The Staten Island Runner

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January 11, 2000 

NYRROArs   by Glenn Ribotsky

An ongoing commentary on issues in the Staten Island and metropolitan road racing community, complied through the auspices of the New York Road Race OmbudsAssociation.


With the new year now upon us (did you get as tired of the whole decade/century/millennium hype as we did?) there is the usual speculation as to what the big issues/stories in the sport will be in the coming year. There’s the obvious talk about performance-enhancing drugs, the movement to reform the national/international governing bodies, the lamentation over the dearth of world-class American distance runners, etc., but I’m more interested in issues at the local grass-roots level, and one of those that I think tends to sneak along under the radar until there is some big explosion is that of the hot-and-cold nature of the relationship between races/events and the communities they pass through.

What prompts this discussion is that a few weeks ago something occurred quietly enough to be barely noticed by anyone in the running community (I must admit even I did not initially notice it, given the hectic nature of the holiday season—thankfully, NYRROA stalwart Ruth Fairbrother still scans the agate type in the newspapers) which may have a major impact on racing (particularly on the Island, but with broader implications) as the year progresses. At their December meeting, Local Community Board #1, whose purview covers the “eastern shore” of Staten Island (sort of an arc ranging from St. George down through Stapleton and Rosebank and then down through some of the shore area paralleling Father Capodano Boulevard) passed several resolutions that may effect the ability of race directors to get permits for their events. Specifically, in the aftermath of the 1999 debacle at the New York City Marathon start, where runners who were limited in the space they could use on the grounds of Fort Wadsworth spilled out into the surrounding streets and did what runners do before marathons—relieve themselves and strew about clothing, garbage bags, etc.—the Community Board passed a resolution not only calling for the marathoners to be “confined” to the grounds of Fort Wadsworth, but that the Mayor’s Office of Special Projects and Community Events create formal safety regulations governing the race. Additionally, as a response to complaints that arose a month earlier from the running of the Staten Island Half-Marathon—particularly from inconvenienced mass-transit users, a number of them with disabilities--the Board considered a resolution to move that event to an area outside of its area of jurisdiction.

The problems at the Marathon start this past year have been well-reported locally, although there’s been little investigation as to why all of Fort Wadsworth was not usable as in previous years and why runners were allowed to move onto neighborhood streets. It is the second part of the resolution, if you are part of a race committee, that is more worrisome—the call for the Mayor’s Office to create formal regulations. This would certainly add another layer of bureaucracy into the permit process, and might open it up to more political considerations—what if a race was associated with a local politician/sponsors not sympathetic to the current regime in City or Borough Hall, and there had already been complaints from the community? The other resolution—that the Staten Island Half-Marathon be moved out of the Board area—is also troubling in that while the Board has no real enforcement power, local authorities, particularly police precincts, upon whom race directors rely for street closings and traffic control, are reluctant to buck a Board’s stated opinion. Will the race be able to be held next year on its current course? (I foresee difficulties in getting all the necessary permits, exacerbated by the fact that both the Marathon and the Half-Marathon are produced by the New York Road Runners Club, not by Island running organizations, and so suffer from the taint of “outsiderness”—and moreover, both the Marathon start and the Half-Marathon are directed by the same individual, Vic Navarra, who suffers his own reputation problems on the Island.)

It’s not a small point that much of this could probably have been avoided—many of the other Island races, and races elsewhere, take considerable pains to involve the community they will be passing through very early on, informing them of disruptions, using local vendors for refreshments and/or T-shirts, and generally trying to maintain good community relations—but the NYRRC has had a history, especially recently, of being rather heavy-handed in this area (although no more so than it has been in its relationship with its own members). The NYRRC should also be more cognizant of recent history with poor community relations with other races in other boroughs—back in 1997, Brooklyn Councilman Noach Dear, disgusted with what he considered to be unnecessary disruption to the communities of his constituents, actually made a considerable effort to get the Council to pass legislation (bill #874) amending the Administrative Code so that there would be the requirement, prior to the issuance of any permit for an event affecting more than a half-mile of public streets, that every Council district and Community Board through which the event would pass be duly notified, that the Council members and Boards be allowed commentary, and that the permit issuance be subject to the Council’s approval, which could be held for decision until 48 hours before the event. Allan Steinfeld should be particularly reminiscent—he testified at the committee hearings regarding the proposed legislation, and of course indicated that the 48-hour provision was ludicrous for events that are planned year-round. (NYRROA agreed, and at the time filed a position paper to that effect with the Council, which was read at the hearings.) The proposed amendment, with heavy lobbying pressure against it by event sponsors, never got out of committee, but Dear was able to wring some less-disruptive compromises out of the NYRRC for his trouble—it’s why the Brooklyn half-marathon now takes place ungodly early on a Saturday morning and why it follows the course it now does. Will local Community Board 1 seek a similar strategy, trying to put similar pressure on the NYRRC to get similar compromises?

It seems that at the very least, NYRRC will have to communicate better with the local communities through which its races run, provide more information and better supervision, and perhaps make a gesture in the form of refreshment contracts or some such. Of course, the best thing would have been for that to be the policy all along. While the situation in 1999 with Fort Wadsworth may have been a one-time occurrence, apparently there has been enough resentment smoldering out in the environs of Community Board 1 to get the Board to act; it remains to be seen how far it will push its position. (I have already communicated, in official NYRROA capacity, the situation to a number of the members of the NYRRC’s Board of Directors, as has Ruth; articles and statements have been forwarded to them, and I have indicated I believe the Club will have trouble getting its permits with the ease it has in the past. I suppose we will see what steps, if any, the Club will take to defuse the situation.)

This column marks the beginning of NYRROArs as a monthly, rather than a bi-monthly. For the past two years (with Richie Re’s permission and support) I have produced a piece twice each month, except for the December holiday season (generally, a total of 23 a year), but growing demands in other areas of my life have rendered that increasingly difficult. My responsibilities both at work and at home have expanded (Mommy has finally gone back to the office a full five days a week, and Daddy’s schedule is such that much of his work is in the evenings, so Daddy and eighteen-month old Gabriel now have most weekdays together). Some of the topics we’ve been tackling require considerable periods of research; at times this has resulted in pieces that, when produced under deadline pressure before as much was researched as I would have liked, seemed rushed or uneven. I would rather keep the quality as high as possible, and do one excellent column a month rather than two mediocre ones. (For those of you wags out there who would prefer I produce no columns a month, well, you’re on your own.) While I am sensitive to the claim that one of the things most appreciated about this column was how topical it was able to be every two weeks, the addition of the live forum to this web site will, hopefully, enable a response to any fast-breaking news that needs to be followed up or commented upon. The goal of this column has always been to spread information and to invite discussion of the issues in the sport, and the live forum can also be used effectively for that, as long as we remember not to let it deteriorate to the level of a wall of graffiti.

Glenn Ribotsky
Chair, New York Road Race OmbudsAssociation
84 Vogel Loop
Staten Island, NY 10314