West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Volume 77, Number 11 | August 15 - 25, 2007

Talking Point

HUAC to Hudson Park: A brief history of socialism

By Henry J. Stern 

It was with great surprise that I read The Villager headline in the Aug. 8 issue, describing a public hearing which took place on May 3. The Page 1 headline read: “Hudson River HUAC: Park foes all ‘socialists’ ”.

First, let me tell your readers who are under 50 years old what HUAC is. The initials refer to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, whose name was changed to the Committee on Internal Security in 1969. Six years later, the committee was merged into the House Judiciary Committee. On the American left, the committee is stigmatized as a hateful group of witch hunters who smeared innocent progressives. To a considerable extent, those charges are true, and the abolition of the committee was no loss. However, people should know, since these events happened too long ago for most of us to recall, or before our birth, that there were Communist spies in high positions in American government, and Senate and House committees played a role in their detection and exposure. If this had not been true, we might not have had President Nixon.

As far as socialism is concerned, I don’t think that is a bad word. I have been a member of the Liberal Party for over a half century. The Liberal Party emerged from the Communist-dominated American Labor Party in 1944. The A.L.P. were, to some extent, successors to the old Socialist Party, which ran first Eugene V. Debs (for whom radio station WEVD was named) and then Norman Thomas (now a New York City high school) for the presidency. To me, democratic socialism is a live and vibrant ideology, for young people, of course. Sadly, the name was kidnaped by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the National Socialist German Workers Party.

What I meant by using the word “socialists” was to describe people who wanted to achieve the goal of a public benefit, without considering how the law required it to be paid for. It had nothing to do with public ownership of the means of production or totalitarianism. In the case of Hudson River Park, the state law, sponsored by West Side lawmakers, which created the park in 1998 mandated that the park be self-supporting financially. The state and city would pay for the construction of the park, and receive equal representation on its board, but the operating expenses were intended to be raised by revenue from commercial use of certain parts of the property, which were designated in the law. Chelsea Piers is an example of a commercial recreation, entertainment and banquet area. The Pier 40 garage is also a major moneymaker for the park.

This model was followed by the state law creating the Brooklyn Bridge Park in 2002 — although the city did not achieve equality in representation on its board, Governor Pataki having waited until Mayor Giuliani and his Parks commissioner left office in order to make his deal.

Over the past few years, conflicting interests of community representatives and commercial developers have made it impossible to create major new facilities in Hudson River Park, which may or may not be a good thing. Under the law, no single person makes these decisions. The choice of land uses, if any, will be made formally by the trustees, and is likely to be followed by lawsuits, whatever they decide. Only deep pockets can withstand the litigation-intensive process that presently pervades parks problems.

The enormous turnout at the Pier 40 public hearing in May harked back to an earlier era, where large numbers of people demonstrated for peace and racial equality. The multigenerational crowd at P.S. 41 had a far more local agenda: The parents wanted their kids, who were present in large numbers, with signs, to be able to play ball.

This is an entirely reasonable demand, for capitalist or socialist parents, and both groups who wanted to build on the pier promised to increase, not reduce, ball fields and other recreational space.

On other issues, some speakers, understandably, expressed the viewpoint that there should be no concern over revenues, and that the park need not be self-supporting. Their remedy should be to get the state Legislature to change the law, eliminating the requirement, not to belabor the trustees for something totally outside their authority.

To conclude, our night at P.S. 41 was a wonderful evening; there is nothing wrong with democratic socialism; a great deal of pizza was consumed by young and old; and in New York State, for better or worse, laws are written, amended and repealed by the Legislature.

Hudson River Park, a work in progress, is open in many sections, while other sections remain under construction. Under the leadership of James Ortenzio, Charles Dorkey III and now our new chairperson, Diana Taylor, the park has moved forward as an important Manhattan site for active and passive recreation.

Stern is a member, Hudson River Park Trust board of directors

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