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J’accuse! McCarthyism, Village politics and Pier 40

Published: April 25, 2013


BY ARTHUR Z. SCHWARTZ | I was a child when McCarthyism reached its height. As a child I heard stories about this or that entertainer or celebrity being charged with being a communist, or knowing or consorting with communists. Careers and reputations were destroyed. Once I had a long conversation about it with Barney Josephson, whose famous Sheridan Square nightclub, Café Society, was destroyed by allegations that he and his brother, a New Jersey litigator, were communists. He chuckled and marveled how well they came out of it, but his eyes were pained as he spoke.

McCarthyism, at least as applied to communists, is dead and buried. But its tactics are not. And in liberal-minded communities like ours, sometimes words like “racist” or “homophobe” get thrown around in similar fashion — allegations, based on very little, designed to smear, not to engage in principled debate.

I don’t usually get to complain. I am a public figure, at times a controversial public figure, who is used to getting called names. I’ve learned to grin and bear it. And I certainly know how to dish it right back, although I rarely do.

But a line got crossed in The Villager a month ago that still leaves me angry, because it reflects an effort by some political forces in the Village to retain or regain power, and a lack of principle as they do that.

What was I called? I was labeled a “supporter of housing on Pier 40.” A whole page of ranting about this in a Scoopy column about the prearranged anointment of Jonathan Geballe to the Village district leader position. Tony Hoffmann, the Village Independent Democrats president, who himself was once the victim of smears decried by the late columnist Jack Newfield, announced that V.I.D. was running Geballe against me because I “supported housing on Pier 40.” Maria Passannante Derr, president of the Village Reform Democratic Club, who nominated me and then voted for Geballe, said the same thing: “Arthur supports housing on Pier 40.” But nothing could have been farther from the truth.

Unlike Geballe, who has never had a word to say about Pier 40 and has never lifted a finger to support it, I worked for Hudson River Park going back 17 years, when I filed a lawsuit for the Greenwich Village Little League and the Downtown United Soccer Club, which established the application of the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) to Pier 40 and got the state to build a $2.5 million ball field on the roof. I helped draft and lobby for the Hudson River Park Act. I chaired the Community Board 2 Waterfront Committee for most of 15 years, and served as chairperson or vice chairperson of the Hudson River Park Advisory Council for most of that time.

In the course of that work I chaired two public task forces that looked at Pier 40 proposals, one in 2002-2003 and one in 2006-2007. And I was part of the Pier 40 Partnership, an independent effort in 2007 to find a solution for Pier 40. Those task forces and the Partnership included community leaders, elected officials, youth league reps and waterfront activists. Anyone who attended these meetings knows that I always took a nuanced approach, looking to build consensus and find solutions. Assemblymember Glick, former state Senator Duane and Council Speaker Quinn all signed on to the final task force recommendations both times, and generally supported the Partnership’s work.

There was NEVER a recommendation to consider housing.

Since December 2011 I have served on the latest Hudson River Park Trust Task Force looking for long-term solutions to for the park’s finances. Unlike the prior task forces, this one was chaired by the Trust’s president, Madelyn Wils. I chaired the C.B. 2 Waterfront Committee all of 2012, and the Hudson River Park Trust Advisory Council, and held numerous public hearings and meetings. No one who attended any of those meetings EVER heard me advocate for housing on Pier 40.

What I did do was publicly speak and write about building into the process, through legislation, some sort of safety valve to protect community input, which would be superior to ULURP. Some safety valve like the one that let Assembly Speaker Silver block a West Side stadium after it had passed ULURP. And, I advocated, once such a safety valve was in place, allowing all sorts of proposals to be made all over the park, even casino gambling on the pier that is now a tow pound (Pier 76). One position I stated repeatedly was opposition to condos in the park — no one should own a piece of the park. But I also question why renting a parking space to a car, or an office to a “tech firm” — both real estate transactions — was somehow preferable to renting an apartment to a family. I even dared to say that parking cars in the park was not a park-compatible use, but that I could live with it, with appropriate restrictions (mostly long-term parking spots that didn’t disrupt bikes, joggers, etc.)

But I NEVER said, “Build housing.”

But the modern-day McCarthyites decided they could not beat me in a district leader election without a smear campaign. Heaven knows what they will come up with now that housing is off the table.

Shame on you, Tony Hoffmann, and shame on V.I.D. if it adopts such tactics, tactics which belie its history.

And to The Villager: Do a little fact-checking next time, even for your gossip column.

Housing at Pier 40 appears to be a dead item. Let’s hope that McCarthyism in 2013 doesn’t rear its ugly head again.

Schwartz is vice chairperson of the Hudson River Park Trust Advisory Council and Democratic State Committee member for the 66th Assembly District.

This is a digital reproduction of Arthur Schwartz’s original blog post published here:

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