By James Maher
Name: Kathy Von Hartz
Location: Meltzer Park, 1st Street between 1st and A
Time: 1 pm on Monday, Aug. 19
I grew up in Puerto Rico, Cuba and Mexico. My father represented U.S. Steel exports and my mother was a teacher and they met in Puerto Rico. I spent my first 15 years in those three countries. I’m a teacher and my husband is a writer. He wrote for Time Life books and I taught at Head Start at Escuela Hispana Montessori.
My husband and I moved to the neighborhood 48 years ago after we were married. We lived on 6th Street between C and D for eight years. Affordability brought us here and once we had our first child, we found lots of room on East 6th Street.
Eventually we bought the building behind me. We could afford it on our teacher’s salary because nobody wanted to buy anything here. The building had been for sale for five years and nobody wanted it. It cost $64,000 for 10 one-bedroom apartments. But everybody still thought we were crazy. We could just make the mortgage payments and we renovated each apartment as it slowly turned over. We made do.
When we were living on 6th Street, we had a backyard for our children but I couldn’t let them use it. Teenage kids would get into the building on 5th Street, go up to the roof and throw bricks down into our backyard for fun. We made it through for 8 years and then one day as we rode the bus along Houston Street, I said, “Oh I want to live in one of those houses on 2nd Street that backs out onto Meltzer Park, because no one can throw anything down.” So I knocked on all the the five doors that backed out onto the park, and two of them said, “Yes we want to sell” and one of them was a better deal for us. So the park led us to this place.
Meltzer Park was built 42 years ago, two years before we moved in. When the 20-story Max Meltzer Senior Housing was built, they created the park because they needed to compensate for putting a skyscraper in a low-rise neighborhood. There were originally seven tenements here that had been torn down after a fire.
I formed the 2nd Street Block Association shortly after moving here. We got all of the 10 trees planted on 2nd Street. That was about 35 years ago. The City and the Parks Department had a superplan and they said they needed suggestions of where to put trees, for $20 a piece, and so I signed up immediately, sent a check for $200 and later we collected money from everybody and made wooden tree guards that are long since gone.
And then the drug situation became intolerable. We didn’t notice it when we first moved in, in 1973, but after a few years we did. They used to make their escape through the park. They’d line up for the drugs along 2nd Street in two phases. The money would be passed in one line and then you could go in another line and when the drugs came you got out of there. There would be someone on the corner with a whistle and when they whistled the guys with the drugs would just disappear through the park and get away from the police.
So I got the people in Meltzer to lock the park at night so that they couldn’t have the passage through. And eventually Howard Hemsley formed a group of people in the area called Before Another Shelter Tears Us Apart. They made a video of drug dealing and crack smoking on 3rd Street, where the men’s shelter is, because they had all these people coming to stay at the shelter and they didn’t have enough room for them. That video turned everything around. It helped spread awareness.
My husband would confront the dealers in a very respectful way and they would actually listen to him and move off the street. He would go up and tell them, “Please move; there are children on this block; there are old people on this block; we can’t have this.” They would say, “Yeah man, I understand” and go away.
So they moved down between Avenue A and B. But then we noticed this pattern where people with New Jersey plates would find parking on this nice wide street and then they’d walk down to Avenue A to get their drugs. We’d see it out the window from our house, so I had these stickers that stuck like crazy ... we’d write on them, “We know why you’re here. No drugs on this block. Keep away” and put it across their windshield.
They would come back to their car and we’d pull the shades down in our living room and with a bullhorn we’d say, “We know why you’re here. Stay away from this block. This is a drug free block.” And they’d take off, first trying to get this sticker off, but they couldn’t get it off. We did that for a couple months and eventually it pretty much went away.
Now the Housing Authority is short on cash and they want to get rid of the whole park and all 31 enormous trees. They want to put a 12-story building in its place. It’s called the Infill Plan.
We’re horrified and we’re fighting it. We’ve formed Friends of Meltzer Park. It’s horrible for us, but in Meltzer Towers there are 250 seniors, half of whom have breathing problems and other things that come to people our age. There are so many reasons for this park. We all need greenery.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.