by John Broussard
Manny Liebowitz carefully observed the
trio. Sheaylea Jackson, a large middle-aged African-American woman
who spoke softly but with a hint of case steel behind her words,
was obviously the leader. The other two, Frances Morelli, a younger
dark-eyed woman, and Father Joseph Keenan, a gray-haired hold-over
from the Church's more conservative past, both deferred to Sheaylea.
But Manny soon became aware that the two were also strong persons
with minds of their own.
The Morelli Bakery & Coffee Shop
had closed early to allow for the meeting, and all four were sitting
in a booth looking out on the block-size park, the object of the
conference. Snapping in the tip of his ballpoint pen, Manny poised
it over the legal pad, and said, "It's best if you begin
at the beginning. Anna told me something about what you're up
against, but I'd like to get all the details."
"It's really very simple,"
Sheaylea said. "Stuyvesant Park has been there for the better
part of two hundred years. The last of the Stuyvesants gave it
to the city twenty-five years ago. Suddenly, the city commissioners
have decided to sell it, and Center Development is the only company
interested in buying. Once they get it, they plan to build a sixteen
story skyscraper with another four floors underground for storage
and parking. The building will cover the whole block. Most of
us will be lucky to ever see the sun again after it's built."
"And you found out about this plan
from Anna Fauret?"
Heads nodded in unison. Father Keenan
took up the story. "I've known Anna since she was a child,
and the three of us helped her with her campaign when she was
running for Commissioner. She heard about the plan, even though-as
a member of the Commission minority-she obviously hadn't been
consulted. But she's sure it's going to come up at the next hearing
of the Commission's Planning Committee."
"What do you plan on doing about
Frances answered the question. "We've
already circulated a letter among the residents and store owners
facing the Park and have had one community meeting about it. Everyone's
horrified. We've collected enough money for bumper stickers and
several newspaper ads, and we're getting a letter-writing campaign
together so we'll be ready for the meeting. A lot of people have
already volunteered to testify.
"How much support do you think
you have on the Commission?"
Sheaylea looked grim. "Two. Anna
included, of course."
"Two out of nine. I could think
of better odds. And the City Manager will go along with whatever
the vote is."
Sheaylea nodded. "Well, there is
one good thing. It's an election year. The present Commission
can't make a final decision before the new Commission is sworn
in, so we're hoping there'll be enough of a change to put a stop
to this nonsense."
Father Keenan broke in. "Anna doesn't
think there'll be enough improvement in the Commission's composition
to change the outcome, so she suggested we contact an attorney.
So we called you. She said you'd done some work like this before.
She was very complimentary, by the way."
Manny smiled. "When it comes to
fighting city hall my record isn't all that great, but I can lay
out a plan for you. You seem to have made a good start."
Sheaylea flipped open a notebook, saying,
"Fire away. We're here to listen."
"I'm a born pessimist, so I'm assuming
the Commission, whatever its composition, will sell Stuyvesant
to the highest bidder, and from what I know of Center Development,
they'll definitely be the highest bidders-which doesn't mean you
should give up on the Commission. Instead, push your campaign
as hard as you can. If they decide against you, appeal their decision
to the Appeals Board. You'll have to go to the Board before even
considering legal action. It's what we call 'exhausting all administrative
remedies.' If you play your cards right, we can put the actual
court battles off for at least a year, which should give us enough
of a breather to explore other possibilities."
"If we do go to court," Frances
asked, "how long would it be before there was a final decision?"
"Six months to a year in the lower
courts. If we lose there, we appeal to the Superior Court. An
appeal will give us at least another year, assuming the appeal
isn't dismissed immediately, but that's unlikely. All in all,
I would guess you have a minimum of two years before the bulldozers
"You don't sound very hopeful,"
Father Keenan commented.
"I told you I'm a born pessimist.
Besides, preparing for the worst never leads to disappointment."
"How much will the legal expenses
"I'll donate my services, up to
the point where we have to file with the courts. Until then, I'll
be giving you mostly advice, and in spite of what people may think,
even legal advice is cheap. It will be another matter when we
get to the courts. I'm just one part of a partnership, and I have
to hold up my end. Clerical services alone can run into four figures.
My best guess is twenty to thirty thousand dollars, with the high
end more likely. A lot will depend on how hard the city wants
to fight us."
Father Keenan shook his head; "I
don't see how we could ever come up with that kind of money. We
aren't a wealthy community, and everyone has their expenses, kids
going to college, medical bills, all the usual-and on middle-class
"Well, let's not worry about the
money until the crunch comes. There are various organizations
we can turn to. Does the park have some kind of history behind
it which would justify preservation as a historic site?"
Sheaylea shrugged. "I can't imagine
what it would be. There's never been a building there. We've put
in a playground for the kids. There are some nice elms and oaks
growing there. That's about it."
"I'll hunt around and see if some
outside financing is a possibility. In the meantime, let's lay
out our campaign and set up another meeting for as soon as the
Commission goes public with the plan."
The next meeting of the "Save Stuyvesant
Park" steering committee gave its participants a genuine
sense of accomplishment. Manny listened to the progress report
and was asked for comments.
"Sounds great. The only drawback
I can see is you aren't preparing yourself for attacks on the
existing park. Most of what you say in your letters and ads points
out what's wrong with the Commission's proposal, but you don't
seem to be prepared for what the opposition's going to say about
what's wrong with the block the way it is."
Sheaylea looked skeptical. "So
what can they say? What's wrong with it?"
Manny grinned. "Let me give you
just a taste." His expression took on a grim solemnity and
his voice deepened. "This so-called park is nothing but a
haven for drug dealers and alcoholics and the homeless. It costs
the city a small fortune in maintenance. It isn't safe for a person
to walk through there. It's overgrown with weeds and. . ."
Sheaylea guffawed. "I'd just love
to see any drug dealers show up there. My Willie is on the neighborhood
patrol. My, but those dealers would be in for a surprise if he
found them anywhere around."
Frances broke in. "Barber Marshall
is the nearest we have to a homeless person who's ever around
there, and he mostly saves the city from doing the maintenance
they should be doing. He picks up the trash, and plants flowers
and takes care of them. He even goes off somewhere every spring
and comes back with seeds and shrubs from who knows where. Sure,
he sleeps out there when the weather's nice, but why shouldn't
he? Maybe he talks to himself a lot. He certainly talks to the
flowers, and I think they appreciate the attention."
"We all watch out for Barber,"
Father Keenan added. "Someone sees he has a change of clothes,
and he gets food over at the Mission. He's quite harmless, and
is really a rather well educated person. Sometimes he slips into
irrationality. But he does far more for the park than anyone else.
As for the safety of the park, everything, even the pile of rock
near the center, is within sight of one or more of the surrounding
stores and residences. In all the years I've been parish priest
here, all I've heard about were some stolen purses. There's never
been any violence there, or anything like that."
The three Commissioners making up the
Commission's Planning Committee, made no bones about their attitude
toward the sale of the property. All were vociferously in favor.
The most outspoken one was Robert "Fighting Bob" Liddell.
After listening impatiently to the long line of residents testifying
in favor of saving the Park, his comment was, "You can't
Sheaylea looked over to see Frances
fingering her rosary. Noticing the glance, Frances leaned over
to whisper, "I'm praying to God to keep me from wishing Fighting
Bob would die, right now."
"After you're through, pass them
over to me. My prayer'll be a little different.
The months dragged by. "Save Stuyvesant
Park" made little headway, except for Manny's discovery of
Fighting Bob's part ownership of Center Development.
Father Keenan surprised the others by
immediately demanding they take the Commissioner to court because
of his conflict of interest.
Manny shook his head. "Let's conserve
our resources for the main fight. He can't vote on the issue,
which reduces their edge to six-to-two."
"But he can still try to persuade
the other Commissioners behind closed doors," Father Keenan
"They've already made up their
minds, so he won't make any difference. Let's concentrate on the
"Well, at least we're up to six-to-three,"
Frances said, commenting on the election's results, "and
we did get rid of Fighting Bob."
Sheaylea was gloomy. "There's still
a long way to go. Manny was right. There was never much chance
of convincing the Commissioners. We've spent about all the money
we've been able to scrape up, and there's still a long way to
go. We're going to have to fight this in court."
"I'm going to light a candle and
ask for a miracle." Frances commented. "I'll light even
more if God stops this monster from springing up in front of us."
Father Keenan smiled. "I probably
shouldn't say this, since it is nice to see the candles burning
at the altar, but I think Manny's efforts will really be more
fruitful than lighted candles. He says he thinks he can locate
a wealthy patron who's interested in helping out with community
efforts like ours. Maybe God will help find us a patron. After
all, He does move in mysterious ways."
The patron was found and the patron
was wealthy. There was no question about the latter. A limousine
piloted by a uniformed chauffeur pulled up in front of Morelli's
Bakery & Coffee Shop. Separated from her vehicle, however,
few would have thought Emma Schneider was principal stock holder
and president of the board of a Fortune 500 Company.
After Manny introduced the trio to the
potential angel, the shades were drawn and they settled down to
coffee and croissants.
Following the briefest of preliminaries,
Emma said, "The first thing I would like to know is what
this park does for the community."
Father Keenan smiled. "Perhaps
I should answer the question since the subject matter is close
to my area of expertise. To put it very succinctly, Stuyvesant
Park is the soul of the community. When some of the surrounding
blocks began to go through a phase of urban blight, the Park was
a common refuge for all of us. It was a place for the children
to play, for our senior citizens to stroll and sit in comfort
and security, for all of us to be exposed to at least a little
bit of natural growth and greenery in the very heart of the city.
As you can see, the early developers of the area gave no thought
to backyard gardens. They left us with lots the size of postage
stamps, and placed the buildings at the very edge of the sidewalk."
The others chimed in, and Emma asked
more questions. Manny finally interrupted. "Maybe we should
take a walk through the Park before it gets too dark."
The playground, the gravel walks, the
elms, patches here and there of wildflowers were called to Emma's
attention. "What about that?" she asked, pointing to
a rocky mound near the center of the Park.
"I'm not sure what the background
is," Frances answered. My grandfather told me it was there
when he was a boy. The children keep away from it because the
rocks are pretty sharp, and there are brambles over much of it.
Off and on there have been proposals to remove it, but it would
take heavy equipment, and I, for one, kind of like it the way
it is. It's our bit of wilderness. Barber-he's the homeless person
Sheaylea told you about-putters around it. He keeps the berry
bushes from straying too far away from the rocks, and he's planted
some really nice plants along the perimeter."
No conclusion was reached at the meeting,
but the limousine left behind the promise of a soon to be made
The decision did come soon. Manny happily
announced Emma's willingness to pick up the entire legal tab.
Almost a year to the day, the City Manager
signed the enabling ordinance into law. A week later, Manny had
filed the first of many motions to prevent the sale of the Park.
The wheels of justice ground slowly, and the grinding was erratic.
The predicted two years elapsed, followed by seven months more
before the Superior Court's decision was finally handed down.
Manny phoned the bad news to Sheaylea
"We lost. I had some hopes. It was a three-to two-decision.
I'll file for reconsideration, of course, but that's mostly a
"Isn't there anything left we can
"I'd suggest people throwing themselves
in front of the bulldozers, but the police will just drag them
off, and the cats will then plow right through. Some men from
the Forestry Department may come around, checking for endangered
plants. They were supposed to do so weeks ago, but this is low
priority, and you know what the chances are of finding any in
"Surely this can't be the end."
"I'm afraid it is. I think the
best thing you can do is to start salvaging what you can out of
there, playground materials and so forth. I've already gotten
approval from the City Planning Office to remove anything we want
to from the site. They'd prefer to have bare ground. Emma and
I will be by. I'll wear my work clothes and give you folks a hand.
She's even going to dress for the occasion and help too."
Frances, Sheaylea and Father Keenan,
along with dozens of other residents were busy removing the last
of the playground equipment when Emma's limo pulled up to the
curb, followed closely by Manny's car. Two oversized flatbeds,
led in by guide cars, crowded in behind them. Each carried an
enormous bulldozer. Before long, workmen had unchained them, readying
them for the next day's work.
About then a vehicle from the Federal
carpool slipped into the space between the flatbeds. Manny snorted,
but took time out from helping with the dismantling to greet the
"You're kind of late," Manny
The agent seemed humorless. "With
our budget, it's lucky I was able to come out at all."
Manny gestured toward the Park. "Help
yourself." The dismantling continued. In the midst of the
work, Sheaylea caught sight of Fighting Bob wearing a broad smirk
on his features and leaning against the giant wheel of one of
the flatbeds. She decided to ignore him and turned back to taking
down the swings.
The Forestry Agent's comments made
no sense at first. "I would have missed it if it hadn't been
for that old guy who looks like a tramp. He took me up through
the brambles, and there it was, a perfect example of an Heuchera
glauca, and it's throwing seedlings."
"So?" Manny asked.
"So it's probably the only one
of its species in existence. The last ones we knew of died out
in Kentucky, some three hundred miles south of here. The climate
must have been getting too warm for them there, and we figured
we'd seen the species go extinct."
"What does that mean for the Park,"
Father Keenan asked?
"Hard to say," the agent said,
"except, for sure, no building will ever go up here. Heuchera
glauca is about as endangered a species as I've ever come across.
And we have no way of knowing what factors locally account for
its adaptation here, so we'll want everything to remain as unchanged
as possible in the entire block."
Most of what he added about the "Saxifrage"
family and how it was a "wild type" and "related
to the Bressingham Hybrids" made little impression on his
Frances pulled off her gloves. "I'm
going to church to light a candle," she said.
Sheaylea pulled off her own gloves,
saying, "I think it's time I lit a candle, too."
Manny, Emma and Father Keenan walked
out to the rock pile to find Barber there raking leaves. He didn't
seem to really understand what they were asking, but finally led
them along a tortuous path, where Manny had to help Emma past
brambles and over several sharp boulders, to where a three-foot
plant with modest coral-pink flowers and waxy green leaves occupied
a narrow space between two large stones.
Father Keenan was tempted to give the
graceful little shrub an official blessing.
On the way back down off of the rock
pile, Barber left to talk to a large sunflower which gave every
indication of listening attentively to him.
Emma stopped, put her hand on Manny's
arm and nodded in Barber's direction. "I'm sure I know him!"
"You do? Who is he?"
"He's a botanist. He used to teach
at the Ag school in the town right near my racing stables."
"In Kentucky, some three hundred
miles south of here."
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