Valerie Mason, the driving force behind the East 72 Street Neighborhood Association, took on the MTA in a David-versus-Goliath-style battle – and her scrappy grassroots activists prevailed over the powerful transit agency. Photo: Courtesy of Valerie Mason
The MTA bureaucrats were unyielding. They had devised a plan to tear up a chunk of the stately residential block on East 72nd Street between First and Second Avenues, and their decision appeared non-negotiable:
They would rip up the sidewalk, obliterate the streetscape, dig a hole in the earth, bore underground and embed a new Q train entrance smack dab in the middle of the block under a gargantuan glass canopy.
Then Valerie Mason entered the picture. A leading banking and finance attorney, she was new to community activism. In fact, as she tells it, “I honestly did not know about the existence of the community boards.”
No matter. She was soon rallying outraged fellow residents in battling what they saw as a safety hazard that would invite jaywalking, imperil children, and inevitably, degrade the character of their neighborhood.
It was 2007, and Mason, who was about 40 at the time, was in the fight of her life. Along with her neighbors and the block’s co-op boards, she helped raise money, circulated petitions, filed lawsuits, enlisted elected officials, demanded public hearings and environmental impact studies.
“We packed the meetings — sometimes we over-packed the meetings — and we could be a little bit rude and boisterous!” she recalled. “Some of the electeds were like, ‘We’re very happy to support you, but you’re never going to win. The MTA is this big monolith. How can you take it on?’”
As for the transit goliath, Mason said, its official attitude seemed to be, “Who do you think you are?” To which she and her spirited cohorts were quick to reply, “Who do you think you are?”
Amazingly, against all odds, the campaign worked. The agency backed down. The mid-block entry point was nixed in 2008. The MTA claimed that “issues with electrical wiring” led to its change of heart. But on 72nd Street, everyone knew the real voltage had come from Mason.
“I hadn’t gone up against the MTA before, I didn’t have battle fatigue, I didn’t know what I was getting into, and sometimes, ignorance can be bliss,” she said. “It set me down a path that was eye-opening.”The Birth of E72NA
Over the decade that followed, as Second Avenue Subway construction turned her immediate environs into a war zone, Mason’s band of citizen-activists held the agency’s feet to the fire, seeking relief from power outages, overflowing garbage, unsightly or unsafe equipment stockpiled on sidewalks and the narrowing or disappearance of pedestrian paths.
By Feb. 2016, she decided the time had come to formalize the ad hoc group that had humbled the MTA. The subway was finally set to open on Jan. 1, 2017, residents at long last were about to reclaim their block, and thus, with Mason as the president and founder, the East 72 Street Neighborhood Association, or E72NA, was born.
“We could tell the neighborhood was going to be different once the subway opened, we understood that there was strength in numbers, we saw how positively we could work together — and we didn’t want to lose that grassroots organization we had created,” she said.
“Things were already happening without our input, and we needed to be a part of it to have a real impact,” Mason added.
E72NA’s growth was turbo-charged: Three years ago, it had six member buildings, all on 72nd Street. Today, it has 21 member buildings between 69th and 74th Streets that are home to some 4,750 owners and tenants, and its public meetings at Holy Trinity Cathedral on 74th Street draw up to 150 people.
Unlike many neighborhood associations, which often struggle to adopt to social media, E72NA has a sophisticated website, a robust presence on Twitter and Facebook — and even a communications director.
Elected officials have taken notice. And they marvel at how speedily the upstart group has boosted civic life, informed local debate and became a player in the East 70s and beyond:
“Ms. Mason has empowered hundreds of neighbors to advocate for a better quality of life,” said East Side state Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright.
Adds City Council Member Keith Powers, “Valerie Mason puts her neighbors first. East Siders are lucky to have her.”‘The Will of the Community’
A native New Yorker raised in Astoria, Queens, and a product of the city’s public school system, Mason graduated from Barnard College with a bachelor’s in political science in 1980 and Duke University Law School in 1983, and she’s lived on the Upper East Side since 1984.
She’s a trustee of the Brick Presbyterian Church on Park Avenue; a board member for more than two decades at the Women’s Prison Assn.; a member of Community Board 8 who serves as its parliamentarian and on three of its committees; and a member of the New York Junior League since 1993.
Between nonprofit work and community advocacy, she’s also got to make a living: Mason is a partner at the Otterbourg P.C. law firm, which she first joined in 1984, specializing in the complex structuring and restructuring of financing transactions. And she’s been an annual recipient of the “Super Lawyer” designation since 2009.
“She’s able to look at an issue that seemingly has a very narrow focus specific to one street or one neighborhood — like trash in the tree pits on 72nd Street — but it’s really a flag about overall conditions in a much larger context within the community,” said Alida Camp, the chair of CB8.
“It’ll start with that particular geographic area, but it’s like a spider web, and when she raises the issue, it becomes broader, wider and bigger, and we’re suddenly talking about trash in the bike medians, and trash on Lexington Avenue that twirls around my ankles when I walk,” Camp added.
What’s next on the agenda? Lots of things, including a renewed push to cap building height on First, Second and Third Avenues at 210 feet. That would redress what she views as a historic inequity in municipal zoning and land use.
“Fifth and Park, Lex and Madison, they’re all capped at 210 feet,” Mason said. “Everybody has a height limit except for the most densely populated part of the Upper East Side — and that’s just wrong, wrong, wrong!” she said.
“The electeds are mostly supportive, it’s the right thing to do, it’s the will of the community, and so we’re going to try to make it happen,” Mason added.