My first paid work experience began in NYC’s Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) back in the summer of 1978. The city was in financial ruin, everything was broken or in ruins and it seemed it would be that way forever. Citizens still did everything collectively.
As Sanitation Counselor, along with nine other SYEP youth, we were assigned to a six-week internship at El Barrio Chamber of Commerce in East Harlem. At the time Mr. Louis Malave the Executive Director, served as my supervisor. During the first week, entering the second floor office of the terra cotta-colored brownstone, I walked into Mr. Malave admonishing an elderly woman. Raising his voice, he pulled out the first drawer from a metal file cabinet, to show her a ton of files. He then started to say, “you think you’re the only one with problems, all these people have problems.” He waved me over, and said “Lopez, come here and help this woman,”
Mrs. Daskalakis, is a name I will never forget as long as I shall live. She cried as she asked me to accompany her to see firsthand, the living conditions that she and her wheelchair-bound daughter called home. She lived in an apartment located three blocks away in a six-story tenement building. The building’s hallways were dark with a smoky smell due to numerous in-home fires. In fact, Mrs. Daskalakis was one of three remaining families left in the building.
Living conditions were so bad in her apartment that she and her daughter were reduced to spending the nights sleeping in the shoe repair store she owned on the next block. Outraged at to what I witnessed, I urged Mr. Malave to do something now, and he did. He sent me on a mission to make a case for help at the upcoming community planning board meeting. At the meeting, I was given time to present the problem and requested immediate assistance. Notes were taken, promises were made, I was acknowledged for being articulate, and thanked for attending.
Needless to say, nothing happened. So at the following month’s meeting, I called out every board member who agreed to do something, but didn’t. By now, Mr. Malave was tired of my righteous indignation and did what he could to avoid me. The day before the end of my time with SYEP, I visited Mrs. Daskalakis who informed me that no one from the community planning board reached out. Furious, I stormed back to Mr. Malave’s office feeling like I failed at my first job.
“You know what you have to do, Tony? You have to go down to City Hall and demand to speak with the Mayor, take your friends with you—and don’t come back until you see him!” He gave me enough subway tokens for round trip travel for the ten of us and off to City Hall we went. Once there, I approached the police officer who was posted by City Hall’s side entrance and told him who I was and what I was there to do. He saw the contingent of young people behind me and agreed to only let me enter. The others took the rest of the day off as I proceeded into the people’s house. Naturally, I didn’t get to speak with the Mayor, but the person I spoke to put a call into a Deputy Commissioner at the NYC Dept. of Buildings and sent me down the block to 280 Broadway for a meeting.
After presenting my case, I left with a promise from the Deputy Commissioner that they would look into it. And with that final act, I ended my SYEP internship and took time to enjoy the end of summer before starting my sophomore year of high school. A month later, I returned to the corner of 104th Street and Lexington Ave and was shocked to see a chain and padlock on the entrance door with a sign that read: “This Building is Condemned.”
I walked around the corner to Mrs. Daskalakis’ Shoe Repair store where she and her daughter greeted me with a big smile and hug and told me that that the city had relocated her and the other two families and shuttered the dilapidated structure. I couldn’t believe what I was able to accomplish in my time at my first job ever! As I turned to leave, Mrs. Daskalakis grabbed my arm and gave me a free pair of shoelaces as tears strolled down both our faces.
New York City in 1978 was a place where everyone had a stake, and where everyone was a full citizen. Neighborhoods are filled with youth waiting to build or rebuild the city—one block at a time—and in glorious defiance to entrenched interest. Let’s put youth to work and see what happens.