Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Not as bad as expected

The snow was not as bad as expected.

One year ago, the Landmarks Commission voted to designate West-Park as a landmark. It felt like a crushing defeat, even though the appearance before City Council would be months in the future.  Amanda came in for the hearing. Holly, Hugo, and Hope were all there as well. Following the vote, I stood side by side with our city commissioner Gale Brewer as we spoke to the press and she promised her support. I asked her what exactly she would she do. Then the  staff of Landmarks Commissioner Tierney called me in to his office to pledge his support. Again, I asked exactly what it was he would do. It was a painful morning....

 An early morning check-in showed that this time the scaffolding had protected the walkway.  Chuck Mac Donald, my shoveling buddy from the blizzard, is waiting for me at the church. We help a guy whose car has been buried by city snowplows dig out. One final push and he’s on his way.
We don’t have to get out the old snow blower, shovels will handle today’s work.  I get the steps clear and then we tackle the sidewalks and the treacherous street crossings. Chuck finishes with clearing a path through the bus stop. I notice the shelter is gone. Not sure when that happened. A solid hour of shoveling and we’re done. 
In the bowels of the church, we discovered old bags of salt. We carry them upstairs to salt the walks and steps. Walking down the street, spreading  salt by hand, I feel like an old time farmer sewing seeds. Chuck examines the walks. “A work of art,” he says. Shovelers tend to say things like that when they’re done. Having done my share, I agree. 

Putting the shovels away, Chuck notices the two marble plaques embedded in the sanctuary narthex wall. One on each side of the doors. Both young pastors. Lewis C. Bales from the 1840's and the other David R. Downer. Both died in their thirties. Bales in San Francisco. And Downer's has a strange inscription: "....he terminated his ministry and his life on..." Why word it that way?  Chuck wonders if there are any abolitionist connections here.  I wonder why these two? Which former church were they in? Who demanded that they be placed prominently  in the new church? Why? I google both names, find no information. A project for someone. We also notice that there's a World War II plaque but no World War I. Mysteries continue.
We go back outside. I shake hands with Chuck, say “thanks.” “No” he says, “Thank you. I feel good doing this. Next time I’ll just put you on my list. I’ll be here. See if you can find a gas can for that  blower.”  And we shake hands once more as he takes off. 
Though I had made phone calls and sent e-mails to build a snow alert strategy, Andrea is right, I didn’t close the deal. Need to make sure everything is in place for the next time. Now. 

Marty checks out the newly cleaned steps and considers sitting down. I greet him. Ask how he's doing. He eyes me warily. "Oh, it's you father."  Then walks on down the street. He's been pretty non-social recently. I wonder what's  going on with him.
I hear my name and look up. Coming around the corner looking esqimoesque in a fur lined hooded snow jacket and furry boots is my neighbor Lutheran pastor Elise Brown. Our neighborhood clergy gathered at her church this morning to discuss a new community issue. There’s a shelter for 200 men opening two blocks down the street from her. 
Here’s the situation:  our Upper Westside neighborhood once had 60,000 SRO units, the lowest rung of affordable housing. Most built in the post World War II boom years. First, thousands were converted into market rate apartments. Then, more recently, old SRO’s were converted into illegal tourist hotels. Now that the state has vowed action to shut them down,owners are turning to the newest profit field, sheltering the homeless. With a newly burgeoning homeless population, the intention of closing the shelter at Bellevue, and the overall dearth of available housing stock, the city is paying $100 a night per homeless person. This shelter is just the beginning.
It’s a tough moral spot for clergy. No one wants to deny temporary shelter to those who need it, especially in the cold. No clergy wants to seem an ally to the growing sense of NIMBYism in a greatly gentrified neighborhood. Yet the placement of 200 socially vulnerable men on one residential block is unfair to both the neighborhood and the men themselves.  The community needs to be in on these plans at the front end, not once there’s a fait acompli.
In the bigger picture, what we desperately need is to turn the units into permanent affordable housing units. Units that would help weave an economically diverse community fabric. Something  to slow the hastening bifurcation of the neighborhood into only rich and very poor. A dichotomy that cannot be healthy. We decide to seek a negotiation to make this shelter work as well as possible. And develop a strategy to move units into the affordable housing market. I leave the meeting early to tend to my shoveling. At lunch, I’m reminded that my colleagues have people to take care of that. 
The day finishes with a visit from Steven Squibb of the Woodshed Theatre Company, known for their  production  of “Twelve Ophelias” in the empty Mc Carren Park swimming pool in Brooklyn. He’s interested in the building for an immersive theatrical experience. In room after raw room his eyes light with imagination and ideas. We cover every inch of sanctuary and church house. He’s amazed by the beauty of the sanctuary, the acoustics and the remains of the upstairs Papp theatre.  We head to Barney Greengrass for coffee and a discussion of possibilities.  My hope always is that when creative people, like the musicians and craftspeople at our December  fair and festival, see the space, new ideas will spark and new visions become real. New energy to flow.

I start to think about his planned production. Different scenes of the same play going on in different spaces. Audiences wandering from space to space. Interacting. Piecing together their own understanding of the production. And i begin to wonder about the liturgical possibilities of this  model. 
Not as bad as expected. A good day.

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