Archive for the ‘neighborhood’ Category

Secede from the Union over Farm Food? Maine Town Passes Landmark Local Food Ordinance

April 25, 2011

In March, Sedgwick, a small town on the coast of Maine, passed a “Local Food and Self-Governance Ordinance” that says that farmers selling directly from their farms to customers don’t need to be licensed or inspected by state and federal governments. The ordinance also exempts foods made in home kitchens from licensing and inspection.

Sedgwick farmer Bob St. George points out that “until the last couple generations, we didn’t need a special license or new facility each time we wanted to sell something to our neighbors. Small farmers and producers have been getting squeezed out in the name of food safety, yet it’s the industrial food that is causing food borne illness, not us.”

The ordinance is online ( to make it easy for other towns to follow Sedgwick’s example. However, one of the ordinance’s most interesting aspects is the declaration of (possible) independence:

The foundation for making and adoption of this law is the peoples’ fundamental and inalienable right to govern themselves, and thereby secure their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Any attempt to use other units and levels of government to preempt, amend, alter or overturn this Ordinance or parts of this Ordinance shall require the Town to hold public meetings that explore the adoption of other measures that expand local control and the ability of citizens to protect their fundamental and inalienable right to self-government. It is declared that those other measures may legitimately include the partial or complete separation of the Town from the other units and levels of government that attempt to preempt, amend, alter, or overturn this Ordinance.

Is selling food at a farm stand an inalienable right? It made me laugh at first, but here on Staten Island, it seems that neighbors aren’t allowed to sell, swap, or even give away their backyard produce except under of cover of night, over the back fence. That can’t be right. Bushels of figs, apples, and persimmons rot on the ground every fall while folks in the housing projects can’t afford an old peach in the local bodega.


The Unhealthy Neighborhood

April 25, 2011

A few years ago, it became obvious to food pantries and organizations like City Harvest that it wasn’t enough to just give food away.  They needed to give people healthy food. People in low-income neighborhoods have high levels of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes, at least partly because they can’t afford fresh fruits and vegetables.

The Mobile Market at the Stapleton Houses in January 2011. Russian-speaking volunteer (and founder of Software Management News) Nicholas Zvegintzov faces the camera.

City Harvest now delivers hundreds of pound of free fruits and vegetables twice a month to Melrose in the Bronx; Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn; and Stapleton on Staten Island. They also promote good nutrition in local schools, do healthy cooking classes and demos, sponsor health screenings and outreach, and work with “Healthy Corner Stores” that agree to sell at least a dozen types of produce.

However, researchers seem to have found another wrinkle in what makes a neighborhood unhealthy. In the “The Poverty Clinic” (New Yorker, March 21, 2011), Paul Tough writes about the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study that assessed the health of patients enrolled in California’s Kaiser HMO between 1994 and 1998. At the same time as the researchers tracked health outcomes, they also surveyed their clients about ten adverse childhood experiences such as parental divorce, physical and sexual abuse, emotional neglect, and violence in their homes and schools.

The results were scary. The higher the ACE score, the worse the outcome. Compared to people with no history of ACEs, people with ACE scores of four or higher were twice as likely to smoke, to have been diagnosed with cancer, and to have heart disease. Even more scary: Patients with ACE scores of seven or higher who didn’t smoke, didn’t drink to excess, and weren’t overweight still had a risk for ischemic heart disease that was 360 percent higher than for patients with zero scores.

Not all researchers agree that traumatic childhood experiences and later poor health correlate as strongly as the studies seem to show, says Tough. However, it’s something to keep in mind when healthy-food advocates try to measure how their interventions affect the health of a child, a family, or a neighborhood.


November 5, 2008

Victor and I thought that our good deed for the day would be delivering Meals on Wheels to housebound folks.

We were in the car when the phone rang. Victor’s cell phone is connected via Bluetooth to the audio system. “Hello?” Victor said.

“Are you home?” Judy, one of our friends from church, asked.

“No, we’re on our way to Meals on Wheels,” Victor said.

“Oh,” Judy said. “I was hoping…. There’s a cat with its head stuck in the fence in my backyard, and I’ve been going up and down the street trying to find someone to help but no one is home, and—“

Victor started turning down the hill. “Okay, I’m on Castleton. I can be there in a few minutes.”

“Thank you!” Judy said.

Judy met us at the street with a big pair of lopping shears in her hand. “It’s been in the backyard for an hour, I couldn’t just leave it but I can’t see how to get its collar off. I’m always shooing it away because it stalks my birds.” As a matter of fact, there was a collection of birds twittering merrily around a bird feeder at the other end of the backyard.

Victor got down on his hands and knees against the fence. Yep, a skinny white and gray cat with a blue collar had its head stuck through one of the chain-link fence squares.

I stood in the background with Judy, listening to it whimper. “Do you have any Vaseline or mineral oil?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said, but before she could check, Victor said, “Okay.”

“Did you get it out?” Judy asked.

“I got the collar off,” Victor said and handed it to her.

“Hmm. Its name is Snaggletooth according to the tag,” she said.

“Calm down, kitty,” he said to the cat. It was now wriggling on its back with its claws wrapped around his fingers, and as he tried to pull it free, it made a few strangled “grrrt” sounds.

“Do you have any wire clippers?” I asked Judy.

“Wire clippers? No,” she said tentatively.

“Give me the hedge clippers,” Victor said before she could go look for dikes, and she handed them to him.

“Let go, kitty,” he said. “Don’t put your head in the way, dammit.”

We heard a loud click. “There,” he said, and slowly pulled the cat out, belly up, from the fence.

“She’s just a kitten, really,” he said, as she ran around the edges of Judy’s backyard, mewling, and finally jumped over the fence, presumably heading for home.

“Thank you!” Judy said to Victor, and to me, “I’m glad I didn’t have to call the Fire Department, there isn’t much they could do with their ladders with the cat on the ground.”

As we left, she was calling the phone number on the collar.

“Aren’t cats supposed to use their whiskers to figure out whether they can fit through a hole?” I asked when we were back in the car.

“I can’t imagine how she got her head through that fence,” Victor said. “It must have been one of those birds, taunting her from the other side: ‘Nyeh, nyeh, try to get me NOW!”

Click here to see Sam Gross’s infamous Meals on Wheels (and cats) cartoon.

Leading by dragging my feet…

November 3, 2008
The diseased oak

The diseased oak

We had our building and grounds committee meeting last Thursday night, and it went pretty well. Sort of. Well, maybe not so great. Here’s what happened.

The main agenda item was to decide on our budget request for next year. We foresaw three major expenses:

  • Tree pruning and tree removal. Our trees are dropping dead branches onto the sidewalk and neighbors’ roofs (and some of their dead branches are threatening to fall on our roofs). The quotes we got ranged from $4,500 to $11,000 and were not quite apples-to-apples. I was given the task of asking the three tree services to come up with comparable bids and find out if they could break the job up so that we could do some this year and some next year.
  • Stopping the mortar in the church from falling on the choir’s and rector’s heads. This can be done by knocking off loose mortar and repointing (replacing the mortar between the joints) where necessary. The quote, from Company X, a respected restoration firm that we hired to replaster and repaint the outside of the rectory and repair our tower last year, is $19,500.
  • Fix the rectory basement. Four things are wrong:
    1. The plaster ceiling is falling down.
    2. Some areas of the brick (yes, brick) foundation need to be repointed.
    3. Raccoons and other animals can get in through the walls.


The mortar problem inside the church: Twenty or thirty years ago, one of my predecessors hired a company to repoint the inside of the church. Unfortunately, this company used the wrong type of mortar. Restoration companies now know that if you use hard cement to replace the softer mortar used 100 years ago, the hard mortar comes off the walls, sometimes taking pieces of stone with it.

The soft mortar, on the other hand, lets the building breathe moisture in and out. It’s designed to be “sacrificial,” in fact–rather than let the water infiltrate the stone and crack it, the mortar captures the water and it falls out (eventually) instead of the stone. Twenty or thirty years ago, most contractors didn’t know this.

The front of the rectory
The front of the rectory

Gaps in the rectory walls: For some reason, it was fashionable 100 years ago to move enormous buildings here and there. In our case, the rectory was spun 90 degrees on its foundation so that the front door faced the driveway rather than the street. The workmen didn’t tie the joists of the top three floors to the foundation–since the weight of the building itself keeps it in place, they probably didn’t see the need.

However, over time, it appears that gaps opened up between the building and the foundation. There had been serious water infiltration for many years (it stopped after we cleaned out all the leaders, gutters, and drains around the building as per Property Support manager Michael Rebic’s recommendation) and probably some areas at ground level rotted away.

If there were no raccoons, squirrel, and possums on Staten Island, the gaps wouldn’t matter that much. However, soon after our new rector and his family moved in, so did two raccoons, at least one of whom turned out to be rabid. (Flo of Critter Ridder trapped them both and took them to be tested; unfortunately, testing means taking out brain tissue, so that was the end for them.)


We have a quote for $26,000 to repair the rectory basement by Company X and a second quote for half that by a local company that we like a lot (Company Y), but not for historically sensitive work. Company Y doesn’t have expertise in restoring old buildings.

I didn’t even bring Company Y’s quote to the meeting because I don’t believe they’re qualified to do the rectory basement work. Their proposal calls for putting in a dropped ceiling that encapsulates the falling plaster ceiling, which would be fine except that it hides the gaps in the walls instead of fixing them. (I can just imagine the animals dashing around in the airspace between the old ceiling and the new one….)

Company X’s proposal calls for removing the plaster, adding wood blocking around the periphery to tie the building to the foundation, and closing off animal access. However, it didn’t address the missing mortar, which Company Y did put in their proposal.

Company X, with their restoration expertise, knows that they have to test the mortar in the church and replace it with an equivalent soft mortar. They’ll automatically make the same assumption in the rectory basement. Company Y, on the other hand, would have to be told to test the mortar and we’d have to supervise them to ensure they use the right mortar.

Here’s the problem: Two of the committee members really, really want to use Company Y. In fact, one of the two–a building contractor who does excellent work in his area of expertise and donates a lot of time to the church–tried to force the issue. He sees me as obstructive (and he’s correct), but I feel like the mom who won’t get a dog for her kids: Who’s going to take care of the dog? Not the kids.

In the case of the rectory, who’s going to make sure the job is done correctly? If we don’t hire experts, it’s going to be me, and I don’t have the time or the knowledge.

At the meeting, we decided that the rector and I will go through the basement again with Company X’s project manager and ask him about repointing and whether encapsulating most of the ceiling might be better than pulling it all down.

But long-term, I think there’s a better solution: Send the two dissenters to school. The Episcopal Diocese offers historic preservation seminars and conferences, and the rector agrees that it would be a great idea to send them and anyone else who’s interested.

It’s good to have dissenters. Anyone who cares enough to argue is valuable to a committee like ours, and I expect one or both of them to become committee chairs after me. But my bottom line has always been, “In 2108, I don’t want Building & Grounds cursing us for the stupid decisions we made in 2008, like we curse our predecessors.”

Sometimes, I’ve noticed, if you slow down, the right answer comes along in its own time. We’ll see.