A New York tale: Life goes on in this vibrant city

By Maralyn Lois Polak

My friend “Jon” was thrilled; after 15 years struggling to keep his East Village neighborhood’s vest-pocket park from being destroyed, bricked over, and made into high-rise housing by the cheap, sleazy barons of cheesy commerce, he had finally received official confirmation the park would stay a park forever.

He had kept the profiteers at bay. Yay!

“I can die now. Now that the park is saved, my work is done,” the handsome, dark-haired transplanted New Yorker declares proudly, over a dinner of sangria, shrimp, and flank steak at his favorite nearby Mexican restaurant, small and picturesque with authentic yet innovative cuisine, a family affair where all the boys grew up to become gourmet chefs.

“Oh, don’t say that!” I blurt out with a pang, thinking how we’ve been friends more than 20 years.

An extraordinarily gifted and accomplished poet/novelist who holds a masters degree in Latin and Greek and currently works as an adult-education teacher, Jon heads his Alphabet City block association, and seems to be his neighborhood’s unofficial “mayor.”

La Plaza, as the park’s called, is a magical place. If you wander by, you might notice the frolic of dogs, an impromptu wedding ceremony, or even a marathon fairytale festival of reading aloud for children.

It’s a true community oasis at the confluence of two underground streams.

Huge, lush weeping willow trees dominate the view of La Plaza from the windows of Jon’s amazing apartment, across the street in a 19th-century building – reclaimed, as was the park, from squatters, junkies, and neglect.

As Jon had written me before my visit:

    “Mayor Bloomberg, Attorney General Spitzer, and City Council [worked] on what seemed an optimistic … proposal to convert all existing community parks into public trusts, which is wonderful, but it also means that’s about the last of it, as far as parks for old New York – all vacant lots from here on out will go for building buildings, more cement as the asphalt moves over more earth. I’m been living under the threat of La Plaza’s destruction since 1987, fighting off three developers including the federal government. Well, if La Plaza’s saved, I’ve helped a little bit …”

With its calming dappled green ceiling, hand-woven textiles, whitewashed exposed brick walls, and cement-slab garden bench, Jon’s living room has a relaxed, tropical feel. An occasional and well-chosen Mexican artifact decorates the rough-stuccoed walls.

The phone rings constantly, ever since Jon was interviewed on TV news the other day about helping save the park from developers. Already, he’s been stalked by someone who saw him on television, and during my recent visit, I had taken to answering Jon’s phone to deflect unwanted callers.

Such is the price of even temporary “fame.”

Jon was my congenial host while I was taking a weekend professional workshop in New York City. This was the first time I had been back to Manhattan since before 9-11, and I half-expected some awful catastrophe to erupt during my stay.

Instead, I experienced a city more vibrant in some respects than ever: lush community gardens, flourishing sidewalk cafes, even 80-year-old women coloring their hair, trash nowhere to be seen, new ethnic restaurants erupting everywhere, cabdrivers cheerfully direct (except for one who’s clearly insane as he lets his ice cream cup melt in his face while singing songs in Martian and driving so erratically I want to leap from the moving taxi).

Not given to dwelling on misfortunes, Jon tells me how his sister back home in rural Pennsylvania had a horrendous nightmare last year – a precognitive dream, really – a few days before the World Trade Center was destroyed. In his sister’s dream, the entire New York City skyline was shrouded in smoke, a vast moving threatening cloud that obscured all the buildings.

She awoke convinced Jon was in terrible danger, and called him. Thankfully, he was fine.

The next evening, he looked out his bedroom window before falling asleep and saw the Twin Towers in the distance. “They looked ghostly to me,” he notes, “as they always did.”

Ghostly? How odd.

“And that,” he says, “was the last night I ever saw them.”

The following morning, on Sept. 11, 2001, after the airliners had slammed into the Twin Towers, my friend Jon managed to get calls through to his parents and sister, telling them he was safe, before the phones went dead. He was at school, assisting children to locate their parents. Busy, as always, helping others.

Life, indeed, goes on.