Monday, January 6, 2014

New Years, Past Years, and Our Years: All Quiet on the Western Front from Coney Island Boardwalk Garden to Critical Mass Memories

Scenes of family and friends, colors and lights in between, things that came, went, and could have been. 

Holidays reveal as much about our lives as any time of the year.  There are the reminders about those who’ve passed, as well as the lingering lessons about our families, lives and struggles to be something different that we were the years before.  In between the excess it is never easy.  Its also funny.

We lost some incredible people and places in 2013, including top Odessa, photos by Brennan Cavanaugh, as well as Felix, Lamont, Jose, Lou, Jose, Chuck, and Sammy bottom pick by Julie Merkles.  Right of Way and ACT UP rocked in  roaring back with a vengeance. 

“Ben, I have to tell you something, the cassoulet you made was not as good this year as last year’s,” my Mom confessed the morning I was leaving.  She liked the Cooks Illustrated recipe we used the year before, as opposed to the Jaques Pepin recipe from this year.   I am never as graceful in these moments as I wish I had been. 

How do you tell someone who has entered her daffodils in contests for decades that the process of cooking can more fun and more important than the outcome, not that Pepin’s cassoulet was any less lovely than Cooks Illustrated.

But we’d had a blast cooking it.  My friend James and his wife dropped by for an afternoon, telling jokes and sipping wine with us all afternoon, as we chopped.

“It’s a Bordeau, a Margaux,” he guessed in a taste-test arranged by brother.  

They’ve lived in Belgium for years now.  A college friend and aspiring snob, James used to live here, but like so many in recent years, he’s moved to Europe to make a home for himself.   

After the cassoulet and a week with seven kids, their moms, dads, parents, and grandparents, romping around for the holiday together, the last night we sat to play game of RISK.  The fun of the game between kids and Dads is really the bonding over history and conflicts over strategy.   I wanted to horse trade properties and territories before the rolling any dice or moving armies.  The kids thought we should just get to battles.  A hundred years after the outbreak WWI, I argued it might be useful to think about some other way of playing the game than moving armies. But the kids thought otherwise.  I do wonder if we have ever taken the time figure out a few of these lessons from the "war to end all wars" of a century prior.  All Quiet on the Western Front was a favorite in high school.  The story of the conflict and the after, generational suicide my Dad calls it, this woke me up to history in ways few other books ever have.  The idea that we all live in the wake of the trenches helped history feel alive.  This was a place where war and its model of authority had been rendered obsolete.  Sadly I’m not quite sure we have learned that.

I first read the story when hanging out with Dad’s college buddy Fred.   “The idea of authority, which they represented, was associated in our minds  with a greater insight and a manlier wisdom,” noted  Remarque.  Everything those soldiers had been brought up to believe disappeared from the second the first bombs crashed: “The first death we saw shattered this belief.  We had to recognize that our generation was more to be trusted than theirs.  They surpassed us only in phrases and cleverness.”  The first shells in the bunkers disabused them of any loyalty to that older ideal.  “… and under it the world as they taught it to us broke into pieces....  And we saw that there was nothing  of their world left.  We were all at once terribly alone: and alone we must see it through” (p.12).  Never in my life had I so closely identified with a text, or with an endeavor of reading a story with a friend.

Monument to the Pilgrims, Burgos Spain
All through the holiday, Will and I talked about his adventures on the Camino de Santiago, St James way, a hiking trail and pilgrimage trail he journeyed through the last few summers.  We’ll try to go there next summer.  Traveling to the Met later in the week with Mom, we walked to her favorite room in the museum, the Medieval Wing by the Christmas Tree.    I asked Mom about her favorite things here and she pointed to a statue of St James statues.  I have walked by that statue for years now, never realizing its origins or story.  Our journeys begin in countless unique ways. For us, the way to the Camino begins at the Met. 

It was amazing afternoon of looking  at the Venetian glass and the cathedral of this majestic city and its treasures, as well as villains. Its is a joy to stare at the colors and the lights, the ways this craft builds on a culture of such innovation and creativity.

The holidays are times to make plans.  They are also times to reconcile ourselves with unfinished business. 

Shortly after Christmas I started hearing rumblings about the destruction of Boardwalk Community Garden in Coney Island, taking place when everyone was out of town, just like Chico Mendez garden years prior. We’ve lost three gardens this year already.  I chimed in on facebook.

After a great holiday, I came up for air to this. At 5am Saturday morning the developer – iStar – has started to destroy 16 years of community gardening effort. 

The Boardwalk Community Garden survived Hurricane Sandy but not the destruction by machines intent on leveling a thriving community garden.

Yesterday they locked the garden. This morning under cover of darkness the developer is moving to take possession. 

Christmas is a tough time for gardens.

There ought to be a law, my brother chimed in. He was right.   There ought to be a law.  Yet, Melissa Mark-Viverito, the head of the progressive caucus of New York City Council, is blocking a bill from being introduced that would preserve the community gardens from being introduced.  Still the need remains.

Back in town, we ate, cooked paella and crawfish etouffee, watched movies with friends and welcomed in the New Year.

The rituals of this time of year are many.  One of my favorites is waking on New Years and journeying out to the water for a plunge.  Riding over to Coney Island I made new friends on the train.  Everyone on our subway car talked and planned.  There is a joy to seeing so many ragamuffins out making their way, bringing their spirit of living into the New Year.

One of the last free things in New York, it is a delight to romp into the water, watching bodies lunge in motion, shivering and celebrating.  

Looking at the crowd, there were some who seemed to adore each other there. 

“I used to work at American Express and got downsized.  Now I’m done worrying about that culture of fear.  I just want to live my life” explained one of my new buddies for the day.

Walking away after my plunge I ran into the Boardwalk Gardeners, making their way into the water.  Aresh and Kate and the Children’s Magical Garden crew were there.  The day before, they issued a press release declaring they would join the plunge. 

   Boardwalk Community Gardeners sing "Let It Grow!" at the Coney Island Polar Bear Club New Year's Swim    

The community gardeners of the recently bulldozed Boardwalk Community Garden stripped down to their skivvies to join the New Year's Polar Bear Swim to raise awareness of their Coney Island community garden's appeal for justice.  Joined by members of the New York City Community Garden Coalition and the Coney Island People's Coalition, they held banners and brandished broccoli stalks as they braved the icy waters.  "Oh the pollution out there is frightful, but the community garden was so delightful.  And as long as you love us so, lettuce grow lettuce grow lettuce grow!" they sang.

"We're keeping our spirits up, and ready to meet our people's represantatives!" said Yury Opendik, Boardwalk Community Gardener and now Polar Bear swimmer.

The community gardeners are asking that the people's incoming Mayor Bill de Blasio, the new Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams, incoming Councilmember Mark Treyger and other elected officials find a good solution for their plight.  They believe that the bulldozing of the community garden was illegal and unjust. They say that the community garden was on public parkland destroyed by a corporation without any input from the community. The community is seeking a win-win solution to reestablish the 16-year-old garden. 

keep posted on their next action to bring back justice to Coney Island

Finishing the swim, a few of us converged at our favorite restaurant on Brighten Beach to warm up and enjoy the day, seeing friends, talking, eating varnishkes.

We walked the board walk, taking in some of the signs of the times, before rambling out to the Lower East Side for one of my favorite parties of the year. 

Walking through the Lower East Side welcoming the New Year I felt a striking sense of wonder at the battered city, looking at the snow and slush, the people on the streets enjoying where the city has taken me and will take me again.

I thought about the past battles we’ve been through, the ways some of us have stopped talking and others have moved forward.  I wondered which issue to push, while knowing I can’t fight them all.  Which changes are worth embracing and when are they too stupid to stomach – re library and garden closures.  What kind of a city will this look like in a decade?   Will it be under water?  And what is the fight worth taking on?  I thought about the ten years since the city attacked Critical Mass.  Good riddance Bloomberg and Ray Kelly for bringing the Orwellian nightmare of the RNC and subsequent attacks on all our meeting spots. 

Perhaps the longest legacy of the RNC was the 264 arrests of cyclists for taking part in a group bike ride on August 28, 2004. Over the next year, the NYPD’s Raymond Kelly and Paul Browne would continue to justify the crackdown with highly inflammatory rhetoric, linking cycling with anarchism.  Kelly would argue that the Critical Mass ride was "hijacked by groups of cyclists intent on disruption" in an op-ed article published by the Daily News on October 28th, 2004 and later in the New York Post on 7/21/2006.  Such labels effectively dehumanize those labeled.  Years, later, depositions from a lawsuit would prove that Raymond Kelly’s allegations against Critical Mass bicycle riders were made without credible evidence, based on information from unknown sources and used to rationalize the NYPD’s multi-million dollar campaign to follow, ticket, and intimidate Critical Mass bicycle riders every month.  In their depositions, Kelly could not name a specific source to back up the hijacking allegation and Browne, who drafted both Op-Eds, could name only one source – NYPD Transportation Chief Michael Scagnelli. When questioned in his deposition, Chief Scagnelli admited that he could not recall his sources. Testimony from officers who were assigned to Critical Mass detail for years directly contradicted Kelly’s hijack assertions. 

“The depositions raise serious and substantial questions regarding NYPD’s allegation that the Critical Mass ride was ‘hijacked by cyclists intent on disruption.’ It appears that there is no adequate basis for this troubling assertion,” says Civil Rights Attorney Norman Siegel. 

"We hope that the revealing evidence in these depositions will be heard by the public, and especially Mayor Bloomberg," said Critical Mass cyclist Liane Nikitovich. "Cyclists ask the Mayor to direct the NYPD to stop the continuous expenditure of precious resources on controversial practices and over policing and instead work with the cyclists to return to the more sensible police tactics used prior to the Republican National Convention." 

Critical Mass then - bike summer 2003 by Peter Meitzler
and now, with a zillion cops.  In Bloomberg's New York, you had to get permission to meet your friends on a bike ride. 

So we spent the rest of the break sledding and seeing friends, cooking gumbo and slowly dipping back into what the year would offer.  Go DeBlasio and Tish James... now its up to us to push them to do the right thing!!!  It is up to us to remind them New York has enough luxury condos, we need more libraries, we need more gardens...and real public spaces and public commons.

Welcome 2014!

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