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Six New Yorkers Who Made the City a Better, Cooler, Fairer Place in 2023

Year-end lists are entirely subjective, often maddening and frequently inexplicable. So let’s explain the logic behind this one: It aims to highlight New Yorkers who, though you were probably not aware of them, have come at some of the city’s biggest challenges from unexpected angles. You’re likely to have your own ideas, and I would love to hear about them in the Comments.

The Rabbis’ Rabbi

Jill Jacobs advises rabbis and connects them with one another to share wisdom.Credit…Brittainy Newman for The New York Times

The war in Gaza has divided New York City’s Jewish community in a way that is nearly without precedent, in some cases rupturing friendships that have spanned decades. When rabbis find themselves needing guidance navigating tensions within their congregations, they turn to Jill Jacobs to lower the volume. Rabbi Jacobs runs T’ruah, an organization directed at advancing human rights in this country, in Israel and in the occupied territories.

“People are screaming at each other in slogans,” she said. Her job, as she sees it, “is to keep the human story front and center,” to connect rabbis to one another to share their wisdom as well as advise them. Rachel Timoner, senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohimin Brooklyn, said Rabbi Jacobs “has given us language and clarity when we really needed it.”

“The moral truth that Jewish tradition calls us to — she will say it, regardless of popularity,” Rabbi Timoner added. “Her courage enables a large number of people to trust her voice. And she is fearless.”

The Anti-Gentrifier

Debra Ack teaches her neighbors in Brooklyn about community land trusts as a tool to keep neighborhoods affordable.Credit…Jade Doskow for The New York Times

Debra Ack came to activism late in life, as a 62-year-old former administrative assistant who got involved in the newly formed East New York Community Land Trust. Three years later, as the special projects coordinator she has been instrumental in drawing political attention to a long-neglected neighborhood straddling patches of Brooklyn and Queens that is prone to flooding, mold infestations, overflowing septic systems and illegal trash dumping.

Equally significant has been her work educating her neighbors in East New York about community land trusts, which are relatively new to the city but have a long history in California. They battle rising housing costs and keep real estate out of the hands of predatory developers. These trusts buy land, then typically issue 99-year ground leases to homeowners who consent to sell the houses or buildings on the land back to the trust at a restricted price to ensure affordability over the long term.

“We want people to know how they can bring ownership back to their communities,” Ms. Ack said. The East New York Community Land Trust is expected to close on its first property in January — a 21-unit apartment building that has fallen into disrepair. With the help of money raised through donations and low-interest loans, Ms. Ack said, the trust will buy both the land and the building and then turn the building over to the tenants living there, who will eventually own their units as co-ops.

The Boat Rocker

Mr. Buchanan, who has helped found three community boathouses, works with organizations that advocate clean water and recreational use of New York Harbor.Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

In the late 1990s, Rob Buchanan, a former Princeton rower, had an inspiring encounter with a man named Mike Davis, who built replicas ofthe boat George Washington used to clear troops from Brooklyn during the Battle of Long Island. Mr. Davis, who died in 2008, had been on a mission to open up the city’s waterways to recreational use. Mr. Buchanan immediately felt a calling.

“This idea of the harbor as public space really resonated with me,” he said.

Over the years, he devoted himself to making access to the city’s coastline more equitable, an ambition that has intensified as luxury development has made waterfront access more elusive. He has helped found three community boathouses (one in Manhattan and two in Brooklyn), where volunteers provide free rowing and kayaking sessions. He is also the steering committee coordinator of the NYC Water Trail Association, which advocates clean water and safe boating and helped create the Citizens Water Quality Testing Program to check pollution levels in the harbor.

This year, he began lobbying the city to build a waterfront education center in Sunset Park, which would include work force training for maritime businesses. He joined Rocking the Boat, a nonprofit based in the South Bronx, where he directs programming and teaches boat building to middle schoolers from the neighborhood so that they can feel, as he put it, that “this is our harbor and our estuary,” and that they live in a city that belongs to everyone.

The Librarian for Teenagers

Ricci Yuhico says the teenage students who study and socialize at her branch of the New York Public Library have formed real friendships there.Credit…Brittainy Newman for The New York Times

Covid has cast an especially long shadow on teenagers, both in terms of academic outcomes and social emotional development. Ricci Yuhico, who manages the Teen Center at the New York Public Library’s newly renovated Stavros Niarchos Foundation branch on Fifth Avenue in Midtown, has been there to help. The center operates essentially as a full-service joy machine, where kids can connect over studying, produce a movie or a song in the recording studio and media lab, get help with college essays, dance and make crafts.

Students come from all over the city, Ms. Yuhico said, some from nearby homeless shelters. Others might use the center as a stop-off point to do homework when they attend a charter school in Manhattan, say, but live in the far reaches of Queens. There’s a strong cohort of teenage volunteers from which real friendships have emerged, Ms. Yuhico said. She and her team see as many as 100 students a day, and one of their greatest successes this year was a building-wide Halloween party.

“The day after, one of our regulars came in and I asked him what the best part of the party was,” Ms. Yuhico recalled. “He said, ‘Just having fun with people I didn’t know.’”

The Unofficial Czar of the Migrant Crisis

Ruth Messinger, a former city elected official, has been pulling together aid for newly arrived migrants for over a year.Credit…Lev Radin/Sipa Usa, via Associated Press

It would be difficult to find a single person who has done more to meet the immediate needs of migrants than Ruth Messinger, the former Manhattan borough president and 1997 mayoral candidate, who is now 83. Her involvement took hold at the beginning, when she greeted the first wave of migrants arriving on buses from Texas to the Port Authority Bus Terminal in the summer of 2022.

“It was an easy thing for me to do,” she said.

From there, she leveraged her many connections to mobilize a network of dedicated volunteers, faith leaders, nonprofits, institutions and private philanthropists to feed, clothe and shelter the migrants. She is constantly pushing the mayor and state and federal governments to do more to meet the enormous challenges that attend the influx.

And she is no less nimble as a fixer on the ground. When a school in Harlem offered to store clothes for the many migrants who needed them, they soon realized that they needed more shelving. Ms. Messinger quickly found the money to pay for it.

“She is the superhero that guides us, connects us and inspires us,’’ said Judy Bass, co-chair of the Synagogue Coalition on the Refugee and Immigration Crisis.

The Job Creator

Melinda Mack ran an organization that helps people across the state find job training and get on their feet.Credit…via Therese Daly

Melinda Mack died in November of brain cancer, leaving behind three young children and a celebrated legacy in the field of “work force development.” It is a vague term, but Ms. Mack’s approach focused on linking people to jobs, training them for the emerging needs of modern businesses across the state, and lobbying for government money and policy to achieve these goals. For the past 11 years, until her death, she served as the executive director of the somewhat dry-sounding New York Association of Training and Employment Professionals, where she helped secure more than $500 million in work force development initiatives.

Because of her advocacy, this past year the State Legislature included in one of its budget bills something called the “income disregard,” which allows people on public assistance to still receive that assistance for a limited time while pursuing job training and other opportunities. Writing to her staff and friends before she underwent surgery in February, she asked not for “food or gifts” but rather that they “be the voice of the system while I cannot” and urge legislators to recognize the value of the income disregard.

“Melinda meant so much to so many people,” Therese Daly, the interim executive director at the association, said. “She got to know the work force industry from knocking on doors. She constantly cold-called and applied for grants. She really hustled. We hope to continue her hopes and dreams every day.”

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