“When I was a kid I was a beekeeper. It was my hobby,” says Mel Wymore, a candidate for New York City Council on the Upper West Side in the 2013 elections. “I used to love just opening up the hive and staring at the bees working together as a community…. It’s also reminiscent of this feeling of being on the outside looking—when you are someone who feels different.”
Wymore navigated feeling like an outsider, as most children do at one point or another, but his journey is particularly noteworthy. If elected, he will be the first openly transgender City Council member in a major US city. And while this would certainly be a victory to be celebrated, Wymore hopes that his identity won’t distract from his qualifications as a community organizer, political activist and leader. “My challenge,” says Wymore, is that “being transgender…has the potential to become a distraction from my actual qualities as a leader.”
Upon moving from Arizona to New York City’s Upper West Side twenty-five years ago, Wymore was surprised and upset by the suicide of a tenant in the single-room occupancy (SRO) building across the street from his apartment. He and another neighbor decided to survey the SRO—Wymore inherited an activist spirit from his mother, who spent much of his childhood organizing civic groups—and went door to door asking residents about their quality of life. They discovered poor living conditions and limited access to fresh food and medical care. Wymore appealed to elected officials, organized a community advisory group and started a meal program that, at its peak, served hot meals to about 120 residents each day. In 1995, Wymore was invited to sit on the Upper West Side’s Community Board 7, which addresses local concerns, works to make city services accessible to residents, businesses and institutions and is involved in land-use and city budget planning for the Upper West Side. He’s now served on the board for about seventeen years in a variety of positions, including the first vice chair, co-chair of the Youth Committee and Green Committee, author of the District Needs Statement and Borough President’s Report and advocate for the citywide Community Board Budgets.
While serving on the board, Wymore’s interests have broadened to include education, after-school programs, land use, transportation, housing, local commerce and more. Wymore advocates for environmental sustainability, gun control, accessibility and funding for senior and youth centers. He encouraged the construction of protected bike lanes on Columbus Avenue and championed the reconstruction of the 59th Street Recreation Center, as well as the capital expansion of the West Side Y. And as Chairman of the Board (a position which he held for two terms, the limit), he orchestrated negotiations that won $20 million for local parks, a new K-8 public school for the neighborhood and changes to the Riverside Center—a 3 million square foot mixed-use development planned for the district that will accommodate residential units, a hotel, a movie theater, retail stores and a school—including securing 20 percent permanently affordable housing and design changes that optimize community access.
Wymore is running for Gale Brewer’s seat, which she’s held since 2002 with wide support. Term limits keep Brewer from running again. Four others are competing for the position: Helen Rosenthal, another Community Board 7 member; Marc Landis, a former CB7 member; Ken Biberaj, vice president at Manhattan’s Russian Tea Room restaurant and State Committeewoman Debra Cooper. With the election a little over a year away, candidates were already busy campaigning and fundraising this summer.