up...and so PLUS wrote what I can only imagine was a great proposal to a City economic development group for money to create a "real" organization, with a "real" budget, and a chance to make a more deliberate and sustained difference in the neighborhood. Given Mark's effective leadership of the group to that point, it made sense to him (and to anyone with an ounce of common sense) that he would be the person to lead the group once the money became available. Given that a "real" organization needs full-time administration and accountability, a salary would be involved. And in fact, the grant in question pretty much necessitated it. Someone would have to be held responsible for administering the money, and accountable to the Board for his/her actions. All of this should have been pretty easy to sort out. At the very least, the Board could have given the guy the gig and re-assessed when the grant money ran out.
I've worked in non-profits for years, in fundraising in fact, and what happened next is really quite shocking. Rather than the Board asking Dicus to step down as board chair to take the Executive Director position, with modest compensation to come from the grant - which they won HURRAY! - the board completely imploded and couldn't even get it together enough to accept the first trickle of money from a six-figure multi-year grant. That's right...after months and years of fantastic well-oiled work, and with some real money now finally available...one after another of the board members quit til there was nothing left.
Back then there was a lively blogging community that predates yours truly, Hawthorne Street, PLOG and the like. Son of PLG and Across the Park both wondered aloud what-the-hell-happened, and the many people counting on PLUS to forge ahead were left confused and angry. I've talked to various people involved in PLUS's demise, but the general consensus is that it's well past time to move on, even if there's still a bit of disappointment and even bitterness lingering. The only pivot point that is incontestable is this: just after the big grant application went in, Dicus wrote a note on the listserve intended for the Board only that went to the general readership. I'm not quite sure what the mechanics of that were, but regardless many people unfamiliar with the board's plans to expand suddenly were given access to that information, and a lot of unsophisticated rumors began to circulate about how the money was going to destroy, rather than help, the cause. Some people wondered in public whether Dicus should even be considered for the gig - this after basically proving himself over two years of unpaid volunteer work. Once Dicus himself left the board in disgust, the great irony is that he was subsequently hired by the Church Avenue B.I.D. to do basically the SAME job, but for the folks immediately to the south of us.
And so ends our cautionary tale. What lessons are learned? First, be very careful about who you put on the board of your budding non-profit. It may all seem like fun and all-for-one and one-for-all until things get serious, and then people's true colors come through. Make sure your agenda is clear to your board AND to the general public at all times. Make sure not to press "send" on the listserve til you're sure you know who you're sending to. Don't assume that everyone sees eye to eye with you on how best to move the neighborhood forward.
Between the resurgent PLGNA, Parkside Prize, PLG Civic, LinRoFORMA, PLG Arts and more...there's definitely plenty of catalysts to spark change. Let's hope they're more successful in navigating the waters of growth. (waters of growth - is that a lame metaphor or what? I gotta go to work now...)
The Q at Parkside
News and Nonsense from the Brooklyn neighborhood of Lefferts and environs, or more specifically a neighborhood once known as Melrose Park. Sometimes called Lefferts Gardens. Or Prospect-Lefferts Gardens. Or PLG. Or North Flatbush. Or Caledonia (west of Ocean). Or West Pigtown. Across From Park Slope. Under Crown Heights. Near Drummer's Grove. The Side of the Park With the McDonalds. Jackie Robinson Town. Home of Lefferts Manor. West Wingate. Near Kings County Hospital. Or if you're coming from the airport in taxi, maybe just Flatbush is best.