Volume 80, Number 2 | June 9-15, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Villager photo by Lesley Sussman

Kathryn Donaldson with the certificate of appreciation she recently received from Scott Stringer, the Manhattan borough president, for her volunteerism.

‘It’s just the way I am’; Quality of life is her life

By Lesley Sussman

Volunteering is almost second nature to Kathryn Donaldson who, for the past 12 years, has served without any compensation as president of the 340-member Bedford Barrow Commerce Block Association.

The 66-year-old retired schoolteacher and school librarian has been involved with community service going way back to her days with the Yonkers school system, and she shows no signs of cutting back on her busy volunteer schedule.

“It’s just the way I am,” the Yonkers-born-and-raised West Village resident said in a recent interview. “I’ve always done volunteer work even when I was teaching. I think you’re born with that desire to help.”

Donaldson, who is one of the founding members of the block association, has been with the community group now for 36 years, and has been the moving force behind everything from planting and maintenance of trees and flowers in the neighborhood, to ridding mailboxes and buildings of graffiti.

Her love affair with the Village began when she first moved into the neighborhood at age 30.

“I was a teacher at the time and I had had it with suburbia and decided to move into Manhattan,” she related. “I really always loved the city. And while many teachers were moving to Nyack and Rockland County, I thought that I just needed to do something different. I wasn’t going to leave my job, because I’d already been teaching then for nine years, so I did the reverse commute.” 

Donaldson said she checked out apartments in Chelsea and on the Upper West Side, but back in the mid-’70s, found those neighborhoods “a bit too dicey for me with bums sleeping in the streets.” It was the cozy and secure, one-bedroom apartment at 81 Bedford St. in the West Village that she immediately fell in love with and still calls home today.

It was about a month after having moved into her new digs that Donaldson was, once again, bitten by the volunteer bug.

“It was the second meeting of the Bedford Barrow Commerce Block Association,” she recalled, “and I went to it. They were talking about problems with dog litter. They needed people for their social committee, so I said, ‘O.K.’ I got involved right then and there, and I’ve been with them for 36 years.”

It was just the beginning of her volunteer life in the Village. Her community service today not only includes her work with the BBC, but she is also the treasurer of the Greenwich Village Block Associations, of which her group was a founding member.

Donaldson is also the treasurer and a patrol leader for the Christopher St. Patrol, which works with the Guardian Angels to keep an eye on the area from Seventh Ave. South to the Hudson River. And she currently serves as acting chairperson of The Caring Community, a group that raises money for and operates four local senior centers.

There’s still more. She and her association are responsible for the installation of historic plaques on any property worthy of historic designation; she helps write and publish a neighborhood newsletter; and is behind various beautification projects that add to the picturesque look and feel of the community. 

Donaldson said that one of her most challenging volunteer efforts to date has been the replacement of many of the unattractive aluminum “cobra head” lampposts with historic reproductions of the old, cast-iron Bishop’s Crook lampposts that adorn Greenwich Village’s streets.

“I actually bought them and dealt with all the city agencies to have them put in,” she said. “I started this project through the Greenwich Village Block Associations in 1999, and it took until 2004 to finish it.”

Donaldson not only initiated that project, but almost single-handedly nudged it along. She organized and led house tours to help pay for the streetlamps, got a local restaurant to sponsor a benefit for the project, and even convinced the city to come up with some matching grants.

But why lampposts?

“To me, beautification is the key to a livable community,” Donaldson said. “That’s why I spend a lot of time with tree guards, trees, flowers and graffiti removal. I just think that if you have a neighborhood that looks inviting, people will respect it.”

As if all this isn’t enough to keep her busy, Donaldson is also actively involved in the planning of the neighborhood’s annual street fair. Over the years, the street fair has raised more than $400,000, with much of the funds going to help various community organizations and to help finance local improvement projects.

Donaldson also helps to plan and coordinate the annual Hudson River Boat Ride; hosts a yearly neighborhood Christmas and Chanukah party for kids and adults; and, through her organization, also reaches out to other sections of Greenwich Village to help them start block associations such as the one she heads.

All of her efforts recently netted Donaldson a certificate of appreciation from Borough President Scott Stringer, who cited her and the BBC for their long-term efforts to improve the quality of life in the Village.

Donaldson said she was pleased with the honor, but insisted that without the help of Bob Oliver, who served as the first president of the block association, BBC Treasurer Bill Lavelle and other members of the group, none of these accomplishments could have been made possible.

Why does she take on so much, when most people would be satisfied with volunteering for just one cause or organization?

“Believe it or not, I say no to things,” she said. “It’s just that I’m not working now and can do more than when I worked. I think part of it is that I’m very well organized and I’m good with time, so I can get stuff done. It may be tiring, but it’s not overwhelming.”

There is also a loyalty factor involved that sometimes prompts her to volunteer, she explained.

“There are people who are in charge of things who ask me to be part of it, and I feel a loyalty to them,” she said. “I just can’t say no, because I know there are people who sometimes help me when they really don’t want to.”

Donaldson admitted, however, that there are times when she does say “No.”

“There are some folks who expect you to do everything for them,” she said, “And I really don’t do that. I tell them that I will assist them with stuff, but I’m not going to do it all.”

With all this going for her, along with Donaldson’s extensive contacts and popularity in the community, why, then, doesn’t she run for public office?

She laughed at the question.

“People have asked me to run for office, but it’s not my thing,” she said. “If you’re in office, then you really can’t say no. I can say no, now. So I know better.”

Looking toward the future, there is one main issue which now most concerns her, and that has to do with preventing more bars and restaurants from coming into the area and driving out small businesses that provide local residents with their basic, everyday needs.

“If business owners had their way, I swear that they would open bars and restaurants everywhere in the Village, and we would have no peace and quiet,” she said. “I think that when you can’t find a dry cleaner or somebody to repair your shoes, or a card store, and all you can find is another restaurant or bar, then you don’t have a neighborhood, but lots of screaming and noise instead.”


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