It’s a common tale. Local resident goes off to college, majors in political science and then moves back home to work for a local politician. Sam Goodman’s story is not that different. But Sam Goodman is far from your ordinary man.
“I’ve got some eccentricities,” Goodman, a city planner in the Bronx borough president’s office, concedes with a knowing smile. That he does.
There’s the plethora of gold jewelry he hardly ever takes off, visible around his neck and beneath his rolled up shirt sleeves.
There’s the fact that even at the age of 62 he leaves work most nights and heads to the gym for 3 hours to lift weights and run the treadmill – “that cardiovascular stuff – I hate it,” he notes.
Then there’s the fact that he lives alone, save for the seven Cockatiels that greet him upon his return home – “My birdies,” as he calls them. Or the various New York artifacts, from street lamps to traffic lights, which adorn his bedroom.
Goodman has lived in the same apartment – part museum, part apartment, really – on the Bronx’ Grand Concourse since 1994. He grew up on ‘the Park Avenue of the Bronx’ with his parents and three sisters and though the family moved to Connecticut when he was 16, it has always been home to Goodman. Beneath all the quirks, it is clear that serving the people of the South Bronx is what gets Goodman up every morning.
His zeal for the job and the community – a community that he left but never left him – bound from his every step and ring from his every word as he proudly shows off the office’s map collection, delights at the architecture of the Bronx Country Courthouse and greets locals with a smile and a wave as he crosses the street.
Those locals may look different now to when Goodman was young, but he insists that while the people of the Bronx may have changed, the community remains just as welcoming and just as deserving of the attention of political figures like himself.
“What I learned is that this is a community that’s no longer affluent but it doesn’t mean that it isn’t comprised of people who aren’t just as entitled,” he said in an interview in his office in mid-September. “Yeah they speak a different language, they worship in a different house, but they are no different in that we all share that bond. We all care about our kids, we all care about our neighbor and we all care about the future.
A third generation Jewish immigrant from Europe, Goodman recalls with fondness observing Passover at his grandparents’ house and cycling past the local bakers’ as they made their morning bread. The South Bronx, though, soon transformed from a thriving, peaceful neighborhood to one in which his grandparents were too afraid to leave the apartment. And like hundreds of thousands of Bronx families in the late 1960s, the Goodmans moved out of the city to the suburbs.
That experience proved formative. “That kind of reality for what I recognize as a society, is abhorrent,” he says now. “It was something I just wanted to deal with and I didn’t know how I was gonna deal with it but it was the inspiration that got me involved in urban planning.”
He still speaks with the idealism of the 16-year-old that left for Connecticut, but he also exudes authority and humor. When Goodman returned to the Bronx 20 years ago, he slipped into the murky world of New York politics naturally. Angered by the treatment of the predominantly Hispanic and African American residents who had moved in, Goodman remembers attending one community meeting where he made clear his opposition to the plans for the area, particularly Yankee Stadium. “I like the team but I can’t stand the organization,” he explains. Soon after, the borough president hired him as a city planner.
Spend any time with Goodman and it’s not difficult to see how he talked his way into such a role. His comments are often peppered with the occasional clichés of an experienced political operative, on issues from gentrification to the gym, but Goodman is comfortable with it.
“Isn’t that why I’m here?” he counters. He’s here, because it’s the home he never really left.