Sunset Park residents gather to brainstorm

Taking their cue from newly elected mayor Bill de Blasio, several Sunset Park residents were determined not to be left behind by the citywide feeling of excited momentum following the November elections and so organized Talking Transition Sunset Park (TTSP)—a community forum that was part town-hall, part-brainstorming session, held late last year inside Our Lady of Perpetual Help’s giant gymnasium.

“As citizens, our voices must be heard,” said Cesar Zuniga, one of the approximately two dozen residents who participated in the event. “Forums like this help us be heard, share ideas, and have conversations.”

Named after de Blasio’s post-election series of public forums to have “an open conversation about the future of New York City,” TTSP was organized by long-time resident and Community Board Seven member Marjorie Campos-Gatjens and featured CB 7 District Manager Jeremy Laufer as the provider of a crash course in “Sunset Park FAQs.”

Among the addressed topics were Demographics, Transportation, Parks/Recreation/Beautification, Education, Sanitation, Fifth Avenue infrastructure, Housing, Public Safety and Security, Business, and Landmarks.

Issues raised included concerns about a lack of affordable housing, shortage of pre-kindergarten and elementary school seats, street cleanliness, a need for more business opportunities for women and immigrants, a need for more pedestrian and bicyclist safety efforts, and a need for more youth recreation outlets.

For Marcela Mitaynes, affordable housing is at the top of her list of concerns. The tenant counselor with local advocacy group Neighbors Helping Neighbors sees the hardships faced daily by Sunset Park residents, whether it is roommate disputes and landlord abuses, or sudden tenant evictions and over-occupancy of apartment units.

“I want to hear ideas from the community. I think we need to be conscious of the affordable housing we have and we need to preserve them because no new ones are being added,” said Mitaynes. “A lot of displacement is happening. Seniors on fixed incomes and low income tenants don’t have resources to relocate; once they’re out, they’re out.”

Despite being invited, no elected officials attended the event and only one sent a representative, but Campos-Gatjens said she is still hopeful that positive change can come about from the discussion.

“I wished for more people, but it’s a special time of year [and while we] are not made up of many people, we have big dreams,” said Campos-Gatjens. “But I am very disappointed that the elected officials did not come. My hope was for them to hear our concerns [so they can] start working on our needs. Now I’ll put it online and put it in a document to send to them.”

Following Laufer’s informational speech and the brainstorming session that followed, guests made lists of their top three issues for the coming year.

For Peter Vavagiakis, the top three issues he would like to see addressed are education, transportation and parks/recreation. As a local father who is part of the 58th Street Block Association, Vavagiakis believes that living in the neighborhood means, “I have to take part.

“The event was very information. The speaker was great. [Now,] the question is does it just end here or does [the conversation] continue? The more people [get involved], the better.”

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