The meeting ended just as most have over the past year: Alicia Boyd was shouting at Community Board 9 District Manager Pearl Miles. And Miles was shouting back.
“You’re corrupt, Pearl!” yelled Boyd, to which Miles replied: “I don’t care!”
Asked to clarify, Miles quickly mumbled that she meant she didn’t care what Boyd thought.
Earlier in the meeting, Miles had called the police and threatened to have Boyd ejected for “trespassing.” It would have been the fourth time Boyd was arrested and removed from one of the board’s regular or committee meetings; this one was abruptly adjourned before the NYPD could arrive.
Boyd, a 54-year-old former kindergarten teacher and therapist with a stern educator’s gaze and frizzy, layered hair, is a community organizer and the leader of the Movement to Protect the People, a community group that opposes upzoning and real estate development in Brooklyn’s Community District 9, which includes Crown Heights, Prospect–Lefferts Gardens, and parts of Flatbush.
On this April night, the board’s nominating committee was meeting to fill two open positions on the CB9 executive committee following the resignations of former chair Dwayne Nicholson and secretary Rosemarie Perry. Boyd believes that the pair left the board in March largely due to her work with MTOPP. Though Nicholson has not responded to any recent requests for comment, in a February conversation, before his resignation, he expressed dismay at Boyd’s insistence.
“It’s been like this since September of last year,” he said, after another shouting match at that February 17 meeting.
Boyd started MTOPP in April of 2014, and almost overnight, her critics say, started attending — and disrupting — the board’s regular meetings.
“She never volunteered, never did anything for the community, and now she’s come out of the woodwork,” Miles tells the Voice. “She is totally disrupting this office. You can’t breathe, you can’t do the work of the board. All of a sudden she feels she can dictate what a private owner does with their property, and disregard people with a need for housing.”
In March, Boyd filed a lawsuit against Miles in New York Supreme Court. She alleged that Miles had tried to push through rezoning without community input, failed to hold meetings in adequate spaces, and had not complied with Freedom of Information Law requests. The lawsuit is pending.
Boyd operates in bursts of frenetic energy. She’s filed numerous FOIL requests and is constantly organizing protests and independently investigating members of Community Board 9. One year after appearing on the neighborhood scene, she remains a regular at board meetings, often shouting down board members and city politicians.
At a February meeting, New York city councilwoman Laurie Cumbo was so riled by Boyd’s shouting that she ended up yelling: “You’re talking kinda loud and you have a lot of bass in your voice. What do you wanna have here? You wanna have a fisticuffs right here? You wanna have a bareknuckle brawl right here, Alicia?”
Boyd’s passion comes from her frustration with the over-gentrification of many of the neighborhoods in the district. And she’s seen neighborhoods change before. Before moving to her current neighborhood, Boyd lived in Boerum Hill, which she says is now unrecognizable from how it looked when she moved there in 1980.
“You know like sometimes, you might go into an old neighborhood and you might see that old house with that old lady?” she says. “And she’s still there, and you can come back to the community and say: ‘Hi, it’s been so long I haven’t seen you, what you been doing?’? Can’t do that [in Boerum Hill]. Everybody was gone.”
That neighborhood, in Brooklyn’s Community District 2, is where Boyd says she was introduced to the concept of gentrification, in the late 1980s.
“Boerum Hill was literally the first gentrified community in Brooklyn,” she says. By the time she moved out of the area in 1999, she considered the neighborhood to have been completely gentrified, and, predictably, rents were beginning — and would continue — to skyrocket. Between 2006 and 2012, the median monthly rent in Community District 2 rose from $1,092 to $1,558, according to data published by NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. The number of African Americans in the district has fallen by almost 20 percent as a share of the population.
That is the trajectory Boyd wants to prevent in her present neighborhood, near Prospect Park, where she bought a home with the settlement she received from a legal dispute with her former Boerum Hill landlord. She believes there is a concerted effort by developers, community board members, and politicians to build luxury high-rises, which she refers to as “the monstrosities,” in the neighborhood. She formed MTOPP when she learned of the construction of a 23-story building at 626 Flatbush Avenue, developed by Hudson Companies Inc.
Laura Imperiale, the acting chair of Community Board 9 following Dwayne Nicholson’s resignation, said she thinks MTOPP’s points are valid, but that no conversation can take place amid the theatrics.
One of Boyd’s trademark fiery addresses can be seen below:
“We’re volunteers, we give up a lot of our time by serving on the community board, and I think we’ve been unfairly portrayed,” Imperiale said.
A point of particular concern for Boyd is a contentious zoning study proposal to City Planning that Community Board 9 has been deliberating and amending for over a year. The proposal requested that some areas of the neighborhood be downzoned while allowing for upzoning in others. But Boyd was convinced the proposal, if approved, would eventually open the door to more development. The proposal became the subject of controversy when, following a motion to return it to the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) Committee, the vote was recorded in the meeting minutes as having been defeated, while residents present insisted that it had passed. The proposal was eventually rescinded, but Boyd insists that the incorrect voting record is just another example of a corrupt board. Boyd has since commissioned her own study — through Hunter College — of Empire Boulevard, a commercial avenue behind her home on Sterling Street.
Tom Angotti, the professor conducting the study, says Boyd and the MTOPP are “rightfully concerned, because the city planning strategy has been to take wide avenues like Empire, upzone them to encourage new high-rise development, while rezoning to protect other areas. That’s what they do.”
Boyd and her supporters are similarly unimpressed with promises of affordable housing, a common defense for residential development. “Why are we being targeted now for additional rezoning, to add development in this area, given the fact that we’re already a densely populated area?” says Nichola Cox, a member of the Sullivan-Ludlam-Stoddard Neighborhood Association, which opposes the over-development of the neighborhoods east of Prospect Park. “We have a lot of development that’s already taking place, and we don’t have that much in terms of commercial recreational types of opportunities on this side of the park.”
But Boyd’s exuberant approach to activism has put her at odds even with some people who agree with her ideas.
“We don’t agree with her tactics, but what we don’t disagree with is how secretive and unmanaged CB9 seems to be, how Pearl Miles seems to be the one to be doing things without involving the community,” said Richard Hurley, the president of the Crown Heights Community Council.
Hurley insists that he’s on the same side as Boyd when it comes to protecting the community. “I cringe at the thought of 20,000 people moving into Crown Heights. People that have been living here for 30 or more years, we haven’t had services. Now that gentrification is happening, now they want to give certain services? Affordable housing? Affordable for whom? The people coming in.”
Yet on the issue of the zoning study, Hurley called Boyd “delusional” for expecting Empire Boulevard to stay as it is.
“It’s going to happen whether she likes it or not. And if it’s going to happen, you at least want to be seated at the table,” he said.
But for others in the community, Boyd is a hero.
“They’re demonizing her personally, as if she’s some crazy person who comes in and disrupts all these meetings and is just a thorn in the side of the smooth-running machine that is CB9, but the fact is that she speaks for thousands of people,” said Janine Nichols, acting secretary of the Sullivan-Ludlam-Stoddard Neighborhood Association. “But I think she’s my champion,” she added with a smile.