Community 50% off on Read an Ebook Week

Community: Journal of Power Politics and Democracy in Hell’s Kitchen is now 50% off until March 13, 2021. Limited time offer on Smashwords’ Read an Ebook Week.

Here’s an excerpt:

Development Fever

The city and state proposed a complete makeover of Times Square, the world-famous intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue with 42nd Street. The redevelopment would run from that crossroads along West 42nd Street to Eighth Avenue. The project rode on the back of eminent domain, along the way razing the Times Tower and raising office towers on 42nd Street. The blighted, crime-filled area would be transformed into a shining mecca of entertainment and corporate wealth.

In our view, the massive project was a spear aimed at our neighborhood.

It would drive up real estate values, increase tenant harassment, and potentially force out low, moderate, and middle-income residents. Even though there was a specific zoning district, the Special Clinton District, restricting high-rise development in most of Hell’s Kitchen north of West 42nd Street, speculators and unscrupulous landlords would seize this opportunity to turn the neighborhood into towers of condo-heaven.

Barbara Glasser, Rob Neuwirth, and a few others started the Clinton Coalition of Concern. Jim Condeelis and I were at the first brainstorming meeting at HCC.

The Times Square project, we agreed, would place a great deal of pressure on our low-rise, working-class, and middle-class neighborhood.

“They won’t stop at Eighth Avenue. Developers will want to build here in our neighborhood.”

“Landlords will harass people out of their apartments so they can sell their buildings unoccupied.”

“They’ll try to change the zoning and get rid of the Special District.”

Our objections to the redevelopment project itself went down different avenues. We agreed that eminent domain should be used for the general good, but what is “the good” in this case? The people who would benefit were the already wealthy. Property was being taken from one group of private owners and given to another. Perhaps in several ways this was an illegal use of eminent domain.

The group decided to hold a public rally to inform people about the project and its impact on the neighborhood.

On June 27th, the Clinton Coalition of Concern held a speakout and 150 people came, as well as Ruth Messinger, Councilwoman for our district, and Andrew Stein, the Manhattan Borough President. The state’s Urban Development Company (UDC), one of the lead agencies, sent people. I took charge of the sign-in table, handing out literature and asking people to sign a petition opposing the project.

Five “Kitchen” Secrets of Civic Organizing

In Hell’s Kitchen, a gritty neighborhood on Manhattan’s West Side, the view of Times Square, Broadway and Fifth Avenue is over-sized and profoundly personal. One response would be to stay cloistered in your job and your close circle of family and friends. Keep your head down, shoulder to the wheel. The other reaction is to save and improve the little bit of urban space you inhabit.

From the outside, the city is a mess, a mass of congestion, which makes no sense. It is, in fact, a collection of communities. Each one distinct, each one proud of its name, location, demographics, and heritage, and yet also of its place in the overall scheme, its being inherently New York, the complex center of the universe. And nothing can happen in that universe without the approval of those most affected, at least that’s what the inhabitants believe. New York pugilism can know no bounds, as in Donald Trump’s mind, but for the other 99.99+ percent it has (on the far side) limits and rules. The slightest threat, the most ethereal wishes, can spark an outpouring of a neighborhood’s residents into a common purpose.

They will find themselves up against some of the city’s — and the country’s — most powerful individuals and institutions.

In my book, Community: Journal of Power Politics and Democracy in Hell’s Kitchen, I describe how a small neighborhood of working and middle-class people of diverse ethnic backgrounds went up against this powerful elite. How did we do it?

To read the rest, please go to Medium.com – and remember you can clap as many times as you want!

Community is also available on Smashwords in multiple formats

Community: Journal of Power Politics and Democracy in Hell’s Kitchen

COMPREHENSIVE, ARTICULATE, HONEST AND ENGAGING – DAVID SELZER

Community is a memoir of community work and city politics in Manhattan during the turbulent 1980s and 1990s – as a neighborhood fights the effects of “development fever” and the devastating flood of illegal drugs. It is a sometimes brutal but also inspiring account of people organizing peacefully to save and improve their community.

The Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood on the west side of midtown Manhattan and its people are the great presence in this book. This “small town in midtown” is a land of willing exiles who forge their own destinies as members of a community.

As one of my Beta readers, Satyam Balakrishnan, said, Community is “an entire account of years of activism in one neighborhood, and it chronicles the tussles between estate developers and long-time residents, the wrangling between social groups, and the struggle to forge a common platform and agenda.” He went on to say “the narrative is pacy,” and “there are some remarkable characters – the one that breaks into a hop/dance and locks the park gates. A memoir is a recalling of events as witnessed and experienced and a memoir with a context (activism and social work in a metro city) is something more.” 

The issues are just as relevant today: what makes effective community action, how far will you go to accomplish your ends, what are the forms of politics you can choose to practice, how does democracy work?

Community is available on Amazon and Smashwords.

Pre-Order Available Now for “Community”

Community: Journal of Power Politics and Democracy in Hell’s Kitchen, by Mary Clark

The ebook version of my memoir of community work and city politics in Manhattan during the turbulent 1980s and 1990s – when Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani were coming into power – is now available for pre-order on Amazon. This 150,000 word book is a detailed account of a New York City neighborhood’s fight against the effects of the Times Square Redevelopment and Worldwide Plaza, as well as the devastating flood of drugs. This is a sometimes brutal story, but more often an inspiring account of people organizing non-violently to save and improve their community.

Celebrities: Tales of Times Square

Richard Burton had replaced Anthony Hopkins in “Equus” on Broadway. On February 20, 1976, they met at the theater.

People waited in the soft glow outside the Plymouth Theater on West 45th Street. About twenty after six, Tony Hopkins, his wife Jenny and a friend of theirs came down the sidewalk in the murky darkness from Eighth Avenue. He went into the theater, virtually unnoticed. He looked at me, but made no sign of recognition. He looked serious and I thought later, I did not see him smile all evening. More like he was making a long trek after the war in a Tolstoy novel. I was happy for him that he was going to meet Burton and could imagine he would be wondering how it would go with the old lion of the theater, and at the same time, Tony had an aggressive reaching-out quality and could assert his own personality and identity.

Barricades lined a path to the stage door. Richard Burton came out and the TV news people turned on their lights, sudden brilliance in the winter darkness along the street. The small crowd surged toward him. The TV people stayed and so did the police, so the crowd did, too. I decided to get out of the way and stood behind the crowd against the theater wall. Burton signed autographs and went back inside.

Almost an hour later, Elizabeth Taylor’s limousine drove up. The chauffeur jumped out and announced to the police that he was “bringing her in in a minute.” He opened the back door and four or five policemen gathered around her and swept her toward the stage door. The barricades were pushed aside by their rush and the crowd fell back, pressing me and several others against the wall. We were off our feet for a few seconds. People yelled, “Help,” and “Back up” and me, “Hey, watch it.”

Once she was inside, the crowd broke up quickly. Tony came out the stage door. He walked past me without a word. I walked away, tired of celebrities. Next thing he was standing beside a limousine. He reached toward me, taking my hand, with a look as if he were holding onto a lifeline.

He said he would be at the theater again tomorrow at 5:30.

I nodded and stepped back, wondering if he was going to get into that limousine. He’d said that was the life he didn’t want.

I couldn’t look. I was thinking, please don’t get into that limousine. I wanted to say to him, run free. Run as fast as you can.

And I did not look. I walked through Times Square mixing with the late-night weirdos and freaks and savored my freedom. Did he envy me that? At the same time, he was making use of his freedom, good use, more productive than I was I had to admit, to invent his own destiny.

Community, A Memoir

Cover of the memoir, Community: Journal of Power Politics and Democracy in Hell's Kitchen (New York City), by Mary Clark, with photograph of Ninth Avenue

My memoir , Community, will be available soon.

As an arts coordinator at a midtown church in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, I began a fifteen-year journey through New York City politics. From the volatile streets to the halls of power, I experienced the triumphs and defeats of the Hell’s Kitchen community as it fought “development fever.” My actions fed into the successes and failures of my community work, as this memoir describes in a nod to Rousseau’s The Confessions.

The AIDS epidemic was at its height. Homeless families were placed in midtown hotels, which resembled refugee camps. Crime associated with the illegal drug trade threatened one of the oldest communities in the city. Meanwhile, ambitious politicians vied for dominance behind the scenes. I had a grassroots view of the fall of Ed Koch, a working relationship with David Dinkins, conflicts with Ruth Messinger, and the rise of Rudolph Giuliani.

Three years into my years as a community activist, I met James R. McManus, Democratic district leader and head of the last Tammany Hall club in New York City. In a twist of irony, this “radical liberal” found with the McManus Club the opportunity to have the most productive time of my life.

There is a fire in Hell’s Kitchen, and you are invited to sit by its light and hear in its flames the prayer, the song, a cautionary tale, and an echo of love and rage.

Community takes place in the 1980s and 1990s in New York City, with its “war on drugs” and mega-developers. The story begins with Mayor Ed Koch’s last term and goes up to Rudy Giuliani’s second term, with cameo appearances by Bella Abzug, Jerry Nadler, and Donald Trump.

Sanctuary

This is the beginning of Chapter Two in my memoir, Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey through Hell’s Kitchen. St. Clement’s Episcopal Church on West 46th Street in New York City was home to a theater and poetry program as well as an active congregation. ∞

Up the wine-red carpeted stairs to St. Clement’s sanctuary, pilgrims found swinging leather doors stamped with brass studs. Opening on a vast space, the eye followed rows of tall arched windows resembling trees where stained-glass mosaics formed branches, flowers, and leaves. The peaked roof with hewn beams two stories high was Noah’s Ark come to rest upside down on Manhattan Island, filled with seminal winds and sounds of the flood.

Treading a red carpet on the stairs and in the offices, worn but still warmed to the glow from the windows’ mosaics, not primary colors and depictions of saints or scenes from the Bible, but Longfellow’s forest primeval—lichen green on fallen trees, earthy orange, and clouds streaking into blue, I came to another path inside/outside space, sensing, questing.

In the upstairs space theater and sanctuary vied within winged walls held aloft, spectacle and service fused, refused, in faith with the fallen, to recombine message and activism.

I praised the windows to Watty Strouss, a member of the church’s Board of Managers.

“Oh, they’re actually not stained glass,” he said, the word “oh” a major part of his vocabulary and depending on the inflection, having different meanings as in the Chinese language. “They’re leaded glass.”

“There’s beauty under the grime.”

“We’d like to restore them, but it’s too expensive. Each piece needs to be cleaned and re-set with new binding.”

A heavy wire mesh covered all the street-front windows, crisscrossing the muted mosaics. The protective mesh made the church look almost medieval, home to armored knights more than chanting monks.

“Someone didn’t like our being an anti-war church and threw a Molotov cocktail through an upstairs window.” In the 1960s, he told me, Joan Baez was married in the church. “Later she referred to it as ‘that funky little peace church on the West Side.’” Watty’s sigh had a reality bite. “She couldn’t remember our name.”

In the 1960s it had been remodeled to accommodate the American Place Theater. After American Place left for new digs in the hermetic basement of a high-rise on West 46th between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, another Theater at St. Clement’s was born. That incarnation had a good run but collapsed amid questions of missing funds. The current Theater at St. Clement’s started in the early 1970s and operated in the downstairs space, which was also called the downstairs theater.

The church’s main income came from renting the Upstairs Space to outside theater groups. Every Sunday church services were held onstage, making use of the current play’s set to match the sermon’s theme. Vestry members with corduroy jeans beneath their robes rolled out altar and pulpit and lowered a large crystal cross from its station in the light grid high in the beams.

So, the Upstairs Space had several names, depending on its current use and who was using it: the Upstairs Space, the Sanctuary, and the Upstairs Theater.

Alone at the massive gray metal desk in the front office I heard sounds in the church: voices, stories, pieces of song, wind in the sanctuary, birds in the oak tree, the organist practicing hymns, tales of the flower fund and the trust for burying the poor.

Memoirs 2020

These are the memoirs I read this year and recommend for the beauty of their writing, their timeliness or their timelessness, and overall quality.

Cider With Rosie, by Laurie Lee

A well-known classic, and justifiably so, this first book by the famed British author, is a paradise of words. The vivid, sometimes surreal scenes of a child growing up in a rural area, touched along its sides by war, in a poor family with an eccentric mother and absent father, follow one after another. Rosie appears only momentarily, not a major character, just a turning point. The writing style is closer to Lewis Carroll than Hemingway, but this book shows why we need both. The nuances of childhood, the emotional shocks and revelations, and widening of the perspective from the self to others, are flawlessly communicated by this intricate torrent of words. The author went on to write other books , but Cider With Rosie remains his best-known work.

Men We Reaped, by Jesmyn Ward

This book speaks to my heart. I experienced the drug wars of the 1980s and 90s in my midtown NYC community, seeing it take children from neighbors’ families, and parents too, and friends who had given into despair due to AIDS. We are just beginning to understand what happened, analyze, and tell this story, these stories. That black communities were hardest hit is undeniable. In this beautifully written book, Ward tells us the personal cost as she brings us the story of the small town Louisiana communities of DeLisle and Pass Christian in more recent times. Young black men are dying of drug overdoses, suicide or violence one after another. She asks herself why. What is happening to her friends and former schoolmates, people the same age as she is? The towns are poor, people are leaving, jobs scarce and often away on oil rigs or in other towns and cities, and they have been hard hit by hurricanes. The young black men struggle with identity and poverty. Their lives, they are made to feel and believe, are worth nothing. In telling their stories, Ward’s rage and heartbreak fill the pages. A must read for our times.

Journeys Without A Map, by Marion Molteno

This daring book reveals why Marion Molteno is as successful as she is in her endeavors. She overcomes a natural modesty and treks out into the world carrying her hope in a kit bag. I recommend reading her excellent books Uncertain Light and If You Can Walk, You Can Dance, before this memoir. In Journeys, she describes visiting places and people to prepare for writing her books, and what she does to promote them after they are published. Many of these promotional efforts are humorous, though also productive.

She analyzes the motivations for her writing specific books, choosing characters, what she was trying to communicate, how effective it was, and the information that comes from feedback.

Molteno is a master of tone. She neither over or under-describes, while managing to keep resonances all about her words and entire passages. The reader’s imagination fills the rest of the space. Hopefully, she will continue to produce thoughtful, thought-provoking books.

Twigs In My Hair, by Cynthia Reyes

This is the third in a series, beginning with A Good Home and An Honest House. In this small volume, Cynthia Reyes wades into the thicket of memory to expose the hardy growth hidden in a fast-paced life. A life halted by a serious car accident, bringing years of debilitating pain and the psychological effects of trauma. Besides the loss of her career, she found she could not do many ordinary things. Gardening and entertaining her family and friends were no longer possible. Home and garden, important threads in her life, were gone. And she was used to being active.

“By my early thirties, I was that rare thing in network television: a young, Black, immigrant woman who was also an executive producer and rising star.”

Years of success led to starting a consultant company with her husband. They bought a new home, an old farmhouse with garden areas, which she looked forward to rejuvenating. Then, the accident, and everything changed.  

“If gardening helped keep me sane, it stands to reason that not being able to garden helped drive me crazy.”

As she struggles with her disabilities, her kindness of spirit comes through. Empathetic and perceptive, she finds other ways to make connections and be useful. One of them is writing. She tells stories of people who shared her love of gardens and from whom she learned life lessons. From these lessons, she learned “a slow wisdom.” I recommend reading the first two books before this one. However, it stands on its own as well. Read my full review on Amazon.

Native American Poets, A Poet’s Journey

At the next Monday night reading, I greeted people and collected donations at the door to the downstairs theater. Afterwards, Richard, and poets Rochelle Ratner, Jim Bertolino, Maurice Kenny, and I went for coffee.

A compact, intense but friendly older man with a short pony tail, Maurice was co-editor with Josh Gosciak of Contact/II, a Bimonthly Poetry Review.

Maurice Kenny

I had noticed that he was selling postcards of Native American poetry and artwork at the reading. Maurice said he was a Mohawk from upstate New York. The postcards were from his Strawberry Press, publishing the work of diverse Native Americans. Among them were Joseph Bruchac, Wendy Rose, and Joy Harjo. (In 2019, Harjo was named the United States Poet Laureate.)

The conversation flowed as lively as a deep woods stream tangling with the strong tides of an urban harbor, a stirring concordance of languages. I had a wonderful time and did not get home ’til 2 a.m.

Maurice Kenny remembered on Dawnland Voices (I recommend his Wild Strawberry poem)

Maurice Kenny about Joy Harjo and Louis Oliver

This is part of the memoir, Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey through Hell’s Kitchen, by Mary Clark. All rights reserved.

A Poet’s Journey 2 St. Clement’s Church

St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, 423 West 46th Street, New York circa 1978

When the frost cleared, I returned to Hell’s Kitchen. It was a risk, a life in the arts, but I had to script my own life.

Jeff Jones, the administrator of the church and Theater at St. Clement’s, welcomed me to his office. He was tall, the office small. He enormously filled the room. *

“I came to a poetry reading here,” I said, and told him I knew Richard Spiegel from another reading series he ran in Midtown several years ago. “I would like to work in the theater. Behind the scenes. Is there anything part-time?” Seeing his reaction, I amended, “or volunteer?”

Jeff asked if I would like to help Richard with the poetry program, but I said, “I want to do something different, to work with a group of people and get away from writing.” I meant to say, though it took me from my usual writual, little that was new and unexpected seemed impossible.

“There’s lots to do,” Jeff said. “There’s nothing paid at this time.” He added, “It’s a place to start.”

I was living in a Single Room Hotel and on the dole. This would be on-the-job training.

“Would you be interested in helping build the set?

I perked up. “I think I could do that.”

Jeff said to talk to Steve Cramer, the TD, which he explained meant Technical Director. As I was leaving, he said again, “Are you sure you don’t want to do something with the poetry program?”

No, I nodded, “I want to try this.”

Down, down, down the stairs I tumbled, into the shadowbox of the theater, a hall lit by hanging lamps, and tall windows in one red-brick wall opening on a garden. By the windows leaned tall plywood boards painted black, to be set in place to block off any light during performances. The other walls were a light-absorbing matte black.

Into this dark space, with its two visions of a secret garden, filled with roses in summer, a tall, lean man, Steve Cramer, appeared magically from another portal.

Richard Spiegel and Steve Cramer in the downstairs theater at St. Clement’s circa 1978

Steve and I positioned wooden platforms to form a stage and seating area.

“How do you lift these all by yourself?”

Moving one end of a platform, he placed it on the edge of another. “Don’t lift when you can leverage.”

Some had rows of red plush folding seats bolted on.

“Old Roxy seats,” he said. “We salvaged them when they tore down the theater.”

Roxy Theater, Broadway, NYC

We secured scrims in place to create a black backdrop and obscure the machine shop backstage.

“If you have to move furniture or other props, mark where they belong with small x’s in white chalk.” The poetry program and the church both used the space, but they had to replace anything they moved to its original location to keep the actors from being disoriented.

I watched the lighting crew work, clipping lights on the exposed grid of cables and pipes.

And I bloomed in the small space, as the roses did, and carried the secret garden within myself.

In the office I talked to Jeff. He said “At St. Clement’s, liturgy and the arts collide and divide, and sometimes coalesce. When it comes together, it’s transcendent.” He paused. “But when not, it’s a disaster.

He worried that Richard was trying to do too much. Benefits for causes, poets theater, weekly readings. “Richard could use some help with the Poetry Festival.”

I wavered. After all, I wanted to escape the fate of Emily Dickinson. I wanted to be out in the world. Did Richard need help? “I don’t know if he’ll want my help.

“I think he will.”

Wondering if I would fit in and what the future would bring, I sat with Richard as the poets arrived for the Monday night reading.

After a while, I asked him, “Would you like me to help with the poetry program?”

He answered quietly, but emphatically, yes. And began immediately to talk of scheduling readers.

* Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

This and the previous post are from a memoir in progress called Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey through Hell’s Kitchen. All rights reserved. Photos by Mary Clark.