Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Great Citizens

Looking north along Broadway from Spring Street. 3:30 PM. Photo: JH.
Tuesday, February 28, 2012. Bright sunshine and temperatures in the high 40s, low 50s; the weatherman forecast snow tomorrow. Really?

I saw this quotation yesterday afternoon at the top of the Jesse’s CafĂ© Americain financial web site. Anytime I see Kurt Vonnegut’s name and quotation marks around the words, I can’t resist.

“A great swindle of our time is the assumption that science has made religion obsolete. All science has damaged is the story of Adam and Eve and the story of Jonah and the Whale. Everything else holds up pretty well, particularly lessons about fairness and gentleness. People who find these lessons irrelevant in the 20th century are simply using science as an excuse for greed and harshness. Science has nothing to do with it.”Kurt Vonnegut

Jill Krementz and Kurt Vonnegut in 2004.
Kurt Vonnegut, bear in mind, could be somewhat intimidating to meet. I was in his presence a number of times although I did not know him (I know his wife and widow Jill Krementz who delivers her unique arts and culture coverage for us on the NYSD). I would see him at parties Jill hosted in her Turtle Bay studio. The Krementz-Vonnegut evenings were always very “New York writer” parties to this writer who always felt like the minor leagues when in the room with some of them.

Kurt would be seated in one spot, in one of the rooms talking to someone or some group. I’m sure we probably said hello although we never had a conversation, and frankly I’m rather timid with people who are clearly indifferent to my presence. I don’t like to intrude. It’s what used to be called “shy.”

And frankly, Kurt Vonnegut was a contemporary literary giant in my book. I have been an ardent reader of his books since college, and have always appreciated his unblemished point of view. It seemed to me, despite my own experience of his outward appearance (read as lack of interest), that he was a very kind and extremely compassionate person, as confounded by life’s ironies as I often am.

Fairness and gentleness are certainly appealing and comforting for almost all of us when experienced in both the giving or the getting. Many of us, we learn in life, are apparently incapable of expressing or articulating such states of grace. That is one of those Vonnegutian ironies, if you will.

Greed, on the other hand, is something that is always there in the human condition, and seems to be so omnipresent in today’s society -- thanks to the credit card mentality, that it’s now often difficult to identify -- like the soot that steadily accumulates on a New Yorker’s venetian blinds unless it’s cleaned regularly.
The Sixth Avenue side of Gotham Hall last night.
Nevertheless, the antidotes are alive and flourishing. Last night I went down to Gotham Hall for a lesson. The Citizens Committee for New York City was holding its 2012 New Yorker for New York Gala.

The Citizens Committee is one of the first philanthropic events I covered when I started this Diary 18 years ago in Quest magazine I had no idea who they were or what they were up to. It was an aha! moment for me.

In 1975, the city was in deep trouble financially. There was no assistance from the Federal Government to make up the difference between the income and the outgo. It was during President Ford’s administration that the Fed refused financial assistance which provoked the famous Daily News headline: “Ford to City, Drop Dead.”

President Ford didn’t actually put it that way. He wasn’t that kind of guy in the first place. But nevertheless, the headline stuck and when he was running for election in 1976, against Jimmy Carter, it just about killed him. The word “bailout” had yet to be redefined to accommodate errors of judgment, lack of common sense, or more prettily: greed.

The city, however, survived and part its strength was derived from the Citizens Committee, an idea hatched by Osborn Elliott and Senator Jacob Javits. “Os” Elliott was editor-in-chief of Newsweek, having transformed it from a Time magazine also-ran to a major competitor. And Jack Javits was our distinguished Senator (Republican) from 1957 to 1981.

The idea: get ordinary New Yorkers to volunteer to fill the gaps left by the city’s cutbacks during the fiscal crisis. Thirty years later that spirit of volunteerism and local engagement drives their work.

Elliott and Javits pulled in volunteers with connections and money and individuals who were doers. Since then we’ve seen the flourishing of approach to community (do it yourself, forget waiting for the government).
The first course. Red lettuce, what looked like baby white asparagus doused in dressing, and bits of parmesan. Very tasty. Very.
Last night the honors went to this notion and some of those many individuals who do things to make life better in the city.

This “gala” is designed for people who are serious about its purpose and also want to get home at a decent hour. They get right down to business. Henry Cornell, Chairman of the Board of Citizens Committee opened the evening. He introduced Peter Kostmayer, CEO of the organization. The first presenter was a little girl named Jada Nicole Young who announced the Corporate Citizen Award to Bank of America’s NYC President Jeffrey Barker. Ms. Young is all of 12 years old or so, and has been a force in the creation of the Padre Plaza Success Community Garden in Mott Haven, the Bronx. Mr. Barker was quite impressed to be receiving the award from her and very proud of the fact that his company is contributing.
Henry Cornell, Chairman of the board of Citizens Committee opening the evening. Peter Kostmayer, CEO of CC, introducing Jada Nicole Young, a very remarkable very young young lady.
Jada Nicole Young. Jada Nicole Young and Jeffrey Barker, President of BofA NYC.
Then there was a video presentation about the M’Finda Kalunga Community Garden on the Lower East Side. A vacant lot strewn with detritus (junk) and a blemish on the whole neighborhood which already wasn’t so great looking. A man named Bob Humber who lived in the neighborhood took it upon himself to change all that. The result: an oasis that has not only beautified the neighborhood, but lifted the hearts and minds of a lot of neighbors who now spend a lot of time in their “garden.”

After the video, Peter Kostmayer introduced Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. Commissioner Kelly is a gracious presenter as well as a great speaker with a commanding voice and a confident tone. He called out and commended Mr. Humber on his achievement as Head Gardener of M’Finda.

The video revealed Humber to be a man with a kind of laidback personality. Listening to his acceptance last night demonstrated, not unlike his presenter, a sense of personal power and confidence. I was thinking how the achievement of his community objective had empowered him and probably changed his life. He’s a leader.
Commissioner Kelly and "Head Gardener" Bob Humber with his award last night..
Mayor Bloomberg reading the award presentation to Jeff and Liz Peek.
The main course of dinner was served and we were serenaded by the now famous PS22 Chorus from Staten Island. 60 to 70 Fifth Graders, directed by a man named Gregg Breinberg.

They sang three songs including “Bridge Over Troubled Water” directed at Paul Simon, who was in the room. Simon was very touched as well as thrilled by their talent. A wide cross-section of ethnicity and socio-economic levels, just like New York always was, the chorus’ YouTube videos have been watched 42 million times. If you haven’t seen them, you’ll be amazed (see below for a short clip from last night).

Then Mayor Bloomberg took the podium to introduce his friends and neighbors Liz and Jeff Peek who were given the New Yorker for New York Award. The Peeks are very active in the greater community of New York in cultural, social and philanthropic activities. Their participation is both financial and physical. If you see their names on any list, it means they had a lot to do with getting the show on the road and getting results.
PS22 Chorus singing Bridge Over Troubled Water. Click above to view vid.
Both Mr. and Mrs. have very agreeable personalities, the kind easily described as “they like people.” And people like them back. That’s probably part of their strength in their community work as well as their fund-raising. That and their energy. The mayor said last night in his introduction that they were “two of the nicest people” he knows. I know what he meant. They just do it, and they do their best, and often with a smile.

Brian Williams took the podium following the Peeks and the Mayor, and introduced Lorne Michaels and his wife Alice. Lorne Michaels has had an incredible career as a television producer, starting with SNL. Williams pointed out last night that Michaels’ career has had a huge influence not only on many careers but on many aspects of the culture. He and wife Alice are also very active in several community minded organizations.

All of the speeches and acceptances were quick, to the point and often informative and/or amusing. Peter Duchin was at the piano to give some life and rhythm to the festivities as they moved along although he too had little time to get a melody in edge-wise. By 9:30 the evening was over.
The mayor talking about his neighbors, the Peeks. Jeff Peek making his brief acceptance speech.
Besides the money raised for the evening, they had an extra fundraiser where people were told to take out their cellphones and text a specific number to pledge a donation then and there. A big screen behind the podium registered the contributions from the audience as they came in.

They ranged from $25 to $2000 and by the time the awards were completed, more than $65,000 had been pledged. All of these monies will go to grants (of all sizes) to the community for projects such as those awarded last night.

Senator Javits died (at 84) in 1986. Os Elliott was actively involved in the Citizens Committee well into the 2000s. He died four years ago at 88, and is much missed by many for his kindness, gentleness, and the urbane style to his graciousness. So old New York.
Lorne Michaels having a laugh over his friend Brian Williams.
Meanwhile. Liz Smith called me last night to tell me that our friends Parker Ladd and Arnold Scaasi who are down in Palm Beach had a very difficult day yesterday. Parker fell and hit his head and is being hospitalized at St. Mary’s in West Palm. The incident upset Arnold so much that he suffered some sort of a heart disturbance and also had to be hospitalized at Good Samaritan, also in West Palm. Both incidents are worrying for friends because both men have not been in the best of health recently.

The couple have been together for a half century. They made it official in a wedding last fall with reception at Le Cirque and Mayor Bloomberg attending. Parker and Arnold and Liz have been the driving forces behind Literacy Partners, another brilliant community-oriented charity.

While they still maintain homes in Manhattan and Quogue, in the past few years, they’ve spent more time in Palm Beach because of the weather.
Arnold, Liz, and Parker.

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