HEROES BEHIND THE MASKS

Tie a ribbon 'round the young city tree

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Few probably remember — or were even alive for — a popular song from the early 1970s by Tony Orlando and Dawn called “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Ole Oak Tree.” The lyric is shared from the perspective of someone on the outs with his true love, and if she wants him back in her life, to show it by tying a yellow ribbon around a tree in her front yard.

Because a song like that can’t have a sad ending, the woman does indeed tie a ribbon to the tree. A hundred of them, in fact.

The song surfaced again a decade later during the Iranian hostage crisis, prompting many to tie ribbons on trees to support the American hostages. And when war broke out in the Middle East in 1991 in the wake of Iraq invading Kuwait, many families of service members tied yellow ribbons to trees and porch posts with hopes of a safe return from the conflict for their soldiers.

The coronavirus pandemic isn’t a hostage situation, or even a war. But it’s a crisis not seen at the global level in more than a century. And it’s not clear what our world — or even our communities — will look like when it’s all said and done.

But there are heroes. There are always heroes. In the 1980s, they were the hostages. In the 1990s, our soldiers in the battlefield. Sept. 11, 2001, it was our firefighters and police officers. And now, in 2020, it’s our entire medical industry — many putting their own health and lives on the line in an effort to control a deadly pandemic.

Every evening at 7, many people sheltering at home open their windows, cheering and applauding for those on the front lines. They play instruments, sound sirens, blast music. It’s the closest we can come to gathering and honoring, without actually gathering.

North Riverdale businesses have gone an extra step in recent weeks. Ribbons have been tied to trees — not the yellow ones Tony Orlando and Dawn sang about. But blue, a color many associate with those working in medicine.

“We had to pick a color, and blue seemed like the best one,” said Christopher Rizzo, a member of the community group Riverdale Main Streets Alliance, formerly known as the North Riverdale Merchants Association.

“But it’s not just about our medical workers,” he added. “It’s about all our essential workers. We hope the message gets across that there are restaurants opened, there are deliverymen running around, and there are stores and businesses that are available for you right now. Even in hard times.”

The idea to use ribbons came from Wendy Steinberg, the vice president of communications for the Hebrew Home at Riverdale, Rizzo said. Steinberg saw firsthand how health care workers, especially at the Palisade Avenue nursing home, have worked well above and beyond.

Volunteers have gone out on various weekends to tie ribbons in prominent places. They’ve also hung posters with various businesses on Riverdale and Mosholu avenues, as well as Broadway, that are part of the alliance, thanking who they call health care heroes, first responders and essential business workers.

The old North Riverdale Merchants Association was focused primarily at promoting businesses in this part of the community. But since changing its name to the Riverdale Main Streets Alliance last year, the group has opened its doors to many more people and organizations that care about the neighborhood, even if they’re not a business.

“It became clear to us that we’re not just focused on businesses, but that we’re focused on everybody,” Rizzo said. “We knew others cared as well, like the College of Mount Saint Vincent, Skyview property owners, the Hebrew Home. It’s all about reviving the main street, and that’s more than just supporting businesses.”

The alliance raised $12,000 last year, focused primarily on beautification projects, like tree plantings and landscaping. Rizzo and his board of directors had high hopes of bringing in $20,000 this year to continue those projects, but the coronavirus has a way of getting in the way of such goals.

It also has nearly 60 members now, compared to the dozen or so it had in the past. One of them is Giordana Avila, an optometrist who works in other parts of the borough, but has lived in North Riverdale for the last 13 years.

“I love being here,” Avila said. “I get to have my home and my yard, and I get to have my pizzeria a block away. And I get to walk to all my favorite places.”

Spending time with groups like the Main Streets Alliance gives Avila a chance to make a difference. Especially getting out to help with tying blue ribbons to trees.

“We just wanted to do something to bring a little hope and positivity to the area,” she said. “We’re just letting people know that we support them on the avenues, and especially in our own neighborhoods.”

Rizzo has his own hope, and already is looking past the pandemic on what life will be like after. The alliance has many plans on how to continue beautifying North Riverdale, and he’s excited to start rolling many of those programs out in the coming months.

For now, however, his focus is on ensuring everyone — and he means everyone — in North Riverdale will be able to pull through the pandemic.

“The main streets of Riverdale and Mosholu avenues were struggling to attract shoppers and pedestrian activity, and that was before this crisis,” Rizzo said. “It is hard to see businesses close, and you know they are paying premium rents. But we’ll keep conveying those concerns and ideas they have that could help to our elected officials like (Councilman) Andy Cohen and (state) Sen. Alessandra Biaggi.

“I’m not sure what right balance is needed to get everything open again, but we’ll keep an eye on it, and hopefully we can get it all up and running again soon, without anyone having to worry about their health and safety.”

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