What Happens In Gerritsen, Stays In Gerritsen

Video courtesy of GerritsenBeach.net

I was born and raised in Sheepshead Bay. And yet, despite its proximity, I stay out of Gerritsen Beach. That’s how I like it, and it seems that’s how they like it, too.

But I decided to venture into the tick-filled taint of Brooklyn and see for myself just how unwelcoming it is.

What I found was a neighborhood dynamic that begs for quietude and autonomy, and sees the slightest glance from a stranger’s eye as a threat to its independence from the rest of the city.

The Backstory

The reason I found myself in that neck of the woods was to attend the Gerritsen Beach Property Owners Assocation (GBPOA) meeting. Some of the group’s members are waging a campaign to ban the neighborhood blogger, GerritsenBeach.net’s Dan Cavanagh, from attending and reporting on the discussions. I wanted to see exactly how this unfolds, since I’ve never seen such aggression at any of the eight or so monthly meetings I attend.

Cavanagh, for his part, has been chronicling the situation pretty steadily, capturing video of and summarizing the members’ opposition. So far, though, the issue has revolved around GerritsenBeach.net’s policy of anonymous commenting, and most critics were tied to another neighborhood civic organization, GBCares. That group has been squabbling with the blogger for months, since Cavanagh ran a story that they claim led to a suspension of one of their programs.

So to me, the outsider, the situation looked pretty obvious before I arrived. You had a bunch of guys pissed off about anonymous commenters unleashing a flurry of four-letter words, and seeking revenge from being shut out of providing a neighborhood service. They were tough guys pissed off with a snot-nosed kid with a computer.

I thought it’d be straightforward; maybe even funny. But it wasn’t.

If We Don’t Move, It Won’t Eat Us

Members not only attacked GerritsenBeach.net on Wednesday, but proposed barring all reporters and uninvited guests from attending the event. They argued that it was inappropriate to have bloggers or reporters at the meeting, saying they didn’t understand why an organization with dues-paying members is mandated to have public meetings. They especially took issue with audio and video recordings by GerritsenBeach.net, but also turned attacks to Our News.

The problem, they said, wasn’t with the reporting. It was with the distribution.

“What goes on in Gerritsen Beach stays in Gerritsen Beach,” said one member. “Gerritsen Beach was a quiet neighborhood; no one ever heard of it. Now it’s all over, and [Cavanagh] keeps hiding behind his amendments.”

“It’s absolutely destroying the neighborhood,” he added.

At issue was the idea that the Earth’s six billion people can potentially access the blog, and news from the area shouldn’t be spreading to the outside world. Our News, a Gerritsen Beach creation that just years ago never left the confines of the community, is now distributed into Marine Park, Sheepshead Bay and Mill Basin.

That, too, is unacceptable. (Joel Garson, the paper’s publisher, said he never takes notes at meetings and only publishes content approved by George Broadhead, GBPOA’s president.)

I didn’t quite get it. Closing off access to the media didn’t really seem to be about hiding anything, or about blocking access for those it serves (the fastest road to abuse). It seemed more to be about keeping out the threat of the wider world: the great big city.

It’s an interesting idea for a New York City community: as Manhattan planners continue to centralize authority and dictate local character, you might be able to go below their radar if no one talks about you.

It’s kind of like in Jurassic Park, where you stand very still to avoid a T-Rex.

The Blind Eye

One of Gerritsen Beach’s strengths, some might say, is the autonomy its low profile provides. The organizations can go about planning programs, parades, or whatever else with impunity because no one’s going to say they don’t have permits. It has its own volunteer fire corps and no one even knows who has the keys to the parks anymore (one person joked with me that everyone in the neighborhood has a set).

And when outsiders come a-knockin’, they can turn inward. We heard stories about an alleged hate crime a few years back wherein white kids beat up black kids who stole a bicycle. When the Hate Crimes unit came asking questions, no one talked.

But this is the era of Bloomberg, and far-flung communities – no matter how small – are stripped of their self-determination. Outerborough neighborhoods all over New York City are decrying the city’s ham-fisted efforts to lay down regulations and enforce laws in a manner that befits the chaotic, high-density neighborhoods of Manhattan or Northern Brooklyn.

Down here, we don’t need it, and we don’t want it. And in the past, there was enough of a blind eye to let ‘hoods like Gerritsen Beach grow in the manner they saw fit. Those days are over, folks.

Close It Off

But while other neighborhoods whine, complain and submit, Gerritsen Beach’s previous stronghold on local affairs won’t be thrown aside without a fight.

The problem is that they’re not quite sure how to strike out, and the prevailing logic – twisted and misdirected as it may seem – is that silence is the key.

So at GBPOA, the board is considering an amendment to the bylaws making meetings members and invited guests only. While commenters at GerritsenBeach.net squabble over the legality of the proposal, the group has that right.

Currently, the bylaws omit restrictions to meeting attendance, so it defaults in favor of the public. But the group is not a non-profit; it receives no public funds. It’s a hybrid of civic organization and corporation; it raises money through programs and membership dues and even owns property.

Just as Knights of Columbus or other fraternal organizations are not required to have public meetings, GBPOA is within its rights to shut the doors. Members have asked for a vote, and it may come up at the next meeting when they have a quorum.

The Joke Of It All

Doing so, though, may be at the group’s peril. A closed-door policy can too often be mistaken for secrecy, and a group that controls funds and property will be accused of dirty dealings in short order.

But beyond that, there’s an inescapable fact that critics may not have considered: their attempt to keep media out will attract more media.

After all, what journalist can resist the narrative of a free speech advocate silenced by a bunch of thugs? I’m not saying that’s what it is, but that’s what it’ll read like in the city press.

And therein lies the rub. No journalist gives two tugs of a dead dog’s tail what happens in Gerritsen Beach on any given day. All they care about is a good story – and the best one you’ve got going now is trying to shut up a fellow journo.

That’s a great headline.


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