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: Snapshots of a Political Inflection Point

In my book, Community: Journal of Power Politics and Democracy in Hell’s Kitchen (NYC) these two people wanted the same job: Mayor. They courted District Leader Jim McManus for his support.

Rudolph Giuliani and Jim McManus, circa September 1995. Photo by Mary Clark.
Jim McManus and Ruth Messinger, September 1994. Photo by Mary Clark.

The candidates were Ruth Messinger, Democrat, and Rudolph Giuliani, Republican.

It was my job to keep tabs on what was happening in the community, and to take initiatives when needed or possible. When Giuliani became mayor, he began making changes that would affect the Hell’s Kitchen/Clinton community, often not in the best way. If McManus supported him openly, by endorsing him in 1997, the doors would open to better negotiations, better outcomes. He had to decide whether he thought Messinger or Giuliani would win.

Meanwhile, two of the old guard in the McManus Club decided to get what they could. How far would they go?

Community: Reblog

Thanks to Chris Graham at the Story Reading Ape for publicizing the #newrelease of my latest book, Community: Journal of Power Politics and Democracy in Hell’s Kitchen. The Story Reading Ape is well-known to writers for writing tips and profiles of authors. Chris has also designed book covers. A very versatile ape!

Here is his page for Community

And I’ll add in a couple of photos of the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood

Mathews-Palmer Playground West 45th – 46th Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues
Me at the start of the Ninth Avenue International Food Festival circa 1997 (blue shirt, black pants)

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.

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.

The Inflatable Buddha: A Review

The title in Hungarian is Tövispuszta, the name of a fictional village near Budapest. The descriptions of what happened to people living under fascism and then Soviet communism are stark and illuminating. It’s a cautionary tale as we move into the 21st Century with its manifestations of a dystopian world.

This book is much more than a history lesson. It’s a story of how our allegiances and alliances, set against our grounding in what we experience in daily reality, including personal relationships and sense of community, plays out in modern times. This is the story of three boys, Pál, István, and Dávid, as they grow to adulthood and old age. Each one comes from a different social and economic background, and has beliefs formed by experience in their particular families as well as in the village. In each life humor and love occur along with hints of madness and sorrow. They are swept up in the turbulent socio-economic and political changes of the early and mid-20th century. They have to make decisions they determine best for them, their families, their country, and ultimately what they hope is on the side of the greater good. Each one has a moral and ethical sense, which tempered or informed by a survival instinct, is at the heart of their major decisions. And sometimes they make choices that put their freedom and their lives in danger. At the same time these exact same choices are necessary to give them a chance to survive, with or without integrity.

Several women play large and equally interesting roles. Elza is adopted by a Jewish family after found wandering in Budapest and taken to their home in Tövispuszta. She is passionate and independent. Then there is Lucky Gizi, another wonderful character, steadfast and resourceful. She is both lucky, and unlucky, to be married to István’s father. These and other female characters give the story much greater depth.

Kepes takes the characters through the decades of change. World War I “had left people hungry, defeat had left them bitter, and the disintegration of Hungary had humiliated them.” Word of worker and peasant power came with soldiers returning from the Russian front. Inequality between the landed gentry and peasant farmers threatened to blow up into armed conflict. By the 1930s, with Russian communism on one side, and German fascism on the other, Hungarians struggled with a choice of futures. By allying with Germany, some Hungarians believed their country could take back territories ceded to Czechoslovakia after World War 1. Other Hungarians were attracted to communism as a hoped-for improved form of socio-political arrangement. People in the small village took different sides. Some simply tried to survive. Kepes makes it clear that no one—the educated or uneducated, idealistic or pragmatic, rich or poor—escaped harm in the ensuing conflicts.

Another current was anti-Semitism. The Jewish people were blamed by the Nazis for tainting the strong native character of Europeans. Even though, as the author shows with ironic amusement, Hungarian families had tangled ethnic and racial roots, this prejudice became part of the nationalistic movement. The mass killing and deportation of Jews is told in the context of the characters’ lives in chilling detail.

The book has its flaws, but it shines in those episodes where the personal stories take center stage. Some of the most moving stories are about the Jewish family in Tövispuszta. The father’s abiding faith in human compassion is powerful. Although it doesn’t save his life, he faces reality with courage and makes his life positive, so much so that one of the boys, now a young man, is moved to punish his killers and publicly honor his memory. There’s a twist at the end in the tale of one of the other boys, in which his choices are re-evaluated by his family and country, but I don’t want to give too much of the story away.

The Germans and the Hungarian Arrow-Cross were brutal, but the Soviet-backed communist leaders practiced a pervasive and corrosive control of people’s lives. People were imprisoned and tortured for having said the wrong thing or spoken to the wrong person. Then years later they were released and re-instated to their jobs and position, only to have it later taken away again. Under both systems, children were removed from families, names were changed. No one was safe. Personal control and responsibility, and the sense of community, were under siege. Who could be trusted?

While I was reading I wondered at the concerns of George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and Hannah Arendt. Can evil be institutionalized and made the norm? Apparently it can, to a certain degree and only with popular complicity, for months, even years. Even then its destructiveness is terrifying, though it must be endured as part of the daily reality. Anyone who has experienced brutality knows it’s not banal. Then, sometimes sporadically at first, but always eventually, evil breaks out of efforts to contain and distribute it. But in those moments when it terrifies most, it begins to lose its power. To read this book is to remember those who have gone before in this struggle, and to see how they responded. While cruelty and oppression have often won the day, we can also see the perseverance of people toward what Sartre said is the most fundamental aspect of being human: freedom.