Tag Archives: community activism

Sticking Up for the Smallest

I live in the Bronx and I’ve been following a few of the stories about bullying lately. Two weeks ago, however, they seemed to be following me.

K-Pants and I were returning a book to the library a few blocks from our house the last Tuesday in October. On the way back there were five or six news vans on 161st Street. Some of the Latin Kings—the alleged perpetrators in the Bronx anti-gay beatings—were about to come out of the borough courthouse. We watched as camera crews and reporters followed them to their cars.

On Monday, a friend and I took our kids to the Little Red Lighthouse under the George Washington Bridge. When you’re standing under the bridge, it doesn’t seem so far from the river. You watch the kids playing at the edge of the water and the bridge grows right out of the ground like a giant beanstalk. And though it doesn’t seem far to the solid, beautiful span, you know Tyler Clementi—hopeless—jumped off and died.

After Tyler’s death and the anti-gay attack here in the Bronx, I recommitted myself to showing love and care with all people.

But I discovered it’s easy to promise yourself you won’t post videos of someone on the web, or that you won’t invite someone over so you can beat him up. It’s even easy for me to promise I will never say something derisive to a gay person; I will never tell a black child she can’t play with my child; I will never spread rumors about someone because of her religion.

It’s simple to name these things, because I would never do them. It’s like saying I recommit myself to avoiding American cheese. Even so, I felt good about myself for a few days.

But then I realized the things I would do. I would cut off the fat woman who’s headed to the subway elevator taking my stroller spot.  She’s probably had a long day at work and two knee replacements, but I’m happy to clip her ankles and shove her out of the way telling myself that she should just lose weight. I would look away from every homeless person on the subway, thinking how they are ruining my ride. And I would forget to speak up for the disabled people who can’t use our city amenities, because my son and I can get around just fine.

I got this wake-up call by going to the Yankee Stadium parks redevelopment meeting (a thrill-a-minute, as one might imagine). I wanted a child’s safety gate installed at our park so kids can’t run into the street. Prior to the meeting, my neighbors and I had written to the parks commissioner. He told us we should watch our children better.

Them’s fightin’ words, Mr. C0-mish-on-her.

So I arrived at the meeting with seven pages of photos and admonitions I would use in future litigation once the first run-away child made for the street. However, the parks people stood down and said: Consider it done. Voilà! Child safety latches. Wind out of my sails and faith in government restored.

But other attendees were not so appeased. There were two people at the meeting from New York City Park Advocates, a group that pushes for accountability and inclusiveness in our parks. Did you know, for example, that there are 997 playgrounds in New York City and only 5 are completely accessible? Only five allow children and parents with disabilities to play like the rest of us. I mean really play, not just wheel around and watch other people climb on things.

I was like: Fo’ real?? I took this not only as an affront to the city, but a personal slap-in-the-face—I thought I was aware of stuff like this. When our new park opened, I thought: Great! Look at all these ramps and wide pathways.

But I learned that what I thought was open-access really isn’t good enough.

Sure, kids in wheelchairs can come in and use the ramps, but there’s a step stopping them from getting to the play equipment. They can push their friends on the tire swing, but they can’t get on. They can play in the water feature—when it gets hot enough. And if I were a parent in a wheelchair trying to keep my able-bodied child safe at the park—forget about it.

New York City Park Advocates calls this a culture of isolation. They asked those of us at the meeting for one thing: If you are able-bodied, speak up for those who aren’t.

I didn’t even realize that I wasn’t speaking up. So now, instead of recomitting myself to things I already do, I’m searching for the things I overlook.

To find out more about New York City Park Advocates, click here.

Feral Cats: Head for the Hills

There is a herd of wild cats that runs a decrepit secret garden in a synagogue down the street (with the aid of some Fancy-Feast-buying guerilla operatives). Find out the backstory here.

I spoke with my new friend, James Collins, the Superintendent of our Sanitation District, and he did some detective work to track down the owner of the synagogue.

James’s call to the owner came during the Jewish high holidays, but Mr. Synagogue promised him that the secret garden will be cleaned out by September 27.

On the 28, I have instructions to case the joint (from a legal vantage point) and report back. Should the cats and their henchpeople still be in charge, I get to push the big red button and James Collins will start summonsing Mr. Synagogue.

We’ll see what really happens, but in the meantime, enjoy your last days of despotism, Cats.

Community Activist v. Hegemony of Feral Cats

I’m meeting the head of our sanitation district. Turns out, if you call NYC’s information hotline 311 and ask the right questions, you can get almost anyone’s number.

There’s an abandoned lot a block down that was once a beautiful secret garden. It must have been: hydrangea grows there between the black bags of trash, and hydrangea doesn’t grow wild in the Bronx.

The secret garden is a hotbed of  broken glass, dog poop, empty wrappers, and Fancy Feast cans left for the feral cats. Every time I come home, shaking off the insanity of the subway, carrying 20 pounds of baby, I wade through the trash pit. If there’s a breeze, the foil wrappers fly up like stinking confetti. I stomp past, growling Who owns this? We LIVE here. Doesn’t anyone care?? Haven’t you read Malcolm Gladwell? Anyone, anyone?? No. Cool, just keep chopping down that sidewalk tree for your Voodoo ritual, then.

The buildings around are generally well-kept. There’s a church that sells cake on Saturdays; there’s an apartment building with domino players out front. But the secret garden is total anarchy, where cats govern on broken plastic chairs. By the time I reach my building, I’m ready to stomp on a kitten or rip up someone else’s mail.

So I’ve been doing some neighborhood fact-finding, and it turns out, the secret garden is actually the back lot of a synagogue. If you are between sixty and seventy and grew up along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, you’re probably saying, “I know that synagogue. That’s where Danny and his brother used to go. We lived up on 171st. Do you remember when our sister, Bridgit, started going with Danny’s little brother?”

I know this, because I’ve met a lot of you. You also live on Long Island now, or possibly New Jersey. In the time since your sister dated Danny’s little brother (which did not go well), the synagogue has gone to hell in a hand basket. The plaster around the menorah is falling down. No one goes there any more and it’s for sale.

Well, Long-Islanders, do you remember who owned the synagogue? Because I need to find him. He clearly doesn’t observe the Sabbath in the Bronx anymore. In the meantime, I’m meeting with James Collins: Superintendent of our sanitation district. Mr. Collins lives on Staten Island, where he “doesn’t have to deal with this kind of thing.” (Staten Islanders are probably just dealing with Angelina from Jersey Shore. Which does not entirely excuse them from the trash scene….)

But Mr. Collins is more than happy to help us out. Apparently, the Sanitation Department can get a permit to cut through the chain link fence and clean up the cat republic at the owner’s expense. I would like to drive the backhoe that pushes through the fence. I think K-Pants would enjoy that.