I believe in magic: Some thoughts for the new year

By Arthur Z. Schwartz

I turned 55 in 2008. Yet the events of the year made me feel a whole lot younger, and a whole lot more hopeful about the world my children are growing into. Perhaps it has something to do with memories. Perhaps it has something to do with dreams and magic. 

Dreams and magic are not just the province of children. Their importance, to both children and adults, came cascading into my consciousness as I sat with my youngest children at a performance of “Mary Poppins” at the end of the year.

When I was a child, in the 1950s and the early ’60s, life seemed full of dreams and hope. But our world came crashing down in the 1960s. Though hyped as a period of experimentation and flower power, it really was a time when many of my generation sought to escape — into drugs, “alternative lifestyles” and angry politics. What I lost touch with, until this past year, was that under it all there was still a dream and a hope for something magic to make things right. 

The year 2008 was full of images from the 1960s. I was 10 when John Kennedy was shot in Dallas. I was 15 when I stood on line for seven hours to view Bobby Kennedy’s coffin, the same year that Martin Luther King was killed. Then, suddenly last year, there was Caroline Kennedy, leading a tribute to her dad and uncles at the Democratic Convention — the first time their names were mentioned in many years. 

Most important, there was Barack Obama, challenging the Party Elders in the spirit of Bobby Kennedy and evoking the hope that Bobby spoke about, and that got snuffed out much too quickly. 

There was Barack Obama speaking as the Democratic presidential nominee on the 45th anniversary of

Martin Luther King’s immortalization of his “Dream” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. 

The Obama campaign, for so many, raised the prospect, once again of hope. For so many disaffected Americans, of all colors, ages and religions, something magical was happening. You could feel its power not just in Obama’s words, but in the faces of those who listened to him. The belief in the magic spread, infectiously. 

For all the awful things that accompanied Obama’s victory in 2008, like the scurrilous doings of hedge-fund swindlers, mortgage manipulators and unprincipled “role models,” like Eliot Spitzer and John Edwards, the marking of the 4,000th American death in Iraq and the self-interested term-limit extension enacted by the “leaders” of New York City, most Americans, and New Yorkers, ended the year on a note of hope. 

The real-estate bubble burst, and the financial and credit markets with it, but those about to take charge seem to believe that strong foundations can be built from the bottom up, not from the top down. 

I had a 1960s-like moment on Election Day. Unlike many of my fellow Obama supporters, I spent Election Day in West Hempstead, helping a long-shot Democratic candidate in his run against state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. I spent the morning periodically surrounded by meaty thugs, sent by Skelos, challenging my right to hand out literature and threatening to get me arrested, and then threatened by police who kept saying they were going to have to arrest me. With a smile, knowing that my side was going to win this time, I invited them to arrest me. The cops backed off, and the thugs returned. At one point, I was told that people like me were going to get Obama elected — and that this would lead to his assassination and riots in black communities. Surely, the next four years will be challenging. 

And the passage of Proposition 8 in California and the deal almost made by state Senator Malcolm Smith to write off a vote on gay marriage in return for support as majority leader show us how much work remains to be done. 

The year 2008 was a year for introspection, too. How many of us either took measures to cash in on the bloated gains caused by the real-estate market’s excesses, or were envious of those who figured out a way to case in? How many of us in the Village who were happy with the increase we realized in the value of our own homes were also saddened by the loss of local businesses like Hunan Pan, Sun Chu Mei and the local laundromats that could no longer afford the high rents? 

I thought too about what a wonderful community we live in on the Lower West Side. We have an involved community, fighting for schools, cleaning up parks, fighting overdevelopment and tolerating diversity. A community full of dreams, and hope, willing to buck the tide. A community where Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary, and turnout for the presidential election exceeded 90 percent. 

Happy 2009, friends and neighbors. May our new year be half as amazing as the last. May the light and power of our hope and optimism give us the strength, wisdom, joy and grace we need to sustain ourselves in these uncertain times. 

Schwartz is the Democratic state committeeman for the Village, Soho and Tribeca, and is chairperson, Community Board 2 Waterfront Committee.