East Village Residents Ponder a Changing Neighborhood After a Homeless Woman's Death

Donna Harris at Christmas, 2014
Donna Harris at Christmas, 2014
Courtesy Catholic Worker's Maryhouse.

The memorial service for Donna Harris was scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. on Saturday at the Catholic Worker's Maryhouse in the East Village. But the service itself did not start until after 7:30 as organizers acknowledged the slow-to-arrive crowd. "You have to give them time to come," said Felton Davis, who works at Maryhouse. Indeed, the group soon swelled from five to nearly fifty people, most of whom knew Harris only in passing.

If you live near Tompkins Square Park, chances are you knew her, too. Harris, who had been homeless for at least the last decade, was known for her bright blue nail polish and unabashed commentary to passersby: "She didn't want people's pity," attendee Amanda Daloisio said, laughing. "And she was not meek and mild."

Those at the service were an eclectic mix of East Villagers who had often passed her along their daily routes, and other homeless New Yorkers who knew her as one of their own. Davis, who planned and organized the service, said Harris had been coming to Maryhouse for years seeking food and, on particularly cold nights, shelter.

Harris, who passed away on March 2 at age 52 of as-of-yet-unknown causes in Harlem, was an addict and mentally unstable. Her daughter, Grace Harris, said her mother's drugs of choice were OxyContin and, she suspects in later years, heroin. The younger Harris had been estranged from her mother for about a year.

But her death has clearly hit a nerve, symbolizing not just the plight of the city's homeless population, but also the real estate restructuring — and consequential class restructuring — of the East Village. "You have these buildings where families used to pay $500 — now single people are paying $5,000," Davis said.

"There have been a few cynical comments, people who were like, 'Please, what is this,' " he continues. "I think that people that are moving into this neighborhood, and paying top dollar — it irks them that there are people left over from when this was working-class families and poor people. And they have to walk by them in the park. And people are dirty, and they're coming here to eat. There's a class of the super-rich that are bothered by that. They think that anything that isn't spiffy is affecting property values."

Felton Davis, left, and Donna Harris's daughter Grace, right, at the memorial service
Felton Davis, left, and Donna Harris's daughter Grace, right, at the memorial service
Emily Mathis, for the Village Voice

Harris's place in the neighborhood stands as a bleak reflection of the changing landscape, of the ever-increasing gap in the East Village between the wealthy and the destitute.

One neighborhood resident, who identified herself as Jocelyn, said she had only exchanged a few words with Donna over the years. "If I think about what I want out of my own life, it's to make an impact on somebody and perhaps change a perspective," she said. "And I can say that my conversations with Donna have absolutely made an impact and changed my perspective, just in terms of how fragile life can be and how fleeting the privileges we have are."

On the East Village neighborhood blog EV Grieve, posts about Harris's death and the planned memorial created a long, at times heated, debate among residents about not only Harris and her worthiness of being memorialized, but also whether or not people in her situation deserve our mourning.

"I'm not sure why I should get a 'case of the feels' for a stranger's death," one East Village resident commented on the site. "People die all the time. Am I supposed to weep every time a human passes away? Why would I want to spend 5 minutes in her shoes? I worked hard all my life just so that I wouldn't have to spend even a single second in a position like that! Or am I evil just because I think that it's nice to have the good things in life?"

"I'm sorry she passed but she was never nice," another wrote. "It's weird how people memorialize people like her...but disregard hard working people who try every day. RIP lady but I wish better lives for you all."

No one at the memorial shied away from acknowledging Harris's faults. "Some people have trials because they're their own worst enemy, because of the choices they make," Davis said.

"One thing about my mom is that she was very strong-willed. She liked things her own way, down to the littlest thing," Grace Harris said.

A few commented that Donna's troubles reminded them of their own past, or present, struggles with addiction and homelessness.

"Very often it's a battle," said Davis. "We try to do the right thing. And each person that comes in the door [to Maryhouse], whatever their needs are, is like a mirror. And they're holding up the mirror — they're helping us to see what we are, what we've become."


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