By James Maher
Occupation: Social Worker
Location: East 2nd Street and 1st Avenue
Time: 5:30 pm on Monday, Oct. 19
I was born in Canarsie, Brooklyn. I came to the neighborhood in 1990. I needed to get a job and I had been going to school full-time, and I couldn’t continue that because of my situation. So I got a job at NYU and got tuition remission and finished my degree there. Then I just stayed in the neighborhood.
I got my master's degree in social work. I’m the director of a homeless shelter in the neighborhood. It’s a shelter for older adults with medical and mobility issues. I feel like it’s a very service-rich neighborhood in many ways and I hope that continues because there are a lot of people who have been living here a long time who don’t have high incomes and [it’s hard] to be able to maintain, especially when people become older. It’s difficult to balance if you’re working your whole life and you’re living paycheck to paycheck — one thing can set you off and then you wind up in a shelter.
People like to vilify the homeless but really most people are just poor in a city where rents are skyrocketing. So I feel good that I’m making a difference in helping people to get into a secure environment. Anyone, anyone can wind up there.
My interest in the neighborhood is totally outside of my professional life, though. It’s just a coincidence that I wound up getting a job here. I moved onto St. Mark’s Place in 1990 and that was like the middle of everything. I used to go to Green Door parties at Coney Island High. There was a lot of music and creative people.
But then I got tired of living on St. Mark’s because it was just a little too busy. There were people sleeping on my steps and stuff, so I moved down to the Lower East Side, just a couple blocks below Houston Street on Clinton Street, and then I watched that neighborhood open up. It went from a couple little shlock stores to this whole stretch of trendy restaurants. You never, ever would have expected that in a million years.
My husband grew up in this neighborhood. There was a small Ukrainian community that has really dissipated. I knew nothing about the Ukrainian community until I met him. It’s interesting that there are still people who go caroling. I remember I was my mother-in-law’s house after we first met and some carolers came around and sang Ukrainian Christmas carols. So there’s still a sense of community in that way that’s still there. It’s nice to know at least that the people who’ve been living around here a long time who all know each other still stick together.
Most of my friends who are not native New Yorkers have left because the things they came for aren’t here anymore. The cost of living goes up, but the things that make it fun are gone. It’s depressing, isn’t it? [The neighborhood has] been taken over by people just want to come and drink and just tear the place apart, and it saddens me because the sense of community is really withering away.
In the mid-90s, you had people who were creative, people who were just fun. Now it just feels like you’re being trampled on and then everyone leaves. I think there’s still a sense of community to some extent and we can’t be stuck in the past, but at the same time we should all be part of shaping the future, instead of being the passive recipients of consumerism.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.