The Lucerne’s Opposing Organizers

The key leaders in the clash over neighborhood homeless shelters are four UWS working mothers

21 Sep 2020 | 03:03

In the fight over use of the Lucerne Hotel as a shelter, these women are on opposing sides. But in many ways, that is where the differences end.

They are all working mothers, each with two kids. Their kids all attend Upper West Side schools.

None were particularly engaged with local politics before the pandemic, and all four became leaders by happenstance of the groups arguing, either, to get the 283 men out of the Lucerne or to welcome them with respect.

All four had busy careers when the pandemic struck. On one side are a professor at a prestigious business school and a longtime West Side business owner; on the other, an anesthesiologist and the managing director of compliance at a global bank.

“I do miss my career,” said Dr. Megan Martin, the anesthesiologist, who explains that the pandemic shut down her work, which tossed her back into what she called a “housewife” role but also gave her time to serve as founding president of the West Side Community Organization, which has threatened to sue Mayor Bill de Blasio if he doesn’t move the men from the Lucerne.

Similarly, Professor Corinne Low says she had time to co-found Upper West Side Open Hearts, which advocates “supporting our neighbors in temporary hotel shelters,” because her classes in business economics and public policy at the Wharton School in Philadelphia had moved online and she was no longer commuting.

There certainly is an intersection between Low’s professional and community work. “Her research,” the Wharton School says on its website, “brings together applied microeconomic theory with lab and field experiments to understand the determinants of who gets how much across gender and age lines.”

For her part, Martin has a master’s degree in public health along with her MD and had been interested in infectious diseases as a specialty until realizing that this required a lot more travel away from kids and family. At least, it did until this year.

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Family is clearly central to these newly minted activists. Low had to cut a conversation with a reporter short the other afternoon because the kids - that is her kids, not her students - were waiting for her to order pizza.

Martin arranged to meet to discuss the Lucerne right after she parked her stroller. From her home on 79th St. she walks, or wheels, one of her daughters every day to the playground at PS 87 on 77th St., right past the fitness club started on the Upper West Side 20 years ago by Heather Gunn-Rivera, a co-founder with Low of Upper West Side Open Hearts.

Gunn-Rivera’s daughters went to PS 87, too, and the younger still does. Yet Martin and Gunn-Rivera have never met.

Indeed, this story really begins, as do so many tales of political uprising and division, on Facebook. It was over the summer that Alison Morpurgo, who lives on West 71st St. and is managing director for cross-border legal at UBS Financial Services, says she noticed a marked deterioration.

“It wasn’t just more people sleeping on the street,” she recalled, “it wasn’t just the garbage accumulating. It was starting to feel insane. I was being approached more than I ever had on the street. It was just getting to be much more concerning about safety. I saw a guy carrying a knife. It was coming to the point you couldn’t just ignore it.”

A friend invited her to join a group on Facebook. “There were maybe 100 members,” she said. But the combination of concerns quickly drove membership in what came to be known as Upper West Siders for Safer Streets, which now has 15,000 members.

It wasn’t exactly the Arab Spring. But people who had never met in the neighborhood found common cause through the Facebook group. Morpurgo met Martin and the other founders of West Side Community Organization online. “We realized we could sit here on Facebook, or we could do something,” she said.

So they raised a lot of money, started the West Side Community Organization and hired Randy Mastro, a well-known lawyer and former aide to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

“Values Were Tested”

Meantime, Low, Gunn-Rivera and others watched with growing alarm the tone of some of these neighbors and how they were being presented as the voice of the community. “The neighborhood’s values were tested,” proclaimed the New York Times in August.

“This visceral response was really alarming,” said Gunn-Rivera. Upper West Side Open Hearts was launched as an antidote.

At this point, the distance between the two groups seems to be more of emphasis. Both sides say they are committed to the Upper West Side. Both sides agree that the men at the Lucerne are owed respect and proper services, although members of Open Hearts tend to start here, while the West Side Community Organization combines this with a focus on crime and street life.

Both sides agree the mayor has bungled the situation and that the short-term crisis was an outgrowth of a long-term struggle for adequate affordable housing.

The trouble really gets going when they characterize each other.

“The newer upper middle class families felt like this belongs to them,” said Low. “We are here to say New York belongs to everybody. This neighborhood is not yours. This used to be the site of SRO’s. Going further back, this was the site of Seneca Village. Our goal is to go back to those roots as an inclusive community and to stop this transformation we feel has been in progress ... If you’re not able to handle that maybe you’re the one who needs to be transferred.”

Others in both groups emphasize a different skill they teach their kids and would like to stress more in this neighborhood argument.

“I don’t think we are on a different team,” said Martin. “We all love our community. We are probably not having communication. I’ve never had a personal discussion with anyone on their leadership team. It something I’d love to have.”

Gunn-Rivera said she thinks the pandemic cut off neighborhood encounters that might have bridged some of the gaps. “More conversations would end up happening if we saw each other face-to-face,” she said, noting that moments like school drop-off at PS 87 were being tightly regimented to preserve social distance. “We aren’t in the school yard to have those conversations.”

“We all love our community. We are probably not having communication. I’ve never had a personal discussion with anyone on their leadership team. It something I’d love to have.” Dr. Megan Martin of West Side Community Organization