By James Maher
Name: Diane McLean
Occupation: Child Psychiatrist at Lincoln Medical Center
Location: East 4th Street between 2nd Avenue and 3rd Avenue
Time: 10 am on Friday, April 10
I’m from New York, born on the Upper West Side. My father was from Baton Rouge, La., and my mother grew up on a farm in Canada and became a nurse. They met in Montreal and had never lived in New York, but they came, got married and loved the city. My brother and I were born here, grew up here. After college my father became ill and my mother ended up leaving the city.
I wanted to come back after college and build a home here because the city was my home. I had $300 in my pocket. I lived in the living room of my college roommate's apartment with her friends. I got a job. I was able to sublet and share an apartment. That was in January 1979 and by August two friends and I found an apartment. It didn’t have any ceilings. It didn’t have a bathroom. It didn’t have a fridge. It didn’t have a stove — anything. It only had two outlets in the whole apartment. But it had light, windows and high ceilings.
We wrote a contract with the landlord and we committed to building a home. It was my first adult, actually my only adult home. This has been it. We renovated it and created the apartment. The landlord then sold the building to the Hrynenkos. We ended up being in landlord tenant court for nine months because they decided not to put in a stove, fridge, bathroom or wire it for lights. So eventually they had to do that.
I took over the lease in the early 1980s. Love Saves the Day was in the retail space of my building [at 119 Second Avenue at East Seventh Street]. The people who owned it were friends. Tom Birchard and Sally Haddock, who owned Veselka, lived in my building.
When we were working on that apartment, I locked myself out and my two roommates were working late. I couldn’t get in, so I went to Veselka, but I had no money because I was a graduate student. I could only buy coffee and I sat at a table and the hours started to go by. The waitress came by and said, ‘Oh aren’t you going to get anything else’ and she kept coming back and finally I said, ‘You know, I don’t really have money and I’m just waiting for my friends.’ And then she came over and brought a huge plate of food, enough to feed three people and she said, ‘Eat, eat, you have to eat. You’re young, you need strength, you need meat on your bones.’ She fed me. And that for me was our neighborhood. People helped each other out in the East Village.
Affordability and light and air brought me to the neighborhood. Light and air were a priority for me, so it didn’t matter that the apartment had nothing. There was nothing I could afford anywhere else, and also, everything was open at night. I started a masters in public health at Columbia a month after we started that apartment. I was given the gift of my parents believing in education. I was fortunate to go to an amazing university, Harvard, and then to Columbia, and I always felt I could put that back into use. You use your skills to give people the best and I could do that.
I’ve always done public service. As a New Yorker, I felt I could put my education to use. I was first an epidemiologist. I have a Ph.D. in epidemiology from Columbia and a Masters of Public Health. Epidemiology is a science to understand the causes of disease in people. Why do people get sick and what can we do to prevent it. I committed to trying to understand this.
In 1990, two surgeons at Harlem hospital published a paper saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute, people in our community of central Harlem are dying at earlier ages than men and women in Bangladesh, which has fewer resources. Why in the greatest city on Earth, are people dying from preventable illness before they’re 65 in central Harlem? So the CDC funded a network of research centers to understand that. In 1991, I became the first director of research of epidemiology at that center, based in Harlem Hospital, connected to Columbia. We were committed to doing participatory research, involving the community, in figuring out what was happening in the community. People were really dying of preventable illnesses.
At that time, I met doctors at Harlem Hospital who were amazing. They could have worked anywhere and they were committed to doing just that. Not just the research, but providing the best care to people in the community. I got inspired to go back to school and become a doctor. I went back to school at night. I took physics, biology, organic chemistry at night as a second job in addition to this. And I applied to medical school. I was incredibly fortunate that Cornell accepted me. I was their oldest student at 42. It’s a progressive medical school. It’s one of the most diverse in the country across social class, background and education.
Right now, I am incredibly fortunate to be a child psychiatrist, working in the Child Outpatient Clinic of Lincoln Hospital. We serve the South Bronx community, one of the most underserved in the country. We serve children and families. I have great colleagues and we’re a wonderful clinic. We do everything we can.
I’m a single mother with an 8 year old and two 5 year olds. I’m an alternative family. I’m an older mother, and I’m a single mother by choice. This is a diverse neighborhood, and that’s what I want my kids to know — that you can have every kind of family. Every kind of person lives in our neighborhood. That’s what I want them to in a sense take in by breathing by walking around. Our neighborhood is a little microcosm of New York.
[After the deadly explosion and fire of March 26], my challenge that keeps me from not sleeping is that my family has to find a home. We don’t have a home. Cooper Square Committee is inviting me for an interview, which I am so grateful for. They are the only ones to do that. They might possibly have a studio. I would be grateful for a roof over our head but four people in 375 square feet is very tough. People are looking but there’s nothing out there. So that’s our challenge — to somehow, somewhere find affordable housing where we can commute to the Children’s Workshop School.
I’m absolutely trying to take a positive attitude. I believe in the future and I’m a positive person. But that does not mean that we’re OK. People gave me everything I’m wearing besides my shoes and my jacket — the shirt, the pants, the socks. But I feel good about that. I’m walking around and I can say, ‘Oh yeah, Lori and Rachel gave me that,’ and my kids can get up in the morning and say, ‘I’m putting on Ella’s clothes, I’m putting on Zachary’s clothes.’ We’re wearing people’s care and that’s practically helpful, but now we have to get to the next step. I’m really overwhelmed on how we’re going to get there, and that’s what I don’t know.
I’m hoping we can find that and I’m hoping all of my neighbors can, especially my other neighbors who were rent-stabilized and rent-controlled. Every person was displaced. Every person lost their homes and every person lost everything. But we lost the ability to pay for housing. We lost the ability to create new housing. That is so far not what the city can offer. They can offer us shelter but they’re not offering anything else. And probably they have goodwill and maybe they can’t. You want to think the best.
We’re going back, definitely, for real. I know that corner from every possible angle, in every weather, in every season. I know everything about it. I can walk through every inch of that apartment in my memory; I can walk through every life stage of that apartment. I made it a home for my kids. It was my only home.
You may find more information on Diane's GoFundMe page here.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.