Living in any city comes with certain challenges (near-constant construction, public transportation pitfalls and crowded, littered sidewalks, to name a few). Living in New York City, even more so. But on the Upper East Side and in East Harlem, there are also plenty of New Yorkers working to improve the everyday, from the buildings where locals work and live to the parks where they unwind on the weekends — and everything in between.
“CIVITAS focuses on making sure that there’s quality in urban life, in our urban communities,” said Sharon Pope-Marshall, the executive director of the local not-for-profit organization. “I love this city. It’s awesome to see it grow and evolve — and with that, so has CIVITAS.”
Pope-Marshall, an “urbanist” and member of Community Board 8, has been with the organization for over a decade now, starting in her early days as a volunteer, writing articles for CIVITAS’ newsletter, before eventually becoming a board member and ultimately the group’s executive director last year. Nowadays, Pope-Marshall’s work takes her from the unusual — celebrating the efforts of NYC park rangers, who are re-introducing the once-nearly-extinct bald eagle to the city — to the all-too-familiar — weighing in on zoning and development disputes. It’s community planning, and much more.
CIVITAS consolidates its efforts into several board-led committees, including one dedicated to esplanades and parks; one for issues relating to the environment, traffic and transportation; and another to address land use. The traffic and transportation committee has taken up issues like double parking and the Second Avenue subway, which the city has long promised to extend further north into East Harlem, deemed a “subway desert” by the MTA. The land use committee has addressed the topic of building height, and CIVITAS also compiled resources for local businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our board members actually walk the streets; They work — and produce their work product — through committees,” Pope-Marshall explained. “This is very much a hands-on board.”
Sometimes, CIVITAS highlights city issues and achievements that might otherwise be missed – like enduring efforts to bring back the bald eagle. In September, the organization will host a benefit honoring the Urban Park Rangers for their work on the Bald Eagle Introduction Program, which has helped the symbolic birds bounce back in New York. “It represents a reopening of New York City; It represents a resurgence after the pandemic,” Pope-Marshall said. “And the bald eagle is just so iconic.”
Other times, CIVITAS weighs in on the more controversial — like plans to construct a towering new building to house the New York Blood Center, located on East 67th Street between First and Second Avenue, fought with intensity for the past few years. “CIVITAS with other Upper East Side community groups won the existing R8B zoning designation for this area,” Pope-Marshall said. “The Blood Center could have continued its humanitarian mission within the existing zoning instead of overturning it.”
So she testified at a City Council hearing in favor of preserving that original zoning. “It’s a great responsibility,” she explained of providing testimony about which she feels so strongly. Ultimately, Pope-Marshall said CIVITAS felt let down by the City Council’s support of the Blood Center project, which moved forward with approval of new zoning last year. But one loss sometimes leads to another gain — in this case, the creation of CIVITAS’ East Side Land Use Coalition, a joint effort with community districts 6, 8 and 11, spanning the East Side through East Harlem.
“It was from that experience that we learned the importance of collaborating across community districts, across borders,” Pope-Marshall said. “The coalition — whose members can use each other as resources, can collaboratively work together regarding specific projects or more general projects — is absolutely critical to making sure that our voices are heard.”
In a city like New York, and for people like Pope-Marshall, it’s hard not to get involved. “We love the Upper East Side and ‘El Barrio’ East Harlem,” she said. “And with that love comes passion.”
“CIVITAS focuses on making sure that there’s quality in urban life, in our urban communities.” CIVITAS’ Executive Director Sharon Pope-Marshall