My Commentary on the 615 Green Lot Clean Up Video.
By Peggy Conte
This video was filmed by me and my late husband Peter Dawidowicz. I apologize for any inaccuracies in this account. This is simply my memory of the events of 24 years ago.
Peter Dawidowicz and I moved to 550 6th Ave. in June of 1988. I gave birth to Julia on August 25. Over the summer it had become apparent that the lot on the corner, which at the time had foundations and concrete cellars dug out for some kind of condo development, also had lots of garbage, continual dumping and many many syringes, crack vials and other evidence of heavy drug use. It also became apparent that the front apartment (room) of the house between our house and the lot had a drug dealer in it, a young man named Frankie.
The rest of the first floor (minus Frankie’s room) was inhabited by a family. The parents were Maria and Rene, and the three kids were Aylin, Dennis and Edgar. (Dennis is the kid in the video who asks if the lot is gonna be a playground) The top floor was lived in by the owners of the house; two brothers in their eighties who seemed out of touch with reality. I imagine they had a lot of health issues. One of them was called Abraham. I forget the name of the other. All in all, the house was in decrepit condition!
Peter had a background as an organizer. He had organized civil rights activities at his campus in Baltimore in the sixties; lunch counter occupations and such. He was a member of SDS. Over the years, he had been involved in many demonstrations of different kinds and radical labor politics.
Peter was upset because we had just moved into a neighborhood to start a life with a newborn, and then this scourge became apparent. He always said that Julia was the reason he did what he did. He knocked on doors on the block and held a neighbors meeting to decide what to do about the problem. It turns out that everyone was upset and they quickly formed a group. They called themselves the South Slope Anti Drug Organization. SSADO. Peter got very sick the following year and died a few years later. SSADO was one of his last battles!
SSADO contacted the 72nd precinct and the community board for our district. This precinct and CB cover all of Sunset Park and just a little bit on our side of the cemetery. The border of the district is 15th St. We were on the margins of their zones and of their concerns. The 72nd had a special drug unit called CPOP, who show up in the video. SSADO also contacted CPOP, but nothing got done. The police would say that they didn’t have evidence so they couldn’t take action. In the video at some point someone says that there had been shooting on 10th or 12th St. the night before but the police hadn’t responded. It was emblematic of the police’s lack of reliability at the time. It was a no man’s land around here.
Well, SSADO decided to take direct action and set Saturday morning September 17, 1988 as the big clean up day of the lot. They put out fliers. That morning dozens and dozens of people showed up, as you can see on the video. It was a wonderful surprise! I didn’t know most of them, having just moved there. Sanitation was willing to provide a garbage truck for us to load garbage into. But they didn’t want pull out the trailer because it was “private property.”
A kid named Nicky (as you see on the video) got someone in his family to bring a forklift, and the trailer was dragged partly into the street. Sanitation was asked to take it away but again they said they couldn’t because it was “private property.” So Peter called a “quick meeting” to figure out how to prevent Sanitation from putting the trailer back in the lot. The trailer at this point was only partly pulled out of the lot. A parked car was in the way and prevented the trailer from being pulled all the way out. So some people decided to bring a chainsaw and take the trailer apart (as you see on the video) .
The people finally decided to physically move the parked car, which they did (as you see on the video—a bunch of guys actually pick up the car to move it!) And pull the trailer further out onto the street. It was totally blocking traffic, and this motivated Sanitation to tag the trailer, meaning that it was OK to cart it away and it finally was.
The cleanup went on all day. People even knocked down a thick cinder block wall between the lot and number 548 with hammers and pure muscle. The amount of garbage was huge. You see it on the video. More and more people just kept showing up to help! People would just pass by, ask what was going on, and then roll up their sleeves and help. It was because they were all so upset about the scourge of the abandoned lot and trailer.
For me some of the highlights are: (besides the main action)
· When Dennis asks if this is gonna be a playground.
· When the addict on methadone pitches in and cleans.
· The sign “sorry” on Frankie’s door. It shows his humanity.
· When one of Frankie’s friends comes to look for Frankie, who is gone. Peter lets him know that all the drug use and dealing is unacceptable, while at the same time respecting this guy’s humanity.
· All the signs at the end, especially the sign that was strung across the intersection of 6th and 15th by a guy who scaled the lampposts.
I never saw many of those people after that day. I wish they were still around to enjoy the community garden! I wish Peter was still around too! (though I’m glad to be with Paul J)
These events are just one day. At the time Peter and I didn’t have a vision of what this lot could become. But Sheila did. Sheila told us that day of her vision to turn this lot into a community garden. After this day, she and others took the lead in starting our beautiful 615 Green. But that is her part of the story to tell.