Editorial Observer: Gimme Shelters, Manhattan


Editorial observer

Midtown residents mount shameful battle against a city homeless shelter.

Mara Gay

The plan to turn the Park Savoy Hotel in Midtown Manhattan into a men’s homeless shelter has drawn a range of reactions.CreditTodd Heisler/The New York Times

In the August heat two years ago, residents of Maspeth, Queens, learned of a homeless shelter planned for their neighborhood and erupted in fury, unleashing a campaign of vulgar, racially tinged protests. Maspeth residents picketed the hotel that the city hoped to convert into a permanent shelter, spewing hate as homeless children sat inside.

They voted the local councilwoman, Elizabeth Crowley, out of office, replacing her with the man who had led their crusade.

They shouted down Steven Banks, commissioner of the city’s Human Resources Administration, as he appealed to their sense of compassion during a community meeting, then took their protest to the doorstep of his Brooklyn home.

“Leave Maspeth Alone!” some of their signs read. “Maspeth Lives Matter!” The city ultimately surrendered.

Now, a similar battle is unfolding in the heart of Midtown Manhattan, as residents fight a men’s shelter the city plans to open in the now-shuttered Park Savoy Hotel. The site, on West 58th Street, is one of 90 that Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he will open as part of a yearslong plan.

In Maspeth, a mostly white, blue-collar area of Queens, the news of a homeless shelter was met with something barely short of a riot. On West 58th Street, a block from Central Park, residents have taken a more urbane approach: They formed a committee, the West 58th Street Coalition, to fight the shelter, built a sleek website and hired a public relations expert to make their case. Curiously, they also sought the help of Robert Holden, who beat Ms. Crowley in the Maspeth council race.

Diane Cahill, the public relations consultant, told me recently that the shelter was just as bad for the homeless men as it was for the community because the neighborhood was so expensive. Plus, she said, there had been those stories about homeless men masturbating in public. “That’s what you want tourists and children and families to have to walk by?” Ms. Cahill asked.

Opponents of the West 58th Street shelter speak in more polite and polished tones than their counterparts in Queens. But when it comes to homeless New Yorkers, the message is often the same from Midtown to Maspeth: Not on my block. Not in my backyard.

“I’m concerned about how people we serve who are homeless are being stigmatized,” said Mr. Banks, who oversees the city’s homelessness initiatives.

It isn’t only white, or wealthy, neighborhoods that are rejecting shelters. In Crown Heights, a diverse, fast-gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood, many residents reacted angrily to the news that the city planned to open three new shelters. At a community meeting, some accused city officials of brushing aside their concerns after they had been cowed by the opposition in Maspeth.

Still, it’s become clear that the city would open the shelter on West 58th Street over residents’ objections.

“I’m worried about the safety of my family,” Helen Ohw Kim, who lives on the block, said at a news conference the group held last month outside the hotel. Ms. Ohw Kim said the site would be better served as a shelter for women and young children, so “my 3-year-old daughter won’t get punched in the face.” Other residents said they were also willing to accept a shelter for single women with young children. How young? Under 10 years old, they said, leaving unclear what would happen on a child’s 11th birthday.

City officials have said they were forced to abandon the Maspeth shelter when the owner of the hotel they had hoped to use backed out. But even in an administration that has at times shown little backbone when it needs to stand up for its liberal principles, some de Blasio aides privately talk about the episode as a shameful retreat. They say they are likely to site a shelter in Maspeth in the coming years. And administration officials say that from here on, they are determined to open the shelters, regardless of community opposition.

Image
Suzanne Silverstein heads the coalition opposed to the proposal for the West 58th Street shelter.CreditTodd Heisler/The New York Times

City officials say they are open to compromises. One proposal for a men’s shelter in Crown Heights, for example, was changed to serve senior men at the request of the community.

About 60,000 New Yorkers are living in the city’s shelter system, a crisis created by soaring rents that have pushed housing out of reach for those living in poverty. About 22,000 of those people are children. Roughly one-third of families in shelters are working, but are homeless anyway, according to city officials. Thousands of others are simply people in need, and that is reason enough to help them.

Mr. Banks said the city planned to move forward with the men’s shelter on West 58th Street and open it by early summer. He said the space in the former hotel wasn’t set up to serve families. And he said the city’s shelter system was in desperate need of a facility where working men could have easy access to jobs in Midtown. “These are men that need a helping hand — not the back of the hand,” he said.

That includes men like 27-year-old Ronnie Jones, a communications manager for a security company in Manhattan who is living in a shelter until he can get back on his feet. Mr. Jones said he was renting a room for $600 a month in Queens a couple of years ago when he lost his job at a cleaning company and was homeless within a month. Mr. Jones told me that he grew up in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, one of the poorest areas of the city, but had big dreams despite getting little support from family or friends.

“It’s just me,” he said. “But I refuse to be anything other than great. It’s about your mentality. You gotta be ambitious, have blind ambition.”

Community resistance to shelters for men slows the process.CreditTodd Heisler/The New York Times

Central Park’s Scenic Drives Will Soon Be Car-Free


Groups such as the Central Park Conservancy and the New York Road Runners celebrated the decision for the benefit it will have for runners and bicyclists in the park as well as for the environment. Last year, 42 million people visited Central Park.

Photo

Mayor Bill de Blasio in the park on Friday. “This park was not built for automobiles,” he said, “It was built for people.”

Credit
Edu Bayer for The New York Times

“What we are saying is that the street doesn’t belong only to drivers, it belongs to all of us,” said Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez of Manhattan.

The evolution of Central Park’s drives has been decades in the making. In 1966, Mayor John V. Lindsay first announced that Central Park would be closed to cars on Sundays. The next year, Saturdays were added. In 2015, Mr. de Blasio banned cars on Central Park drives north of 72nd Street, which had been open during certain hours of the morning and afternoon rush. In January, Mr. de Blasio also permanently banned cars from Prospect Park in Brooklyn.

Christopher Nolan, chief operating officer for the Central Park Conservancy, said there has been a steady shift in the notion of the car’s role in urban life.

“People have a focus on urban life that’s not dependent on the car,” Mr. Nolan said. “You come to the park to escape the city. By letting the cars in, you perforate the edge of the park and let the city in.”

As the city has closed more and more of Central Park to cars, drivers have adjusted, said Polly Trottenberg, the city’s transportation commissioner.

West Drive, for example, located between 72nd Street and the Seventh Avenue exit and open from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. on weekdays, is used by 1,050 vehicles per day, according to the Department of Transportation. East Drive, between Sixth Avenue and 72 Street, is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays and is used by 3,400 vehicles per day.

Photo

Horse-drawn carriages will be allowed to continue in the park. The mayor has not banned them, despite pledging to do so years ago.

Credit
Edu Bayer for The New York Times

The impact on surrounding streets is expected to be minimal, Ms. Trottenberg said. New York Police Department traffic agents will be at intersections to help ease the transition.

“It takes a few weeks, but people find new routes and blend into the grid,” Ms. Trottenberg said. “Particularly here in Manhattan, there are a lot of different routes people can take.”

Pedicabs and horse-drawn carriages will also be allowed to continue in the park. Mr. de Blasio pledged to ban the horse-drawn carriage industry on the first day of his administration. Three months into his second term, he has been unable to do so.

As city officials, bicyclists and joggers celebrated the news, Mory Kaba, 56, a cabdriver for the last decade, said he wasn’t looking forward to the change.

“You run from the traffic by going through the park,” Mr. Kaba said Friday while waiting for a fare in front of the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle.

He said he uses the Central Park loop at least three times per day, though he had been expecting the full closure after the drives above 72nd Street were closed in 2015.

“I don’t make money sitting in traffic,” Mr. Kaba said, his cab inching toward the front of the line. “But what can I do?”

Continue reading the main story

Could New York City Parks Be Going Plastic Bottle-Free?


“It would really send a strong message to the public and the bottled water industry that we don’t need to rely on this unnecessary product,” said Lauren DeRusha Florez, a campaign director for Corporate Accountability, a nonprofit advocacy group. “The way forward is to continue to invest in a strong public water system and to make sure tap water is available to people all over the city.”

But the International Bottled Water Association, an industry group, has already raised objections, saying that such a ban would deprive people of a safe, healthy and convenient source of drinking water and unfairly target beverages when thousands of other foods also use plastic containers. “Restricting or banning the sale of bottled water is not in the public interest as it reduces access to water for adequate hydration,” according to the group.

The American Beverage Association, another industry group, said that it works with conservation groups to promote the recycling of bottles at home, work, and public places. “We believe there are more comprehensive ways to preserve and protect our environment and we are committed to working with cities and other groups to implement better solutions to reduce plastic waste,” the group said.

Photo

Still life with beverage trash in Central Park. New York could become the third municipality in the country to ban plastic bottle sales.

Credit
Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Some park vendors have also raised concerns that a ban would hurt their bottom line. “We try our best to get by and the water bottles help us to do it,” said Gabriel Freilich, manager of the Ballfields Café.

San Francisco passed a similar ban in 2014 on the sale of plastic water bottles 21 ounces or smaller in public spaces, including municipal buildings, streets and parks. David Chiu, a Democratic state legislator who championed the ban as president of the city’s board of supervisors, said it has helped change the culture. People now carry around their favorite refillable water bottle. Concerts and festivals set up refillable water stations instead of selling plastic bottles by the caseload. “While it was controversial when it was proposed, in hindsight today, it has been a no-brainer,” he said. “I think everyone has adjusted to it.”

The residents of Concord had gone even further in 2012, when they voted to ban the sale of one-liter or smaller plastic water bottles anywhere within town limits. As an alternative, public drinking fountains and water filling stations have been expanded and upgraded. Though plastic bottles still show up in recycling bins, “It’s definitely a lot less than you would see in other towns,” said Erin Stevens, Concord’s public information officer.

Bottled water sales were also eliminated in some national parks, including the Grand Canyon and Zion, under a 2011 National Park Service policy. But in August, the Trump administration ended that ban following years of opposition by the bottled water industry, which argued that it removed water from the shelves while leaving unhealthy sweetened drinks.

Councilman Kallos said the Trump decision spurred him to action. He said he has wanted to ban disposable plastic water bottles since trying to buy one himself while visiting San Francisco several years ago and being told he could not. So he bought a reusable bottle to tote around — something he now does in New York.

“You see plastic bottles everywhere,” he said. “It makes New York look like a dump and we can do better.”

This is not the first time that New York has taken a stand against plastic bottles. In 2008, the office of the City Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, stopped buying bottled water for Council offices. A 2009 state executive order barred state agencies from buying bottled water, to save taxpayer dollars and improve the environment.

The city has also targeted other plastic waste. In 2016, the Council sought to encourage shoppers to give up plastic store bags by charging 5 cents for most plastic and shopping bags. But that law was blocked last year by state legislators, some of whom argued that it imposed a regressive tax on the poor, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

Mr. Kallos and Mr. Espinal said their proposed ban on plastic bottle sales was more limited than the plastic bag fee and less likely to draw interference from state lawmakers.

Photo

City Councilman Ben Kallos, left, a sponsor of the ban, discussed its merits with Michael O’Neal, a co-owner of the Ballfields Café in Central Park. A manager at the café said a ban could cut into his bottom line.

Credit
Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Michael Whyland, a spokesman for the Assembly speaker, Carl E. Heastie, said that while Mr. Heastie, a Democrat from the Bronx, had not yet seen the proposed ban, “The speaker has always said that the city has the ability to enact a ban on unnecessary plastic waste.”

Mr. Kallos and Mr. Espinal said they will introduce bills next week to lay out more details about the proposed ban. Mr. Kallos said that vendors in city recreational areas could face penalties for selling plastic bottles, including possibly having their concessions revoked.

The City Council speaker, Corey Johnson, a Democrat, said he would review the bills. “Personally, I drink out of a Mason jar as much as I can to reduce waste, and I am committed to finding the best ways to protect our planet,” he said.

City parks officials referred inquiries about the proposed ban to the office of Mayor Bill de Blasio, which said it does not comment on bills before they are introduced.

Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat, supported the 5-cent plastic bag fee and has also called for a ban on plastic bags, which cannot be recycled, unlike plastic bottles, which can. “The mayor has made clear that New York City needs a full ban on plastic bags — which are not recyclable — in order to help protect our environment and benefit New Yorkers,” said Seth Stein, a spokesman for the mayor.

Adrian Benepe, a former city parks commissioner, said that he had practical concerns about implementing a plastic bottle ban in city parks. He pointed out that outdoor drinking fountains are turned off in the winter and not always available in more remote sections. And the ban could prompt vendors to turn to glass containers, which are more difficult to clean up when broken. “In principle, I support the idea, but there are both assets and drawbacks,” he said.

Still, many park-goers said they would welcome a ban. Marcos Pichardo, 19, a college student from the Lower East Side, said that what mattered was that people had water to drink, not the plastic it came in. “As long as it doesn’t cause harm to society, I don’t mind if it’s in a glass cup or a cardboard box,” Mr. Pichardo said as he strolled through Central Park.

Julie and Kurt Neale, filmmakers from Dallas, said they bought bottled water while shooting a documentary in the city, but would be willing — if somewhat reluctantly — to forgo that to help the environment.

“I want the convenience,” Mr. Neale said. “But I think we have a major problem worldwide with plastics.”

Continue reading the main story

Gary Lincoff, 75, Dies; Spread the Joy of Mushrooms Far and Wide


Mr. Lincoff loved exotic fantastical-looking mushrooms with names like violet-branched coral and eyelash cup and bearded tooth and wolf’s-milk slime, and he loved nondescript little brown blots that sprouted on dead sticks. He was often asked which mushroom was his favorite, and he invariably replied, “The one that’s in front of me right now.”

“He inspired literally thousands of people to overcome their fear of fungi,” said Paul Stamets, another member of the tiny cohort of celebrity mycologists. “No matter how dumb your question was, he never humiliated you, he never put you down. He never believed there was such a thing as a stupid question.”

Gary Henry Lincoff was born on Oct. 3, 1942, in Pittsburgh to Leonard Lincoff, an optometrist, and the former Bette Forman. He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1963 with a bachelor’s in philosophy, a passion for Thoreau and an unfulfilled sense of purpose.

He left law school at George Washington University because “he didn’t admire his professors,” his wife, Irene Liberman, said. She met him in 1967, when he was doing graduate work in English literature in Pittsburgh.

Photo

Mr. Lincoff, who led mushroom hunts as far afield as India and Siberia, examined the day’s haul after the 2011 Bronx foray.

Credit
Alan Zale for The New York Times

In addition to Ms. Liberman, a graphic designer, Mr. Lincoff is survived by their son, Noah, and a younger brother, Bennett.

The couple moved to New York in 1968, and Mr. Lincoff set out to write a novel about a draft dodger who waits out the Vietnam War living in Central Park. In his research he got hung up on a question: What would the protagonist eat?

“I took six months off to learn everything there was to know about survival in the city — wild foodwise,” Mr. Lincoff told The New York Times in 1978. “I began to see that every tree, every weed, wasn’t alike. I got into minutiae.”

He and Ms. Liberman led forays to gather edible plants for suppers of acorn burgers, pokeweed shoots and Juneberry pies. In 1971, the couple went on their first walk with the New York Mycological Society. “I said, ‘Let’s promise not to eat anything,’ and we ate nine wild mushrooms that day,” Ms. Liberman recalled. Mr. Lincoff had found his calling.

He steeped himself in mushroom studies and eventually persuaded the New York Botanical Garden to let him teach despite his lack of formal credentials. In 1978, he published a book on toxic and hallucinogenic mushroom poisoning and was soon recruited to write the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms, which was published in 1981 and is in its 31st printing. He served for nine years as president of the North American Mycological Association.

(Mr. Lincoff had never tried hallucinogenic mushrooms when he wrote the poisoning book, Ms. Liberman said, but when he finally did, in the 1980s, “He was delighted.” At least once, he found the hallucinogen Gymnopilus junonius, known as “laughing gym,” in his beloved Central Park. “I came out of the park with a big cluster of it and I walked smack into three cops,” he said. “I thought, ‘This is it.’ But they just said, ‘You better be careful if you don’t know those.’ I said, ‘I’m going to take these back and study them.’ ”)

Mr. Lincoff helped found the Telluride Mushroom Festival in 1981. It was conceived by a Denver radiologist and mushroom-lover, Emanuel Salzman, as an alternative to stuffier mycological conferences.

“We had an ‘Edibility Unknown’ party every year that would horrify serious professional mycologists,” said the alternative-medicine guru Dr. Andrew Weil, another festival co-founder. No one ever got sick, Dr. Weil said, though the pioneers discovered that one species tasted like old tires.

Mr. Lincoff was in demand as a tour leader and headed expeditions to more than 30 countries, on every continent except Antarctica. When he was back in New York, he served as lecture coordinator and animating presence of the New York Mycological Society. Three years ago, he decided that unlike other mushroom clubs, the society should hold walks year round.

This past New Year’s Day, with the mercury around 10 degrees, he led a walk in Central Park.

“We walked for two hours and found almost 50 species,” said Vivien Tartter, one of Mr. Lincoff’s many acolytes. Someone found a cluster of Eutypella scoparia — tiny hairlike tufts too small to be seen without a loupe — growing on a twig. “Gary was very excited.”

Continue reading the main story