General: January 2004 Archives

Dean Street

[see yesterday's "replacing people with a basketball court"]

New facts are emerging about the political and money deals behind the project, and about the vibrant community which woud be destroyed if an "eminent" real estate mogul gets his "domain".

Anywhere else in New York, time would pass too fast or slow for us to notice this unfolding history [that is, of the Village Voice writer's neighborhood]. Most of the city has such a high turnover rate, no one would ever bother to learn anything about the prior residents, while those places that pride themselves on their constancy, like Carroll Gardens or Fort Greene, are desirable because they haven't changed. Now that Ratner and company have awakened us to the possibility of upheaval in our backyard, we're feeling very protective of what we have: a comfortable community that doesn't feel bourgie or exclusionary, that makes room for its past while slowly evolving into most people's present. It's the best kind of New York, and it's why we chose to live here. We want our son to feel at home on the block, but we want him to think everyone he meets belongs here too.
The NYTimes, which is enthusiastic about the sexed-up sports arena, mall and housing complex planned to displace hundreds of Brooklyn families, finally admitted to at least one of its ongoing intimacies with developer Bruce Ratner.
The team's move from the Meadowlands in New Jersey — if indeed it ever happens — won't occur overnight or without a fight. The $300 million deal to sell the Nets to Mr. Ratner (whose development company is a partner of The New York Times in building the newspaper's new headquarters) is just a first step. [from an editorial today]

Ratner has just purchased the New Jersey Nets professional basketball company. He intends to install it in a $.5B complex in Prospect Heights, next to six blocks of $2.5B in other new structures. [The dollar figures are already being described as seriously underestimated.] The buildings would be occupied by commercial and residential tenants paying him generous market rate rents. The problem is that they are not his blocks. The people living there now don't pay Ratner a penny in rent. He will need the city of New York to seize the buildings and the land on a perverse interpretation of the principle of eminent domain. Ratner also has the nerve to expect the city to help pay for his personal obsessions: letting others watch him play with money and watching others play with balls.

Leave it to Newsday to tell us once again what the Times won't. Ratner said in December that 100 people would be relocated. The real figure may be closer to 1000.

Finally, even the Times can't avoid covering some of the objections to the project in its story today, although this part of the text comes at the very end.

Councilwoman Letitia James, whose district includes the neighborhood, is a rare voice of opposition among Brooklyn politicians. She considers the project an oversized monster that will destroy a vibrant working-class neighborhood that has rebuilt itself over the past 20 years.

"This is a great day for rich developers and a sad day for working families," Ms. James said. "It will open the floodgates to public financing of sports arenas."

Harvey Robins, a former official in the Koch and Dinkins administrations, said the Ratner project is "antithetical" to building communities. "You're putting up monstrous buildings in a low-density area."

Boys throwing their weight around. This is a rehearsal for Manhattan's own stadium boondoggle.

[image from the Voice]


Big money interests, not least the NYTimes, want to displace families, artisans and artists, and in fact physically destroy an entire Brooklyn community, in order to build a commercial sports arena.

Our friend Charles Goldman once lived in a building on Dean Street that will be levelled for the proposed Nets Stadium. New York and the world are much better for what he and other artists created there.

Jimmy Breslin has the scoop on the human cost, and gives it out today in his column piece, "So Whose Domain Is It?".

The claim is that the land can be condemned under eminent domain. This is a way for the government to take land for needed undertakings. The Verrazano Bridge, for one.

But this time they want to take 71 buildings on 10 acres and more than three blocks. This would throw out 864 residents, including 200 people who work in their homes at things like violins, canvas stretching, architecture, photography, painting. They make gentle so much around them, and their government wants to replace them with a basketball team that has a player named Jason Kidd and would be a nice addition to Brooklyn, if you had them in an arena someplace that disturbed no human beings who contribute a lot more to the world than a foul shot.

The idea of replacing people for a basketball court is so insane that of course it brought me right back to the Corona houses - the Corona 69 - who were going to be displaced by an athletic field for Forest Hills High School. The 69 residents had a meeting at the Corona Volunteer Ambulance Hall and it was at a point when they had no chance, the courts and the thieves had it wrapped up. Then a fairly young, unknown Court Street lawyer named Mario Cuomo walked into the hall and said he would represent them. Soon, he had legal paper flying and motions causing dizziness in courts. The city lawyers were sick to their stomachs. And the people rose up and produced this one most memorable scene of civic rebellion:

The great Mrs. Nellie Picarelli stood up at a meeting in a school auditorium and reached into her purse and brought out a big hammer and waved it in the air.

"Why don't you try coming to take my house?" she yelled at a politician.

Tom Hurndall

He's gone. I had actually thought that he had died last April, but Thomas Hurndall had survived in a vegetative state until this week, when he succumbed to pneumonia in a London hospital. He had turned 22 while lying in a coma. Hurndall had so little time, but while he was alive he seemed to care about helping others more than anything else.

He had joined protests against the war in Iraq, but his mother Jocelyn has said he was not that political - although he did like to help the underdog.

His family remember the 22-year-old as someone who squared up to a mugger trying to steal a boy's mobile phone near his home in Tufnell Park, north London.

His sister Sophie told the BBC: "Tom was somebody who made everybody laugh, he was intelligent, witty, caring - the kind of person who was always sticking up for anybody who was in trouble."

. . . .

His family say his diaries show he was clear headed and went with an open mind to Rafah, determined to draw his own conclusions about what was happening to Palestinian civilians.

But he was deeply affected by the sight of a young boy he had photographed being shot in the shoulder.

Eyewitnesses are said to have seen him pulling two Palestinian children to safety in Rafah when he was shot in April 2003.

Aimée Stauffer-Stitelmann is still alive, very much alive, at 79. This week she became the first citiizen to seek to clear her name under a new Swiss law which is intended to finally pardon those who were penalized for helping victims of Nazism. Many Swiss citizens had been tried and disciplined or imprisoned for violating the country's neutrality before and during World War II while trying to aid victims of the Nazi regime. Stauffer-Stitelmann is credited with saving the lives of 15 to 20 Jewish children and assisting a number of Resistance fighters, beginning while she was still a teenager. She has in fact been an activist all of her life.
After the war, Ms. Stauffer-Stitelmann said, she supported partisans fighting Franco in Spain and organized protests against apartheid in South Africa and the American war in Vietnam, and was at the front of antiglobalization marches last summer in Evian, France, during a meeting of the major industrial nations.

After retiring as an elementary school teacher in 1987, she helped set up an underground school in a church to teach French to the children of illegal immigrants. (The children were banned from attending public schools.)

Her political activities were secretly monitored by the Swiss government until the 1980's, until public revelations about the extensive monitoring of Swiss citizens ended the practice in the late 1980's.

According to her file, which is now public, she was accused, among other things, of subscribing to Communist publications and helping Spain's anti-fascist movement, and of organizing a news conference in Bern against the Vietnam war, where she even "paid for the room and the aperitifs."

Dorothy Day died in 1980, but the work which she began continues today, usually benefiting most those neglected or insulted by other institutions, "the homeless, exiled, hungry, and foresaken", in words which appear on the website of the organization she founded, The Catholic Worker Movement.

Late Tuesday night we found ourselves walking past their New York headquarters, Mary House, on East 3rd Street. It was freezing cold outside. Inside, up a few steps and plainly visible and secure in the lobby of the modest nineteenth-century building, was one or more of those big canvas-sling mail bins on wheels often used by street people to store and move their possessions around the city. The cart was more than full. Through the windows below grade we could see a cozy lounge and some people bustling about. Those Workers and their guests represent more than food and shelter.

The nuclear age has sharpened awareness of the need for disarmament and alternatives to war. The widening gap between rich and poor in our country and between nations has spurred greater urgency in the quest for a more just social order. But the distinguishing marks of the movement remain smallness, decentralization, personal responsibility, the personal response to persons in need in direct encounter and a search for answers to the questions that arise from that meeting: Why are there so many poor and abandoned? What is honest work? What is due workers and the unemployed? What is the relationship between political, social and economic democracy, and between these and the common good? [excerpt from a description of the movement found on their own site]

These three individuals, and those who work with their heritage and their spirit all over the world really are "saints", but we don't have to"canonize" them to recognize or emulate their selfless concern and their work for others.

Meanwhile, in St. Patrick's Cathedral on 5th Avenue, the very grand showplace of the American Catholic Church, the homeless are thrown into the streets every night by ushers and police. This is not the work of saints. It's not even the work of decent human beings. Jimmy Breslin writes today:

They were in a palace away from the cold, the most famous church of the Catholics in America. It is supposed to represent the Lord's religion.

On this cold night, one of the ushers said that the church closes at 8:35 p.m. Exactly.

And at a little before 8:30, a man on the right side stood up, yawned, stretched and then gathered his plastic bags and walked down the aisle.

From far up in front, a woman pulled her suitcase on loud wheels.

At 8:35, a cop and an usher walked around the church telling homeless people that the church was closing and they had to go out into the cold.

"Nobody can stay?" an usher was asked.

"Church closes," he said.

In the last row on the left side, a man stirred, then sat bolt upright. He put on a blue wool hat and lifted a backpack that he carefully put on. He had two heavy shirts to fight the cold. He started out. People were coming from the darkness on the side aisles. Soon, the church was empty.

As I finish posting this tonight, the temperature reads 1 degree above zero fahrenheit, with 21 mph winds.

[image by Kay Fernandes on The Thomas Hurndall Fund site]


New York City firefighter Robert Walsh has been on a respirator in a medically-induced coma in a Staten Island hospital since Thursday. Today he still lies heavily sedated, suffering the consequences of severe facial fractures and a partly severed nose.

Walsh was assaulted with a metal chair on New Years Eve by fellow firefighter Michael R. Silvestri, in the borough firehouse where they shared duties.

It seems that Silvestri had called Walsh a [faggot/fairy/queer/homo - we have to use our imaginations here, since as usual the NYTimes isn't specific], and Walsh had answered back by charging that Silvestri had gamed the system, taking advantage of his fellows to earn extra pay.

Their comrades initially tried to cover up the facts, obstructing investigation by representing Walsh's injuries as the result of an accidental fall. He was cleaned up, his clothes changed, and driven to the hospital. No ambulance, no police.

The story may have legs, and it certainly should, for the elements of homophobia and obstruction of justice. My outrage is for what I think are even more fundamental, societal reasons.

Michelle O'Donnell's Times article yesterday quoted a retired deputy chief, Vincent Dunn, on the subject of "busting chops", as the paper's editorial calls it today.

"Everybody verbally abuses young firefighters," [Walsh is 40, Silvestri 41] said Vincent Dunn, a retired deputy chief, who added that even longtime firefighters do not outgrow the sport of razzing. "Nobody wants physical violence — that's a no-no. But there's a lot of verbal abuse. It's like society." [my italics]
Umm . . . I don't think so. [Still, if it were true, it would help explain something about how Americans treat each other and the rest of the world, and why we have only buffoons and bullies running the country.]

But can our hometown "heroes" really only relate to each other through violence, real or implied?

By the way, the Times editorial finally brings up the subject of departmental racism and male chauvinism, even if it only alludes indirectly to its effective and very illegal homophobia.

The firehouse culture of taunting may violate anti-discrimination law, and may be one reason white men make up about 91 percent of the department, which has only one woman in its current probationary class of 304.
Now that Tom Ryan has retired, there now may actually be no out gay New York City firemen, and perhaps only one woman, at least as far as I have been able to determine, Michele Fitzsimmons. It seems that with the exception of Tom and Michele, you might be gay when you retire, if you're very courageous, but not before. But in this area it's really the civil cowardice of their straight comrades that stands out.

New York should not have to put up with such nonsense, but above all neither the country nor the world should have to accept the "society" of American straight male violence, verbal or physical.

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