A Thanksgiving Honor Roll: NYC's Unsung Heroes

Lauding the oft-overlooked people in a city of celebrity

This is a story about the other New York. Week in and week out, the city is dominated by spectacles of celebrity and scandal, of politicians and moguls squandering vast fortunes on self-promotion. The other New York—the one inhabited by ordinary citizens who plug away day after day doing small good deeds, by those who fight the good fight regardless of the odds—forever gets short shrift. Even if the spotlight found these unheralded heroes, they wouldn't stand a chance in a cyber-media world where the language of snark and smirk has become the prevailing idiom.

This deters these folks not in the least. Fame and applause is not their goal. But it is their hard work that keeps this city from becoming nothing more than a harbor for the elite. They provide daily injections of decency into a society often running on empty.

This is a Thanksgiving tribute to some of those whose work makes a difference. The idea comes from Jack Newfield, the late Voice writer who was beloved of lists: "Worst Judges" and "Worst Landlords" were two of his creations. He even offered an end-of-year rundown dubbed "Remember the Greediest." But he started publishing what he called his "Honor Roll" on Thanksgiving week back in 1976. He said it was his favorite task and it's not hard to see why. As much as our chief duty may be to smoke out wrongdoing, the bigger reward is always found in hailing those who do right. Here are just a few of those who richly deserve a Thanksgiving toast:

Ellen Baxter creates housing for those with no home and less future. It has been her vocation ever since 1980, when she combined with another New York treasure, medical anthropologist Kim Hopper, to expose the scandal of how the state had emptied its mental wards onto city streets. Her organization, Broadway Housing, based in West Harlem and Washington Heights, has created 300 new homes for the city's most impoverished women and children. Her most recent project is a 70-unit building on West 135th Street and Riverside Drive, called Dorothy Day Apartments. In an appropriate tribute to the revered radical Catholic who championed the city's poor, the building has become a gathering place where neighborhood issues are hammered out. On the drawing boards is a new venture to be built on West 155th Street, perched on Coogan's Bluff overlooking the Harlem River. Called "The Sugar Hill Project," it seeks to link residents to the rich legacy of a neighborhood whose residents included Duke Ellington, W.E.B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, and Langston Hughes. Plans call for a children's museum named after Harlem's great folk artist, Faith Ringgold, who regularly shares her stories and art with children in Baxter's projects. "A place to live is a fundamental human right," says Baxter. "But so is cultural equity."

Liz Krueger is proof that you can be an elected official and still not check your common sense at the door when entering the State Capitol. After the misdemeanor conviction of Queens senator Hiram Monserrate for stabbing his girlfriend sent Senate leaders into a dizzying spin about how to respond, Krueger, the senator from Manhattan's Upper East Side, offered a clear and simple response: Anyone convicted of such a charge has no business making laws for the rest of us. "Domestic violence is a scourge on our society," she said. "For me, the length of the sentence does not matter—domestic violence is domestic violence, guilt is guilt. I believe Hiram Monserrate should not remain in the Senate." She was speaking plainly long before her 2002 election: A leading expert on hunger, she started the New York City Food Bank, which now serves some 5 million meals a year. Together with the magnificent Kathy Goldman, she helped run the Community Food Resource Center, which put hunger issues front and center on political agendas and prodded often-feeble government efforts. It's the kind of training that should be mandatory for elected officials.

Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter was a successful cosmetics sales manager when anger at her daughter's overcrowded Bronx high school made her focus on blemishes closer to home. She hooked up with the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, which has led local rebuilding efforts for decades, and soon emerged as the eloquent spokeswoman for a drive to ensure that the city-subsidized renovation of the cavernous old armory on Kingsbridge Road benefits not just developers, but also residents, by providing jobs at living wages. Mayor Bloomberg and his designated builder, the Related Companies, say that such a stipulation spells economic doom. But last week, Pilgrim-Hunter joined several hundred Bronx residents from KARA (Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance) at City Hall to make their case. She pointed out the cynical disparity between Related's politically savvy agreement to use union labor on the project and its refusal to offer retail workers more than minimum wage. "I'm a little angry that it's OK to have a living wage for the trades, but not for the folks who have lived in the Bronx all their lives," she told a City Council hearing. Pilgrim-Hunter and KARA have received strong backing from Stuart Appelbaum, leader of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, and Fred LeMoine of the Lathers Union and head of the Bronx Board of Business Agents for the construction trades. "Economic development must be fair to everyone," says LeMoine.

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