Back Story, City Parks for the Poor

In 1875, immigrant photographer  Jacob A. Riis began documenting the wretched slum-tenements of New York, and especially t he plight of the poor children.  He understood that the game was “rigged” – that the poor are not so because they’re any less inclined to work — in fact, they often work longer and far harder than the wealthy do – but for dirt wages– and that they were victims of a system that favored the powerful.  Does this sound familiar?

Homeless boys sleep in stairway NY, late 1800s
Homeless boys sleep in stairway, NY America, late 1800s

He used his position with a newspaper to publicize photographs of the staggering poverty, with its resultant crime, disease and hopelessness, and wrote a book chronicling the desperate conditions of poverty in NY, which attracted the attention of Teddy Roosevelt.   As city commissioner, Teddy Roosevelt worked together with Riis to improve conditions for the poor, and later as president, he used his influence to have the worst tenements of Manhattan’s lower east side torn down, and replaced with city parks, playgrounds and at least one pool. The feeling was that, although they could not find a way to completely eliminate poverty, the people deserved and required a place to be in nature, to breath fresher air than in a tenement.   So the parks were established.

Visit NPR for a slide show of Riis’ photography here.  More photos and info are  here.

Home for a “junk man” NYC America, late 1800s

These images are all too similar to the slums in various third world countries today.  Once, America had crusaders who fought for better conditions for everyone.  Sadly, today the loudest voices are those of the wealthy and their political spokespeople, who, like their ancestors of the 19th century, blame the poor and unemployed for their own plight, and who advocate ending the weak safety net that is somewhat in place – all while the wealthiest 1% rake in more profits than ever before.  Income inequality is now even higher than it was in the 1920s before the last great depression, and is said to now be higher than the slave days of Ancient Rome.

It does not have to be this way.

The point of this abridged history lesson is that the city parks were originally set up for the people — for the poor.  A century later, the wealthy are creating laws that curtail the use of the parks by the very people who should be able to use them: those who have no country estates, ranches, vacation homes or villas.  Those who may not have even a roof over their heads, whose children are hungry, or veterans who are so damaged from fighting the corporate wars that they have lost their homes and relationships.  The wealthy do not want to encounter the victims of their corruption, and would rather have them swept out of sight.

And this is in the United States, considered a “wealthy” country – if you don’t account for the inequality.  Worse still, people all over the world live on less than a dollar a day and dwell in crowded slums.

How can we, as a global people, allow these conditions to continue?  The answer is that we cannot.

And that realization is what is happening NOW.  A new energy is awakening, and the worldwide Occupy movement is just one more visible portion of that new spirit.  We are determined not to allow the wealthy in the U.S. to push the rest of us back to these conditions.  But it’s not just about us.  Instead, it is time we lift each other up…all over the world.  The 99% deserve better.

We must do better by each other, and we are beginning, even as the wealthy try to cling to the world they built and rule.  Their world is built on greed, cheap polluting oil, and corruption.

We are creating something better.  A world where each living being is allowed to reach its potential, to live life of fulfillment and joy – and where our lifegiving earth is honored.  A clean world where kindness and creativity are the values we cherish.

Which world would you prefer?


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