Sunday, May 31, 2015

182. The Mystery and History of Place Names

     In a recent post about walking in New York I mentioned Gansevoort Street, the site of the new Whitney Museum of American Art, and Horatio Street, where I discovered a whole row of well-preserved Greek Revival houses, two of them dating from 1836.  But what about those names, “Gansevoort” and “Horatio”?  Where did they come from?  “Gansevoort” sounded Dutch to me.  “Horatio” meant nothing at all, unless a soldier of ancient Rome of whom I had a vague recollection – a super macho type who alone defended a bridge against a whole army of enemies -- that seemed irrelevant.  So I started scratching about and came up with a few stray facts.

     Gansevoort Street got its name in 1837 from Fort Gansevoort, a fort built at the Hudson River end of the street between 1808 and 1812.  So where did the fort, long since demolished, get its name from?  From Peter Gansevoort (1749-1812), a colonel in the Continental Army during the Revolution, who is best known for successfully defending Fort Stanwix (near today’s Rome, New York) against a British attack in 1777.  And yes, he was of Dutch extraction, in fact, from an aristocratic Dutch family in Albany.

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Horatio Gates in 1782, looking quite
composed two years after his famous ride.
     And Horatio Street?  It too was named after a Revolutionary War figure, General Horatio Gates, a retired British soldier who at the outbreak of hostilities volunteered his services to George Washington.  Having received  credit for the British defeat at the battle of Saratoga in 1777, even though Benedict Arnold and others did most of the fighting, Gates suffered a disastrous defeat at the battle of Camden in South Carolina in 1780. Following this debacle he then heroically covered 170 miles on horseback in a strategic retreat.  Though controversial, Gates was evidently still esteemed enough to have a street in Manhattan named for him, though why his first name was used isn’t clear.  (There were lots of streets to name or rename in the 1790s, and only so many Revolutionary War heroes.)

     I’ve always been a history buff and nosey, and researching these priceless facts determined me to do a post onNew York City place names.  So first of all how about the five boroughs?  Here are the probable origins:

·      Manhattan comes from Mannahatta, which in the language of the Lenape, a native American people once living in the lower Hudson Valley and adjacent regions, means “island of many hills.”
·      The Bronx derives its name from Jonas Bronck, a Swedish emigrant who came to the Dutch colony of New Netherland in 1639, acquired land, and became the first settler in what is now the Bronx.  The area became known as Bronck’s land, and a river there became known as Bronck’s River and in time gave its name to the borough.
·      Queens was named for Queen Catherine of Braganza, the wife of Charles II of England, during whose reign the British grabbed New Amsterdam from the Dutch and renamed it New York.  Queen Catherine must have been a patient woman to have tolerated her husband’s many dalliances.
·      Brooklyn derived its name from the Dutch word breukelen, meaning “broken land.”  A Dutch village in the area was named Breukelen, after a town in Holland, and the English Anglicized this as “Brooklyn.”
·      Staten Island was discovered in 1609 by Henry Hudson, who named it Staaten Eylandt after the Staten-Generaal, the Dutch parliament that had financed his voyage to the New World. 

     Now let’s have a look at some other names of places, and a glance too at their history.

     The Battery, the park at the southern tip of Manhattan, gets its name from the battery of cannon that the Dutch once positioned there to defend New Amsterdam.  But when a British fleet showed up in 1664, the good burghers were hopelessly outnumbered and surrendered without firing a shot.  After the thirteen colonies won their independence from Great Britain, the old fort was demolished, but in the early 1800s, in anticipation of another war with Great Britain, a circular fort was built on the site.  In time the new fort was named Fort Clinton after Governor De Witt Clinton, but no British attack materialized, so once again the cannon remained silent.  Subsequently renamed Castle Garden, the fort was transformed into a concert hall where the Swedish coloratura Jenny Lind made her sensational American debut in 1850.  From 1855 to 1890 the building served as the federal immigration center of the East Coast, until superseded by Ellis Island.  Next, from 1896 to 1941 the structure became the New York Aquarium.  Restored to its original fortification appearance, today Castle Clinton – yes, the name too has been restored -- is a national monument housing a database of information about immigrants who came to this country in the nineteenth century.

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The circular fort housing the New York Aquarium, much beloved in its time by New Yorkers.

     Governors Island, a 172-acre island in the harbor off the southern tip of Manhattan, was called Nut Island by the Lenape people, because hickory, oak, and chestnut trees grew there, a name that became Noten Eylant among the Dutch, and Nutten Island when the British took over.  But then the colonial assembly of New York reserved the island for the exclusive use of the royal governors, who employed it at one time or another as a goat farm, a tobacco plantation, and a quarantine station for arriving immigrants.  Officially named Governors Island in 1784 (minus an apostrophe, please note), it served as a U.S. military post until 1966, and as a Coast Guard installation from 1966 to 1996.  For me and for most New Yorkers, who viewed it from the Battery or the Staten Island ferry, it was a bit of a mystery, so near and yet so far, and so unknown.

     Then, in 2003, the federal government transferred most of the island to the city and state of New York for the sum of one dollar, on condition that the site be used for public benefit.  To acquire such a big chunk of land right in the heart of the city – and at such a bargain price – was a rare bit of good luck that at once unleashed a storm of debate about what to do with it.  Nothing ever happens in New York without heated arguments and controversy, and plenty of both ensued. 

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A map of Governors Island today.  Castle Williams is at the very top.

     Now open to the public on summer weekends, the island is being developed to include parkland, an organic farm, a high school, artist studios, and a New York University campus.  Still standing is Castle Williams, a circular fort built in 1807-1811 under the supervision of Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Williams, chief engineer of the Corps of Engineers, to protect the city from a British naval attack that never came.  Looming silently on the northwest point of the island, the fort’s four tiers of casements for cannon are clearly visible from the passing Staten Island ferries.  Having narrowly escaped demolition in the past, the renovated fort is now administered by the National Park Service and retains the name Castle Williams.  And while its cannon, like those of its twin, Castle Garden, never engaged an enemy in wartime, they weren’t a total waste of taxpayers’ money, since word of them and other fortifications surely reached the blockading British fleet and discouraged any plans for attack.  (The Brits visited New Orleans instead.)

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Castle Williams today. 

     Bowling Green, a small teardrop-shaped park just up a short distance on Broadway from the Battery, was used in Dutch times as a cattle market and parade ground.  Under British rule it continued as a cattle and grain market, but in 1733 the Common Council leased the site to three neighboring landlords to create a bowling green and park.  From then on, players rolled balls over its smooth green lawn in the time-honored game of bowls, which dates back to the thirteenth century.  In 1770 the British rulers erected on the site a 4,000-pound gilded lead statue of King George the Third, who was shown heroically in Roman garb, bigger than life, astride a prancing steed.  As tension grew between the colonists and their rulers, the statue became a magnet for protests, so a protective cast-iron fence was built around it to shield it from vandalism. 

     In 1776, soon after the passage of the Declaration of Independence, the local Sons of Liberty, some of them not quite sober, rushed down Broadway to Bowling Green and toppled the statue – a symbolic gesture that George Washington, being moderate by nature, disapproved of, but that has often been commemorated, albeit inaccurstely, in works of art.  Minus the head, the lead statue was then broken up and the pieces shipped off to a foundry in Connecticut to be made into bullets for Washington’s troops.  In grim anticipation of the French Revolution of 1789, patriots planned to parade the statue’s head around the city on a pike, but Loyalists recovered it and sent it off to England.  The fence survived and still rings the park, minus the ornamental royal crowns topping each post, which the patriots sawed off.  What then became of those ornaments is not known.  The head turned up a year later in England in the home of Lord Charles Townshend, a devoted servant and crony of His Majesty, but it has not been seen since.

File:Johannes Adam Simon Oertel Pulling Down the Statue of King George III, N.Y.C. ca. 1859.jpg
Johannes Adam Simon Oertel, Pulling Down the Statue of King george III, ca. 1859.  A romanticized
depiction of the event, with many errors.  No women and children were present, and no Indians. 
And the king was actually shown in Roman garb.

     Today, instead of a heroic equestrian statue, the park is graced by a splashing fountain and, at the tapering end of the teardrop, by another bigger-than-life art work, Arturo Di Modica’s Charging Bull.  The bronze sculpture, showing a bull on its haunches, head lowered and ready to charge, was transferred there in 1989 after the police removed it from Wall Street, where the artist had installed it without permission.  Having heard it hailed as a symbol of the city and Wall Street, tourists flock. 

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Bowling Green fountain today.

     (Bigger-than-life statues of tyrants seem to beg to be toppled, and the toppling is amply photographed and televised as it happens.  In 2003 a giant statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled in Baghdad ostensibly by Iraqis, but the whole affair was a PR stunt staged for television by the U.S.; Iraqis were shown cheering, but a U.S. armored vehicle actually did the tugging.  In 2013 citizens of Ukraine tore down a huge statue of Lenin in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, and in 2014 they tore down another in Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkiv.  And in 1991 Albanians toppled a statue of the late Communist dictator Enver Hoxha in Tirana.  And so on, and so on.  China and North Korea, take heed.)

An artist's rendering of the wall in the time of Peter Stuyvesant, who is shown in the foreground.

     And street names?  Wall Street was laid out on the site of a twelve-foot wall that the Dutch built in the seventeenth century to shield New Amsterdam from possible attacks by the native peoples, who had plenty of reasons to attack.  The British tore down the wall in 1699, but the name “Wall Street” was already in use, designating a road that ran across Manhattan next to the wall.  Merchants and traders began gathering there to buy and sell stocks and bonds, and in 1711 the Common Council made Wall Street the city’s first official slave market for the sale and rental of enslaved Africans and Indians.  In eighteenth-century New York one resident in five was an African American slave, and the city’s slave market, at Wall and Pearl Streets on what was then the East River waterfront, was second in size only to the one in Charleston, South Carolina, and functioned until 1762.  The city profited, since for every transaction in the market – every time a human being was bought or sold – the city collected a tax.  Only in April of this year did New York City finally agree to acknowledge the inconvenient  fact of the slave market’s existence by placing a historical marker near the site of the market.

The Castello plan of New Amsterdam, 1660.  The wall is indicated on the far right.  On the left
is the Dutch fort, at the foot of the broad road that became Broadway.

     Canal Street, a major crosstown artery in Lower Manhattan, occupies the site of a canal that was dug in the early nineteenth century to drain the contaminated waters of the Collect Pond into the Hudson River.  Fed by an underground spring, the Collect Pond had once been the city’s main source of water, but in the eighteenth century the pond was polluted by tanneries, breweries, and slaughterhouses that used the water and dumped waste into it. The pond was filled in in 1811, and Canal Street was completed by 1820, following the path of the canal, but the ground in the area was marshy and foul-smelling, causing middle- and upper-class residents to leave, and the notorious slum known as the Five Points to develop.  In the late nineteenth century the city bought up most of the Five Points tenements and condemned them, and in this way eliminated the slum.  Today Canal Street is a busy commercial district with Chinese jewelry stores, outdoor vendors, and banks, and open storefronts and unlicensed peddlers selling knickknacks and souvenirs, and counterfeit DVDs, watches, sunglasses, perfumes, and designer handbags at low prices.

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The Broadway bridge over the canal, 1811.

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Canal Street today.

     Bleecker Street, which runs right by the building I live in, gets its name from the Bleecker family, who owned a farm in the area and deeded land to the city in 1808.  In the 1830s and 1840s the street was lined with handsome Greek Revival houses and rivaled Bond Street for elegance and affluence, until dentists’ offices and other evidence of neighborhood decline appeared, and the wealthy residents, fearing the taint of commerce and the lower orders, moved farther uptown.  By the 1870s the old houses had become boarding houses, brothels, and cheap restaurants, and the low rents of the area began attracting bohemians. 

     In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Italian immigrants arrived in the city in large numbers, and many settled in Greenwich Village tenements below Washington Square, giving the whole neighborhood a distinctly Italian flavor.  That flavor is reflected in Gian Carlo Menotti’s 1954 opera The Saint of Bleecker Street, where a young woman living in a Bleecker Street tenement receives the stigmata and is hailed by the whole Italian community as a saint. 

     But change was coming.  In hopes of stemming the flight of middle-class residents to the suburbs, in the 1950s Washington Square Village, a mammoth middle-class housing complex, was built on the north side of Bleecker Street between Mercer Street and La Guardia Place, replacing working-class housing and factories and lofts.  Composed of two huge apartment blocks on stilts, the complex was labeled by the Village Voice “a prettily painted chicken coop enlarged to monstrous size.”  New York University acquired it in 1964 and went on to build another huge complex just opposite, on the south side of Bleecker.  The university’s later efforts to expand further in Greenwich Village have whipped up fiery opposition among the otherwise genteel locals.

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Washington Square Village.  Some village!
Padraic Ryan

     By the 1960s, when I first came to live in the Village, middle-class professionals like myself were moving in, including a significant gay population, and Bleecker Street was full of small shops and reasonably priced restaurants that attracted big weekend crowds.  The street’s re-gentrification, with the influx of designer clothing stores in the early years of this century, was recorded in post #105, “New York Mosaic: The Neighborhoods” (December 22, 2013).  Bleecker Street from Bank Street to West 10th Street is now trendy and (in the real-estate sense) “hot,” with soaring rents that have driven out the shops and restaurants; Marc Jacobs and Ralph Lauren and the like prevail.  But other stretches of Bleecker Street are still commercial in a less trendy way, with a mix of shops and restaurants.  And high above Bleecker are rent-stabilized holdouts like me, contemptuous of the latest trendy phase of the street, and confident that this phase too will in time yield to another, hopefully with less catastrophic rents.  Meanwhile we can console ourselves with the Magnolia Bakery’s cupcakes, or watch others devouring them on our doorstep.

     There’s no way this post could mention all the interesting place names and their origin in the borough of Manhattan, much less all those in the city of New York.  So I’ll settle for just one more, designating one of only two private parks in the city.

     Gramercy Park is a small fenced-in park located between East 20th and 21st Streets, with Lexington Avenue terminating at its northern boundary, and Irving Place commencing at its southern boundary and running south to 14th Street.  The name “Gramercy” is an Anglicization of the Dutch word crommessie, meaning “crooked little knife,” which designated a brook that meandered along what is now East 21st Street and emptied into the East River at 18th Street.

     In 1831 the developer Samuel Ruggles, a pioneer in urban planning, bought what was known as Gramercy Farm from a descendant of Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutch governor of New Amsterdam.  He then drained the swampy ground and laid out the park, deeding its possession to the owners of the residential lots surrounding it.  The Panic of 1837 delayed construction of the houses surrounding the park until the 1840s, but by 1844 the park had been landscaped and its gate was locked, the result being a planned neighborhood unique for its time.  Later attempts to bisect the park so as to connect Lexington Avenue with Irving Place failed, and the park survives today, still elegantly fenced with four locked wrought-iron gates, open only to residents of the buildings surrounding it.  In 1966 part of the neighborhood was designated a historic district, and in 1988 the district’s boundaries were extended.  Today it is a quiet, crime-free neighborhood, predominantly white.

     I have often visited the park, viewing its wide graveled walks and disciplined greenery through the high grilled fence.  Usually no one was in it, but occasionally I would see a solitary stroller, one of the privileged few allowed to savor its charms from within.  Since I am not so privileged, the park qualifies for me as a forbidden garden (see post #57), but I can’t say that I long for the treasures it guards, since it is not a Garden of the Hesperides or Eden, harbors no fruit whose taste confers immortality, no Tree of Knowledge or Life. 

Gramercy Park today, with the Edwin Booth statue looming nobly in the center.

     What Gramercy Park does offer is a statue of the famous Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth (whose brother killed Abraham Lincoln), who once resided in a townhouse facing the park.  Other features include the Fantasy Fountain, a work in bronze by the sculptor Greg Wyatt that was installed in 1983, and a commemorative fountain and plaque honoring Samuel Ruggles, the urban visionary who also created Union Square.  Some of the original townhouses surrounding the park still stand, but many are gone, replaced by apartment buildings, a synagogue, and a hotel.  But the residents still get a new key to the park every year, for which they pay $350, and a $1000 fee to replace a key they have lost.  Those admitted to its sacred precincts cannot drink alcohol, smoke, cycle, walk a dog, play ball, toss Frisbees, or feed the birds and squirrels, since birdseed and peanuts attract rats.  Groups of more than six are also forbidden, and one resident was reprimanded for eating a sandwich on the grass.  This may sound like obsessive fussiness, and some residents complain that park rules banish any kind of fun, but the rules and fussiness may also explain why the park looks so tranquil and clean.  I confess that I like the idea of a private park visible to outsiders like myself, a sanctuary that manages, in the midst of this turbulent city, to stay old-fashioned and greenly genteel.

     Do outsiders ever trespass in the park?  I’ve never heard of anyone jumping the fence, but on two occasions in 2000 a member of the National Arts Club, which faces the park and is entitled to keys, brought some minority schoolchildren into the park without prior permission.  On the first occasion Sharon Benenson, the chairwoman of the Gramercy Park Trust, called the police, who refused to expel the intruders; on the second occasion the visitors left when Ms. Benenson ordered them out.  A suit against the park’s administration was then filed in Federal District Court by the parents and teachers involved, alleging racial discrimination; according to the plaintiffs, Ms. Benenson, who is white, said the visitors were “not our kind of kids.”  The park administration denied any discrimination, and Ms. Benenson called the charges “personally insulting,” and described Aldon James, the National Arts Club president and a plaintiff in the case, as “a sort of hairbrained nut.  He’s just determined to run Gramercy Park.”  Which goes to show that tensions can fester behind the seeming quaint tranquility of this most genteel and exclusive of parks.  The lawsuit was settled out of court in 2003, with most of the children getting $36,000 each, and one as much as $50,000: all in all, a rather tidy little profit for a brief intrusion into a forbidden space.  And the administration has loosened up a little: jogging is now permitted in certain graveled areas of the park.

     Coming soon: Landmarks: Saving the Old from the New.  And after that, my belated discovery of architectural cast iron and terra cotta.

     ©  2015  Clifford Browder

Sunday, May 24, 2015

181. Nonprofits and What They're Up To

     Their appeals clog my mailbox.  To get me to open their envelopes, they stamp them with every imaginable type of message:

·      Time sensitive – official documents
·      Time sensitive – second notice (or third, or fourth)
·      Match opportunity enclosed
·      Petition enclosed
·      Check enclosed
·      Two free totes inside
·      Your signature urgently needed
·      Save the whales
·      Save the baby seals
·      Save the rain forest
·      Urgent: time is running out

     Sometimes the letters are addressed to me in real or simulated handwriting.  Sometimes they send a survey ostensibly to find out what my priorities for action are, and at the end of the survey beg for a donation.  And sometimes there is no return address on the envelope, though the words NON PROFIT ORGANIZATION next to the postage tell me all I need to know.  Worthy causes, but how many can you give to?  And how do they get my name?  Those I already give to must sell or trade my name to others, for to give to one is to invite appeals from many.  Yes, I give to some of them – small sums once a year, not otherwise.  So what do I do, when assailed by this storm of requests?  With rare, very rare, exceptions, I throw the letters out.  Even the ones that say “check enclosed” and especially the ones with no return address.  But if they give me, as a “free” gift, some address labels that I deem acceptable, I keep them and use them.  And if they include a few coins to cover the postage for my reply, I pocket the change without a speck of shame.  In self-defense, I’m ruthless.

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Nina Paley
     What is a nonprofit?  An organization whose goal is not to earn a profit but to serve society.  Many are classified as 501 (c) (3) organizations, meaning that the IRS recognizes them as charities and therefore exempt from federal income taxes, in which case donations to them are also tax-exempt.  Their work can involve charitable, religious, educational, literary, or similar activities.  Their earnings must not go to any private shareholder or individual, and they must not try to influence legislation or campaign for or against political candidates.

     Given their worthy goals, I cannot hate nonprofits; they’re a peculiarly American phenomenon and serve a useful, even vital, purpose.  If they didn’t exist, they’d have to be invented, to deal with certain problems not otherwise being dealt with, and to ease the burden of those often ill-gotten millions – or today, billions – afflicting the heirs of ruthless capitalists, if not the capitalists themselves, who late in their careers may experience a twinge of remorse.

     Once, long ago, just after I retired, I did volunteer work for a small nonprofit here in New York and got a glimpse into their very special world.  My nonprofit, the Whole Foods Project, advocated a nutritional approach for the treatment of AIDS – then a raging killer – and cancer, and as a cancer survivor I was especially attuned to their mission.  (See vignette #8, May 20, 2012.)

     Money and how to get it is a perennial preoccupation with nonprofits, and my first Whole Foods Project assignment was to go to the Foundation Library on Fifth Avenue for instruction in how to approach foundations for a donation.  At the library I and other initiates learned a lot, and in the process we got a glimpse as well into the very special world of foundations and the purposes they serve.  There are literally hundreds of foundations, ranging from the giants that everyone has heard of – the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and so on – down to tiny, obscure ones, many of them based in New York and only funding very specific causes operating within the city or its immediate vicinity.  During the library’s instruction sessions two principles were immediately drilled into us:

1.    Foundations rarely give money to individuals unaffiliated with some organization, so if you’re looking for a handout for yourself, forget it.
2.    By all means read each foundation’s mission statement, but then compare it with what they actually do; what they do may not match what they say.

     After several days of research at the library I left armed with a list of possible donors that we immediately contacted.  Donations did result, though never enough to fully fund the Project.  To raise more money we compiled a long list of possible donors: friends and family of members, and people and organizations who had approached us for information on our vegetarian approach to healing.  The result was mass mailings that involved writing addresses on envelopes till your hand was cramped, and sealing the envelopes until your tongue was dry.  (Yes, I licked the envelopes, though other volunteers dabbed them with a sponge.)  The mailings brought in more money, dribs and drabs that were never enough.  And once a year we staged a fund-raising carnival with food from some of the city’s best vegetarian restaurants, stilt walkers, an auction or a raffle, a string quartet, and a lesbian and gay gospel choir.  The participants volunteered their services and the carnivals raised money, but to put them on took money.  Always, always, always, the need for money.  So I know why my mailbox is jammed with those appeals.

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Knight Foundation

     Here, in the form of a map showing a hike into the wilderness, is an account of a local news nonprofit's perilous quest for sustainability.  Included are these features:
  • Bottom center, a sign, "Ignore web and community," leading to a cliff and a plunge.  The other sign reads, "Forge new path."
  • In the center, a sign, "Beware / Donor dependence," and a crumbling ladder.
  • To the right, where a hiker gets water, a sign, "Big donor falls / Early resources to help get you started."
  • On the far right, a sign, "Content Swamp / Don't get bogged down spending all your resources here."
  • In the center, at the end of Content Swamp, a sign, "Path to experimentation / Explore new revenue streams."
  • Top center, a sign, "Data and platforms / Create new ways to tell engaging stories."
Finally, in the upper right, a hiker who has survived these perils and followed the better path heads out toward the next frontier.

     The Whole Foods Project vanished long ago, so let’s have a look at some other small nonprofits based in New York City today.  I’d never heard of any of them, so how did I find their names?  I Googled them.

     Albanian Roots is an organization of young Albanian professionals seeking to strengthen the Albanian community by integrating Albanians with each other and with their adopted countries throughout the whole Albanian diaspora.  It was created in 2008 by young Albanian college students in New York eager to promote Albanian culture and heritage, and now sponsors an annual parade as part of the Immigrants Day Parade in New York.

     My comment: I didn’t know there was an Albanian diaspora, much less an Albanian community in New York, much less an Immigrants Day Parade.  Albanians – some 9,100 of them -- live in the Belmont and Morris Park sections of the Bronx. 

     Common Cents began when Theodore Faro Gross, a writer, was walking down Broadway and his four-year-old daughter saw a man crouching against a newsstand and said, “That man is cold.  Why don’t we bring him home?”  Her question made him uncomfortable, so to soothe his conscience he began asking his neighbors if they had any pennies for the homeless.  One had several goldfish jars filled with pennies, and another a cookie jay full of the same.  Encouraged by their synagogue and others, in 1991 he and his wife created a nonprofit whose volunteers harvest pennies from their Upper West Side neighbors and donate them to Coalition for the Homeless, a well-established nonprofit dedicated to feeding the homeless.  Each contributing household now donates an average of $13 dollars in coins.  But today the nonprofit, which has school kids collecting pennies in an annual Penny Harvest, is at risk of vanishing, since its expanded efforts need close to $1 million a year.  “We cannot pay the trucking company to pick up the pennies,” Mr. Gross explains.  “I’m down to four staffers and calling people for donations to keep the doors open.”  But the city may help.  As always, money, money, money.

     My comment: A brilliant idea!  Stuck with a ton of pennies that my partner Bob had let accumulate and never disposed of, I once gave them to a homeless woman sitting on the sidewalk at Sixth Avenue and 12th Street.  But the Grosses took it one step further, with impressive results.  Let's hope their nonprofit survives.

     Sing for Hope was founded by opera singers Monica Yunus and Camille Zamora in 1995 in an effort to bring all the arts to schoolchildren, hospital and nursing-home patients, and seniors in underserved communities that otherwise have little exposure to art.  Today over 1500 professional artist volunteers – opera singers, actors, jazz musicians, dancers, puppeteers, and visual artists – participate.  For two weeks every year the Sing for Hope Pianos program installs pianos – at last count 88 -- in public spaces in all five boroughs for anyone and everyone to play – a program that reaches some 2 million New Yorkers and visitors.  To walk by a park in a noise-ridden neighborhood and hear an unshaven pianist in shorts and sandals play Schubert in an expert impromptu performance is, as the New York Times journalist who witnessed it reported, an “only-in-New-York experience.”

     My comment: During the last two summers, on warm weekend evenings the faint tinkle of piano music would infiltrate my apartment in the West Village.  Peering out a window, I could just barely make out a piano planted in the middle of a little park diagonally across from my building.  Was this a Sing for Hope performance?  Probably not, since one weekend afternoon I saw the pianist in action and, as I recall, he had a bowl on top of the piano in hopes of donations.  Still, it was a delightful encounter, worthy of classification as an “only-in-New-York experience.”  And the subway and sidewalk entertainers whom I chronicled long ago (vignette #6, May 6, 2012) were also hoping for donations, but their presence was welcome just the same.  In this city creativity spills out all over the place.

     Project EVIE was founded in 2009 by John Azrielant and some friends to promote the adoption of electric vehicles worldwide.  “We want to reframe the conversation about EVs [electric vehicles], to change the way the world thinks about them,” said executive director Azrielant, whose photos reveal a dynamic young man, dark-haired, with an engaging smile.  “They’re still seen as glorified golf carts for San Franciscans and pious tree-huggers…. Maybe we can frame them as the vehicle of the American dream, representing freedom and independence.”  To realize this goal he and his colleagues in 2010 planned to send a vehicle around the world, crossing six continents and seventy countries in six months, starting in New Zealand and ending in New York, for a total of 70,000 miles.  The trip was planned carefully, with a list of charging stations in every country to be visited, and Mr. Azrielant was hopeful.  But with a half-million-dollar budget, the newly created nonprofit had money problems from the start, and when the needed funds didn’t come through, the project had to be canceled.  Since then, no trace of Mr. Azrielant and his nonprofit.  The Facebook page of “Project Evie” reveals a creative home designers outfit helping people renovate or remodel their home, which surely has nothing to do with Mr. Azrielant’s Project EVIE.  I fear that the noble project to promote electric vehicles may have collapsed for lack of funds. 

     My comment: Once again, money, money, money.

     The Honey Bee Conservancy works to educate people about the alarming decline in honey bees and what we can do about it.  This may at first sound a bit outlandish or eccentric, but if you find out how many common fruits and vegetables depend on pollination by honey bees, you’ll realize that this affects you, too.  The causes of the decline are many, but pesticides are one of the culprits.  And what does this have to do with New York?  The honey stand at the Union Square Greenmarket announces proudly that its honey is a New York product.  Since the city’s ban on beekeeping was rescinded in 2010, the city’s rooftops – including (of all places!) the legendary Waldorf Astoria – are abuzz.  

     My comment: More power to those rooftops, their buzzing visitors, and the conservancy that works to preserve them.

     The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) is a nonprofit that I have long since known about and that I am now a member of, since it is especially relevant for me, a longtime Village resident and a history buff as well.  Founded in 1980 by local residents, it seeks to preserve the architectural heritage and cultural history of Greenwich Village and two adjacent neighborhoods, the East Village and NoHo (the district north of Houston Street).  Much of the Village was designated a historic district in 1969, but many old buildings outside that district’s boundaries are exposed to insensitive renovation or outright demolition, which GVSHP works to prevent.  It gives lectures and walking tours, school programs, and consultations, and promotes the expansion of landmark protection.  Appropriately, it is headquartered at the Neighborhood Preservation Center in the historic former rectory of St. Mark’s Church at 232 East 11th Street in the East Village.

     I endorse GVSHP’s activities because the Village area – my neighborhood -- still has numerous people-sized buildings, old buildings with six stories at most, which was as much as residents could manage back in those days before the elevator.  Even the Village’s larger buildings – the massive Archive Building on Christopher Street or Westbeth, the equally massive artists’ residence on Bethune Street near the Hudson River -- seem like squatting giants, earth-bound, unpretentious, and antiquated, compared with the super-modern high-rises now towering up in Midtown Manhattan and other “hot” neighborhoods now given over to the latest mania of development.  (For more on them, see post #178, “Manhattan Real Estate: a Bubble?”)  Personally, I don’t ever want to live in a building where I can’t manage the stairs in the event of a power failure.  Those high-rise and high-cost apartments with breathtaking views of Central Park won’t be so pleasant, if the city is plunged into yet another blackout; how many of the tenants will care to negotiate 70 or 80 flights of stairs?  Maybe someday we’ll find out.

     So what specifically has GVSHP accomplished?  In 2014, the following:

·      Designation of the South Village Historic District, protecting 250 buildings and more than a dozen blocks south of Washington Square: the largest expansion of landmark protection in the Village since 1969.
·      A report on how the Landmarks Preservation Committee has let unscrupulous developers destroy great pieces of the city’s history before they could be landmarked.
·      A favorable ruling from a State Supreme Court justice putting the city’s approval of New York University’s massive expansion program on hold, pending an appeal.
·      Review of more than 100 applications for changes to landmarked properties, advocating preservation of human-scale buildings and sensitive design.

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GVSHP in action: opponents of NYU expansion at a June 2012 rally at City Hall.

 Andrew Berman

     GVSHP’s antagonists include New York University and its perennial need to expand; the Real Estate Board of New York (again, see post #178); developers; and the city of New York.  Which is taking on quite a load, but GVSHP is used to fighting, and fighting hard, for preservation.  This year, and every year, the fight continues.  No wonder the New York Observer, a weekly commenting on politics, media, and real estate, has named GVSHP’s executive director, Andrew Berman, one of the 100 Most Powerful People in Real Estate, and New York Magazine has named him one of 100 “Influentials.”  He is.  And with him in charge, the never-ending fight between preservation and development, the old and the new, human scale and bigness, continues.  In this city it will never end.

     Here now are two more New York-based nonprofits that I will simply mention in passing:

·      The Friends of Abandoned Cemeteries of Staten Island (FACSI) promotes the beautification and rehabilitation of neglected or abandoned cemeteries on Staten Island.  Never heard of them till now, but no matter.
·      The Gowanus Canal Conservancy works to clean up the Gowanus Canal, a Superfund site in Brooklyn, and to create green space and park along its shores.  I have to applaud their effort, since the Gowanus, a 1.8-mile-long stretch of foul water that I have glimpsed only fleetingly from a subway train or automobile in passing (who would want to go near it?), is my favorite polluted site in the area, a victim of industrial waste and sewer overflows from surrounding neighborhoods.  If the Gowanus can be cleaned up, anything can be.

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The Gowanus Canal as seen from an expressway bridge.  From a distance, the pollution is invisible.

I could add more, but the list would go on forever.  Each organization was created by someone who saw a need and, instead of lamenting how things were, decided to do something about it.

     The Internet is full of information about nonprofits.  Here are a few common misconceptions:

1.    Only rich kids need apply.  False.  Most nonprofits rely on paid staff in addition to volunteers.
2.    People who work in them are invariably upbeat and pleasant.  False.  You’ll may find just as many grumpy characters, egomaniacs, and office politicians as in any other field.
3.    Nonprofits are inefficient, waste time and money.  Half true.  Some are inefficient, some aren’t.  Since nonprofits lack clear bottom lines and profit margins, their efficiency is hard to measure.
4.    Nonprofits support only left-wing causes.  False.  Politically they are all over the place – left, right, and center.
5.    Nonprofits provide no upward mobility, are a dead end for your career.  False.  You can have a lifetime career in a nonprofit, and many of them offer young people more leadership opportunities than other sectors do.

     Are there disadvantages in working for a nonprofit?  You bet.

1.    Lower pay.
2.   Results that are hard to measure.
3.    Antiquated technology, and having to do more work with fewer resources.
4.    Bureaucratic red tape.
5.    Endless fundraising.
6.    Irregular hours: evening and weekend obligations, and having to take work home.
7.    Burnout, resulting from all the preceding conditions.
      So why work for a nonprofit?  Again, the Internet lists advantages:

1.    Meaningfulness: as a result of your efforts, human lives will be transformed.
2.    Many hats: you won’t be locked into one job, but will probably serve in many, and so acquire a wide and varied experience.
3.    Creativity: you’ll be challenged to find new ways to fulfill your mission and reach people in faster, cheaper, better ways.
4.    A casual work environment.
5.    A culture of like-minded people, inspiring teamwork and collaboration, rather than internal competition.  (But see misconception #2 above.)
6.    Benefits: health care insurance, dental plans, retirement plans, flexible hours, long vacations.  (Some nonprofits, not all.)

As regards #5, an acquaintance who works for a large nonprofit agrees about like-minded people and hasn’t himself experienced office politics or grumpy coworkers, though he also agrees that burnout is a risk.

     But what if a nonprofit fails and declares bankruptcy?  Because it does happen, and the results can be messy.  A case in point: FEGS Health and Human Services, founded in 1934 to help the unemployed find work.  One of New York City’s largest and oldest social service agencies, it filed for bankruptcy in March 2015.  How could it happen?  Mounting costs, dwindling revenues, and the departure of key employees, including three chief financial officers in just two years.  Among the mounting expenses: administrative costs, including salaries, that made up 30% of the agency’s budget, far exceeding industry standards.

     The result:  The agency's 120,000 poor and disabled clients have been handed over to other agencies, and its employees are scattered, some in new jobs, some still jobless, and others struggling to get by in jobs that pay less.  Meanwhile hundreds of unpaid creditors – furniture and security companies, banks, and former workers waiting anxiously for severance pay – are preparing to fight it out in bankruptcy court for whatever scraps remain. 

     But that’s not all.  Gail Magaliff, the CEO presiding over FEGS as it collapsed, has filed legal papers in bankruptcy court claiming that she is owed $1.2 million in deferred compensation.  Ms. Magaliff, who earned $638,880 in base salary and additional compensation in fiscal year 2012, insists that FEGS promised her the compensation for her “services as a valuable executive employee” – a claim that rings hollow for the agency’s former workers, many of them still looking for a job.  How it will all turn out is uncertain, but it’s messy.  Is this messiness peculiar to nonprofits?  Hardly.  For-profit companies, big and small, go bankrupt all the time.

     How livable is New York City?  The May issue of the Bulletin of the AARP, the giant nonprofit dedicated to enhancing quality of life for geezers like myself, features lists of the most livable places for seniors in the U.S., based on interviews with 4,500 golden oldies.  Given New York’s reputation for noise and congestion, I feared the worst but was pleasantly surprised.  In a list of the ten most livable neighborhoods, a neighborhood in Madison, Wisconsin, was #1, but right after it came the Upper West Side of Manhattan, because of its restaurants, culture, easy access to gyms and Central Park, and cheap and convenient mass transit.  More power to the Upper West Side!  Personally, I think that the West Village also merits such a rating, even though both neighborhoods are afflicted with high rents, but I’m glad that my city snuck in there even so. 

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Handsome old brownstones on the Upper West Side, not far from Central Park.  Yes, livable.

     From the list of ten most livable big cities, New York is, alas, conspicuously absent, the top three being San Francisco, Boston, and Seattle.  Not that I put down the winning trio.  I lived in San Francisco once long ago, when it was still cheap, and loved it, and rate Boston after New York as the place I most want now to live.  As for Seattle, I have heard good things about it, and am willing to forget my one brief visit long ago, toting luggage up and down those hills, before taking an unscheduled flight to Alaska for a summer job.

     Still, there’s hope for the Big Apple.  In the list of the ten big cities where it’s easiest to get around, New York ranks #3, after San Francisco and Boston. But for staying healthy, it doesn’t make the list at all.  San Francisco is the healthiest, with a low obesity rate; maybe traipsing up and down all those hills pays off, though I insist that my four-flight walkup amounts to the same, and my PCP (primary care physician) has casually mentioned living in a six-flight walkup.  Besides, we have MOMA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and we’re #4 among the best ten big cities for dating, after Nashville, San Francisco, and Washington.  Nashville?  Well, if you like the Grand Ole Opry…  It takes all kinds to make a world, so let’s be gentle and tolerant, and maybe Nashville will tolerate us.

     Coming soon:  The History and Mystery of Names.  How did Gansevoort and Horatio Streets get their names?  And the Battery, Governors Island, and Bowling Green?  Plus a crouching bull, and a locked garden where eating a sandwich is verboten.  And then, Landmarks: Saving the Old from the New.

     ©  2015  Clifford Browder