Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Father Jim

Father Jim performs first communion at Saint Mary Star of the Sea in Far Rockaway.

By Damian Ghigliotty, Clark Merrefield and Mathew Warren

Before Father James K. Cunningham relocated to Far Rockaway in 2001 he barely spoke Spanish and had served a predominantly white congregation in his six years of priesthood. Now the 39-year-old pastor, known as Father Jim, leads a multi-ethnic parish at Saint Mary Star of the Sea with a growing number of families from South and Central America and the Caribbean.

And as a leader among Catholic immigrants he now performs his services in Spanish as well as English.

“When they first sent me here I thought they made a mistake,” Cunningham said with a laugh as he sat inside the 88-year-old rectory. “You usually had to be 25 years a priest and I was only six years ordained at the time. But I guess they figured I could adapt – that adaptability was one of my strengths.”

Saint Mary embodies the sea of cultural and economic changes that have occurred on the Queens Peninsula since the early 1970s. As the bulk of second- and third-generation Irish, Germans and Italians packed up and left over the past four decades, a growing number of Hispanics and Caribbean Islanders have made Far Rockaway their home.

Today, the most recent immigrant groups – including Guatemalans, Mexicans and Guyanese – make up more than 70 percent of the 1,400-member congregation.

During a recent Mass, as Cunningham alternated between English and Spanish, more than a dozen children lined up to receive their First Holy Communion. Flags representing 37 different countries lined the inside of the church.

“The parish has had two or three turnovers since I’ve been a member,” said Josephine Kelly, 81, who moved to Far Rockaway from Buffalo in 1964. “Each turnover has caused a bit of an exodus among older members.”

And as those new members came in, so did new customs: from clapping and cheering to outward displays of affection among families.

“Back when it was predominantly white and European families the most you would hear was an occasional whisper,” Kelly added. “Now during services people tend to be a lot more expressive. You’ll often see a son put his arm around his father without giving it a second thought.”

While those changes have helped redefine the church’s inner-culture and the way in which the priests perform their sermons, they have also impacted on the parish’s finances. New groups appeared, but old money faded.

“Far Rockaway has faced the classic phenomena,” said Joseph Barden, executive director of Margert Community Corp., a neighborhood preservation group dedicated to helping struggling homeowners in the area. “In the 1970s there was a lot of white flight followed by a high concentration of poverty and a growth in public housing. Those forces plus immigration drove the original people who used to live here out. The problem for the church has been that most of the new immigrants don’t have the same economic base.”

One of the most apparent cultural and economic shifts can be seen in the fall off of donations given to the church.

“A lot of the churches in South America and the Caribbean are supported by their governments,” Cunningham said. “In the United States, that’s not the case and people aren’t as accustomed to tithing. A lot of the new members put a few dollars in the basket a week and think that’s enough of a donation. As a result, it’s become hard to pay bills when our collection is good, but still not good enough.”

Raul Hernandez, a 33-year-old construction worker who came from Mexico with his wife and two children, is part of the newest wave of immigrants to join the church. While some of the congregation members see a link between their parish’s financial struggles and the growing proportion of immigrants, Hernandez links it to external forces.

“Today things are really difficult,” he said. “The economy is really bad. Before maybe I could give $10 a week, now it’s $5.”

Jason Fernandez, 7, was one of the first children in line to receive communion. After Mass, his mother, Maria, shed tears of joy while the rest of her family waited to take pictures with Cunningham.

“When I have, I give, and it’s from the heart,” she said. “Without the church and without God, I don’t think we could survive in this country.”

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Last night I played pool at a small bar in my neighborhood with a 27-year-old Tibetan named Jigman who is seeking asylum in New York City. He was upset about the riots taking place in Lhasa between Tibetans and the Chinese military, as well as a protest outside of the Chinese consulate in Manhattan that had been broken up by police that morning.

“The Chinese president has often said religion is a dangerous thing,” Jigman told me. “That might be true, but Buddhists are usually peaceful people. The Chinese provoke us.”

Since the riots started on Friday morning, 80 Tibetans have been killed and 72 injured, according to the Tibetan government in exile. And with fears that international scorn will jeopardize the upcoming Olympics in Beijing, the Chinese government has imposed a strict curfew in the area.

Despite Jigman’s frustration, every shot he made was nearly perfect; straight, angled or banked off the sides. By our third game, a stocky 26-year-old Marine named Josh with a fresh crew cut and a wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth joined in. A few beers later, Josh and I got into a conversation about the war in Iraq — which is nearing 4,000 American deaths and over $1.2 trillion in costs — and Josh told me, “We shouldn’t ever have gone over there in the first place.”

When I asked him why not, he spit some of the tobacco into a plastic bottle and looked at me to see if I was about to play devil’s advocate. I wasn’t. He told me when he had served as a sniper in Fallujah in 2004, he had fully supported Bush and the removal of Saddam Hussein, but looking back he realized how much of a mess the original plan was destined to be.

“Hindsight’s 20/20,” he said. “At this point too many soldiers have died trying to fix the war.”

“You’re right,” said Jigman as Josh offered us both some chewing tobacco from his $2 Red Seal tin.

I declined and went outside for a smoke. Jigman told Josh it reminded him of a tobacco often sold in Nepal.

After the three of us got tired of pool, the Tibetan having won almost every game against the sniper and the journalist, we all had one more round of drinks and went our separate ways.

In my cynical mind it’s gotten increasingly harder for strangers to talk openly about politics and find any common ground, especially with so many conflicts reaching new heights at home and overseas. I guess Jigman and Josh felt far enough removed at a random dive bar in Woodside, Queens that they could speak about Tibet and Iraq with no less concern, only less apprehension about what they said.

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By Damian Ghigliotty

Surrounded by uniform sterile brick buildings, a rickety cab pulled up to the corner of 97th Street and 57th Avenue in LeFrak City.

A small group of men in their late-40s and 50s came over to see what Freedom had brought for the day. An old friend, Black, had come to help him unload several brown boxes from the trunk. Duke and C. were the first customers of the morning. The rest had stopped by simply to chat with familiar faces congregating on a familiar street corner.

“Today this is my corner,” said Freedom with a smirk of self-satisfaction as he began to open one of the boxes. “Mine alone.”

Freedom, 58, a retired maintenance worker turned local part-time merchant, has become LeFrak City’s only art vendor. “One day,” he said, “I plan to have my own flea market here.”

“Today this is my corner,” said Freedom as he began to open one of the boxes. “Mine alone.”

Freedom, 58, a retired maintenance worker turned local part-time merchant, has become LeFrak City’s only art vendor. “One day,” he said, “I plan to have my own flea market here.”

Freedom’s goods ran the gamut — framed posters of southern blacks on porches, portraitures of Martin Luther King and Malcom X, religious proverbs encased in floral designs, and scenes of a disgruntled Scarface holding a smoking tommy gun. Most cost $8 a piece, or $15 for two, but Freedom was apt to bargain with nearly anyone who asked, bringing more people from the neighborhood over to browse as the day went on.

“This helps the neighborhood,” said Duke, a retired hotel management employee from Ghana, as he paid for two framed posters of silhouetted jazz musicians blowing on yellow saxophones. “Children see the pictures of historical blacks with familiar images from the movies and they ask their parents, ‘what’s that?’ It opens people’s eyes.”

Freedom, who has walked with a wooden cane since he fractured his hip in 2002, decided to sell posters after retiring from the LeFrak City Maintenance Department. Surrounded by several take-out restaurants, an income tax office, two beauty salons, and two sportswear stores, he said he had found the perfect place for cheaply priced artwork; an outdoor market overlooked by other vendors in the neighborhood.

“I’m doing something new and positive here,” said Freedom as more customers showed up to his corner. “This is for the five generations of LeFrak,” he added in reference to everyone living in the community — small children to the elderly.

LeFrak City had always needed a stronger sense of identity, Freedom said, a place where people could stop and chat as they went about their day. One effort was to have the side wall of Fluffy’s Salon on 57th Street painted with a mural of local and historical figures: LeFrak City native, Al Blake; Jackson Heights native, Sen. John D. Sabini, Islam leader, Louis Farrakhan; and local hip-hop artist, Noreaga. Freedom and several community activists, including Al Blake — now the chairman of the LeFrak City Tenants’ Association — organized the project in the summer of 1994.

As the new mural attracted more and more people walking by, Freedom soon thought of commerce in art as another way to bring disconnected neighbors together.

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Outside of LeFrak City, city planners, historians and academics looking in have shared Freedom’s dissatisfaction with a community that lacks an identity despite its racial and religious diversity.

“On a visual level, LeFrak City has always been rather depressing,” said Architectural Historian Barry Lewis. “It’s like being in the middle of nowhere.”

When Samuel J. LeFrak began development along the Horace Harding Expressway in 1960, he and his investors envisioned a self-contained community with the basic essentials — a local grocery store, a local pharmacy, and a few nearby restaurants, surrounded by parks, playgrounds and private homes. In his view, Manhattan was close enough for those who needed to purchase luxury items.

Lewis said that in an effort to suburbanize parts of New York City, the movers and shakers behind community projects like LeFrak City and Stuyvesant Town failed to predict the shortcomings of their developments. Suburbanization never came to fruition as those “progressive thinkers” expected, he noted in a tone of sarcasm. Especially once New Yorkers realized what a neighborhood without bustling streets would actually look and feel like.

“People in the city gravitate to where the shopping streets are,” said Lewis. “Shops attract social activity. They’re the microorganisms of the city people love — older folks chatting, young kids hanging outside of candy shops.”

After LeFrak’s vision of a prepackaged suburban community in Queens began to collapse in the mid-80s, the area become notorious for gang violence and drug deals, a reputation the neighborhood still carries today, even though crime has dropped with the rise in Eastern European and Muslim immigrants.

But with a continual lack of interest among landowners and private investors to diversify the neighborhood’s commerce, individual efforts have only amounted to small accomplishments on small scales.

Most days, when Freedom isn’t offering framed posters for sale, he sits outside of Fluffy’s Salon, helps sweep up, and sells packs of Newports for $4, which he buys in bulk for far less.

“I get frustrated sometimes, because everyone around here has their own agendas,” he said, gazing across the street at a group of young teenagers. “One day I’m going to get myself a big stage right on this corner, and then everyone will see what I’m trying to do.”

After the sale of his last poster, Freedom’s spot to one day run his own flea market became encompassed by the slumped shadow of an unemployed community member struggling to get by. With no financial support from the LeFrak Organization since his injury, it has been hard for him to support a family, let alone a community.

“I guess that’s it until the next batch comes,” Freedom said with a sigh as he picked up his cane and headed home.

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Development along the Brooklyn Waterfront.
 

There’s not a neighborhood in the city that has ever stayed the same for more than a few generations. If they don’t get better, they get worse, but they always take on a new face after a certain amount of time.”

My friend Lee said this to me about four years ago, when I told him overdevelopment does more harm than good to the city. There I was sitting on the L train, reminiscing back to when DUMBO was an absolute no man’s land and Williamsburg was a pretty sub-par place to go drinking — back when New York seemed a bit more comfortable with itself — and somebody else had to rain on my pessimism by reminding me of a time before the time I remember, when Brooklyn Heights was a ghetto and Flatbush was an epicenter of commerce. Sure, taking the longer view always makes things easier to digest, but neighborhoods in New York City have stopped going down since 2002.

And why does that matter now?

Because suddenly, in the media’s eye at least, Mayor Bloomberg might conceivably run for president in 2008. And try as I often do these days, I’m still unable to disassociate New York’s wealthiest and most accomplished leader from all the overgrowth in the city as developers are given greater access to lower- and middle-class neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs.

Of course, it’s not Bloomberg’s fault alone that the cost of living won’t stop rising, and while some New Yorkers have trouble noticing, it’s not only a local phenomena. Neither is overdevelopment, which might be inevitable in the long view. But apart from all the new people coming in and no longer going out, Bloomberg has certainly helped speed up the process a lot faster than it was moving before.

On the horizon, city planners are projecting: redevelopment of the Atlantic Yards, a revitalization of Coney Island, expansions for the Jacob K. Javits Center, further spreading of NYU facilities in the South Village and Columbia in Manhattanville, another convention center in Willets Point, new condos in Bed-Stuy, and the long sought after 2nd Avenue subway line.

Some of these initiatives are for the city’s benefit, some are ruination on the horizon, and others are for the most part innocuous. But when they all happen at the same point in time, a lot of New Yorkers will have to struggle to keep up, and City Hall, these days, seems incapable of not giving developers the green light. Hence the dozens of articles printed within the last few months in Time Out New York and umpteen other magazines about how underappreciated Queens and the Bronx are, and about how many little gems of culture they both hold.

And while the features that promote economic development might not come from the mayor’s office directly, they all carry Bloomberg’s invisible seal of approval. Ironically, most New Yorkers who live in Queens and the Bronx know that the best thing to appreciate about the “other boroughs” is how they haven’t become real estate hotbeds like all of Manhattan and the outer half of Brooklyn. Which causes me to wonder whether the mayor and his associates are simply projecting another million by 2030 or equally endorsing that amount.

The toughest question these days is when does development suddenly cross the line. Is it the misuse of eminent domain?

I’d say it’s when too many neighborhoods no longer have the capacity to change and New York becomes stuck one way for too like an overfed waterbug lying on its back. Bloomberg’s vision of the city has always been new developments and high-rises from the west end of Northern Manhattan (also known as Harlem) to the corners of every other borough, which admittedly has its ups and downs. But pace is key. As is affordable housing.

It might be hard for advocates of city development to notice, but the nicest neighborhoods in New York City got to where they are through gradual spurts. Like healthy adults who grew up properly; foolish fist fights and arguments to valuable lessons learned. DUMBO, on the other hand, is that unbelievably awkward kid in high school who started taking steroids, and Bedford Ave is the 30-something-year-old nerd who still tries to overcompensate for a late entry into hipness. So, yeah, that whole aspect of the Bloomberg legacy still makes skin crawl.

Or… as Lee would likely point out if I were reading this to him on the L train back in 2003… maybe I’m just being too nostalgic over everything old about New York these days. After all, the UN is estimating 3.3 billion people (half the world’s population) to live in cities by the end of next year and 5 billion by 2030, while apart from overzealous development plans, there’s not much else to criticize about Bloomberg’s incentives: going green, raising the standards for public education, dumping the Republican Party for political independence. Not to mention the fact that he’s incorruptible with or without affiliations. And 311 is the best thing for the general public’s protection since Giuliani stopped being mayor. Imagine that on a national level.

So… the question has been asked and everyone has an answer… “Should Bloomberg run for president in 2008?”

I would have to say I’m completely torn to say the least. That’s what happens when you take the personal view and the long view both at once.

The Birth Of Apathy

Posted: April 16, 2007 in Education, History, Media, Music, Politics

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(Written in August, 2005) By Damian Ghigliotty

(Photo by Michael Hicks)

Robert Dylan Smith, a twenty-eight-year-old internet marketer living in Sacramento, epitomizes a body of America that continually shrugs its shoulders. Back in 1978, Smith’s parents choose the name Robert Dylan to instill a sense of righteousness in their future son—Janice in the event of a daughter. But, unlike his mother and father, who doggedly protested the Vietnam War, Smith has no interest in political activism. He sees himself as a regular, middle-class worker who likes to party with his friends, listen to Creed, and watch reality television. His one dream for the future, aside from buying a summer house on a marijuana grove, is to play as a quarterback for the Oakland Raiders. At the same time, Smith casually admits that he lost his ability to throw after graduating high school, and only dreams about playing again because in his mind: most dreams are fantasies, unless you’re that guy that married Britney Spears. Fantasies aside, Smith happily sees himself in the near future living a peaceful, everyday life on the West Coast, and vows to move to Vancouver if the situation in Iraq ever calls for a return of the draft.

Having been raised in a liberal household, Robert Smith is fully aware of the problems occurring in and beyond America, but refuses to ever protest out of a fear of legal repercussions. On the other hand, he argues that America’s youth as a whole have become too discouraged from making any real efforts, since a few drops in the bucket won’t ever amount to anything. Ultimately though, Smith has no problem openly admitting that if he really cared like his parents, he would be doing something to make a change.

It’s far too easy to blame young Americans like Smith alone for our country’s overall lack of political interest, unlike forty years ago when everyone was prepared for the next big revolution. The main reason: We still put our undivided trust in what we see, hear and read in the media, just like a lot of our parents did back then. While our country’s general attitude towards war, race, homosexuality, religion and politics has shifted from decade to decade, the fact that most of us are conditioned to act and think a specific way remains constant. The biggest difference between the 1960’s and now is how we’ve become so comfortable ignoring issues that don’t affect us directly.

On a daily basis, we’re being pressed by our schools and home communities to think about the world’s problems only a trivial amount. By our parents and extended families even less. The largest bulk of our awareness lies in the hands of MTV, AOL, FOX and every other media conglomerate that appeals to teenagers and young adults. Just as in the late sixties America’s youth were inspired by artists like Bob Dylan, Janice Joplin and the causes that gave birth to their views, today’s younger generations are being influenced by Nelly, Paris Hilton and Nike. This in turn transforms the idea of social activism into arbitrary, half-hearted movements; trends at best.

Why has Tibet been such a hot subject for young American activists over the past ten years? Not because the plight of the Tibetans is anymore important to the world than that of the Rwandans or Australia’s Aborigines, but because The Beastie Boys and other pop artists tell us that we need to urgently support Tibet first and foremost. And we follow without a second thought. Perhaps if they told us McDonalds was soon to be put out of business by the world’s mass vegan populations, the rest of our energy would go to saving America’s top fast food industry. The sad thing about such a thought is that regardless of how intelligent our country’s youth might be; intelligence becomes worthless when people choose not to think beyond their immediate surroundings. Just as dolphins are arguably as smart as humans, without the ability to organize movements on land, there’s only so much they can do to save the world. Or themselves.

One of the biggest social problems in America right now is that egotism and apathy are the ideas being spoken, sung, filmed and rapped about, and we gladly eat it up, because that’s what we’ve been trained to do for so long. Coincidentally, since 9/11 never have we been closer to the Red Scare of the fifties in terms of America struggling against an “invisible enemy.” Nor have we been closer to the Vietnam War in terms of giving up so many lives and resources to ensure “the world’s freedom.” Yet, instead of being urged by the media to educate ourselves and take a stance, we’re being pushed to look the other way. Or blindly join in on the fight.

Perhaps if the day to day programs we absorb began to spoon feed us the truth on what’s happening in the world– from Iraq, to Haiti, to Sudan, to North Korea –the average American wouldn’t be so indifferent. The underlying problem is that the average American isn’t properly trained in how to wade through channels, websites and pages of nonsense to get to the truth. And from 1965 to 2005, the amount of drivel in the media has increased tenfold. That’s why we now have large franchises producing Che Guevara shirts in Thailand, and people who consider themselves socially informed proudly wearing them. It’s also the reason why successful media icons can make dozens of statements about the condition of race and class in America, when poor teenagers are spending more money on Sean John jeans than they are on their weekly diets.

At the same time, it’s not our uninformed youth’s faults for following suit in these cases. Who can blame the ignorant when nobody’s making an effort to teach them? It’s also not our nation’s celebrities’ faults for getting paid to look informed, whether or not they truly are. The largest degree of fault lies with the media bigwigs, who determine what we watch, read, listen to, and purchase, for keeping us as distracted as possible in order to preserve their own interests. The rest lies with educated quasi-adults like Robert Smith, who are aware of the problem and do have the power to make a change, but repeatedly tell themselves that the bucket will always be half empty, no matter how many drops we add to it. If that were the case, all progress in America, from the Civil Rights Movement to Nixon’s eventual withdrawal from Vietnam, would be nothing but pure, random, dumb luck. And that’s pretty close to saying the generations before us accomplished no more than we do. Apathy then becomes complacency.

Until our country’s newest thinkers look at the bigger picture, apart from what writers, producers and celebrities tell us to fight for, activism will remain a raw commodity. Unfortunately, most commodities in the West sell at their appropriated values and the value of loose change is continually dropping. As much as major corporations would like to convince us that everything’s alright; that women in Somalia are partying harder than Courtney Love; that Palestine versus Israel isn’t nearly as important as Pepsi versus Coke; it’s our choice to buy into it all or question why we’ve become so apathetic.

[Robert Dylan Smith is a fictitious character]