Loathe as he would be to acknowledge it, Neighbors Allied for Good Growth (NAG)’s annual gala Saturday night was about one person, Executive Director, Peter Gillespie. And while no one would dispute the importance to the community of his co-honorees at the event, Organizations United for Trash Reduction and Garbage Equity (OUTRAGE) and the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center (GMDC), the packed room was there to thank the organization’s co-founder, who is stepping down as Executive Director after more than a decade at its helm.
NAG formed in 1994, as Neighbors Against Garbage, to stop the City from siting a waste transfer station on the Williamsburg waterfront. Gillespie recalled that at that time, Community Board 1 led the fight against the new facility, but had certain limitations. Along with several of his frustrated neighbors, Gillespie attended a meeting at St. Vincent de Paul to discuss alternate strategies. “We were able to get in the face of the City in ways CB 1 couldn’t,” he explained. And in that church basement, 18 years ago, NAG was born.
By 1998, NAG had won its battle and might have disbanded, but Gillespie, along with some of the others, started to think, “What do we want on our waterfront?” They chose to redefine NAG’s mission (and to update their moniker accordingly) and made Gillespie their Executive Director (“probably because I was the only one not gainfully employed,” he joked).
In the years since, Gillespie and NAG have led the rezoning planning for the Northside. When the City came to them in 2004, with a markedly different plan from their own, NAG facilitated the formation of the North Brooklyn Alliance, a coalition of virtually every community group, to try to retake control of the planning process. Since 2005, when the rezoning became official, NAG began running a variety of programs “to basically respond to the impositions of the rezoning,” Gillespie said.
Saturday night’s gala wasn’t so much about his accomplishments as it was about the man NAG co-chair Emily Gallagher says made community activism accessible to everyone, regardless of experience or special skill. “He is so passionate about people taking ownership of their neighborhood,” she said. “He sees everybody as deserving of respect.”
Her co-chair, Ward Dennis, said one needed to look beyond NAG to fully appreciate Gillespie’s accomplishments. “His work really helped to shape the broader community response, and ensured that the response was both thoughtful and far reaching.” Like Gallagher, he admired Gillespie’s sense of inclusiveness. “As in the fights against waste transfer stations, power plants and other bad ideas foisted on our community, Peter made sure that everyone was included in the process and that no one issue drowned out other people’s concerns,” he said.
One of the many North Brooklynites that honored Gillespie on Saturday night was Assemblyman Joe Lentol who cited his career as “a perfect example of how one man’s dedication can have a significant effect on so many people. The efforts of Peter, along with NAG, have undoubtedly benefited the residents of North Brooklyn and have made Williamsburg and Greenpoint wonderful places to live.”
Gillespie does plan to remain on the organization’s board and to remind NAG Organizer Ryan Kuonen (a “kindred spirit of Peter’s,” said Gallagher) and others of some basic NAG principles. First, “no matter who you are, you have the right to participate in decisions that affect you,” and second, to “plan community development that lifts everybody up. Every project and policy has to be looked at through that lens,” he instructed.
The adjective most universally applied to Gillespie is humble. “He doesn’t want to take credit for the things he’s done,” Gallagher said. “He was a grudging honoree.”
“I’m a NAG,” Gillespie bragged uncharacteristically on Saturday night, to the resounding approval of those who will carry on the mission he’s worked on for nearly two decades.
More photos available here