Saturday, October 11, 2014

Op-Ed: Our “Separation Delusion” and Its Consequences

Published in The Lo-Down

August 2014

“A Human being is a part of the whole called by us the universe. We can experience ourselves as something separate, a kind of separation delusion. This delusion can be a prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion.” — Albert Einstein

The Holy Name Center for Homeless Men on Bleecker and Elizabeth Street used to be a place to shower, to get cleaned up to look for work, or just to retain a bit of dignity. Recently, The Archdiocese of New York closed it and revamped the space as a shiny new evangelizing cultural center for the Catholic Church. Now, homeless men go to Sara D Roosevelt Park to shower in broad daylight, behind the Stanton Park building near the children’s playground, much to the dismay of parents with young children, nearby residents and the schools across the street.

A row of people sleep nightly on the doorstep where poet John Giorno lives on the Bowery, while the adjacent restaurant, Pearl and Ash, seeks an outdoor cafĂ© for their upscale bar – inviting an almost surreal visual of today’s disjointed economy.

According to the Coalition for the Homeless, city policies played a major role in causing an historic homeless crisis; record levels – 53,615 adults and 22,712 children sleeping in shelters as of January 2014. And “the widening gap between apartment rents and the incomes of poor New Yorkers also fueled the current crisis. Housing costs soared during the [last administration]– while wages and incomes for most New Yorkers fell or stagnated.”

The rising use of synthetic marijuana and heroin is evident on the streets around us. Hopelessness tied with poverty can be soul destroying.

We may long to be compassionate but it’s hard to stay generous in a dog-eat-dog culture. When we do harm to others, we soothe our conscience with lies, ice cream, the internet, alcohol or other drugs of choice … Financial wizards who ruined entire countries heap “donations” onto parks, charter schools and museums while skillfully avoiding paying the taxes that would fund our city outright.

We fear for our own survival and grow insular: hunting for private solutions to global problems. We love our children. We want good futures for them. The fates of other children, beyond our reach, can leave us paralyzed or defensive, making arms-length or, even worse, profiteering offers.

And what of the institutions we rely on to guide us toward braver possibilities? They are too often dragged down by irrelevancies, or succumb to overwhelming bureaucracy. Education systems sacrifice learning to testing– or privatization. Media filters out vital news or encourages aimless polarization. Libraries are sold. Arts institutions sell “radical” art while their hedge fund board’s efforts insure that inequalities deepen. Many politicians are forced to govern less by their constituent’s needs and more by Citizen’s United’s dictates.

My own St. Patrick’s Church ran an investment guru’s series last year, while closing their school to sell to luxury condo developers.

David Simon, author of “The Wire,” posits that if human relevance is measured only by money we will get a society that is based on that metric – “and it’s going to be a brutal one.”

Through all this, however, there is a growing consensus that narrow self-interest isn’t working. We don’t want brutality. We want a generous, sustainable and interesting world. We reject racism and all divisions used as tools to keep the status quo. We want to refuse, along with Father Boyle of Homeboy Industries, to abide by “a lethal absence of hope” for all of us, and especially for our children.

Refreshingly, our newest pope, Pope Francis “…prefer[s] a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is …confined and clinging to its own security.”

Bowery Mission’s pews turn into beds at night. In Sara Roosevelt Park several homeless volunteers build gardens for the blind. De Blasio gets elected on the basis of his stand against rising inequity; Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson takes a public stand with his neighbors, the protesters of Fergusan, MO. And local poverty advocates propose mobile shower units to bring a bit of dignity back to the neighborhood.

Much of this affirms Nelson Mandela’s insistence that “poverty, like apartheid and slavery, is man-made…it can be eradicated by the actions of human beings.”

With the news at the end of July that Rivington House, NYC’s only nursing home dedicated to AIDs patients, will shut down in November, comes the question: Is it possible that the state funded non-profit building could be reborn as an assisted living facility for elders and others in need? Could we redeem the loss of Bialystoker and Cabrini, sold out from under that vulnerable population?

“Profit at any cost” has put our entire ecosystem in jeopardy. No one is truly secure unless everyone is. It’s the flaw of an economic system that fails to insure basic protections for its people. It has rumbled forward with its advantages and defects but we’ve allowed it to determine too much. It’s no longer working – for anyone actually. Tinkering won’t work – it requires us to challenge the ethos utterly.

If the observations of Albert Einstein aren’t enough to convince us of our immutable bonds with one another, the universe (and George Dvorsky) reminds us that it’s really just physics:

“As the universe cooled after the Big Bang…its matter …congealed into a network of filaments that spanned the cosmos. … resulting in the formation of stars, galaxies, and galactic clusters. … though the Big Bang happened long ago …virtually everything’s still connected within this web of vestigial matter.”


Thursday, December 26, 2013

Of Parks, Inequity and the Flinging of Coins…

At the “Talking Transitions Tent” New Yorkers for Parks hosted a panel entitled “Four Immediate Ways to Equitably Improve NYC's Parks”. The panel consisted of committed and hard-working park advocates.

One of the panelists, State Senator Squadron, proposed that “marquee parks” (such as Central Park) share a percentage of funds raised in the private sector with parks that do not have private financial backers. He reminded us that all city parks exist within the same network. That any individual park’s situation affects all parks. It was an impassioned and intelligent plea.

Squadron’s proposal was hammered. The audience was warned of the chilling effect on marquee park supporters, of government interfering with the “democratic tradition” of philanthropy, of distracting from the real issues, and, that city parks were not in such bad shape anyway.

It was disheartening.

Here we were sitting in an enormous “tent” constructed by the wealth of billionaires, hoping to influence the next mayor. There was no time allotted to the audience to speak. We were in the county of Manhattan, home of the largest undisputed income inequality gap in this nation. Joseph McKellar, a panelist who represented Flushing Meadows Corona Park pointed out that there is a correlation between the racial and economic make-up surrounding a park and the conditions of that park. Too true.

Our parks can’t help but reflect this reality. And in a city of such opulence, that simply is not okay.

The Community Garden network has been involved in the care of Greenspaces for decades. This movement came out of poor neighborhoods and largely out of communities of color – with plenty of skill and agency. I doubt any Conservancy in New York City has much to teach us. But maybe we have something to offer them?

Community Gardeners know how to share. We are all volunteers who freely give plants, labor, resources and expertise. Our budgets are usually under $3,000. We get small grants and member fees – we do a lot with a little. We don’t feel a chill when asked to help struggling neighbors. We consider it an honor to be asked.

But neighborhood parks need large amounts of funding to fix broken equipment and to retool park buildings to serve as sites for resiliency centers, youth spaces, meeting and information hubs. Providing support to help make that happen- even one park at a time -would give hope to parks who would otherwise have none. Training by experienced gardeners (from Community Gardens, Parks, Conservancies, etc.) could support gardening stewardship by local neighbors in every park. It would beautify the city and give communities skills to learn how to truly care for and “own” their parks. Every neighborhood deserves their own "jewel" park.

Personally, I don’t believe the public good should have to depend on the largesse of the wealthy for meeting the basic needs of a city. I don’t think a democracy can long survive relying on the whims of the rich. That’s why we have a tax system, so that government, including the Parks Department, would have the resources to take care of all parks.

Dr. King said, “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

Thank you to Senator Squadron for raising the issue in a way that won’t be ignored. And, as Mr. McKellar said, “Any vehicle that creates more equity is a poignant conversation”.

K Webster