Op-ed column: Negative depiction of Park Hill in Amsterdam was incorrect and destructive

I live in Amsterdam’s Park Hill. My family’s roots are in this neighborhood.

I live in Amsterdam. This simple statement is enough to elicit horrified grimaces or a pitying head shake from others.

David Childs would agree. His Viewpoint column (Recent Shooting Cements Amsterdam’s Image as Decaying City, Aug. 30) depicts Amsterdam, specifically the Park Hill neighborhood, as hopeless, backward and tainted. Most disturbingly, he links the neighborhood’s economic problems to its people. Mr. Childs undermines Amsterdam’s most valuable resource: its people.

I live in Amsterdam’s Park Hill. My family’s roots are in this neighborhood, and they extend to the now-closed St. John’s Church, of which I was a member. I acknowledge wholeheartedly that the neighborhood needs attention. There are houses that are not being cared for, absentee landlords and general decay; I do not disagree with Mr. Childs on that point. Many buildings used to house local, family-run businesses; they are now empty or have been converted to housing. There is also a lack of green space; the neighborhood used to feature tree-lined streets.

Hurtful dichotomy

My agreement with Mr. Childs ends with his depiction of Park Hill’s people. Mr. Childs repeatedly references Park Hill’s significant Latino population and suggests that this is the root of the problem. He creates a dichotomy between the original Polish-American population and its current population. He asserts that in Amsterdam, “idle immigrants torment the original settlers,” and in Park Hill, Latinos “are parked in the empty housing stock.”

Childs intends for us to imagine the passive Latino “parked” in a house, whereas “original settlers” would be, supposedly, active members of society. It is dangerous and offensive to suggest that the “original” European immigrants were productive, but Latino immigrants are passive drains on the system. Furthermore, it is simplistic and ignorant to attribute a neighborhood’s or city’s economic decline to an ethnic population. And it is never acceptable to call people “welfare immigrants” or “Hispanic welfare clients.”

According to the stories I’ve heard from my grandparents, this neighborhood was created by Polish-American blue-collar workers who were “as poor as church mice” (my grandfather’s words). They needed a place of their own to live because Amsterdam’s turn-of-the-century population (its “original settlers”) did not want to live near new immigrants. In fact, Park Hill is frequently called derisively or affectionately, depending on who you are — “Polack Hill.” Does any of this sound familiar? Many parallels can be drawn between Amsterdam then and Amsterdam now, including, unfortunately, disrespectful nicknames and ethnic intolerance. It is not productive or in Amsterdam’s best interest to create “us” and “them.” This only results in blame and hostility, not solutions.

Not a prison

When all is said and done, I don’t feel that I live in what David Childs views as “a prison.” I am not imprisoned. I choose to live in Park Hill. I believe what is important is not where one lives, but how one lives. I am educated, and I have a full-time job. I am not naive; I know that these are advantages many of my neighbors do not enjoy. And yes, I am conflicted at times about living in Amsterdam’s Park Hill, particularly after the shooting outside of Slick’s. It deeply shook me and saddened me that a place so integral to my family’s history could be reduced to something so sordid.

What keeps me here? First of all, I rent a beautiful apartment in a well-maintained house. And I know that, for the most part, I live among good people. Park Hill is a diverse neighborhood, filled with families, singles and the elderly; there is no single term to classify its residents. Park Hill may not be a fashionable, high-income neighborhood, but it is filled with small kindnesses that Mr. Childs did not experience.

Park Hill is where passersby compliment me on the flowers in my garden. This is where people visit with my elderly neighbor who sits on the porch in nice weather. This is where children ride their bikes down the hill and scream with laughter. Park Hill’s people appreciate beauty and want a good life for themselves and their children. Park Hill holds a vibrant history, but it also holds a future. Let us not discount what is possible, and, certainly, let us treat others with the dignity that we all need to flourish.

Thankful for blessings

David Childs ends his column with an image of a woman pulling weeds from her sidewalk. In his eyes, she is one of the few remaining people in Park Hill who do yard chores. Her simple act of home maintenance contrasts with the dilapidation Childs has described; it seems pointless, he seems to suggest. He imagines that “she was thanking God for what little she had.”

That woman pulling weeds from the sidewalk could very well have been me. If it was, he is only partially correct. I was thanking God for the multitude of blessings He has given me, including the blessing of the good people of Amsterdam’s Park Hill.

Cindy Dybas lives in Amsterdam. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

Categories: Opinion

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