My America: John Hockenberry's Roots on New York's West Side

Friday, July 01, 2011 - 04:08 PM

My heritage, folks, relatives, DNA connection to America, call it what you will, has been kicking around this continent since the 1600s. My mom’s side of the family is descended from one of the original Dutch settlers in New York. The Stryker family founded a Dutch Reformed Church on Long Island and for years there was a “Stryker Mansion” on the woody, wilderness edge of Manhattan’s West Side.

My heritage, folks, relatives, DNA connection to America, call it what you will, has been kicking around this continent since the 1600s. My mom’s side of the family is descended from one of the original Dutch settlers in New York. The Stryker family founded a Dutch Reformed Church on long island and for years there was a “Stryker Mansion” on the woody, wilderness edge of Manhattan’s West Side.

You can Google a hazy etching of what is believed to be that house overlooking the Hudson River that was demolished in the 1800s. Today that spot is occupied by the West Side Highway, the patriotic USS Intrepid museum, and a wild strip club built by "Hustler" publisher Larry Flynt. The Intrepid of course helped win World War II, and Flynt of course, helped define free speech in America by winning a landmark case in the U.S. Supreme Court, a milestone possibly not celebrated in any explicit way at the Hustler Strip club. In a particularly fabulous America- style irony, it’s actually possible that porn stars like Jeff Stryker (no relation) might have been celebrated in the club that stands on the old Stryker mansion site.

So my first and most literal answer to the question: “What is My America?” would be that patriotic, tawdry, personal and now completely wilderness-free place where Manhattan’s West 55th Street meets the Hudson River, not far from the Intrepid, the Hustler Club, and a long time ago the Stryker Mansion.

I wish our family had held onto that piece of real estate, but that’s another story. Kind of like the story of my mother’s relatives who grew up more recently in upstate New York near where the Scotch/Irish legend of the Rockefellers began. There was always this story that somehow we were related to John D. (“someone’s great-great-someone or other was the sister of John D’s Grandma and he would always send her flowers each year on her birthday blah blah blah…”).

My grandparents lived in those rolling hills near the Finger Lakes all their lives and I can still smell the musty garage smell or my Grandpa’s magical workshop where he divided his time showing me how to use tools to make wonderful things, telling me about his dreams to be a rich, gilded-age baron like John D. Rockefeller and warning me how bad immigrants were for America. He embodied the fantastical American dreams to strike it rich, the joyful facts of American do-it-yourself craftsmanship and the troublesome American spirit of intolerance that has plagued our national history. So another answer to the “My America” question is in those memories of upstate New York and my grandfather’s contradictions.

My America is also the very personal struggle to find liberation from the obstacles and intolerance associated with disability in this country. It’s a struggle filled with successes and frustrating failures. My America has become more welcoming to people with disabilities in the decades that have passed since it became a tangible issue for me, yet it’s been a difficult task to get people to see the struggle for equity for people with disabilities as part of the broader quest to make good on America’s promise of equality made back in 1776.  Architectural accommodations are routinely evaluated for cost rather than classed as “inalienable rights.” Standards for making facilities accessible to all people are routinely called “excessive government regulations.” There is a principle that accessibility for people with disabilities should apply largely to new construction. Opt-outs on retrofits for existing facilities are routine while aggressive enforcement to achieve compliance relies on hard-to-bring lawsuits by alleged victims.

This set of caveats might have been considered outrageous in the already-Herculean struggle for civil rights. For instance, would the new construction exception be akin to waiting until all people who were slaves at the time of the Emancipation Proclamation died before declaring freedom for African Americans? Would calling architectural modifications for disabled workers be akin to griping about the cost of tearing down “Whites Only/Blacks Only" facilities? Would making the victims sue for their own equality as the exclusive enforcement tool be akin to requiring minority kids back in the 50s and 60s who wanted to integrate public schools in America to hire lawyers in order to get into the classroom, rather than rely on enforcement? 

There’s a long way to go for the promises of equality to apply fully to people with disabilities. Each generation has to ask: what kind of America do we all want to live in? Each generation has to refine what it considers the promise of freedom to be. It is not simply a trip down memory lane to pose and answer the question: What is My America? It is an imperative built into the Constitution, and in a sense the civic responsibility of every citizen.

Of course, I wouldn’t let any of that get in the way of fireworks, grilling parties and picnics. Happy 4th of July.

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Comments [4]

John,

As a learning disabled returning student, I began my frustration with college education about the same time you did, and I had to finally "hire lawyers in order to get into the classroom". The only way I could afford this was that my spouse is my attorney and she was the one encouraging me to complete my education. They just will not come quietly without a fight. The people running disability services at most colleges are usually trained in [public] administration. It's inherent in the nature and culture of the administrative mindset, coupled with a complete ignorance of the law, to be intolerant and indifferent, like guards and prisoners, they can't help it. They seem to internalize the feeling that they are guarding something from the disabled, and we need to delay, deny and ignore because we don't matter and they just don't want to either pay for it or like the image of a fabled Soviet-era Commisar, they simply can't be bothered with it.

Nice piece, now I know why your mom always seemed so tough to me.

Dec. 22 2011 09:28 AM
Mrs. McCray from Atlanta

My America is rooted in its African hertiage and is so very American at the same time. I am from the deep South and I love my Blackness both deeply and in tandem with my American-ness.

Jul. 05 2011 07:12 AM

This thoughtful piece is a perfect opportunity to remind people that if they've never read "Moving Violations - War Zones, Wheelchairs, and Declarations of Independence", John Hockenberry's memoir, they should!

Jul. 02 2011 07:05 PM
kamal

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Jul. 02 2011 11:53 AM

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