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A Story of Might and Right

Saturday, October 11, 2014
I n 1997, Jean Merrill, author of the classic children’s book The Pushcart War , which told the fictional tale of a battle between New York City street vendors and big trucks, received a letter from Ela Bhatt, a representative of the Self-Employed Womens Association, or SEWA for short, in Ahmedabad, India.

Bhatt, who’d read The Pushcart War in translation, was taken by the book and admired its “sympathetic and positive attitude to street vendors.” She wanted to turn it into a play that would portray Indian street vendors in an equally sympathetic light, rather than as the obstructive nuisances they were often accused of being. Of course, 33 years after its publication, it was natural for Bhat to inquire “whether the author Jean Merrill is still interested in the cause of street vendors?”

M errill certainly was. She granted permission for Bhatt to make her book into a play, which was subsequently performed twice in the Indian city of Bhopal. Merrill died in 2012 from cancer at age 89, but her collaborator and partner Ronni Solbert, who illustrated The Pushcart War , still has Bhatt’s letter at their home in Randolph, and she pulled it out to show how far and wide the book’s influence has ranged since it first came out.

“We would get funny, wonderful letters from teachers and kids,” Solbert said.

But to her dismay, The Pushcart War , for reasons she doesn’t understand, went out of print. Then an editor at the New York Review of Books contacted Solbert about reissuing it. ( NYRB will also reissue Merrill and Solbert’s book The Elephant Who Liked to Smash Small Cars .)

Recently released to mark its 50th anniversary, The Pushcart War is a spirited, droll and gentle civics lesson on what can happen when people and communities organize to stop the inexorable Big Forces of the world that insist that in order to save the village you first must destroy it.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, who was at one time interested in turning the book into a film, wrote in a blurb that “the book gave me a point of entrance — my first, I imagine — into the world of resistance to political and economic injustice and chicanery. It made opposition, even non-violent civil disobedience seem fun and right and necessary and heroic, and something even someone as powerless as a kid could and should undertake.”

The book begins with the mowing down of a pushcart owned by Morris the Florist, who sells daffodils. The driver of the truck that upends Morris’s cart is Albert P. Mack, who works for Mammoth Moving. This being New York, both men are quick to take umbrage, and even quicker to mouth off.

Move, says Mack; You move, says Morris. Morris doesn’t; Mack gets angry and runs over the pushcart, sending Morris headfirst into a nearby pickle barrel and scattering bunches of daffodils onto the street.

The pushcart vendors band together to take on the Mammoth Moving trucks and devise a method to take the wind out of their sails, or in this case, the air out of their tires. As the trucks fall victim to the ingenious band of urban renegades with pea shooters, the streets become less crowded and less noisy, and safer and more pleasant for pedestrians. The moral of the story, though, is not only to fight for something you believe in, but also to recognize when it’s time to end hostilities.

Merrill’s inspiration did indeed come initially from the growing traffic problems in Manhattan, and the prevalence of more and bigger trucks. In a speech she used to give to students in Vermont schools, she described “monster trucks” pushing smaller cars, pedestrians and push carts out of their way. If the trucks were Goliath, the local pushcarts that sold flowers, fruit and food were David.

“There is something appealingly human in scale about a pushcart — it is about as wide as a man’s reach too — and their frailty, too, made them seem as vulnerable as a person attacked by large mechanized forces,” Merrill wrote in the speech she addressed to Vermont schoolchildren.

There were other influences. In the early 1960s the New York City Parks Department proposed a radical alteration to Tompkins Square Park in the East Village, said Solbert, now 88.

At the time, Solbert and Merrill lived on 10th Street, at the north end of the park, in a 2,500-square-foot loft in a five-story building. It rented for — read it and weep, New Yorkers — $40 a month. Yes, they had to install heat and water themselves, but they lived the life they wanted, as artists and writers and community activists.

Tompkins Square Park, named for a former New York governor, was built on marsh land in the 1830s and had a long history as a place where New Yorkers gathered to express dissent, sometimes peacefully, often not. Robert Moses, the urban planning czar who did more than any other individual to remake the city from the 1930s through the 1960s, had redesigned the park in the 1930s.

But by the early ’60s, the Parks De partment decided to remove some of the tables and cut down some of the park’s old trees to make room for a Little League ball field, Solbert said. “Moses was having asphalt diarrhea all over the park.”

That sent the people of the neighborhood, many of them Eastern European and Italian immigrants who’d come in the early decades of the 20th century, into an uproar. People used the tables for picnics and to play chess. And, perhaps most crucially, in a city where summer heat can reach unbearable levels, “it was the only place where you could find shade,” Solbert said.

This was also the era of Jane Jacobs and her influential book The Death and Life of Great American Cities ; Jacobs had already fought Moses in the late 1950s and early 1960s over his plans to run an expressway through the heart of Greenwich Village, a battle she won.

So the campaign to fight off the Parks Department began. Backing the Citizens Committee for the Preservation of Tompkins Square Park was then- Village Voice reporter Mary Nichols, scourge of Robert Moses, to whom The Pushcart War was eventually dedicated. (Nichols was the first wife of the late Thetford poet and writer Robert Nichols, who later married Grace Paley).

Through tenacious canvassing of neighbors, and publicity, and continual meetings with the Parks Department, the committee to preserve Tompkins Square Park persevered and eventually the Parks Department conceded, earning the committee a citation from the American Institute of Architects in 1963.

Some of the people Merrill and Solbert knew from the neighborhood or met as a result of their campaign found their way into the book. Then-Mayor Robert Wagner became Mayor Cudd. Neighbor and pushcart repairman Mr. Ammerman became the very-thinly-veiled Mr. Hammerman. A Mr. Jerusalem made the transfer with name unchanged.

Solbert and Merrill left New York for Vermont in 1970 because, she said, they felt that the city, and their neighborhood, was in a free-fall. Tompkins Square Park was now a place to be avoided because of a rising crime rate, and the prevalence of drug dealers. “You found yourself trying to spend more time trying to fix things, but the problems were too big,” Solbert said.

Their original publisher, William Scott, who had released their first book together, Henry the Hand-Painted Mouse , had a summer home in Bennington and he invited Merrill and Solbert to visit. This led to touring around the state looking for property to buy. They found and bought a large piece of land on the Chelsea/Washington line, which they used as a summer residence, and then purchased the Randolph house. (They donated the Chelsea property to VINS in the last several years.)

Solbert has vivid blue eyes and a delicate face, and her long white hair is pinned up in a bun. Born in Washington, D.C. she grew up in Rochester, N.Y. where her father Oscar Nathaniel Solbert, who had emigrated from Sweden with his family in the 1890s, was the first director of the renowned George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film. She was given the name “Romaine,” after an aunt, but that was shortened to “Ronni.”

Solbert went to Vassar College and then to Cranbrook Academy in Michigan where she got an M.F.A. After college she moved to New York to pursue a career in art and illustration, which is where she met Merrill who, coincidentally, had also grown up near Rochester, on a dairy farm near Lake Erie.

The two became close friends, and then partners. Solbert said that she and Merrill never really thought of themselves as gay, or lesbian, but just as two women who were ideally suited to one another and happened to fall in love.

Merrill wrote many books, but Solbert said she still feels The Pushcart War is her best. (Solbert illustrated the book , but deflected all the credit to Merrill. While Solbert provided photographs of her late partner, she declined to allow the Valley News to take her photograph.)

All of Merrill’s books, Solbert said, “reflect her common sense,” but The Pushcart War is “the most complete, wonderful piece of wri ting. How she put it all together so beautifully to make sense. It’s such a complex puzzle but it all adds up in kind of a remarkable way.”

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.




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