Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Villager "Put skids on Bowery change"

To The Editor:
Re “As high-rises sprout, feeling down and out on Bowery” (news article, Sept. 26):

The Bowery’s unique and vibrant character has existed for a long time. There were gradual evolutions and wholesale removals in its history. Among the wholesale removals was an African burial ground which existed on the Bowery until the graves were forcibly exhumed to make room for white development.

We see much of the same ethos driving the current profit-fueled frenzy to build large here. As we have made way for high-rent buildings and a pallid version of contemporary, we have lost some of our most interesting institutions, sights and irreplaceable community members:

The last Bowery dancehall, Kate Millett, many S.R.O.s, a low skyline, CBGB, the chance for archeological discovery as the New Museum is built atop the African burial ground, etc.

City planning — the right of a city to plan itself — preserves what is working, husbands a community’s resources and then proposes what might be needed or wanted. It does not wait as a neighborhood is dismantled bit by bit. Promising to generate new housing as you eliminate the sustaining base of working, middle-class and poor neighbors isn’t planning — it’s destruction. People work long years at creating culture and constructing a web of caring and commitment between one another and their institutions.

There are no geographic boundaries on this issue. It is a citywide problem that needs a citywide solution. We are losing the inimitable Harlem and Chinatown and other communities. We can and do fold new neighbors into existing neighborhoods, but we do not agree to a whole-cloth renovation of our communities to suit profiteers.

An unfortunate quote from a museum official is telling: “Once the new building opens, it will change the complexion of the Lower East Side.” Some of this change to the complexion of our neighborhood is readily evident. It is not, however, something to be striven for, nor in the best interest of this city.

We do not have to settle for becoming a city determined by the habits of the financially privileged.

Kathleen Webster
Webster is co-chairperson, M’Finda Garden

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Re: The Khalil Gibran School

I am writing as a parent who has had a long and deep involvement with her child’s education. I was the President of a parent-run cooperative day care for many years and have been the Parent Association Co-President in my son’s local public school for the past three years.

In our school my family happens to be in the cultural and racial minority (we are white and the school is just under 90% Asian). It has been a pleasure to be steeped in a community whose values and culture are new to us and at the same time so utterly familiar. It has enriched our lives as we have added this community to the rest of our family of friends. My son’s world is larger for it. It has been heartening to see children of immigrants thriving because their culture is validated while they learn to live in and honor the surrounding heterogeneous society.

The future will rely both on our ability to absorb the positives and sift out the negatives of every culture (especially our own). It will require hard work, open minds, many mistakes, and determination. A vibrant society that reflects the world we live in is well worth it. Xenophobia makes us less intelligent and weaker. It makes us foolishly unaware or self-righteously arrogant, or worse. Those of us intimately involved in education, whether as teacher, administrator, parent or student include in the work of education the vital task of supporting each young person to become a citizen of the world. Our global lives no longer will allow for narrowness of any kind.

The Khalil Gibran School appears to be an attempt to make a home base for children whose culture, language and way of life is vilified or ignored. If I had any doubts about that, they were erased upon reading the range of opposition against this institution. From the self-absorption of schools that were asked to share space to the malicious slander against a principal whose track record on education was impeccable (as well as, ironically, on bridge building with other religions and cultures).

We live in a de facto racially, culturally, ethnically and economically segregated city.
Deliberately setting up some schools that honestly face that reality can create a place where children, free from oppression, can be themselves and feel free to learn. With that as base a child can then join the larger society as a full partner. And it affords the opportunity for children of all backgrounds to join in someone else’s cultural home. A gift.

Fear of “the other” is used to perpetuate illogical and hurtful outcomes. Our city needs for our citizens to have the choice of schools like this. And this school needs to be led by the principal whose vision and passion was integral to its creation. Reinstatement with an apology for our momentary collapse into xenophobia and racism is wanted. It is in everyone’s best interest (even those who feel that its very existence threatens theirs).

We are an immigrant city. It is our strength. As we near the sad anniversary of 9/11 and we reflect on our unity as a city that day we can declare ourselves a proud city of many communities who, whenever needed, act with the force of one.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

The New Museum-Re: New York Times Museum section:

Re: New York Times Museum section:
“On The Bowery, a New Home for New Art” by Carol Vogel. March 28, 2007

The New Museum characterizing the Bowery neighborhood as languishing tells me that director Phillips, et al, didn’t spend enough time here to know where they were moving to: a vibrant community with interesting people and institutions all of it’s own.

To name a few: The Bowery SRO’s, The Bowery Poetry Club, The Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center, The Museum of the Chinese in the Americas, University Settlement, The Tenement Museum, St. Augustine’s Slave Galleries, Eldridge Street Synagogue, The Bowery Mission, ABC No Rio, St. Patricks Old Cathedral, Dixon Place, Liz Christy and M’Finda Kalunga Gardens, etc. The list is long. The difference is that these institutions were built by people who live and work here as an outgrowth of the creativity that exists in every community. Working class and poor people’s culture is real culture.

I would also take issue with the Museum describing itself as “cutting edge”. Most of this article focused on finances (apparently this is the expertise of many on the Board). There is nothing cutting edge about yet another real estate deal here that buys cheap land to build an upper class institution on. It ultimately encourages pricing people and their grass roots institutions out. Officials were quoted as saying “once the new building opens, it will change the complexion of the Lower East Side”. Some of us don’t consider changing the complexion of the neighborhood a plus.

This museum seems proud that it was part of the same force that drove artists and small galleries out of SoHo paving the way for the boutique and condo scene that exists there now. The “rough” neighborhood that the museum claims to be attracted to ends as they arrive. A clear glimpse into the museum’s mindset was its first show on the Bowery involving a periscope that peeked into the “living room” of SRO tenants. It allowed well-heeled but timid passers-by to take their “walk on the wild side” without having to actually walk upstairs to meet the men who live there. The exploitation of vulnerable people came disturbingly to mind.

As we have made way for high-rent buildings and a pallid version of “exciting” we have lost a great deal of our distinctiveness. Among the departed: the last remaining Bowery Dance Hall, writer Kate Millet, Adam Purple’s Garden of Eden, Tonic, a lower scale skyline, the chance to examine the African Burial Ground that exists under part of the New Museum, along with many more of the people and places that made this place unique.

In a neighborhood with this much depth I would encourage this museum to tread with a bit more humility or at least consciousness. Marcia Tucker, who understood authentic cutting-edge art, probably would have.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

On the Bowery, a New Home for New Art
Published: March 28, 2007

"Being a board member [of the New Museum] requires a minimum annual contribution of $25,000 as well as a six-figure check for the building campaign...
...The board spent a year scouring the city for its new home. “It wasn’t till we saw the empty parking lot on the Lower East Side that we knew we’d found the spot,” Ms. Phillips said. “The board ... loved the fact that the neighborhood was rough and the street was languishing,...
...Officials at the museum also say that once the new building opens, it will change the complexion of the Lower East Side ..."
...It will become an exciting place to go..."

The New Museum characterizing this neighborhood as “languishing” tells me they don’t know this vibrant community or its institutions (Bowery Poetry Club, Clemente Soto Velez, Chinese in the Americas, University Settlement, Tenement Museum, St. Augustine’s Slave Galleries, Eldridge Street Synagogue, Bowery Mission, Dixon Place, Liz Christy and M’Finda Gardens, etc).

This “rough” (cheap real estate) neighborhood ends as the Museum arrives. A portenteous show involved a periscope into the “living room” of SRO tenants, allowing well-heeled, timid passers-by to take their “walk on the wild side”.
Unexamined ideas can make for pallid, even offensive, notions of “exciting”.

We have lost many of our distinctive places and people (the last Bowery Dance Hall, Kate Millet, Adam Purple’s garden, the African Burial Ground under the New Museum, etc.). Yet, museum officials exclaim, “…once the new building opens, it will change the complexion of the Lower East Side”.

Sadly, yes, it just might.