In Search of Dirt and a Kit Kat walking and talking on the east side

| 04 Jan 2016 | 05:03

For the past 21 years, Nancy Ploeger has been president of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce. Since joining the chamber in 1994 as the executive director, Nancy has represented the business community on a wide range of critical issues, most notably those involving health insurance, MWBE certification, government procurement, small businesses globalization, diversity and business resources for services sectors, among other issues. In February, Nancy is leaving her position at the chamber to take over at the wheel at an organization co-founded by the Chamber, International Women’s Entrepreneurial Challenge.

Mileage covered: 1.3 miles

Overcast, unseasonably 59 degrees

Central Casting’s idea of what makes a great Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive – someone possessed with effortless boosterism, a lack of apparent guile and an ample reservoir of energy and bonhomie – Nancy Ploeger, President of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, and I are meeting to go about her rounds late one recent Friday afternoon.

We join each other beneath her apartment building awning on East 88th Street, between First and Second.

“So, where are we headed?” I ask as Nancy and I walk west, pushing her empty shopping cart that, clearly, has a lot of mileage on it.

“We’re headed to Wankels. It’s about 97 years old, one of the few hardware stores left in the area. We’re going to be buying some dirt because we’re planting bulbs tomorrow in Ruppert Park,” she tells me.

Like many New Yorkers (myself included) Nancy has caught the adopt-a-NYC-park bug. And she’s starting from the ground up. Literally.

“All the soil in the park has worn away and all that’s left is concrete. I want to get some potting soil so the bulbs will have a chance to live.”

Saint Louis born, Nancy has (Central Casting again) all the zest for living in her adopted city that only a true transplant possesses. The recipient of countless community and city accolades, Nancy would be a five star NYC general. If there were such a thing.

“My first apartment was on East 90th Street. Then I moved to 88th between First and York for a year. Then my current place, since 1973. It’s a great prewar building.”

At the Second Avenue crosswalk Nancy and I run into Rick, whom Nancy has known for years. Informing me that he was born in her building two-plus generations ago, Nancy is corrected.

“No, Doctor’s Hospital,” Rick reminds her as he peels off to continue his own Friday rounds.

“Many of the people have lived in my building a long time,” she continues. “But we have a lot of new people. Families with kids. And we have a BEAUTIFUL (all caps) laundry room, with a TV you can watch while your laundry is being done.”

I tell Nancy that she lives on a nice looking block. Great, mature trees. And the church…

“What makes the block is the church (Church of the Holy Trinity). The garden out front is one of my favorite places. You can just go in, sit on a bench and read a book,” she notes. It’s an active church with a homeless program. A few people spend the night there and then are out at 6:00 in the morning.

“Plus, they have a search and care program for the elderly, and a day care center for kids.”

But enough of the church’s role in the community. It’s now time to load up on some good mother earth at Wankels for Nancy to do her own important work in Ruppert Park. On our way, we swing by yet another park Nancy has adopted. A small, “pocket” park adjacent to a high-rise. “This park actually belongs to 200 East 87th. The owners were able to add extra height to the building if they added the park. For the first seven years they planted and cared for it but after then the homeless and others kept digging up the plants. And they got tired of spending all the money.

“So now all they do is pick up the garbage and keep the water fountain working.”

While she is doing all the heavy motivational lifting, her cause is being aided and abetted by a local church group that wants to do the gardening. They plan to put in bushes and a few trees. Nothing that is easy to dig up and spirit away.

Wankels (“In the same family since 1896,” according to their website) has exactly what Nancy needs so we peel off, her cart loaded to the handle with potting soil. I offer to drive but this appears to be a bit of a temperamental shopping cart, a vintage vehicle best driven by its owner.

Before we head down to 86th Street we retrace our steps so Nancy can drop off the bags of terra firma. We pick up where we left off, talking about community parks whose best days were way on the other side of a couple of city recessions. Ruppert is one of them. And where Nancy is focusing most of her efforts.

“Thanks to (Council Member) Ben Kallos, some funds were given to the park. We were looking into irrigation but this would be the third iteration. It’s never been done well, and the park is on a slope. Piping and tubing is popping out everywhere.

“We are trying to get Parks to make a master plan. And we need a dog run. In the meantime we are having kids events every month and if you looked at it a year ago it is no where near what it looks like this year.”

Miles to go, but her pride shows.

“We cleared out all the dead plant material. Painted all the exterior fences. We’re doing all we can.

“The amazing thing is the volunteers. On our first It’s Our Park Day we had three groups. The first group was the Muslim Volunteers of New York City. And these Muslim families came, kids, mothers, fathers, grandmothers. I think we had about 40 of them. They care about this Park and trying to give back to the community.

“Then we had a Baptist Church, Christ Church, and we had about 15 volunteers from them.

“Finally, we had another group of veterans. Vets who are returning come through an organization, based in St. Louis, called Mission Continues. Its philosophy is to help veterans reestablish in the community by working with nonprofits. They will pay a vet to work for a nonprofit for 20 hours a week for $600.“

Anyone who has lived under the same roof for 42 years knows a thing or two about what has changed in a neighborhood. And what has withstood the New York test of time. After she takes me on a short stroll around the grounds of Holy Trinity we set out on an important mission: Buying a stash of dark chocolate Kit Kat bars at the international newsstand on 86th Street. En route I ask her if she ranges very far afield when she has takeout to buy or shopping to do.

“I pretty much stay local. One of the reasons I like it here is I can walk to the corner and get Vietnamese. Sushi or Japanese on another. French on another. And then there’s The Writing Room (owned by the Parlor Steakhouse folks) that has all kinds of fancy American food.”

And, like anyone, she has an all-time favorite restaurant. Maz Mescal, on 86th Street between First and Second.

Nancy lives midway between Central Park and Carl Schurz Park. Her mission to “take back” Ruppert Park reflects the well-know fact the Upper East Side lacks, proportionally, the park acreage per capita, that other New York City communities benefit from.

Plus, “There are a lot of elderly people, and families with young kids who aren’t in a stroller, that don’t want to go too far to one of those parks. Ruppert is one acre and one of the largest open park spaces between (Carl Schurz and Central Park).”

As we turn right onto First Avenue Nancy catalogs the shops and services that have gone to retail heaven. The drycleaner where Nancy, lacking a doorman, could leave her keys for guests who were coming to stay. The 24-hour deli, “Owned by Annie,” who could no longer afford the rising rents.

“This is what’s happening in other neighborhoods, too. But at the same time we have a lot of new businesses opening. A lot of new restaurants,” she spins. Spoken like a true Chamber of Commerce executive.

We pass Maz Mescal as Nancy sings the praises of the restaurant owners, Mary, from the Midwest, and her husband, Eduardo, from Mexico.

“They have a very good sense of community. Always hosting events, like the third attempt to create a Business Improvement District on 86th Street.”

Our last stop is the international newsstand on 86th Street, a few doors east of Second. By the cordiality of the reception, it is clearly a business that knows Ms. Ploeger.

We have come for what is, apparently, a hard-to-find commodity in these here parts: those dark chocolate Kit Kats.

It takes some rummaging through the counter display but, happily, Nancy does not leave Kit Kat-deprived. She is in luck.

“I’ll take five.”

A small pleasure, found in what is, more notably, a well-stocked international newsstand.

We part ways, two longtime UES denizens, partisan residents who share a love for their neighboring zip codes.

Though not necessarily for dark over milk chocolate Kit Kats.