Jeff Escobar may spend his days in the elegant offices of midtown law firm Chadbourne & Parke, but his thoughts seem firmly focused on Roosevelt Island. As president of the Roosevelt Island Residents Association (RIRA), Escobar has worked to help turn RIRA from a group he described as “reactionary” to one he sees as proactively engaging with the larger community – both on the Island and off.
Escobar, who has not announced whether he will run for another term, believes that the importance of RIRA is that it is “directly representative of the tenants’ daily lives. It’s a gauge of where the community sits on issues.”
Recently, he sat down with The WIRE to talk about his three years as RIRA president, his vision of community, and why he’s ready to stop looking to the past and start planning for the Island’s future.
Escobar has served on the RIRA Common Council since moving to the Island in 2006 with wife Elizabeth Erickson. (In fact, the couple signed their lease at the Octagon prior to construction.) Their daughter, Madeline, was born in 2010 and now attends first grade at PS/IS 217.
Escobar became RIRA president in 2013, after taking over from President Ellen Polivy when she resigned, however his Island advocacy isn’t limited to RIRA. He also serves on Community Board 8’s (CB8) Transportation, Land Use, Zoning and Development Committee, as well as CB8’s Roosevelt Island Committee, the Roosevelt Island Community Coalition (RICC) and the Cornell Taskforce. Escobar believes his time on the Common Council and CB8 inform one another as CB8 is the first stage of local governance.
“As a land use attorney, [CB8] really intrigued me,” Escobar says. “There are certain Roosevelt Island issues that RIRA learns about only because it has members on CB8, making RIRA and CB8 a coordinated effort.”
To that end, he also hosts a joint committee meeting each year with the CB8 Youth and Education Committee and its Roosevelt Island Committee to discuss the Gifted & Talented process at PS/IS 217, as a way to keep the district’s and community’s focus on the Island’s public school.
To understand why Escobar has served on the council for so long, one must understand his view of community. According to Escobar, there is no community without ownership and guardianship – and he takes both very seriously.
“You don’t have to serve on the Public Safety Committee, for example, to demonstrate your commitment,” says Escobar. “You just have to understand what it means to live here...there is an identity of being part of this neighborhood.”
When he talks about the Island, Escobar sounds the way older people do when they look back at “the old neighborhood” they’re from. He calls the Island a “magical place.” It’s that identity that he says he’s trying to preserve.
“I want this to continue for my child,” he says. “It won’t happen unless people advocate for it.”
Escobar sees the Island as a microcosm of macro issues. Since he’s been RIRA president, the council has advocated for more pre-kindergarten seats; worked with Council Member Ben Kallos on the Participatory Budgeting program, bringing the Island back-to-back victories; advocated to bring a permanent art installation, Blue Dragon, to the Island; and hosted many well-attended Island activities, including the annual Egg Hunt and The Cherry Blossom Festival.
As RIRA president, Escobar sees his role as that of facilitator, not as an advocate for a particular point of view. He doesn’t vote at meetings, nor does he speak for a particular side.
“The chair presides,” he explains. “Under Roberts’ Rules, the chair is supposed to be non-partisan to allow the debate to move forward. I don’t vote unless I need to break a tie.” (Robert’s Rules of Order, published in 1876 by then U.S. Army Major Henry Martyn Robert, is a guide for conducting meetings and making group decisions that many organizations adopt.)
Escobar believes this approach makes for a fair debate. “People can feel safe to speak, and they aren’t bullied into not speaking.” He adds, “When I was a Council member, I sometimes felt that I couldn’t say anything. I am very much cognizant of that as President.”
The approach comes with its own set of challenges. Escobar says he spends time “trying to figure out and prioritize issues as they arise. Not having knee-jerk reactions.”
During Common Council meetings, Escobar says he tries to “sit back and allow individual members to advocate for their positions in the hopes that resolution will come out of it. That’s why I encourage that [new resolutions] are not discussed on the floor. They should be discussed prior so they’re concise. Very rarely has there been a resolution that hasn’t been discussed thoroughly in advance.”
This approach also makes for more efficient meetings, good news for a group that has a reputation for holding very long meetings
“I am very conscious to allow both sides to be heard and be efficient with people’s time. There are things people want to talk about. We have a limited amount of time to find a solution. My ultimate goal is to make sure it happens.”
None of this means he doesn’t have opinions and wouldn’t have wanted to voice them. He says, “All of the resolutions that have gone through, and there have been many substantive resolutions, I would have wanted to vote on and engage in discussion. But at the end of the day I was proud of everyone.”
As examples, he points to the WIC issue (when Gristedes stopped accepting WIC [Women, Infant and Children] checks, RIRA immediately got involved) and Public Purpose Fund resolutions. “I definitely wanted to be able to vote on those, but having said that, I think that the way that I chair enables for fair discussion and allows the voice of the community to be heard. To me, that’s the point; to advocate for the Council, not myself.”
Escobar also takes a hands-off approach to RIRA committees. Although the president is a de facto member of each committee, he says, “I also believe in giving chairs freedom to run their committees. [I believe] in trusting the committee to formulate a plan that is representative. I’ve always said that the work of RIRA is done in the committees.”
Escobar says he stays in the loop of what’s going on in the committees. “Chairs advise me of what’s going on and I provide input back. It’s not like I’m at every meeting. A lot of that has to do with time constraints. There have been RIRA presidents who’ve have gone to every meeting.”
In Escobar’s mind, a strong RIRA is instrumental in building a sense of community on the Island. Escobar believes that residents have become more united in the past couple of years. As proof, he points to the popularity of sponsored RIRA events. “If you see the turnout of our sponsored events, it’s pretty amazing where we are now. There’s been a lot of outreach that’s happened.
“There have been some who have criticized my view of community as skewing to a specific socio-economic group,” says Escobar, “but it’s never been that way. If anything, I skew toward the kids.”
Escobar’s hope is to build a community around the future, one that is not beholden to the past. He would love for RIRA, and the community as a whole, to look at the Island from a youth’s perspective: “Our kids have no concept of race or economic structure. So, if anything, a good RIRA will continue to build on that theme. To a certain extent the ship has sailed for a lot of adults. There are always going to be Islanders who think that people who live in the Octagon are rich. They’re not. A good RIRA will build on that. I’ve done it the only way I know how, through the eyes of a child.”
Escobar also feels the Island’s growing pains. He has concerns about Cornell’s arrival next year, asking, “How will Cornell be in the community?” Although he says thus far they have been good neighbors, the adoption of PS/IS 217 gives him pause. He says it was lip-service until this year, and getting to where we are now took a lot of advocacy from many groups, including CB8. Escobar questions whether Cornell will be a truly open campus or whether it will “have walls without actual walls.”
Relationship with RIOC
Escobar says he’s also seen progress with RIRA’s relationship with the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation.
According to Escobar, RIRA historically saw its role as that of “RIOC watchdog.” From the beginning, a goal of his in taking on the presidency was to have a true dialogue between RIRA and RIOC, through RIRA’s Government Relations Committee, to promote accountability and community.
For this, Escobar caught heat; he says some RIRA colleagues were resistant to a new way of doing business and thought he was in over his head. Escobar’s response was, “I understand that’s not how it’s been done, but maybe this is the way it can be done now.”
Escobar thinks the effort has paid off.
“RIOC used to be a governance body. [Many] old-timers on the Island still view RIOC as an entity that needs to be battled. [Yet] RIOC has had its own issues with the Governor and Albany. Now they’re a public corporation whose sole job is to provide services. There is a completely different type of interaction on the government side. That’s evolved in my time. The current president, Susan Rosenthal, is community-minded. Any adversarial dynamic between the two groups is gone.”
He points to Kanye West’s recent fashion show at Four Freedoms Park as an example of the mutual respect between the two Island groups. The Good Shepherd Center was used as a staging area for the fashion show and many Council members were concerned that it wouldn’t get cleared out in time for a scheduled RIRA meeting. Escobar says Public Safety Director Jack McManus was there, and that he and RIOC staff got everyone out and the space ready in time.
Escobar sees it as an example of RIOC’s shared understanding that “the center of gravity must not move away from [the] center of the Island.” Now, Escobar says, the focus needs to be on engaging the state, to ensure we get what we need.
As for our local politicians, Escobar describes Assemblywoman Rebecca Seawright, Council Member Ben Kallos, and State Senator Jose Serrano as “fantastic, strong advocates.”
The Next Council
When describing his vision of a perfect common council, Escobar pauses and then says, “It would be one where every socio-economic stratum is represented and filled with people who have a lot of initiative, a sense of what they want to see happen in the next five, ten, twenty years, who are willing to work toward making those ideas happen.”
When RIRA is not successful, Escobar attributes their misses to institutional inertia, and to not making sure everyone’s voices are heard, instead of just those that yell the loudest or the most.
He says, “we [in RIRA] need to maintain community involvement, otherwise we are just talking to ourselves. The more ways RIRA can engage with the community, the better.” According to Escobar, that includes engaging the youth on the Island as much as possible.
“At the end of the day, they’ll be living here.”