Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Mystery Of The All-White Park

It's been a long time coming, but the article in the Sunday Times regarding the integration of the Stuyvesant Town Housing Project finally spurred me to relate my experience. If you haven't read the article, it's linked here, and it tells the story of the origin of the development in 1947. The bulk of the article relates what happened in 1949-1952 and the tenant led effort to integrate the project. An action that was strongly resisted by then-landords, Met-Life Insurance. The article in and of itself is a great piece of New York City history, but it was the end of the article that truly caught my eye. Officially, there is no racial profiling or discrimination taking place in the rental of vacant Stuy-Town units. But as you read into the last few paragraphs, it has not gone un-noticed by black residents of the project that their numbers are few and far between.

Which brings us to 4th of July, last summer. The Hellcat and I were still on speaking terms then. We found ourselves with the holiday off and no real plans. It was a sunny summer day and we decided to grab a makeshift picnic lunch and head for the East River waterfront. I knew that the East River/FDR drive would be closed off to vehicles eventually, but we weren't vehicles and it was hours and hours before the sun would go down and the fireworks were due to begin. After hitting a local supermarket for sandwiches, chips and soda we headed for the river. It was closed. Not the river but the promenade. Granted, the closing was currently being enforced by a single female cop, but this being New York, we expressed our disappointment, received a shrug of resigned sympathy in response and with that we turned back.

We decided to try and salvage our picnic and discussed at least finding a bench in Stuyvesant Park. More in an effort to hasten our arrival there we opted to cut through Stuyvesant Town. For those not native to New York, this housing development almost seems like it was dropped whole right on the huge area it encompasses. They have their own security force as well as NYPD. Caretakers and groundskeepers drive golf carts to and fro all day, cutting lawns and doing maintenance and removing garbage. As you can see by this sign at one entrance, bycicle riding and dog walking are prohibited.

So it was quite by accident that we arrived at the center of the entire complex, only to discover an unexpected oasis. There we disovered a beautiful and immaculately maintained fountain. Manicured lawns shaded by leafy oak trees. There was a fenced and gated soccer pitch with regulation grass for the children to play on. We passed basketball courts with intact nets, unused table tennis sets, a kids water park and seperate jungle gym. People were everywhere sprawled out on beach blankets and lawn chairs and park benches devoid of pigeon poop. Some had brought their own recliners. They read, they ate, they listened to music and dozed in the sun. It was idyllic. We eagerly found a shaded spot and set out our picnic provisions.

It would be here that I would report that we were set on by a security force and rousted out of the area. Quite the opposite. We weren't noticed at all. It wasn't until my hunger was satisfied and I sat about digesting my ham & swiss that I took a good look around.

"Have you noticed anything strange?" I asked The Hellcat.

"Not really, what?"

"There's a lot of people in this park."

"It's a holiday. Everyone's off."

"I know. But have you noticed? There's no black people here. Hell, I don't even see any brown people."

"Oh yeah," he said, looking around. "Oh wait, there's a black lady, over there."

And sure enough, off in the distance, across at the edge of the fountain area, was a middle aged black woman. Although it quickly became apparent that she was a health aide to an old white man.

And while on subsequent visits to the park I have spotted the occasional brown body, the observation of a black visitor is a decidedly rare and uncommon occurrence. Thus it came to pass that we dubbed the space The Whites Only Park. With our cell phone conversations going something like this:

"What's up?"

"What ya doin'?"

"Working on my tan."

"Where are you? I'm at home."

"I'm in The Whites Only Park."

"How is it?"

"Sunny and white."

"I'll be there in 5."

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