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  deep qt 8: sites unseen by gods and men
During the Christmas season a crime took place near Shea Stadium in the Queens section of New York City which once again proved that evil, unlike death, never takes a holiday. As reported in various New York newspapers including the NYTimes, a group of vagrants, who lived in a makeshift shack town in an area near a walkway between the Long Island Railroad and the Number 7 subway, overpowered a couple waiting for a train, dragged the woman to the shacks, robbed, beat and raped her. It took police almost 3 hours to find the woman because the shacks were hidden in dense undergrowth. The alleged perpetrators are illegal immigrants, some with criminal records involving drugs and assault. The alleged ringleader is believed to be a member of the LA based Mexican gang, Knights of Destruction. An outreach group had visited the shacks several times and offered help but the residents said thanks but no thanks. Transportation agencies that use the area claim the shack settlement was not on their part of the property. And besides, the site had gone unseen.

Anyone who takes above ground trains into New York City, has seen makeshift shanties in odd corners. An extreme version of the separate societies growing up within our cities. In urban centers with less valuable real estate, cities within cities are in the downtown heart. In hot property places like NYC, they're in the outer circles. They are not shining cities on hills, but places where drug crime, incoherent codes of vengeance and sexual brutality increasingly warp the fabric of life. Many residents who don't share the ethos are overwhelmed and simply seek to keep out of harm's way. Others put up a fight. As the Dawson family in Baltimore, Maryland did. Luckily not all meet the fate of the Dawsons. Who, as you may remember, were incinerated in their beds. Allegedly by a neighbor irked with their complaints to the police about drug dealing outside their door. Since then several more unnatural-- or are they now natural?-- deaths have occurred in the city of Baltimore within Baltimore. Such as 15 year old Ciara Jobes, who in the custody of her aunt, was imprisoned in windowless squalor and finally starved to death. Ciara lived with her aunt because of her mother's record. Ciara's infant sister had died of a cocaine overdose. Ciara's story is echoed in the recent case of 3 little boys in Newark, New Jersey who were left with a crack using cousin by a mother serving time for child abuse. In the cousin's care one boy died. The other two were found starving in filth.

Children fare poorly in our cities within cities. Animals, particularly dogs, don't do well either. Sometimes the two intersect in ways that speak of the way they live now. Last Fall, in Albany, New York, a child was attacked in her backyard by a pack of dogs who'd been roaming the neighborhood. Several were breeds commonly trained for dog fights and as security forces for drug dealers. Such training means torture; to get the dogs' rage level pumped. Dogs made vicious and then abandoned are a problem in many cities. But from Albany within Albany comes a newspaper comment by a resident which reads like a Hint From Heloise in Hell. How, when he and his neighbors face vicious dogs, steel pipes are helpful to pry apart jaws. As a friend from Jersey's Gold Coast puts it: "It's Mad Max time".

The section of New Jersey called The Gold Coast runs along the Hudson River across from Manhattan and provides its own examples of cities where certain areas glitter not. In hip happening Hoboken, public housing projects sit at the rear end of a real estate dream boat. Drug trade and gang activity have become so intense within the projects that Hoboken has considered calling in the State Police. In nearby Jersey City, a small shopping mall was built a few years ago on a second city strip far from the golden waterfront. The mall was lauded as an example of the ripple effects of waterfront redevelopment. Which was jacked by HUD deals and tax abatements. The waterfront of office towers and deluxe cardboard condos boomed. But the inner city mall is failing. According to some, people are afraid to walk to it.

Why, after a period of national prosperity and in places where public money flowed and business advantages were granted, are blighted cities within cities so entrenched? Part of the answer lies with how the money and advantages were directed. Some went to float real estate speculation, which at its worst fostered an epidemic of mortgage flipping and produced, in some cities, artificial shortages of affordable housing. Or left empty shells adrift in a sea of slums. Some bankrolled enclaves of the upscale New Urban. At best the results were business and tourist centers that provided some employment and pulled people into cities as day trippers-- but which also helped cement the function of cities as places to visit before heading home after work or marriage. And then there's corruption. A lot of the money and breaks taxpayers had a vague notion were revitalizing inner cities, were instead revitalizing the pockets of corrupt pols and their public contractor pals with ties to organized crime. The same organized crime busy in the drug biz. As industrial jobs disappeared in cities within cities, drugs became a major employer of the able bodied and uneducated. Who became increasingly amoral and brutal. And crack in particular, which is said to have gone away but is still strangely present, keeps on producing legions of the undead.

Making matters worse is a lack of social consensus on how to fix the problems. Ideological battle lines are set in stone and mortared with financial interest. The thought of acknowledging broad failure brings a rush to the barricades by both left and right. And in every city within a city, one can count on someone saying "let's not focus on the negative". As a Rochester resident did in a recent NYTimes article about the rising murder rate in upstate New York cities. The sentiment often comes from well meaning, loyal residents who honestly believe in sympathetic magic: if you only acknowledge the good, the bad will go away. Other times it comes from public officials who've fallen down on the job. The well meaning prop up the negligent who love free loyalty almost as much as free money. But it is true that good things in cities often go under appreciated.

Consider the Albany neighborhood of Park South. Not a very big neighborhood, it runs along the south side of lovely Washington Park, which was designed under the influence of Frederick Olmstead. Park South is close to hospitals, colleges and the Lark Street strip of restaurants and galleries. It has several good restaurants within its own borders, plus a well known music club. Park South is within walking distance of a supermarket, bus lines and a major museum. In short, it has what it takes to make a successful urban neighborhood. Yet Park South struggles to survive. Because it also has a big helping of city within city problems. The worst stemming from slums which consistently house drug users and dealers.

Park South was never a rich neighborhood. But it was a stable, close knit one with a mix of homeowners and tenants in 2 family homes, smallish apartment buildings and on some streets, low brownstones. Though many old time residents have left, a small core remains and has drawn in some newcomers over the past decade. For years, this nucleus has stood its ground and refused to be pushed out by drug crime and neglect. Though Park South teeters on the edge, it doesn't topple over. For every situation that deteriorates, you can point to something that has improved. Usually as result of Herculean effort. Some in Park South still sweep their sidewalks daily. A small thing but given the situation, an act of faith. In a neighborhood which has seen truly extreme drug violence, Park South has a volunteer staffed Walk and Watch that functions year round and has never ceased since the day it was formed. There's also been consistent effort to provide alternatives for the neighborhood's children. Some of whom are as neglected or as dangerous as the buildings they inhabit. And though tensions exist (we're talking human beings here) Park South is a neighborhood where black and white manage to work together, particularly on matters concerning children.

There are neighborhoods with the strengths and problems of Park South all across the nation. Grand plans for them have been coming off the drawing boards for years. But maybe what they need are fewer mega schemes and a lot more focus, financial and otherwise, on day to day details. You know-- that place where God is. Why not listen to their remarkably similar wish lists and give them those 24/7 walking beat cops and clean streets? Keep those garbage trucks rolling. Blitz negligent property owners, public and private, with code violations. Enforce existing laws. Fill the potholes. Turn down the boomcars. Stand behind those who really think of their neighborhood as a home-- as opposed to a cash cow, or an exercise in vanity, or a shack town in no man's land. Better hurry though. Even the best can lose heart.

Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

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Copyright (c) 2002 by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff. This material may be freely distributed subject to the terms and conditions set forth in the Open Publication License. This license relieves the author of any liability or implication of warranty, grants others permission to use the Content in whole or in part, and insures that the original author will be properly credited when Content is used. It also grants others permission to modify and redistribute the Content if they clearly mark what changes have been made, when they were made, and who made them. Finally, the license insures that if someone else bases a work on this Content, that the resultant work will be made available under the Open Publication License as well.


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