Bill, Cornell's partner of five decades is collecting signatures supporting the co-naming of 13th Street "Cornell Edwards Way". Stop by at 143 E. 13th Street and sign the petition!
In the meantime, settle in, get comfy and read Part Three of the story of how such a simple request to acknowledge Cornell's 43 years of contribution to New York City came about.
It's not just putting in the time here that makes you a New Yorker.
It's the nod to the counter guy who every day pushes a coffee to you before you even have to say "Light, one sugar".
It's saying "Good morning" to the bus driver when you get on and saying "Thank you" when you get off.
It's wishing the guy in the token booth "Happy New Year" or whatever holiday they are stuck working.
It's knowing this is your city and any person next to you on the IRT is your neighbor, even if you see them only once in your life.
This New York was Cornell's New York and we were lucky to be his neighbor.
Any time Fire Station #3 headed back to the fire house, Cornell waved. In the beginning, it was a thank you to them coming to his rescue when the fire broke out. But as the guys who had fought the fire retired and younger ones took their place, Cornell's greeting continued and soon it had nothing to do with what had happened. It was a neighbor being a neighbor to his neighbor.
It was Bill waking up one morning and finding Cornell's 12 year old niece, Tammy sleeping at the foot of the bed because Cornell went in the middle of the night and got her because that's what you do - you raise a child who needs raising - and then you go to every PTA meeting, even if you are the only one who shows up.
It was Cornell stepping up and becoming part of Community Board 3 because it was his neighborhood and he wanted to be part of its guardianship. It was him chairing a meeting of angry developers and angry residents at each others' throats, and Cornell getting up and through the melee letting his voice ring out, "Everybody's right!" and the room bursting into laughter and then finally settling down enough so everyone's position could be heard and considered. He didn't say much but when he did, his words were powerful.
It was Cornell, once a week, taking care of two elderly sisters up in Harlem, both from Granada, one an Episcopalian and the other Jewish, and making sure they got the right Perdue chicken and a can of sliced peaches from Rainbow Grocery and they did because Rainbow knew what they liked. Because like Cornell, Rainbow was their neighbor too. And at the end it was making sure as they walked that journey to their resting place, they were cared for with dignity and respect. And after the Jewish sister was laid to rest by her congregation, Cornell and Bill made sure that the sister who was Episcopalian received a proper burial at St. John the Divine.
It was Cornell making sure the absentee ballot for his 90 year-old neighbor got to the polling place.
Again, for Cornell it was returning to Harlem's AME Zion Mother Church of his college days and making sure a boyscout troop was reestablished. Now a trustee of the church, he helped preserve its history, including writing a book about the church's amazing journey since 1796.
When Cornell died, nearly 1,000 neighbors showed up at the church for his funeral. In his message that day, the Reverend Gregory Robeson Smith embraced the life that Bill and Cornell shared by invoking the names of Elijah and Elisha - the prophet and his companion. Two men who walked together to create a kinder world, a better land, a real neighborhood. And after the funeral, envelopes sometimes with $20, sometimes with more, came to Bill. Neighbor taking care of neighbor.
Bill and Cornell began their walk together as an interracial gay couple in the days where such couples risked their lives to be together, and, in certain states could be and were jailed. They began their walk together in the days gay people were institutionalized, shunned, arrested, and sometimes killed. How, then, during those sadder days did this neighborhood welcome them?
"There wasn't much of a neighborhood then. When you came into it, we were here," Bill said.
There may be people who don't know their neighbors. Cornell wasn't one of those people. Neither was Florence. Neither am I.
And neither is Bill, Cornell's partner of five decades, who sits outside of his neighbors' front doors with the petition to co-name 13th Street between Third Avenue and Fourth Avenue "Cornell Edwards Way".
If you currently live on the block, Bill especially needs your signature! So stop by Cornell's shop at 143 E. 13th Street and sign the petition.
Thank you to Bill for his amazing generosity and help in making these stories sing the life of Our New York.
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