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Op-Ed: Our “Separation Delusion” and Its Consequences

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Editor’s note: The following op-ed was submitted to The Lo-Down by K Webster, a community organizer and long-time resident of the Lower East Side. We welcome submissions about any and all Lower East Side-related topics. Opinion articles can be emailed to: Tips@TheLoDownNY.com.

Rivington House.
Rivington House.

“A Human being is a part of the whole called by us the universe. We can experience ourselves as something separate, a kind of separation delusion. This delusion can be a prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion.” — Albert Einstein

The Holy Name Center for Homeless Men on Bleecker and Elizabeth Street used to be a place to shower, to get cleaned up to look for work, or just to retain a bit of dignity. Recently, The Archdiocese of New York closed it and revamped the space as a shiny new evangelizing cultural center for the Catholic Church. Now, homeless men go to Sara D Roosevelt Park to shower in broad daylight, behind the Stanton Park building near the children’s playground, much to the dismay of parents with young children, nearby residents and the schools across the street.

A row of people sleep nightly on the doorstep where poet John Giorno lives on the Bowery, while the adjacent restaurant, Pearl and Ash, seeks an outdoor café for their upscale bar – inviting an almost surreal visual of today’s disjointed economy.

According to the Coalition for the Homeless, city policies played a major role in causing an historic homeless crisis; record levels – 53,615 adults and 22,712 children sleeping in shelters as of January 2014. And “the widening gap between apartment rents and the incomes of poor New Yorkers also fueled the current crisis.  Housing costs soared during the [last administration]– while wages and incomes for most New Yorkers fell or stagnated.”

The rising use of synthetic marijuana and heroin is evident on the streets around us. Hopelessness tied with poverty can be soul destroying.

We may long to be compassionate but it’s hard to stay generous in a dog-eat-dog culture.  When we do harm to others, we soothe our conscience with lies, ice cream, the internet, alcohol or other drugs of choice … Financial wizards who ruined entire countries heap “donations” onto parks, charter schools and museums while skillfully avoiding paying the taxes that would fund our city outright.

We fear for our own survival and grow insular: hunting for private solutions to global problems. We love our children. We want good futures for them. The fates of other children, beyond our reach, can leave us paralyzed or defensive, making arms-length or, even worse, profiteering offers.

And what of the institutions we rely on to guide us toward braver possibilities? They are too often dragged down by irrelevancies, or succumb to overwhelming bureaucracy. Education systems sacrifice learning to testing– or privatization. Media filters out vital news or encourages aimless polarization. Libraries are sold. Arts institutions sell “radical” art while their hedge fund board’s efforts insure that inequalities deepen. Many politicians are forced to govern less by their constituent’s needs and more by Citizen’s United’s dictates.

My own St. Patrick’s Church ran an investment guru’s series last year, while closing their school to sell to luxury condo developers.

David Simon, author of “The Wire,” posits that if human relevance is measured only by money we will get a society that is based on that metric – “and it’s going to be a brutal one.”

Through all this, however, there is a growing consensus that narrow self-interest isn’t working. We don’t want brutality. We want a generous, sustainable and interesting world. We reject racism and all divisions used as tools to keep the status quo. We want to refuse, along with Father Boyle of Homeboy Industries, to abide by “a lethal absence of hope” for all of us, and especially for our children.

Refreshingly, our newest pope, Pope Francis “…prefer[s] a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is …confined and clinging to its own security.”

Bowery Mission’s pews turn into beds at night. In Sara Roosevelt Park several homeless volunteers build gardens for the blind. De Blasio gets elected on the basis of his stand against rising inequity; Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson takes a public stand with his neighbors, the protesters of Fergusan, MO.  And local poverty advocates propose mobile shower units to bring a bit of dignity back to the neighborhood.

Much of this affirms Nelson Mandela’s insistence that “poverty, like apartheid and slavery, is man-made…it can be eradicated by the actions of human beings.”

With the news at the end of July that Rivington House, NYC’s only nursing home dedicated to AIDs patients, will shut down in November, comes the question: Is it possible that the state funded non-profit building could be reborn as an assisted living facility for elders and others in need? Could we redeem the loss of Bialystoker and Cabrini, sold out from under that vulnerable population?

“Profit at any cost” has put our entire ecosystem in jeopardy. No one is truly secure unless everyone is. It’s the flaw of an economic system that fails to insure basic protections for its people. It has rumbled forward with its advantages and defects but we’ve allowed it to determine too much. It’s no longer working – for anyone actually. Tinkering won’t work – it requires us to challenge the ethos utterly.

If the observations of Albert Einstein aren’t enough to convince us of our immutable bonds with one another, the universe (and George Dvorsky) reminds us that it’s really just physics:

“As the universe cooled after the Big Bang…its matter …congealed into a network of filaments that spanned the cosmos. … resulting in the formation of stars, galaxies, and galactic clusters. … though the Big Bang happened long ago …virtually everything’s still connected within this web of vestigial matter.”


For a list of Social Service/Advocacy Organizations that offer ways to get involved on the Lower East Side, visit our LES Info Page.



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  1. Holy cow! Somebody get K Webster some Ritalin. That is the most disjointed, ADD-driven op-ed in history.

  2. Needed to be said and said so well. Rivington House is the most recent incarnation of what was originally a public school; then, an adult education facility. What can be done to ensure that its future will continue to meet a public need? Two possibilities–Low income housing? An urgent care facility?

  3. It’s easy to understand how people on the upper Eastside or in well segregated suburbs with stable incomes and comfortable homes can be oblivious to poverty and homelessness. What’s scary to me is that we can and do so easily ignore it when it’s all around us here on the lower eastside. So many of us see poverty and homelessness simply as problems of crime and policing. Thanks to K Webster for stating some of the larger causes and possible solutions to these problems.

  4. “Financial wizards heap donations… while avoiding paying taxes”, the fact that poverty is man-made and can be eradicated by us – refreshing to have it spelled out with clarity and compassion.

  5. Nice overview! I, too would hope that the Rivington House can stay a low-income nursing home. They have been great neighbors for many years.

  6. This is an extremely well written piece. Takes into account (and accountability) all the factors contributing to the current disjointed state of new york……..and by extension our country.
    — BTW -> anonnyc10009 – stop hiding behind a sheet — be courageous and GET A NAME to go with your inane criticism!

  7. “> anonnyc10009 – stop hiding behind a sheet — be courageous and GET A NAME”

    HA-ha! Coming from an anonymous commenter. Hypocrite much?

    “My own St. Patrick’s Church ran an investment guru’s series last year, while closing their school to sell to luxury condo developers.”

    Ms. Webster is, as usual, ignorant of the facts, despite her overuse of the quotes of others to lend some credibility to her idiocy .

    Fact is that, like most R.C. schools, St. Patrick’s had to close the school because the Catholic students just weren’t there any longer. It is also a large campus and an individual landmark, 200 years old and in great need of repair. The money from the new housing will go towards much needed repair of the roof and other historic features, as well as after-school youth programs. Indeed, it cost the parish $1,000,000 just to repair the brick wall last year to historic specification.

    Moreover, the money will be used to fund a community room in the old school. So the development rights will be put to good use.

    Additionally, to say the new center on Bleecker is an “evangelizing” cultural center is a blatant distortion of the truth. It will be a cultural center, with a theater, e.g. – plain and simple. What other lies will we be getting from this Ritalin-deprived woman?

    Finally, is this wacko capable of ever completing a paragraph without using “racism”? Who is she to judge everyone so self-righteously? Judge not, lest ye be judged.

    I am no fan of yuppies or gentrification, but I am hoping some Yup or developer will take over her building and evict her, so she can settle in Looneyville in her retirement years and rid the LES of her nonsensical diatribes for once and for all.

  8. Please keep the personal attacks out of this conversation. So far, we’ve given readers some leeway due to the nature of this discussion. But we’re not going to approve any more comments that include name calling.

  9. In my defense my cat likes me.
    But here are my sources:.. “..the center was envisioned as a vehicle for the church to evangelize through culture and art…”
    The point being that the church chose to shut down services for poor people while creating yet more services for those who are well off – to lousy effect on the entire community.

    Re: investment guru..the quote from St. Pat’s website:
    “Steve Auth, Chief Investment Officer of Federated Global Equities, and a frequent guest on CNBC, Fox, and Bloomberg and an occasional guest anchor on Fox and Bloomberg conducted his first of three sessions in the Basilica Learning Series “STEWARDSHIP OF MATERIAL AND SPIRITUAL WEALTH IN THE WORLD OF WALL STREET.” The session was well attended with over 50 people to whom Steve presented his case for a secular bull market that will take the indexes to new highs in the years ahead. He also led a discussion on what a leader can do in the world of Wall Street to exercise good stewardship of his
    God-given talents and to keep her eyes on the ultimate prize.”

    Not to bust any bubbles, but the Church is in financial trouble because of lawsuits over the pedophilia that was tolerated for decades. That’s how we got Pope Francis – they had to elect him to recover from the lack of integrity.

    Last, I’d be the first person to acknowledge that I’m riddled with racism – that’s what this society does to everyone. But we do get to make a choice of which side of that one we’re on. I’ve made my choice, albeit imperfectly.

    but that issue of a name to one’s opinions….?
    – K Webster

  10. Actually Mystery Tramp you are wrong, it’s not “a fact” that RC schools
    “had” to close. There were plenty of St. Patricks’ students whose
    parents were left scrambling to find places elsewhere for their kids,
    and to do it knowing that “Monsignor lied to us” as one parent told me.

    As the third largest landowner in the world they (RC Church) are not really so hard-up,
    owning “the 110 acres of The Holy See that constitute
    Vatican City. Also, roughly 177 million more acreage of various lands
    owned by the Catholic Church throughout the globe, including the
    hundreds of Vatican embassies that are legally titled to The Holy See as
    an independent nation.”

    Read more: http://www.businessinsider.com/worlds-biggest-landowners-2011-3?op=1#ixzz3CIl7N3VR

    My how generous to provide a community room.

    seriously Lo-Down peeps, these comments are taking an unnecessarily
    nasty tone don’t you think? A little moderating/moderation seems to be
    called for?

  11. Since you claim to know the “facts”, instead of bandying around
    generalities, please state precisely what number ”plenty of students”
    consists of? 5? 20? 100?
    It is a fact RC schools are closing right and left, even in neighborhoods with large RC populations, which this neighborhood does not have.
    So please support your claims with facts, not anecdotes from disgruntled parents.
    You will not be able to, because your facts are actually biased conjecture.

    Further, talking about bias, what does the number of embassies that the Vatican
    maintains have anything to do with St. Patrick’s situation? Absolutely
    nothing. Should the US sell its embassies to help failing schools in
    Mississippi? Should we sell the White House to pay off the national
    debt? Of course not! Straw argument = Fail

    Fact: St. Patrick’s campus is landmarked, an historic jewel amidst our urban blight. You must know that maintaining landmark property is extremely expensive.
    Should the Church close its charitable missions helping the poor in
    Third World Countries to spend a million dollars to repair the historic
    wall on Prince Street that was ready to collapse after 200 years, or to
    repair at great expense a leaking roof that was damaging the historic
    structure? Isn’t a more reasonable answer to simply re-purpose
    under-utilized buildings in Little Italy?

    Finally – talking about the historic wall – the bitterness and antipathy I see from you differs little from the bitterness and antipathy from the bigots against this
    parish, which had to build the wall to keep these nativist haters from
    burning the church down in the 19th century.

    Truly, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

  12. “here are my sources:”
    Your source is the NY Times? That’s droll. The notoriously Catholic-bashing NY Times is suddenly its spokesperson?
    You are wrong. The new cultural center on Bleecker Street is precisely that: a cultural center. It is not an “evengelizing” center. Be assured you can attend a performance there and not be taught your catechism.
    And since there are fewer indigents in the area now, why have a center that few use?
    Isn’t a cultural center a better use for the greater number? Besides, the church still has numerous centers for the unfortunate in our city, as you well know. More than any other denomination or religion. So, you object to a cultural center for us to enjoy? What have you against culture and art?

    Regarding: Auth’s lecture. You really distorted the lecture’s point. It was not how to manage one’s financial portfolio. It was how to balance wealth with one’s spiritual side, a message that has been relevant in Christianity, since, well, the time of Christ.

  13. The quote on Auth was from St. Pat’s website – not my words. I think Pope Francis differs with him: “Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world…This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed.”
    So good to have a Jesuit in the house!
    Fewer ‘indigents’? Have you not seen the increased numbers of homeless in our community?
    We need showers for the homeless here. There was a proposal to share Sheen site. Wouldn’t artists -especially Catholic artists- want to share? I mean, are we “Fringe” in name only?
    Money for the poor in other countries? How about stop creating poverty? Stop pirating resources from the Global South?
    I’m a Catholic and an artist. I take both seriously.
    I’ll end my part in this dialogue here. I appreciate your thoughts, but I wish you would put your name to them.

  14. “He also led a discussion on what a leader can do in the world of Wall Street to exercise good stewardship of his God-given talents and to keep her eyes on the ultimate prize.”‘

    Again, I don’t see how this statement extols rampant, unbridled capitalism. What do you think “God-given talents”and the “ultimate prize” refer to in this context?

    Further, your selective choice of quotes is very disingenuous. Why didn’t you include his next sentence: He {Auth} continued his discussion on business ethics, focusing particularly on the core virtues of good character.
    This sounds more like Jesus than Gordon Gecko, doesn’t it?

    Moreover, introducing the pope’s quotation is a non sequitur. You could have as justifiably quoted Leo and his Rerum Novarum, which Francis is echoing. What’s the point? Your tendency to spice your opinions with the quotes of others does not lend them any more credence. Personally, I speak for myself.

    You want shower stalls for the homeless in a theater, in a cultural center? Are you serious?

    “How about stop creating poverty?” Poverty is not created. If anything is created, it is wealth. Few are born wealthy and made poor. In fact, the opposite is most common. There has always been poverty and wealth, and there will always be poverty and wealth. Attacking St. Patrick’s or calling people “racist” is not going to change that.

    “Have you not seen the increased numbers of homeless in our community? ”
    Again, are you serious? There are far, far fewer indigents around the Bowery and Bleecker than there were 20 years ago. Non est disputandam.

    “but I wish you would put your name to them.”
    Coming from the anonymous “BoweryGals” makes this comment too cute by half.

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