By James Maher
Name: Mike Schweinsburg
Occupation: Community Activist
Location: Tompkins Square Park, East Eighth Street and Avenue B
Time: 3:20 on Thursday, Sept. 11
I was born in San Francisco and raised in Buffalo, from where I escaped when I was 16. Came here to New York City. Since then, I’ve lived and worked all over this country, Europe and Africa. And every location I went to, I always came back to New York.
It was a New York interruption. When I finished with one career or endeavor then I’d come back to New York. You would think it was pursuing a career, but no. I’ve been involved in real estate, broadcasting, international shipping and trading, food supply, transportation, temporary employment services, and then I said, "Mike, what is the matter with you? Why can’t you just grab ahold of one of these things?" This was around 1995.
So I had to examine where I was at. I realized that sadly all my family was dead, so there was no one whose expectations I had to live up to. Not going to have any children, so I don’t have to amass a fortune, leave an inheritance, fund a college education or a wedding. I was really free, so I decided one day to do whatever it was I wanted to do. I realized that the only common thread to all those sort of endeavors was that one way or the other, each of them exposed me to some form of social injustice, and so I wanted to help do something about that. I wanted to help create change. I wanted to make a difference.
So then I became a full-time activist — first with the Anti-Violence Project. Now at the time I believed that all politics was bullshit and all politicians were bullshit. But I was very close with the executive director of AVP and her partner. One day she came to me and said, "Mike I’m leaving." I was crushed. Besides the work that the agency performed, she was my inspiration. So I felt kind of rudderless. "Where are you going? Why are you doing this?" She said, "Well I’m going to run for political office." I said, "I believe in you. Sure, get somebody like you in elected office and then we’ll do some shit."
That person was Chris Quinn, who became Christine Quinn and became less recognizable as the hero that she was to me. But, it did get me involved in politics.
So I was actually thrust into a district leader campaign over on the West Side for Arthur Schwartz, who was running for district leader against all the established clubs. It was a big win. Now I’m really interested in politics. So I began, and a candidate came to me named Larry Sauer, who wanted to run for City Council on the Upper West Side. I tried that. I’m not going to say I saw that one through because it was just too full of holes, but during that time Margarita Lopez approached me ... So I went to work for her. Now that got me involved in the Lower East Side, and that captured me entirely. The great thing to come out of that experience was meeting Rosie Mendez, who was chief of staff [for Margarita López]. That tied me forever more to the Lower East Side.
So I’ve been [in this neighborhood] now for about 10 years and stayed involved, well not as involved as I should be. I started to get complaints from my friends here saying, "Mike, you know, when you lived out in Queens we saw 10 times as much of you as we do now that you live here." I was working for a Brooklyn Councilwoman for eight years as her communications director and she is the only incumbent in the last cycle to have lost her election, so I was unemployed from the first of the year, but I didn’t rush into getting another job. I said, "I need to reconnect with my old community."
So that’s what I did for several months, got involved in housing justice issues with GOLES, several community things, but the thing I’m happiest with is I formed a block association for East Eighth Street from Avenues B to D and that’s going very well. We have 45 members already and we’ve only had one real general meeting. We’ve been helping with the plantings on the street and all that working with the Parks Department and the Lower East Side Ecology Center. We’re planning a big block party next year with a pet fair, bringing in the ASPCA with half a dozen of their big vehicles to give free vaccinations, spay-neutering, microchipping, behavioral and grooming advice, and bringing in all the animal care agencies.
That’s kind of the vision for next year for the block party, but we have a lot of other things to do. You know, we’ve got a couple of Croman-owned buildings on the block, so [we’re] always at war. We certainly have no objection to our more wealthy neighbors. That makes for the mix, you know. It’s been a very rewarding experience because I’ve gotten to know my neighbors through all of this, and the more I know them the more I love them. I used to have dreams of retiring in Africa, which held my heart for a long, long time after I left there. Now my sole dream is to get old and die here.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.