Saturday, September 19, 2009

Article No. 3: Park(ing) Day in the UWS

     Meg McDonnell, teacher at the Lower School, and her
     students from The Calhoun School in the Upper West
     Side attach wishes to a biodegradable balloon and release
     them into the sky.
     "How can your wish help Mother Earth?" McDonnell asked
     her students. Hugo, 5, replied, "I want to world to be clean!"

     For more photos, visit: Flickr

Students snag parking spot to “reclaim the city”


     MANHATTAN — There was an unusual sight at the corner of West 80th Street and Broadway today. In the place of a typical roadside parking space were colorful activities including a bicycle-powered blender, biodegradable balloons, and a loom made from rags and PVC pipe.
     Passersby stopped, scratched their chins and craned their necks to get a better view. But they still weren’t sure what was going on.
     Fortunately, the hosts of the street-side celebration, sixth-grade students from The Calhoun School, were happy to fill in the blanks.
     “It’s Park(ing) Day,” said Clark Vaccaro, 11, the lead student organizer of the event.
     Park(ing) Day, according to the official Park(ing) Day NYC Web site, “is an international event that reclaims parking spots and transforms them into engaging, people-friendly public spaces for one day a year.” This year it fell on Sept. 18.
     Clark was inspired by the international effort, but says he has a different idea of what it means to him and his peers.
     “Some people say we’re reclaiming the city, but I don’t think of it that way,” Clark said. “I say this city is made for people, not cars.  That’s why we’re here.”
     Clark and his father, Steve Vaccaro, are members of Transportation Alternatives, a non-profit organization that describes itself as “an advocate for cycling, walking, and mass transit as the most sensible alternatives to automobile dependency.” T.A. is a partner in the Park(ing) Day phenomenon, which is how Clark found out about this unique idea.
     “The idea’s been around for a while,” Clark said. “I’m just working with the school to bring it here.”
     Throughout the day, teachers from The Calhoun School brought students of all ages to take part in the celebration. And pedestrians on the street even stopped in to listen and learn.
     Beth Krieger, director of communications at The Calhoun School, said she was impressed with Clark’s initiative to make this celebration come together.
     “When students come up with ideas, we try to encourage them and really promote (their ideas),” Krieger said.
     The Calhoun School, according to its Web site, is “a progressive, coeducational, college preparatory school for students in early childhood through twelfth grade.” The Lower School, for children ages three through first grade, is at 160 W. 74th St. The main location is at 433 West End Ave.
     “At Calhoun, we promote social activism, which is very much a part of the school’s mission,” Krieger said. “We want to teach kids to be citizens now rather than later.”
     The activities at the celebration were designed to be both fun and environmentally focused. There was a bicycle-powered blender that made smoothies from ice, fruit and yogurt; a loom in which students used rags to weave a colorful tapestry; and biodegradable balloons attached with environmental wishes attendees released.
     And the students had a blast soaking up the fun and the meaning behind it.
     Fourth-grader Lindsay Jackman, 9, donned a colorful “Go Green” T-shirt for the special day.
     “It’s really great to have an environmentally happy day,” Lindsay chirped. “I like the smoothie the best because you get a hard workout and then you get to enjoy what you made.”
     Lucas Rogers, 11, is Clark’s classmate who helped him organize the event. Even though he hopes everyone had fun, he says the message behind it all is even more important.
     “We have to care about the earth,” Lucas said.  “Most of all, I hope (attendees) realize the importance of going green and environmental protection.”
     Steve Nelson is the head of school at Calhoun and said the Park(ing) Day event is the kind of thing they encourage their students to do, in and out of the classroom.
     “We ought to think abut how we affect the world,” Nelson said. “They have to think about what it means to be citizens.”
     Lisa Freedman, Clark’s mother, described the day as more than just a family and school-wide project. She said it was also an effort in community outreach.
     “It’s a great teaching tool for the younger kids, but it’s a chance for the older kids to share ideas with the adults around them, too,” Freedman said. “It’s hard, though. Especially because strangers don’t even talk to each other in New York.”
     But Clark and his peers didn’t seem to have any trouble in that department. They handed out pamphlets and smoothies, and chatted up everyone who walked by.
     “This is something people of all ages can enjoy,” Clark said. “I just hope it gives everyone a great sense of enjoyment and togetherness.”
     For more information, visit

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

... and this is just the first week

         Residents of the Upper East Side gather in Ruppert Park to protest on    
         Sept. 12, 2009. On the right side of the photo you can see me in action,
         in the midst of absorbing my surroundings and scribbling down
         nearly illegible notes for my story (below). Photo courtesy of Geoffrey
         Croft, president of NYC Park Advocates.

Talk about jumping right in. It's hard to believe it was just a week ago today that my journey as a graduate journalism student began.

As I left the classroom after our 6-hour-long class (I wasn't aware classes this long existed, though, I must note, it was a pretty good first meeting), I had so many ideas and considerations darting around in my mind. I was primarily focused on the first two assignments I had been given. The first was relatively focused: Attend the Sept. 11 memorial ceremony in Lower Manhattan, and come back with a story. OK, so maybe the directions were a bit less than specific, but at least I had a framework in which to work. The second was as broad as I could imagine: Some time in the following week, find some event taking place by way of the AP Daybook (an online database where short press releases of happenings in and around New York City are posted) and cover it.

Hm. OK, I thought.

The first assignment I got around to was the 9/11 memorial. The experience was simultaneously exactly and nothing at all like I expected. What I mean is that this particular Sept. 11 happened to fall on one of the worst weather days in New York that I had yet experienced. Of course my first day reporting wouldn't be like the rest of the sunny, mild days I had experienced weeks prior. Instead, it was pouring down rain, windy and about 15 to 20 degrees colder. It was the kind of thing journalists must always be prepared for — the completely unexpected. This is something I've learned over the years, but somehow it's just not the same in New York.

I arrived at Zuccotti Park, adjacent to Ground Zero, where the annual ceremony was taking place. It was complete chaos. All around me were people shoving through the dense crowd, trying to get to work. Meanwhile, there were dozens of people lining the streets, congesting sidewalk traffic. No one knew whether there was a press check-in or how to control the crowd. I have never before seen such a mix of raw emotions: There were people mourning while others were screaming at cops for not taking care of such a disorganized mess. There were others in awe of the madness, as some passersby didn't even register what was going on around them.

Eventually, the chaos died down, and that's when I was able to speak to those lining the sidewalk, craning their necks in hopes of seeing or hearing some of the ceremony as buses and taxis zipped by, blocking the view and drowning out the noise of the speakers. But what was incredible to me was that no one seemed to mind the inconvenience of the weather or the location.

I spoke to about 10 people outside that day — a man who had witnessed the events of Sept. 11, 2001; a man in the Army who heard about it overseas; a woman who flew from Australia to New York just to pay her respects; a man who worked on a History Channel documentary about 9/11; a woman who was working at a call center whose customer first alerted her of the attacks. So many different people with such varying perspectives.

Standing out there that day, I truly had no idea how I would take all of what I saw and heard and shape it into a story with some common focus. I came home and transcribed my notes and just let what I witnessed sink in. I reflected on each person's emotion as well as their words, and eventually I felt there was a cohesive theme I could pull from my reporting. It took me a short while to actually write the article, but it was the reflection and the contemplation that consumed the better part of the day.

What a way to start — reporting New York in its most vulnerable state.

The next day is when I embarked on my second assignment. For this, I chose to write about a protest being held at an Upper East Side park. Apparently, a private company owns the land and wants to demolish the open space and build a 40-story building in its place. Residents, some of whom have lived there since the early '70s, are furious about this. The way I saw it, you really can't go wrong with a protest. People will want to speak to me; photo ops will be aplenty; and activism — and New York City parks — is something that evokes a lot of passion, especially in New Yorkers.

I showed up and was immediately a little surprised. I'm not sure what I had in mind, but what stood before me wasn't exactly it. What I walked into was a rally, where elected officials, group organizers and residents of all ages — and I mean all — were banned together to express their deep concerns.

State assemblymen stood atop benches, speaking out against development, while 10-year-old children marched around, waving their handmade protest signs. They had face-painting tables next to petition tables across from send-your-mayor-a-tennis-ball-and-message tables. It was like nothing I'd ever imagined, and certainly something you couldn't make up.

I made it a point to speak to as many diverse people as possible. I spoke to a 10-year-old and a 79-year-old. And again it took me aback to hear the stories these people told. So many of them had been there when this place became a park; they assisted in the clean-up efforts that transformed it into one of the area's only open outdoor spaces.

And, what was even more peculiar, I thought, was that in the entire city, this particular neighborhood had the least amount of parks and open areas. In the entire city. And this developer wanted to knock it all down and build a high-rise, despite the obvious and outspoken objection of what appeared to be the entire neighborhood. No wonder these people were upset.

But the whole time I was there, I witnessed very little anger or animosity. These residents might have been mad, but they chose not to express it that way. Instead, they gathered to exercise their First Amendment rights, and reach out to executives and officials in creative and productive ways. It was a phenomenal sight, especially considering all of the children present — what a positive and inspiring example they set.

I could go on about these two experiences, but I know I have to move on and look forward. Because if I was able to report on these two incredible events in just the first week, I can only imagine what else is in store for me.

Oh, New York ...

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Article No. 2: Protest in the UES

Alex Kaplan, 10, of Yorkville, holds his homemade sign in front of Ruppert Park on
Sept. 12, 2009. Alex says it would be a shame if he couldn't come to play at the only
park close to his home.

For more photos, visit: Flickr

UES residents band together to save their park


     MANHATTAN — Dozens of Upper East Side residents want their voices heard. And for at least a few hours Saturday afternoon, they were — loud and clear.
     “Save our park! Stop Related!” they shouted in unison.
     Residents of Yorkville, a neighborhood in the Upper East Side, gathered at Ruppert Playground on East 92nd Street between Second and Third avenues on Sept. 12. Their purpose?
     “We’re here to preserve our park and stop it from being developed,” said Oscar Fernandez, 34, lead organizer of the Save Ruppert Playground and resident of Ruppert Housing, a 42-story apartment building adjacent to the park.
     The signs, banners and chants were an effort to get the attention of city officials.
     “We would like the city to negotiate a deal to get the land back. They sold it to a private company, and that was a very bad deal for taxpayers,” said Geoffrey Croft, president of NYC Park Advocates and long-time UES resident.
     The Department of Housing Preservation and Development sold the approximately 1-acre property to developer Related Cos. in 1983. The agreement required Related to maintain the park for at least 25 years, but the deal expired in June 2008.
     Earlier this year, residents began to worry about the fate of their beloved park when they heard rumors Related planned to turn the area into a 40-story building. And, according to residents, that’s the last thing their neighborhood needs.
     Andrew Zador, 79, has lived in Yorkville for 30 years, and he said building another high-rise would be “terrible” and would “turn the city into a jungle.”
     And Croft, of NYC Park Advocates, agrees.
     “This community has the least amount of parks and open space in the entire city,” Croft said. “(Ruppert Playground) is an important part of our community. It has tremendous meaning to us all.”
     But since April, Croft said they have made some headway. Certain elected officials have heard their calls for help. In fact, a few were present at Saturday’s protest. Among them were City Councilman Daniel Gardonick, and State Assemblymen Jonathan Bing and Micah Kellner.
     During the rally that kicked off the event, each official had a chance to address the residents.
     Councilman Gardonick was first.
     “We need to make sure this neighborhood, which is starved for playgrounds, doesn’t lose this critical gem,” he shouted, his fist raised in the air.
     State Assemblyman Jonathan Bing chimed in, too.
     “The mayor (Michael Bloomberg) wants his legacy to be preservation. Well, this is where his mark will be made,” Bing said. “You need to ask (elected officials) what they are doing to preserve Ruppert Playground. If their answer is not good enough, don’t vote for them!”
     Fernandez, lead organizer of Save Ruppert Playground, said the next step is to continue reaching out to city officials in hopes that negotiations will be made. One of their creative approaches allows concerned citizens to send tennis balls with attached notes to Mayor Bloomberg and executives at Related.
     So far, volunteers said, they have sent about 200 tennis balls and messages, asking officials to take action.
     In the last 30 years, Ruppert Park has seen the likes of many different games: tennis, basketball, handball, hopscotch. It’s been a place for residents of all ages to enjoy.
     But now, in the midst of plans that would demolish the park and perhaps the community, some fear, it comes down to one final game.
     “Now it’s just a waiting game,” Croft said. “We’ll have to wait to see their next move.”

Friday, September 11, 2009

Article No. 1: Sept. 11 ceremony in NYC

     An NYPD officer patrols the street in front of Zuccotti Park for the
     Sept. 11 memorial service in Lower Manhattan.

    For more photos, visit: Flickr
Ceremony onlookers vow ‘never to forget’


     MANHATTAN — Emmett Newton was driving his car in Lower Manhattan when he noticed smoke billowing into the sky. When he glanced over, he saw the two 110-story towers of the World Trade Center engulfed by flames.
     He sat and stared in disbelief until the first tower began to tumble down. 
     “I saw a flash and heard a rumble,” he said, looking over to where the buildings used to stand. “I was horrified.”
     Eight years later, Newton, 49, of Newark, N.J., was one of hundreds lining the street across from Zuccotti Park to witness the 9/11 memorial ceremony.
     The space within the park was reserved for family members of the deceased and volunteers.  Anyone without special credentials had to brave the wind and rain while standing along a crowded street a block away from the park.
     But most didn’t seem to mind.
     “Yeah, the weather’s kind of messy, but we’re still here,” Newton said.
     Douglas Bruce, 59, is new to New York, but he said coming together with the rest of the city was something he couldn’t pass up.
     “The fact that New Yorkers would come out today in the freezing rain and wind is remarkable,” Bruce said. “I think it really says something about the strength of community.”
     Bruce was teaching a class at University of Texas when he first heard the news eight years ago. And even from across the country, Bruce said he felt that same sense of community.
     “I remember having an overriding feeling, just wishing there was something I could physically do to help. I mean, we could send money and prayers, but the hardest part was not being able to do something,” he said.
     Bruce said his urge to give back persisted for years after the tragic event, so much that he was compelled to work on a documentary for the History Channel, “Countdown to Ground Zero.”
     “Working on that film gave me a real and deep connection to this day, to these people,” he said.
     Andrea Hall, 41, of Newark, N.J., recalls most vividly the connection she felt to her neighbors.
     “It was the one day everybody in the world was unified. Strangers were embracing each other. There was prayer in schools,” she said. “It was incredible, but it’s a shame it took tragedy to bring us all together.”
     And even though unity is one thing some remember most, it’s the tragedy of it all that most others still can’t shake.
     “It doesn’t matter how hard I try, I can still see it,” Newton said. “I remember watching people jump out of the windows because they didn’t want to burn alive. I saw the firefighters watering down the streets then running into buildings — they all died.”
     Tanya Guymer, 47, of Australia, flew to New York just for Sept. 11 to “see and feel what all Americans are feeling.” The anguish is still fresh in her memory, she said.
     “The day it happened, people even in Australia were devastated. Everyone stopped going to work and just watched the TV,” Guymer said, shaking her head. “My birthday was only a few days away … but I don’t celebrate it anymore. It’s too sad.”
     But despite the sadness, there are some things we have to keep in mind, Guymer said.
     “It’s tragedy like this that makes everyone stronger. We all pull together,” she said. “It goes to show, we’re all on this earth together; it doesn’t matter what country you come from.”
     “Yes, we live in a world where people do cruel, unspeakable things,” Bruce said. “But there were a lot of lessons learned, lessons that should not be forgotten so quickly — not five, eight, ten, twenty years later.”
     And for most, that won’t be a problem.
     “(Today) is a day to remember. Remember the people. Remember our strength,” Newton said. “Remember never to forget.”

   — Rachel Wise, Pavement Pieces