After four years as chairwoman of Community Board 1 — a crowning achievement to her nearly two decades of service on the board — Catherine McVay Hughes’ tenure ended on June 30. Hughes decided not to run for a third term as chair, but will be staying on as board member for at least another two years.
Arguably her biggest project has been the rebuilding of her 1.5-square-mile district, which includes Ellis, Governors and Liberty Islands, after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Based on the reports completed by Community Board 1 to keep accurate population figures, the area had about 20,000 residents before 9/11 and half as many afterward. But their most recent population estimate from this past February counts 70,000 people as CB 1 residents, a significant increase by any measure. “We’re the fastest growing residential neighborhood in the city if not the country,” she said.
At the New York Public Interest Research Group, where Hughes worked for about 10 years in the 1980s and 90s, she worked on issues such as lead poisoning prevention that became all the more useful after the health consequences of 9/11 on survivors and emergency workers came to light. “It was really important that those that responded and put their lives at risk had the resources and the medical care that they had earned,” she said. “As we approach the 15-year anniversary, we’re in a very good place.”
Pat Moore, who joined the board after her home was destroyed by the 9/11 attacks serves as the chair of the CB 1 Quality of Life Committee, called Hughes “ubiquitous.”
“She’s everywhere at the same time,” Moore said. “How she did it I have no clue.” Moore credited Hughes with developing a good relationship with various agencies that were needed to cooperate on the rebuilding efforts after 9/11.
Hughes, whose professional background is in engineering and environmental health, started out as a co-chair and then chair of the board’s Financial District committee. She also spent seven years as chair of the World Trade Center Redevelopment Committee before serving as the board’s vice chair for six years and chair for the last four. “It was something that gave an opportunity for an everyday person to get engaged in quality of life issues,” said Hughes, who has lived in the same apartment with her husband and two sons for the last 28 years. “Both my parents have been in nonprofits, and where I went to school and college it was very important to serve your community and get engaged,” she said.
Recovery from Hurricane Sandy has also been a priority for her, as Lower Manhattan suffered significantly from the storm but perhaps did not get as much attention or funding as other hard-hit areas. “I think that she has been absolutely extraordinary in particular with resiliency,” said Marco Pasanella, chair of the CB 1 South Street Seaport Committee. “Without her advocacy, it would’ve been easier for certain things to have been glazed over. In particular ... the city won [a grant to fund Sandy recovery] and then said initially that the $100 million they put in would all be outside of the most affected district in Manhattan, which is downtown, she really was not having it.”
At her last full board meeting as chair, Hughes was showered with recognition from friends, colleagues and elected officials who came to thank her for her service. “It was overwhelming, frankly,” she said. A proclamation was made declaring June 28, 2016 “Catherine McVay Hughes Appreciation Day in the Borough of Manhattan,” she was honored by borough President Gale Brewer, Councilwoman Margaret Chin and State Senator Daniel Squadron, to name a few, and received a letter of commendation from Governor Andrew Cuomo, among other honors. Moore saw the effusive praise for Hughes’ tenure as entirely appropriate. “That just proves what she has done and accomplished,” Moore said.
As for her next steps, Hughes is taking a moment to appreciate her own hard work. “Right now I’m enjoying the neighborhood that we all helped build,” she said.
Madeleine Thompson can be reached at email@example.com