11 March 2010

Ye Civic Minded Patriots!

Penn Station in New York feels like the belly of the beast. It's hot, unventilated, and the smells of sweet rolls and coffee are less pleasant and more anesthetizing to just how disturbing a place it actually is. I contrast it with both Union Station in DC where I was on Sunday and South Station in Boston, where I am today, waiting for a train back to New York after being in Cambridge for a meeting.

Mayor Bloomberg and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver team up against the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and developer Larry Silverstein on the Op-Ed page of the Times today, to make the point that the clock is ticking on making significant headway with construction of the final pieces of Ground Zero.

They write, "Delays at the site have already cost the Port Authority tens of millions of public dollars. Not only would further delays cost much more, but rent proceeds from a thriving World Trade Center would provide money for the Port Authority’s other transportation projects around the city, including Moynihan Station and a new passenger rail tunnel under the Hudson River."

Bloomberg and Silver place blame squarely on the shoulders of the Port Authority.

Opposite their article, the Times editorial staff takes the opposite view, arguing that there may be a glut of office space at Ground Zero if all the building goes ahead as planned and therefore the Port Authority is correct in not helping Silverstein with the final phase of the loan program to make the project work.

And so the stalemate continues. The remarkably slow progress on civic projects is one of the things I find the most confounding about living in New York. It seems that no one really has the "whole pie" in mind and negotiations are forever getting bogged down in a series of bureaucratic stalemates and posturing that reminds me of what Joe Biden must be feeling on his mission to get Israelis and Palestinians talking to each other. Everyone's gotta get a leg up; few seem capable of making the necessary sacrifices for the greater good.

A city as big and powerful as New York needs an incredibly strong arm to muscle through successful civic projects like a re-conceptualized Penn Station. That the "greatest city in America" should have an energy conscious transportation hub should be a given. That the "greatest city in America" tolerates a hell-hole like Penn Station, where Maya Lin's public art is a grim after-thought and more attention is paid to the overwhelming circus like smells of cotton candy is just one of the dumbest things I can think of, literally.

There are projects that were under construction when we moved here in 1990 and twenty years later, they seem nowhere near complete. This can't be good for anyone, except the construction companies that keep winning the contracts.

What's the point, you ask?

In my neck of the woods, we're about to embark on a massive project to repair, renovate and renew our two buildings. As an historical project, we'll be taking on the Idea of the Reform Synagogue from one hundred years ago and seeing how those ideas are or are no longer relevant to who we are today. As a community project, we will be taking on all those ideas for what kind of community hub the synagogue should be, recognizing that we serve many populations in Brooklyn. And, most important, as a Jewish project, we will be managing multiple perspectives on what a public Jewish home is, what a synagogue is, what a gathering space, a meeting space, a learning space and a spiritual space is all about. It will be a tremendous challenge, requiring both strength and flexibility. But it won't take twenty years.

And it won't take twenty years because the goal is to develop a shared purpose, a unified mission, rooted in the notion that our synagogue is here to serve God, the Jewish people and humankind. Serving other interests will only distract us from this mission, and get us needless bogged down.

I'd like to hear THAT articulated by our civic leaders when they make their proclamations about Ground Zero, Penn Station, the BQE, or wherever. Public service, like Jewish service, is service. It is to, a degree, among the highest values of living a person can choose.

I yearn for a time, may it arrive soon, when the proud language of sacrifice and service returns to our public discourse.

Meanwhile, I'll enjoy the bright light and fresh air of South Station. My train arrives shortly, having arrived here by the electric powered T. Nicely done ye civic-minded patriots of Boston! To your continued success!