Monday, September 15, 2014

IGNORING OUR DIGNITY


Arthur H. Gunther III
    
ahgunther@yahoo.com




       I won’t vote for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the popular New Yorker seeking re-election. Nor would I for President Obama, if he were able to run anew, though I supported him twice. And I will be pleased when Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, steps down. Why no support for these three? Not because of their abilities or accomplishment, though each man in each category is subject to grades ranging from A-plus down. Both have been electable and applaudable for service. Yet these officials fail my confidence test, a right of my citizenship. And, I suspect they are the tip of the iceberg in a society that offers systemic indifference to the ordinary person.
     It is a little thing, my motivation that drops these three from the nice list, but it was small things becoming bigger that led us to our American Revolution and changes for the better, or at least the hope of those, hope still being chased.
     Each of these men are in highly visible, important, powerful positions where the expectation of good and full service to the citizenry is a given. The president and the New York governor ran for office as approachable people who empathized with the growing concerns of Americans without jobs, or long-lasting ones, or decently paid ones or ones that will put and keep them in the bulwark middle class that marks stable democracy.
     They were cheered on, these two, and sent off to do their work. But then the doors slammed behind them, locking out the people. Handlers came in, pros they are in security, in media control, in distancing the “men of the people” from, well the people. The ordinary men and women of these great United States are held back by these handlers, who would lock down the universe to keep their man away from humanity, from regular concerns, hopes, heartache, the yin and yang of living.
     How real is it for a president, a governor in office? Their lifestyle is not like most people. Yes, they see the death-bringing results of war, of natural disaster, but then they return to comfortable quarters after the handlers have arranged a trip or two.
     When you write these leaders, as I did several times to Obama, Cuomo and to the appointed but still-in-the-trust-of-the-people Bharara, snail-mail letters even, as I sent off  to the governor and the U.S. attorney, cogent, well-thought-out argument that required answers from those in our employ, in our trust, the answers never came. Acknowledgment of the letters never came. And the president, whose office bragged that it would be the first to set up an e-mail response system, failed mightily, with no replies, no acknowledgement of missives.
     That is bad form. It is not democratic form. It is rude and insensitive and snubbing behavior. It matters not that my questions may have been relatively small ones, not so imperative as foreign affairs and state budget woes. Communication with the people is never un-important. Little things add up and become symbolic of high-and-mighty affront that ignores the people and their concerns, their needs, most of all their dignity.
     The system no longer works, and if the snubbing of the common man and woman continues, democracy is in trouble. We cannot elect high-placed people nor see grand poohbahs in important positions who are then shut behind doors and kept from public discourse.
So, I would not vote for Obama, Cuomo, Bharara or anyone who ignores we, the people, even if it is their staffs doing the insulting deed. That makes it even worse, adding to their distance from the citizenry.
     The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at ahgunther@yahoo.com 

Monday, September 8, 2014

STILL, A BRIDGE TOO FAR


By Arthur H. Gunther III
     HUDSON RIVER, N.Y. -- This mighty waterway, not a western route to Asia through the Northwest Passage as Hendrick Hudson hoped it would be in 1609, but to the great port of Albany and so through canals, lakes and on land to the American frontier and all the greatness and achievement of that, remains as beautiful as the explorer found it. Once assaulted by industrial discharge, its waters are these days enjoyed by boaters and those who live in expensive housing along the shore. Visitors can view the wonderful landscape, from New York City sights to the Palisades escarpment to Hook and Bear mountains, to West Point and on to Albany, enjoying many of nature’s gifts on both the eastern and western shores.
     Last week, I was privileged to take a boat ride on the Hudson from Haverstraw south to the Tappan Zee Bridge at South Nyack  and back, courtesy of the Historical Society of Rockland County. I was the principal speaker on the history of the bridge, which was constructed in 1955 and which will give way to two new crossings in a few years. I offer some of that talk here for anyone interested in how a bridge was built and how that brought “progress,” not always a cherished effort.
FROM THE BOAT TRIP:
“I said at the beginning of this talk that there were two principal players in the decades-long buildup of the Tappan Zee Bridge: the “progress” people, including land speculators, and those who sought to keep Rockland quiet relief from Gotham. The preservationists lost, and many of the old ways and more than 100 other homes and the village downtown in South Nyack are gone. But the “progress” people did not win, either, since the great and continuing cost of hurried, barely planned development has brought drainage, traffic, infrastructure and quality-of-life problems. And now there is the “graying of Rockland,” with an older population, development homes needing renovation and not enough tax money for truly good living going forward. No one knows what the future will bring, especially with the continuing decline of the middle class. Who will step up to rebuild and reinvigorate Rockland?
     Yet interstate travel, especially trucks, the real winner in the building of the Thruway and the Tappan Zee Bridge, will continue, and even a shiny new set of crossings across the Dutch sea from South Nyack to Tarrytown will not solve Rockland’s woes nor the growing traffic concerns and the utter need to rebuild the Thruway in Rockland. The new spans may well prove to be bridges "too far."
    The Tappan Zee Bridge is part of the New York State Thruway and now also belongs to the I-87, I-287 interstate network that leads upstate, to the west and to New England. It is the longest bridge in the State of New York, with total length of the crossing and approaches at 16,013 feet. The cantilever span is 1,212 feet, providing a maximum clearance of 138 feet  over the water. The bridge is about 25 miles north of midtown Manhattan. The bridge is one of the primary crossings of the Hudson north of NYC. It carries much of the traffic between southern New England and points west of the Hudson.
      Work on the $80 million Tappan Zee -- $668 million in today’s dollars -- hit peak intensity by 1953. It opened to traffic on Dec. 15, 1955, and is part of what was once called the Dwight D. Eisenhower Defense Highway network. It can be used in the event of war for materiel and troop transport.
     The bridge came to be because in the later 1940s New York Gov. Thomas Dewey  proposed a super highway in the German “Autobahn” style, from Suffern, at the New Jersey border, to upstate New York, to foster commerce. But it soon became apparent that the Thruway bond holders could not be paid off without a big revenue source, and so the idea of extending the road to New York City via a Hudson River crossing at South Nyack was quickly adopted, thus providing a nicely ringing “cash register.” 
     Trouble was that non-quality materials and a cheap design were used to construct the Tappan Zee. Since 1955, overuse has put the bridge in danger of major failure, and in October 2011, at the direction of Gov. Andrew  Cuomo, the Thruway Authority and the New York State Department of Transportation jointly proposed a replacement structure, the “Tappan Zee Hudson River Crossing.” The two new spans, which will include pedestrian and biking lanes and lookouts for viewers, are now being constructed.
     The “progress” legacy of the first crossing has not proven as grand as first advertised, since rapid suburban growth overtaxed local planners, zoners and the infrastructure. The new crossings will bring even more interstate travelers through geographically small Rockland, and there seems no benefit to them. The interstate network will still have major flaws in the lower Hudson Valley region, and though a poorly planned and built 1955 crossing will be replaced by wonderfully engineered safe structures, they will still connect to ill-advised interstates on both sides of the Hudson.
     The first Tappan Zee was built as a “cash register,” not as a well-planned conduit for progress.” It will transfer that legacy to the new spans.
     The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at ahgunther@yahoo.com This essay may be reproduced.

Monday, August 18, 2014

THE TWO-WAY STREET


By Arthur H. Gunther III
ahgunther@hotmail.com

     Police exist by the people’s command, and only by that direction,  because we cannot secure ourselves. Theirs is a dangerous, usually thankless job, and the officer’s whole being is often in the sewer of humanity. So, it takes an extraordinary individual to do the work, to be invested with such power, to always remember how it is derived, to constantly understand that it is temporary and that it should not be misused. 
     In return for the job's difficulty, especially the wear and tear that accumulates mentally and physically, officers must be properly compensated, and in the Northeast anyway, they surely are, though that was not always the case. Officers also deserve the respect of the citizenry on a blanket basis. Individually, that is up to the officer. There can be no arrogance, no expletives, especially no attitude, all of which may be difficult for an officer used to being in the trenches, his/her senses assaulted by domestic incidents and difficult situations that can warp your head.
    Yet that is the job, and, yes, it requires extraordinary self-control from extraordinary officers. Otherwise, don’t apply. The men and women in blue must show respect and always, always allow others their dignity. That is Job. 1.
     A case in point: Bill Bratton, the New York City police commissioner,  tells citizens not to resist arrest. That sounds right if you recite from a  Police Academy training manual. But then there’s the real, mean streets where over-stressed cops see and feel the full range of human emotion so overwhelmingly each day that they need a shrink at shift’s end but also where too many citizens think they must wear ID on their backs in 2-inch type because they feel they are in the Third Reich. On the streets, the interplay is not Academy textbook, and police must show dignity and respect.   Citizens, for their part, must calm down, accept police respect when given, and just go with the flow. Hopefully, the courts will bring justice in the individual case. So, respect, yes, but it must be mutual.
    Truth is, NYC police, all police,  must be respectful of each and every person, as difficult as that may be day-in, day-out. The people hire the police and grant them special temporary powers because they cannot police themselves. Security is not gestapo. The cops must, hard as that may prove in their environment, remember that they work for the people. That must be key in their training. They must not be allowed to lapse into a protective fraternity of “them against us.” 
       In the recent New York attempted arrest of an individual said to be selling loose cigarettes, a man with obvious physical disability who died as police pinned him down, common sense should have brought not an arrest, but an appearance ticket. If this had been 1950 NYC, a beat officer walking the streets, as is so rarely done now, would have known the man, understood the community. The situation would not have happened, at least not the way it went down. But police have disappeared from the streets, and both they and the people no longer trust each other sufficiently, at times not at all.
     Commissioner Bratton would do all a great service by taking more cops off desk jobs and certainly out of darkened-glass patrol cars and put them on street patrol. If the police get to know the neighborhood and interact with the people, the way it used to be, they would realize that most citizens are decent and law-abiding.  The Berlin Wall of distrust that has risen so high would come down. 
    The nation must also “de-militarize” the police. They are not military, not even para-military in everyday life.  Officers should look like they always have: dressed in standard, ordinary blue, gray or brown uniforms, with regular shoes. No paratrooper boots or camouflage pants. Those outfits make police feel more powerful than they have a right to be. Bring all this post-9/11 out-of-balance security down to earth.
     Policing is a super tough job, and the officers deserve respect. But only if they earn that. That sort of training must be in the manual at the Academy and reinforced every morning at patrol shape-up. And we citizens ought to shape-up each day as well, approach an officer, even in a darkened patrol car, and say hello. There is a failure to communicate.
     The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at ahgunther@hotmail.com This essay may be reproduced.

Monday, August 11, 2014

HOME, BUT NOT 'AGAIN'

By Arthur H. Gunther III
ahgunther@yahoo.com

     Any village, USA -- Times change, people do, communities certainly. “You can’t go home again,” literally, as Thomas Wolfe put it. Yet, the pull of one’s childhood place is mighty strong, despite the “better” land you may now live in, some memories you might want to forget, the effect of the mind’s eye looking through rose-colored glasses and despite feeling alien in what was once your territory. Any village, any town where your being was formed is an extension of the womb, that particular place from that particular mother.
     So it was with some goosebumps that I recently drove through my old haunts, on a volunteer errand to install a coat rack for a non-profit. My childhood village, which was also my father’s and to which my grandfather came in young adulthood, has changed so very much, the combined and continuing effects of suburbia eating up downtowns as strip and mall shopping rises; no planning for renewal and growth; older housing neglected, turned into rentals that often gouge immigrants and the poor; a population increasingly of self-interest and exclusion; and a government proving dysfunctional and charging high taxes for the privilege.
     Actually, I am in my hometown every Tuesday, but my 2:30 a.m. entry to cook in a breakfast program is as focused on that task as a horse with blinders is on the race. So, I see little of the streets where I walked and rode my bike; the four schools I attended; my friends’ homes; and the country lanes where young adult emotions began to take hold. I do not see my grandparents going to work at the smoking pipe factory, or, if I had been there, my Dad running the 440-yard dash at the high school track. I cannot find my old teachers or great-grandparents; the hardware stores, the many druggists, the movie theater, the soda fountain. I do not grasp the sense of what was my shared community in the space of my time there.
     But when I came later in the week, in the daylight to install the coat rack, I saw life on the streets. I saw so many new buildings, encountered heavy traffic, recognized no one.  I saw change, and I felt alienated, though I had no right to be affected, for this was no longer the exact place where I grew up, where life literally formed for me and those around me.
     I then drove through the 1860 tunnel under the old Erie, the line that brought my grandfather to town and through which my father took us to swim in a nearby village. I continued on this road and another, taking a route back to my present home 10 miles away that I had not used for 20 years. I passed this house or that, the remnant of a farm, a hill where I picked flowers for my mother’s birthday when I was 10. I saw my past.
     It was then that while I realized  you can never go home again, emotions set deeply inside always tug at your senses when you are close to your roots. It is like a mother’s reassurance to her child, no matter how old you become.

     The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at ahgunther@yahoo.com This essay may be reproduced.

Monday, August 4, 2014

THE GUNS OF AUGUST AND BEYOND




                         FLANDERS FIELDS,BEFORE THE BLOOD

By Arthur H. Gunther III

If, at the 11th hour of the 11th day in the 11th month of each year, from 1918 on when “The War to End All Wars” was over, you would toll a bell 20 times a minute for the 37,468,904 total in casualties, it would take more than 30,000 years to somberly do so.
Today, on the 100th anniversary of Great Britain’s declaration of war against Germany, and also the date that the United States said it would not get involved, but eventually did, the dead, the wounded, those with “shell shock” must not be recalled simply as numbers. Why didn’t this First World War prevent all others?
In one of the costliest battles of the 1914-1918 conflict, the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916, the British suffered 60,000 casualties on the first day. When it was all over and just six miles gained for the Brits, there were 1,219,000 dead and wounded. And that does not include the emotionally afflicted, people who in World War II we would term suffering from “battle fatigue” and now, as the wars continue, “post-traumatic stress syndrome.”
War does not end because greed is always with us, greed of nations, individuals, the military-industrial complex that profits so well. War does not end because of power and false pride, nations who are really little children taking affront in what begins as a playground insult and escalates into utter horror, as happened when the dominoes toppled in 1914. The entangling alliances of that time over Belgian neutrality and world trade, culture, ethnicity, old hatreds, were the excuses to rally patriotism. Soon enough, the voices of the eager volunteers became the shrill cries of the brave as they went over the top, and as quickly, the deep stillness of the forever graveyard.
War is folly, and in the end it creates little that could not have been gained by compromise and common sense, long before madmen such as Hitler have a foothold that can only be broken by war.
In “All Quiet On the Western Front,” the famous post-war novel by  Erich Maria Remarque,  which details his fellow German soldiers' physical and mental harm during the war and  the isolation and detachment from ordinary life when back home,  the character “Kropp” says, “"It's queer, when one thinks about it ... we are here to protect our fatherland. And the French are over there to protect their fatherland. Now who's in the right?”
     And, “We loved our country as much as they; we went courageously into every action; but also we distinguished the false from the true, we had suddenly learned to see. And we saw that there was nothing of their world left.”
     Now, 100 years later, the long trenches of the Marne, Passchendale, Verdun, so many other battlefields, still echo in history with their artillery fire, machine guns, death and madness, for war never disappears. The great still is indeed today’s all quiet on the western front, 2014, but the battles are stirring elsewhere.
      On this centennial of the beginning of a war meant to end it all, and, coincidentally the half-century mark of America’s accelerated effort in Vietnam, a nation with whom we now trade, the bells must continue to toll, for nations are ruled by men, too often by the folly of such.
    As in “All Quiet ...”:  “While they (the pontificating teachers and politicos) continued to write and talk, we saw the wounded and dying. While they taught that duty to one's country is the greatest thing, we already knew that death-throes are stronger.”
    The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at ahgunther@yahoo.com This essay may be reproduced.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

REPORTING ON HUMANITY



By Arthur H. Gunther III
     Much progress in humanity, though it is often one step ahead, two back, comes from symbolism, such as the iconic nature of photographs that pull at our conscience and tell us, “We must do better.” For decades now, the mostly black and white work of Dorothea Lange, the famed social documentary photographer of the Great Depression, has been such a tug. And rightly so, for Lange, employed by the Farm Security Administration but also shooting from her soul, was gifted in capturing candid and semi-posed expressions of many trails of tears, suffering, endurance, just plain grit, survival and resurrection in that economic debacle. Yet, her work, like that of any reporter of an age, must always be subject to re-interpretation, not only to dispel myth but to add to fact, to the constant, deeper understanding that betters humanity. 
     Recently, I was introduced to the works of three people, one a British graphics designer/photographer who has reset Lange’s images as color true to the age, and a sister team that wrote and photographed in similar fashion during the Depression.
    Neil Scott-Petrie from Cambridgeshire has produced an amazing tribute to Lange, and even more so, her social realism subjects, 1935-1939, by taking Lange’s black and white photographs and deftly and intricately adding accurate color. In doing so, he has brought realism to realism, and the viewer sees these iconic images of the huge ex-farmer migration from Oklahoma to California as if they were taken today.
      Previously, when we looked at Lange’s work, while we focused with empathy on the hungry, perhaps “lost” children and distracted adults in search of work, trying to survive in a great calamity, we also saw their period clothes, the Model Ts, filling station signs, etc. That caused us to set the age apart, apart from reality other than that moment. We saw the images almost as fine art pieces, set for a museum installation. But with Scott-Petrie’s reworking of Lange’s shots, we view another time in humanity’s long struggle relative to today. And that is much to the good. 
     As the author notes, “This book is not about improving Dorothea Lange’s work, her images are amazing and cannot be improved. This is about showing her work in a different light, in color, bringing the real events closer to the observer, giving you a more realistic view of how things were during the migration to California ... (after all) the world was not black and white.”
     Indeed. I would urge Scott-Petrie to seek  wider viewing of his added perspective of Dorothea Lange’s defining reportage, perhaps in a national gallery installation in London or New York. They would be a sure hit and would add to the story of humanity in struggle, a continuing novel that sees chapters even today in the worsening immigration problem in the United States.
     (Neil Scott-Petrie’s “Dorothea Lange, color, The Migrant Experience 1935-39” may be accessed via dorothealange.com).
     Lange was not the only social documentary reporter of the Great Depression. Also there were the Babb sisters, Sanora, a writer, and Dorothy, a photographer.  Joanne Dearcopp, a longtime friend of Sanora, reminds me that  Dorothy photographed migrant camps in the late 1930s and her sister wrote the novel, “Whose Names are Unknown.” Therein lie many stories. Sanora helped establish the FSA government camps for migrant workers in California, and her Dust Bowl refugee novel began there. Apparently, Random House was planning to publish this “exceptionally fine” writing but later claimed the market was saturated with the bestseller “The Grapes of Wrath,” the classic John Steinbeck novel on the same subject. In 2004, the University of Oklahoma Press published Sanora’s novel to strong appreciation and recognition that there were other incisive voices reporting on the Depression years and its social issues. 
     Sanora's sister Dorothy was said to have offered literary criticism to her, and the former’s photographs, some 250 or so, provided their own exceptionally compelling reportage of Dust Bowl refugees.
Both sisters were among the young writers of their time affected by Depression conditions. As a website for the Babbs notes, “Adversity and a concern for social justice joined these young writers in an informal freemasonry of goodwill and progressive ideals that has seldom existed before or since in American literature.”
     (For more information about Sanora and Dorothy Babb, visit http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/exhibitions/web/babb/gallery/)
     In this America of today, not recovered from a recession of a few years back that almost became a depression, in a United States that must make choices that better humanity rather than harm it, choices over a dwindling middle class, immigration, health care, political direction and world responsibility, revisiting the social documentary work of Dorothea Lange through Neil Scott-Petrie’s added perspective and through the writings and photographs of the Babb sisters, makes us understand better the journey so far and reminds us of the utter responsibility we have for each other.

The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at ahgunther@yahoo.com This essay may be reproduced.

Monday, July 14, 2014

OFFSPRING, ON THEIR BIRTHDAYS


By Arthur H. Gunther III

     How do you thank a son, who at 43 this very day, July 14,  is light years ahead of who you were at that time? How do you speak, father to offspring, beyond a pat on the back and saying “Happy Birthday”? Effusive emotion is a non-fitting suit for both.
     Conceived in the uncertainty but -- still -- progression of youthful marriage, when a career with all its pulls and pushes was building, and with all the worries about this and that so much heavier than the carefree years just before, the birth nine months later of a little being never in your world changes that world, whether you are prepared or not.
     That the first son we had, and then his brother, too, would bring me, especially, to greater maturity and some accomplishment in meeting needs and standards is a gift from both. One that keeps on giving.
     Parents are proud of their children, as they should be. Today, expansive social media such as Facebook announces that to the entire world, and that sort of spotlight may be like endlessly watching the neighbor’s old 8mm home movies. It is far better, perhaps, to have others acknowledge, without prompting, that your children are good people.
     In our case, we are fortunate not only because the sons are such, but they don’t bring attention to the fact. After all, the first requirement of living is to be a good person, and the second is not to expect applause for that.
     It’s my hope that all parents out there see in their children the individuals they are, that they find their offspring secure in every way, for even with the child now well grown at 43, you recall tucking in at age two. You never stop tucking in the son, the daughter.
     If the child achieves, in career, in being a good person, in expressing traits others admire, in succeeding on the job, in being a parent himself, herself, if that happens, in progressing through the years by following the standards we all should expect, then you see on that person’s annual natal day a renewed gift coming to you as well. For parents such as myself, blessed with two fellows who have surpassed expectations, saying “Happy Birthday” to each of them is our own blessing.

The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached via ahgunther@yahoo.com This essay may be reproduced.