Friday, July 25, 2008

A View From the Heights

In all of New York City, there is no stroll more beautiful than the walk along the Heather Garden of Fort Tryon Park in Washington Heights. There, one glance takes in the Hudson, the Palisades, the George Washington Bridge, and an Olmstead landscape. From now on, those lucky enough to walk this path will traverse "The Stan Michels Promenade." This is entirely appropriate: as hundreds of people were reminded yesterday, no councilman did more than Michels to help the city's parks.

Michels, a lifelong resident of the Heights, represented northern Manhattan, parts of Harlem, and Morningside Heights in the City Council from 1978 to 2001. Late Thursday afternoon, hundreds of people gathered in Fort Tryon Park to honor him. The setting could not have been better: the sun was out, a jazz band played duets with a summer breeze, and much of the crowd was shaded by a graceful elm tree.

Those who gathered were black and white, old and young, native and immigrant, Dominican and Jewish. Present were activists, politicians and neighborhood people who were touched by Michels' works. Steve Simon, Michels' chief of staff in his City Council days, organized the event. Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe presided.

Many offered reminiscence. Together, they painted an attractive portrait.

Benepe pointed out that, in his 24 years on the Council, Michels allocated $50 million to parks in Harlem, Washington Heights and Inwood.

Henry Stern, who grew up in northern Manhattan with Michels and served Republican and Democratic mayors, joked: "I knew him as a regular, I knew him as a reformer." He also reminded listeners that Michels, a Democrat, was a staunch advocate of tenants: "I am only sorry that we did not achieve his goal of free rent for all."

Assemblyman Denny Farrell recalled that Michels went to court to make landlords properly maintain their buildings, sparing the Heights the arson and abandonment that ravaged the Bronx in the Seventies.

Guillermo Linares, Commissioner of the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs, who served in the Council with Michels, remembered that it was Michels who worked with him when crime was high in northern Manhattan to not only get more cops, but to improve police-community relations and bring down crime.

Michels, who is battling cancer, gave a short but moving response and said, "this is a neighborhood where we all worked together for the benefit of all."

As I have learned working on a book about Washington Heights and Inwood since the Fifties, in the fractious world of Northern Manhattan it can be difficult to sustain that ideal. Michels, however, lived and worked to make it come true.

It was Michels' day, but the last word on the man belongs to Linares: "millions of people's lives today are better for your leadership and dedication."

No one could ask for a better summary of a life's work.

No comments: