2001

The Voice: Summer 2001

The Voice

Cynthia Nibbelink Worley takes on developers in New York City-among other things



Sonya Jongsma Knauss

Cynthia Nibbelink (second left) and her husband, Haja Worley (left), work with volunteers at Project Harmony     From taking on New York City developers to counseling adult students who have trouble speaking English, Cynthia Nibbelink Worley ('66) has dedicated her life to helping those around her. She credits Dordt with helping her develop the discipline that allows her to write poems and work on a lawsuit at the same time, to teach creative writing at Marymount Manhattan College and also be thinking of the immigrant mother she's counseling, who needs child care, work, an apartment, and ESL classes.
    “I think that I am essentially a nurturer,” she says. “Where I live, and my involvement with young people and the environment. . . I think I've become more and more the person I was always supposed to be.”
    After graduating from Dordt with degrees in English and history, Nibbelink Worley earned her MFA in English and Writing at the University of Iowa and has received a number of awards for her poetry. She taught at various colleges and universities in Michigan and has also written books for children.
    After moving to New York twenty years ago, Nibbelink Worley was impressed with the sense of community she found in Harlem. But she also was dismayed to see that many vacant lots had become illegal dump sites and were used by drug dealers, users, and prostitutes. So she, with the help of a 90-year-old neighbor, founded Project Harmony in 1985.
    Project Harmony's motto is “Live simply, that others may simply live.” Nibbelink Worley says the organization was founded to try to revitalize a “great community.” This means many things for the organization: cleaning up vacant lots and making them into gardens and woodlands; policing the neighborhood to protect it from crime, drugs, and violence; reaching out to victims of addiction, mental illness, homelessness, hunger, and diseases; starting a “Doers” cottage industry and environmental training program to help people acquire their own apartments and establish businesses; hosting workshops, festivals, community clean-up and beautification efforts, art forums, concerts, crafts fairs, and life-skills training.
    Project Harmony is based on the belief that people's health and welfare is directly linked to how and where they live.
    Nibbelink Worley's work for the organization over the last sixteen years has been a testimony to her belief in that statement. She says Project Harmony continues to take up an “enormous amount” of her life. When the organization first started, she and others cleaned up the block, including vacant buildings, and made a garden out of a vacant lot. Eventually they had two gardens in the neighborhood, and then they helped others start gardens in their neighborhoods.
    But she and the other gardeners have had to fight an ongoing war with developers.
    “There's still thousands of vacant lots and buildings in New York City, but developers have found it nicer to build on community gardens,” she says. A New York City garden coalition was started in 1996 after news came that the city planned to take all community gardens and build new townhouses on them.
    “Everyone knows if you have open space near a residential area it makes it far more valuable,” Nibbelink Worley says. “It almost seems like a kind of sabotaging of our effort.”     In June of 1999, the city bulldozed half the garden, an event which galvanized support from others in the city.
    “All the radio stations in the city were encouraging people to come out and protest. Most people in New York City are not behind the bulldozing; they see that as very mean. We know there are other places to build.”
    The state's attorney general has taken up the cause and has gotten it to the U.S. district court. He succeeded in getting a stay on bulldozing gardens but only until May 23, when the issue will be reexamined.
    Nibbelink Worley has taken the gardens' cause to the media, with articles appearing in the Village Voice that helped galvanize a large city-wide coalition to save the gardens. She also has filed a personal lawsuit against the city.
    This spring, a joint performance project called Common Green/Common Ground, involving community gardeners and New York University's Tisch School of the Arts drama department, traveled all over the city. The musical detailed the saga of community gardens and Bronx Riverfront grassroots reclamation. Nibbelink Worley was to be in the musical but instead she had to recover from a broken leg.
    “The gardens hang in the balance,” she says, “but we're carrying on.”
    And if she didn't have enough to occupy her, Nibbelink Worley and her husband, Haja Worley, operate a Homestay, similar to a Bed and Breakfast, in their four-story brownstone. They encourage visitors to New York City to take advantage of their small studio apartment with a kitchen and bathroom.
    Nibbelink Worley says Dordt prepared her “extraordinarily well” academically for what she's done in her life.    “The discipline, thoroughness, and inspiring encouragement I received from my Dordt professors have helped me in everything I've done_writing, teaching, directing The Commotion Poets & Co. . . managing and directing [Project Harmony], dealing with the political machine in NYC, navigating city agencies successfully, and dealing with purchasing and renovating our four-story brownstone in Harlem.”

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