Into The Fire, A Poetry Memoir

Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey through Hell’s Kitchen

Monica Brinkman of Writing Chats & Friends wrote this wonderful review of my book on Amazon.

I truly didn’t know what to expect when I began reading Into the Fire. Simply thought it was a tale of poetry and prose. I am so pleased to say it was much, much more! She shares her own experiences, yet within a story of strength, determination and dedication to the arts.

Mary Clark takes us behind the scenes of the many individuals, be they celebrities, poets, artists, or actors and how this group of dedicated people changed an area of New York from undesirable to one of the most sought after places to showcase talent. Not only does Clark provide actual photos but also bits of prose, poetry and works of the people involved . . . This is truth and the reality of what it took to bring the name Hell’s Kitchen to a positive vein, rather than negative.

You will meet celebrities; many not so famous back in the day and you will find great works and such talent.

Could not put this book down and will be one I read again and again. Just loved it.

This is a book worth reading as it not only entertains but gives the reader an inside look of what it took and takes to keep arts alive. Bravo Mary Clark. You show the greatness as well as the sadness of the era.

Thank you, Monica. That last sentence means a lot to me. The attunement to the fragility and strength of human beings is expressed not only in your review, but in your own work. You are not afraid to take chances, to push the boundaries of literature and love, and the poets of the 1970s and early 1980s weren’t either.

Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey through Hell’s Kitchen – a great holiday gift for the poet in your family or among your friends

A young, aspiring writer comes to St. Clement’s Church on West 46th Street in New York City looking for a job in the church’s theater. Soon she is helping with the New York Poetry Festival at St. Clement’s, which features many well-known poets of the 1970s and 80s as well as up-and-coming and marginalized poets. The memoir takes place in the rough-and-tumble Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood on Manhattan’s West Side, a neighborhood that reflects the passion of the times. By 1980, both the arts scene and New York neighborhoods are on the verge of change. The author’s life in the arts weaves in and out of the neighborhood’s narratives, and she must make a choice between two possible lives.

Interview and Review: Mary Clark’s Community

Fellow writer, reviewer and blogger Kelley Kay Bowles kindly did this interview with me in June 2021. She writes cozy mysteries and advice for parents. You may visit her website at: https://kelleykaybowles.com/

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

INTERVIEW

1. What made you choose to get involved in this issue, these politics?

That’s what I talk about in my book, “Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey through Hell’s Kitchen.” It’s a prequel to “Community.” Before I became involved in neighborhood issues and eventually, New Yok City politics, I was working in arts program at a midtown church. We put on weekly poetry readings and special events, including benefits for causes and theatrical productions. The more time I spent at the church, the more I came to know the neighborhood outside its doors. Friendships began which lasted many years. The church sent me as its liaison to the block association. The problems facing the community intrigued me. How could I help? People I met encouraged me to join other civic organizations. The amazing part was the timing. Just then, major proposals to revitalize Times Square, Columbus Circle, the Convention Center, and the Hudson River waterfront came from private developers, the city, and the state. The groups I had joined were front and center in negotiating with the developers, government agencies, and elected officials about these proposals. I felt I was using my time, my skills in reading and writing, and organizing events, for a beneficial purpose. In that neighborhood, I had found my first home as an adult. The people made me feel welcome and valued. I wanted to give back. That’s why I decided to become involved in working with a variety of people and groups. 

2. Tell us some other issues you’ve gotten involved in over the years.

When I left NYC in 2004, I moved to Central Florida to join my parents. There I became a member of the Kissimmee Valley Audubon Society. My parents had been active in that group, but my father especially was no longer able to participate much. KVAS was looking for a goal to pursue in 2005. My mother and I talked about what the group could do. We devised a plan to protect the large lake in the area (Lake Toho). When Osceola County began work on its ten-year Comprehensive Plan (which every locality in the country must do), Florida Audubon asked KVAS to make a statement at the County Commission meeting. Since I had been appointed Conservation Chair, I agreed to do that. I spoke about the lake and preserving water resources for human benefit as well as for eagles and other birds. 

Read more on her blog.

Community, Why Is It Important?

Community. Why is it important? How do we keep it? Through the years our bonds can wane, resentments form, and agendas become more important than the original goals of creating and preserving a better space for everyone. In the pressure-cooker of a neighborhood, whether in New York or a small town, rumors and personal wish-lists can ruin a community, no matter how great its history.

Amazon has been offering the paperback of Community: Journal of Power Politics and Democracy in Hell’s Kitchen at a significant discount for weeks, and recently began discounting the Kindle too. 

The story begins with a naïve group deciding to take on the most powerful people and corporations in the city of New York. With nothing but their minds and love for their neighbors they manage to hold the line for many years.

What you’ll also find is the transformation of politics into a form of take-no-prisoners “war” as the 1980s move into the 1990s. In this atmosphere Rudolph Giuliani, Donald Trump (both mentioned in the narrative), and Andrew Cuomo began their careers. Other politicians such as Congressman Ted Weiss and Mayor David Dinkins are shown working in an alternative way.

The book is the story of my 15 years in community advocacy, and to some degree, NYC politics. It all began on a sunny summer day.

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 (I envisioned an armor-clad knight carrying a lance), 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.

A few people (Rob and Barbara) started the Clinton Coalition of Concern. My new acquaintance, Jim Condeelis, and I were at the first brainstorming meeting at Housing Conservation Coordinators, a local non-profit.

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.

Days later at HCC, Barbara Glasser and I, with some help from Jim, put together a mailing for the Clinton Coalition of Concern, telling people we were fighting UDC’s proposal for redeveloping Times Square. We had already been to meetings with Andrew Stein’s office and City Comptroller Harrison Goldin’s office. We were working on an alternative plan.

Barbara and I talked about the impact of our strategy. Channel 5 news had showed us and others in the Clinton Coalition of Concern protesting the development plan; we watched it at HCC the next day; Gil Annoual, another member, had taped it for us. A small group went to the UDC Board meeting to speak against the Times Square Redevelopment Project. Rob was our spokesperson, then Bill Stern of UDC read a statement, then we spoke again until Barbara screamed, and we had to leave.

Praise for Community

“Local democracy in action, with its virtuous aims and outcomes, its frustrations and machinations. The memoir is comprehensive, articulate, honest and engaging.” David Selzer, poet and playwright, Great Britain

“The writing is fabulous, the cast of characters, the depth of detail, the nuance, the way her personal journey is woven into all these events, it’s a substantial achievement.” Kathleen Mandeville, Ignivox, USA

“The narrative is pacy, as there are new developments, meetings, and possibilities on every page. There’s much of a novel’s presentation in this memoir.” And “It’s great that you have put down an entire account of some years of activism in one neighborhood. I liked what you said about how you always esteemed the constructive approach over the agitationist or acrimonious one since the former is about value, the latter is often a power game with goals unrelated to the general good.” Satyam Balakrishnan, Brand Communications Strategist and Writer, India

“She saw, and concurrently worked to create an historic Manhattan skyline that wasn’t all about money and power politics. Throughout her memoir Community, the reader gets a firsthand view of the people, the arguments, discussions, and compromises happening during some of New York City’s biggest changes of the past fifty years. From an outsider looking in, it is a fascinating journey.” Kelley Kaye Bowles, author, USA

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.

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.

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.

A Poet’s Journey Through Hell’s Kitchen

West 46th Street, New York City

Poetic License

1978

I had my poetic license in the back pocket of my blue jeans. And miles to go, miles of snow, a transfigured night and all in sight covered in a winding sheet of white.

Stopping at a snowy Ninth Avenue, face and hands wrapped against the wind, I contemplated the divide before me. Ice-crystals glittered in streetlights and snow fenced sidewalks. The city streets were deserted, and I was alone in the canyoned silence. On the avenue’s arctic slope, deep within the haunting sound of a muted city I could hear gypsy cabs snorting dragon-breath in the dark, and I would have stayed to watch fringes of icicles on fire escapes glow in the dying light. *

Crossing Ninth Avenue, I heard the wolf howl in the wind. Into a gap hacked in frozen snow I pioneered westward to a narrow trail leading past four- and five-story buildings. Snow camel-backed on parked cars. Bare choirs of trees fell silent, only ticking now and then in frozen despair,* until a faint glow, just the slightest cinematic glimmer, fell on the crooked path. I leaned back, one hand on a rack of ice, to see above me a living painting: a red brick building with tall arched windows of earth and sky-colored glass, indigo peaked gables and copper crosses with a green patina springing from a luminous, roiling gray sky.

Double wooden plank doors painted in vertical stripes of chipped and tattered red, white, and blue were shuttered against the cold and any vagrants or visitors who might venture in. Hiking up the steps, kicking footholds in rime-encrusted snow, I peered through wire netting at an empty stairway to heaven. Tracking again through Technicolor traces from the lighted windows, I discovered a second set of steps and a brightly lit hallway. A bare bulb in a metal cage hung above the steps. I looked up and down the street of tenements and brownstones, and on windowsills and steps festooned with snow, there was no other light.

A royal blue and white plaque with a strident red cross sparked through a crust of frost: Welcome to St. Clement’s.

On the far side of a railing, steps led to a single recessed arch, and winding down and up again, I began knock-knocking-knocking on heaven’s door.

A small round bell bolted to the brick caught my eye. I heard the buzz resound and die. *

Richard Spiegel, the director of the Poetry Festival at St. Clement’s, opened the door. “Mary?”

In his early thirties, Richard’s long, wavy chestnut hair and trimmed beard shone with a soft gleam of mahogany and substrata strands of red.

I stepped inside. “I promised I’d come one day.” My eyes pulsated with red and white light as I thawed from the glacial trek.

I was one of only three. We read wine-poetry and drank red wine in chipped cups from St. Clement’s kitchen.

Inspirations: * Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” Robert Frost; “Sonnet 73,” William Shakespeare; “I heard a Fly buzz,” Emily Dickinson.

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

The Diary of a Mad New Yorker

I’ve decided to share some stories of my life in New York City on this blog. 

Broadway 1974

Broadway 1974 Photograph by Mary Clark
Are love and rage the same passion?
They are the same in me
- William Blake

Why a diary of this place, at this time? Why my story?

Because the people of New York City are going through a tragic time. While I don’t live there now, I have friends who do. One of them told me the city is a “very sad place.” I want people to remember what a vibrant and inspiring place it was. And will be again. I know New York will come back, and its people will create an even more luminous city.

So, at the age of 71 and in the time of COVID-19, I want to tell my story of how I became a mad New Yorker.