In Memoriam (Mr. Basil Paterson)

One of New York’s greatest citizens passed away earlier this week, and for me, it hit home on a personal level.

Basil Paterson was a power in the politics of New York City and State. He was one of “The Four Horsemen“, the men generally credited with ruling Harlem and black New York for several decades — a matter of controversy, even today, amongst media critics.

The Four Horsemen

The Four Horsemen

 

I have had the pleasure of knowing all these icons, and worked for one them. Yet Basil Paterson was a true inspiration to me throughout my 40 year career in radio.

It was many, many years ago, at an event the fog of memory obscures. I was there covering it, with my trusty tape recorder and microphone with the WLIB-WBLS logo. I was at the time, still a kid, a bit wet behind the ears. At the end of the event, Basil Paterson called me over for a private chat. He said that he’d been following my work for a while, and he liked what I was doing. He urged me to continue to hone my skills, and he predicted great things for me.

I left that room on Cloud Nine. This was, after all, Basil Paterson!

During his life, he served as a New York state senator, deputy mayor of New York City, a labor negotiator, federal mediator, and New York’s secretary of state.

Even these impressive accomplishments don’t tell the whole story of Basil Paterson.

He had, as many might describe it, the common touch. For many years after he first encouraged me to move forward in my career, I would see him at events or press conferences. After a time, our handshakes turned to hugs. More often than not, he would talk to me about issues that were brought up on my talk show, and his insights weren’t just valuable, they were precious. I was among the many who were disappointed when he decided not to run for mayor against Ed Koch in 1985. There was a widespread belief that he could have beaten Koch that year. Four years later, ironically enough, another member of the Four Horsemen, David Dinkins, toppled Koch in the 1989 Democratic primary.

During that same period, I met and became friends with Basil Paterson’s son David. In fact, I was the first person to interview him after he announced he would run for the state senate seat his father held more than a decade earlier. I saw the pride in the elder Paterson’s face when his son became Lieutenant Governor, and later the state’s first black Governor.

David Paterson sworn in

 

David Paterson inherited his father’s concern for the plight of the poor, and his time as Governor spoke to that more than  most would admit, even now.

I saw Basil Paterson a few times last year at various events. His warmth toward me was the same as it was decades earlier. His passing is only partly about the four men who dominated Harlem politics for a generation. It’s about a kind, sophisticated, insightful human being who touched the lives of many, many people.

Basil PATERSON.

I am only one of them. Rest in Peace, Mr. Paterson.

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Protesting James Brown in Harlem (excerpt from the upcoming book, “The Slow Death Of American Radio”)

I’ve always felt a visceral connection to Harlem, the world’s most famous black community. Maybe that’s because Harlem is where I began my radio career.

The Harlem of 1973 was completely different from the Harlem people know today.

Frederick Douglas Circle, Harlem NY

Frederick Douglas Circle, Harlem NY

The community was, along with the rest of the city, sliding backward, much of it due to the heroin epidemic.

By 1973, the drug seemed to have Harlem firmly in it’s powdery grip. It was into this world that I first began covering news.

It was a world where Sylvia’s, the famous soul food bistro, was little more than  a lunch counter. Mrs. Sylvia Woods, a great and gracious lady, still worked behind the counter. It was where we went for breakfast when we could afford it. There was also a Chinese restaurant where Sylvia’s Also now stands. Old timers in the neighborhood told me that Ho Chi Minh, the leader of North Vietnam, used to work there. I was never sure if this was true, but the guy who told me certainly thought so.

Sylvia and Herbert Woods

Sylvia and Herbert Woods

 

The Harlem of the 1970s was full of people who had lived there most if not all of their lives. Yet it was the white powder, which some pronounced “hair-on” that cast a pall over the community.

Heroin addict

It was a time when cabbies would have preferred driving into the Hudson River rather than taking a fare north of 96th St.

My first assignment, not long after I made the transition from intern to paid reporter, was to cover a protest at the World Famous Apollo Theater.  A group called the Harlem Salute Committee was picketing the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. Thing is, James Brown shows at the Apollo were special events in Harlem. There were always lines around the block, and folks turned out in well coiffed afros, and their best clothes, then called threads.

james Brown Apollo marquee

I thought this protest, led by a man named Rabbi Judah Anderson, was barking up the wrong tree. He accused James Brown of refusing to co-operate with his Committee, and their efforts to honor Harlem’s black heroes.

My boss simply handed me a tape recorder, and with the words “there’s a protest at the Apollo, go see what’s going on”, sent me on my way.

The protest wasn’t all that large, and Rabbi Anderson, was easily available to talk. When I finished the interview, I came to the conclusion that the Harlem Salute Committee just wanted James Brown to write a check. The Godfather of Soul apparently came to the same conclusion, since he wrote about the protest in his autobiography. He called the protests a shakedown. No matter to me. I dutifully brought the taped interview back to the newsroom, where it was dubbed, edited, and used on the air that afternoon. My qualms about giving voice to a hustler were more than overwhelmed by my pride in putting together a report worthy of being broadcast on the radio.

That protest was the first of many stories I covered in Harlem through the years. Ten years after I started at WLIB, I lived in Harlem for several years. One thing that has stood the test of time is the neighborhood’s unique rhythm. By that I mean people uptown have their own way of doing things, of walking, of talking, of being. Working at the only radio station then located in Harlem made me attuned to that rhythm.

Mark.wwrl.microphone.NYC skyline

It’s why I love Harlem – then and now – and why I will always love radio.

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