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.
“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.