Incoming Brooklyn Heights Association head prepares for issues big and small
Meet Lara Birnback.
The incoming executive director of the Brooklyn Heights Association will be taking up the reins of the venerable organization at a time when issues like development and the $4 billion rehabilitation of the BQE have roiled the neighborhood.
Lara Birnback has years of experience with nonprofits, governmental and international development agencies, from New York City to Nebraska to Kenya.
Born in California, Birnback attended graduate school at Columbia University, earning an master’s degree in International Affairs. She was the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship in 1996.
For the nonprofit organization Public Agenda, Birnback worked on projects across the U.S. — in Nebraska, New Mexico and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, “trying to help people better communicate about issues they really care about,” she said.
Birnback has worked to support civil society organizations in Eastern and Central Europe on behalf of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, and as a communications specialist for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Nairobi, Kenya.
It was her husband’s work for the United Nations that took the family to Kenya, Birnback said.
“There I was a contractor at the U.S. Embassy working for the United States Agency for International Development on communications issues — helping tell the story of what U.S. aid is doing in Kenya. It was an amazing, wonderful interlude,” she said.
Three years later, the family was back in Brooklyn, and Birnback took a job with the city’s Department of Small Business Services.
She worked on programs to improve the resiliency of businesses that had suffered from Hurricane Sandy, then moved into the neighborhood development division, which focuses on creating thriving, economically healthy neighborhoods.
“What I loved about that work — and what I think I will end up loving about this role with BHA — is that it’s the neighborhoods in New York City that makes this a wonderful, livable place,” she said.
“Maybe your initial thought is it’s the big city, the bright lights and all of that — but it’s really your experience of being part of a micro-community in your neighborhood. Where you might know the shopkeeper, the local café, the dry cleaner you’re saying hi to, the pet store owner giving your dog a treat …
“It’s those kinds of experiences that people have that tie them to the city and make them feel at home here. So that’s what excited me about the neighborhood work, especially since Brooklyn Heights has been my home for a long time, and my husband grew up here,” she said.
Birnback says she’s very grateful to outgoing Executive Director Peter Bray, “who has helped prepare me with a lot of material and conversations, and been incredibly helpful so far.”
The BQE reconstruction will continue to be a top priority for the organization and for herself, Birnback says. While she hasn’t started her new job yet, we asked her for her initial take on the mayor’s BQE panel.
“I think it’s fair to say that to the best of my knowledge, all of the BHA’s interactions with the panel have led the organization to believe that its members take their task very seriously and are working very hard at it,” she said.
“Of course, it’s not possible to predict whether the BHA will agree with the Panel’s report once it is issued, nor can we predict what the mayor and DOT will do with the Panel’s recommendations once they are issued. For now, at least, the organization is extremely pleased to hear that the Panel decided the Promenade Highway was not at all feasible,” she added.
She also listed the jail on Atlantic Avenue and its redevelopment as an expected priority, along with school matters.
“The education question is critical for a lot of people who live in this neighborhood,” she said.
“I’m also interested in continuing the work that the organization has done on recent years to partner with neighboring similar organizations, whether it’s in Cobble Hill or DUMBO or Boerum Hill, our neighbors. Strengthening and maintaining those relationships is a priority for me,” she said.
“I’d also like to look into how we can continue to let the residents of Brooklyn Heights know that the BHA has been there for them, whether they realize it or not, and will continue to be there for them — whether they are members or not,” she said.
Birnback says she wants to understand how BHA can encourage those who haven’t been active in the organization in the past to get involved.
“The demographics of the neighborhood are changing somewhat; there are a lot of new families here. I’m trying to understand how we can help them feel connected to Brooklyn Heights, to encourage the community to come together whether it’s over a big policy question or over a beloved neighborhood event.”
Boots on the ground
Birnback says she feels that “walking the streets” will be critical to her new role at BHA.
While she knows some folks just from living in the Heights, “There’s many more people — residents, business owners, leaders in our local institutions — that I’m excited about meeting,” she said.
“There are lots of people who care about Brooklyn Heights and who may or may not be as interested in [big] policy issues,” she said. “I think it’s really important, even if it’s a tricky balance to strike, to address concerns on that micro-level — if the tree is busting out of the tree pit on my block and it’s creating a hazard, or there’s rats that are living exactly here and how do we eradicate them.”
For many residents, “Their day-to-day is much more affected by those types of questions and those issues, and we need to pay attention to them as well,” she said.
Birnback said she will also be trying to understand how the BHA can partner with small business owners in the neighborhood, what their needs are, and “what are the relationships and connections there that can be built to make sure we have a thriving business community, a robust mix of retail and services that the community is interested in.”
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