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 ...

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