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In the Heart of the City

Posted on Wednesday, January 2nd, 2008.

Time Square

Among the bright lights and towering brick of mid-town Manhattan, the nonprofit organization Common Ground found a home for those who needed and deserved life’s most basic necessity. Another dedicated community partner of StoryCorps Griot, Common Ground seeks to transform buildings, people, and entire communities with the mission to work towards ending homelessness. By acquiring its Times Square building in 1991-a once stately neighborhood fixture fallen into disrepair-Common Ground was able to preserve the historic detail of the building and create housing for 652 low-income and formerly homeless individuals in the heart of the city. It is currently the largest permanent supportive housing project in the nation. StoryCorps Griot joined with Common Ground Times Square to help some of the residents record their stories. Many came to talk about where they had been and where they are going.

Common Ground Time Square

A view of the double-height lobby decorated for the holidays

Resident Joanna J.J. Jackson visited us to talk about deciding at age 14 that she was not going to be a have-not in this world. She told stories of her 48-year-long career, begun at a sandwich delicatessen as a teenager, and moving to jobs at offices on 5th Avenue, City Hall, and eventually, Wall Street. Making her way through the political and business worlds, she talked about moments when she felt like she’d arrived, like when she had her own parking spot at City Hall: “Just a whole lot of things that I never thought that I would do. But see, that’s because I wanted change, and because of my wanting change, my life changed, you know, it broadened”

Ms. Joanna J.J. Jackson and Facilitator Rachel Falcone

Ms. Jackson and Facilitator Rachel Falcone

Also a 28-year survivor of Systemic Lupus Erythematosus, an autoimmune disease, it is clear that Ms. Jackson’s ambition is not diminished, even in relapses of illness, when she is unable to work and is reliant on medications to keep her body going. She said: “I’ve got at least another 30, 40 years, you know, to accomplish something. So, I’m not putting a time on it, it’s just that I know that I’m gonna be here to do it. That’s my mindset right now, so it makes it a little bit easier, with taking the medication. Because they’re, you know, necessary, but I just look at them as aids to divine healing. Really I do. I’m on a journey and it hasn’t ended yet, and I’m looking forward to doing greater things”

Another resident, Michael Brown, also taught us a little bit about outlook, and how it affects where you are going. He came to talk about living with Myotonic Dystrophy, (the most common form of Muscular Dystrophy) and becoming passionate about genealogy about 5 years ago. Reflecting on how he got started with genealogy, he said: “I guess it had to do with thinking how they lived back then and I don’t have to live. Because we always try to do better than we are. Like, if I had children, I would say, do better than how I did.” He explained his pursuit of the past as a way to look forward, remembering the stories of his family that his mother used to tell him: “I just thought that knowing where you came from has a lot to do with [knowing] where you’re going I guess it gives you a different outlook on the future”

Steven Fernandez

Participant Steven Fernandez with his colorful walking stick

Another storyteller, resident Steven Fernandez shared with us a similar sense of knowing where he is going from having a strong sense of who he was, even as a child. Mr. Fernandez grew up in the South Bronx as an independent spirit, learning from and hanging around elders when many kids his age were out in the streets with their friends. Now a little bit older, having lived through many of life’s obstacles, he has sought to become a teacher to youth, similar to those he looked up to as a boy. He carries a big, colorful walking stick with him everywhere he goes, a work in progress. He carves historical figures and themes into the wood and then paints each scene over time until it is completed. In the daily conversations he has with neighborhood kids about the paintings as they progress, he hopes to teach them about patience and history.

We are grateful to have been able to share in the strength, humor, spirit, and wisdom of Mr. Brown, Ms. Jackson, and Mr. Fernandez. If the walls of this building could talk, they would tell many more stories of how individuals live, survive, grow, change, and share. Thank you to Common Ground Times Square for helping the individuals we met today and many more. And thank you to Mr. Brown, Mr. Fernandez and Ms. Jackson for visiting StoryCorps and making your voices heard.

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