Tuesday, October 21, 2008

El Puente's New Bridge

I often go to visit Main Streets outside of New Jersey. On Monday, October 20th, I had a wonderful excursion to the "City of Brooklyn," as Borough President Marty Markowitz called it. I went to see the ribbon-cutting for a new school building developed by El Puente, a community human rights organization serving Northern Brooklyn and beyond. El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice has taken over Transfiguration Grammar School, a Catholic school that had educated generations of people from the Williamsburg neighborhood. Luis Garden Acosta, who founded El Puente in 1982, welcomed a long list of people who had helped in the struggle for the new home for the school. Among them was Congresswoman Nydia Velasquez who shared that she was heading back to Washington to work on the economy. "The country is depressed and you know why. This is a dose of optimism when I really needed it." Political and community leaders rejoiced in that Transfiguration School had been given new life. NYC Councilwoman Diana Reyna, who grew up in the neighborhood, told the youth in the audience, "You are surrounded on all sides by people who want to protect and nourish you. And that is what this icon of a building is: a place to nurture children. If these walls could talk, what stories they would tell of our community." The shining faces of the Academy's students were enough to light up anybody's day. Leaving the event, I reflected back on a speech I heard Acosta give at Body and Soul, the 2008 International Urban Parks Conference in Pittsburgh. At the end of his remarks, he asked the audience to rise and join him in chanting, "The people united will never be defeated!" That ribbon-cutting was certainly a case in point.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Wall Street, Main Street, Happy 5769!

The juxtaposition of "Wall Street" and "Main Street" occurs in many articles about the deep financial crisis in the US. While Wall Street has obvious connotations, I'm not sure what they mean when they say "Main Street."

What I've learned in New Jersey is that Main Street is a huge mixed bag. Take, for example, Cedar Lane in Teaneck, NJ, where I had lunch yesterday. Cedar Lane was empty, deserted. It looked like Christmas Day, it was so empty. And it sense it was: yesterday was Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, one of the holiest days in the Jewish calendar. Many of the stores on Cedar Lane are operated by Jews and serve the large, and actively religious, Jewish community that lives in the area. I had lunch with a friend at an Indian restaurant, one of a number of ethnic restaurants that was welcoming diners. Main Street is like that: it takes on the character of the people who live nearby. At the same time, Main Street has services that reach a much larger group. I love to visit Teaneck's farmers' market which is held in one of the Cedar Lane parking lots and attracts a diverse crowd, including people who travel to distance to get great fresh vegetables, bread and other treats.

Main Street is a street. People walk up and down, they accomplish tasks, they greet neighbors, they look at the urban streetscape, they dream about possibilities. Each of these functions will be affected in different ways by the collapse of Wall Street. Main Street, at its best, is not simply the local mirror of Wall Street, but rather it's antidote. My lunch on Cedar Lane buoyed my spirits. I enjoyed the time spent with my friend. I was heartened to think it is 5769 in the Jewish calendar: people have been counting for a long time, and they've made it through worse than this.

"Happy New Year!" from Main Street.