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.  

Monday, July 7, 2014

WHERE IS 'ANDY HARDY'?


By Arthur H. Gunther III

     ANY TOWN, USA -- Ironically, as Americans fatten up through fast food and lifestyle, it is also slimming down to overly thin in its public look, in its parks and on its once-shaded streets, those oak- and maple-lined boulevards that looked like "Andy Hardy’s" Hollywood set. That Mickey Rooney’s village of Carvel was purely fictional does not forfeit the fact that it was as all-American as ever can be.
     Once, many U.S. communities looked this way, and some, fortunately, still do or at least have semblance. Yet post-World War II suburban development helped push aside the picture of tree-lined streets leading to downtown neighborhood shopping. Developments like the typical “Huggy Bear Estates,” “The View” or “Hillside Condominiums” offer landscaped lawns and kept shrubbery but lines of well-placed trees along sidewalks and downtowns are not usually in the mix. Walkable neighborhoods rarely happen in this relative anonymity.
     That’s a loss, for while Andy Hardy was a fictional character and his father the judge, girlfriend Polly Benedict  and friend Betsy Booth, played by Judy Garland, were make-believe but ideal composites of small-town Americans, these people did exist in true communities, with vibrant downtowns and tree-lined streets leading to and from them.
     Suburbia took the population to development homes, and many downtowns then deteriorated. Even the oaks and maples so well laid out on the boulevards were neglected, first by a stressed tax base that deferred maintenance, then by disease and, worst of all, by the interference of some citizenry who presumed to speak for the majority.
     “That tree is blocking my view of the Hudson River.” “That tree’s roots are raising my sidewalk.” “That tree might affect my utilities.” And, so, all at once six stately oaks or maples or whatever are gone in a flash, victims of professionals in bucket trucks just doing their job with a work order.
     Elsewhere in both Gotham and suburbia, parks are without funding, as are shade tree commissions. In a nation that sees its upper class wealth grow exponentially by the Gordon Gekko factor, there are so very few old-style Rockefeller, Carnegie and other corporate trusts that built and saved our green space. They were parents to our downtowns, to our parks, and now there are many orphans.
     Pity. Foolish. Short-sighted. America is so much more than just self-sacrificing individuals, highly productive and caring. They are the essence of the old downtown, whether they lived there or not. Every suburbia has its roots in a tree-lined small American Main Street, and when, metaphorically, those tree-lined avenues are neglected, or the parks of both suburbia and gotham are  abandoned, we become less American.
     The “Andy Hardy” set is long closed. Can we be next?


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

Monday, June 23, 2014

COMMUNITY PRIDE AT RISK


By Arthur H. Gunther III
      SUBURBIA -- The New York State of my lifelong existence ranks among the top 10 nationwide in hosting foreclosing properties -- about 15,000 -- some of them traced to  irresponsible mortgage lending by banks that quickly flipped the notes for sure profit, others to those who never could afford the homes and, sadly, more than enough to people who have lost jobs as the middle class dwindles in the Greed Era. Now many of these homes are abandoned, with no upkeep. Neighbors who take care of their houses are essentially insulted for their effort.
     While Albany is considering legislation that would force lenders to recognize their stakeholder role, it should not be necessary to remind them of their responsibility to community appearance. Nor should anyone have to wonder why there is so little enforcement of town and village property upkeep laws, whether the land/house is in foreclosure or not. It all comes down to community pride, without which aging suburbia will continue to deteriorate.
     Abandoned properties are not only unsightly, but they attract rodents, break-ins and squatters. Many towns and villages declare, as my local Orangetown community notes in its “Chapter 24c, Property Maintenance Code,” that “Properties which are not adequately maintained and repaired may serve as an attractive nuisance … (they) tend to … detract from the appearance of adjoining properties, which may lead to the progressive deterioration of a neighborhood.” Absolutely, we all have seen that happen. 
     Such law is fine on paper, but what happens when the law is not enforced? When a homeowner keeps unregistered junk cars in his driveway, when someone leaves litter on his land, when trash and recycling containers are not removed after pickup, when fences are falling down, when gutters are hanging  off roofs, when sidewalks are not cleared of snow or are hazardous because tree roots have pushed up the slabs -- where is the municipality watchdog? And what about shopping centers where debris is not picked up, the parking lots are shabby and the building facades run down? 
     These are real conditions in most communities, and it seems the onus is on neighbors to be the bad guy and make a formal complaint. Instead, the municipality should be noting the neglect and notifying property owners to correct. 
     One way to improve property appearance is by certificate of occupancy renewal whenever a home or business is offered for sale. The community sends out an inspector after a small fee is paid to cover that, and neglect such as poor sidewalks and yard litter are corrected before the property can be listed. 
     We realize building inspectors are busy enough, but while they are in their cars going about to their jobs, they can jot down the addresses of unkempt property. So can police on routine patrol. For that matter, so can the mayor, the town supervisor, the trustees, council people, any concerned citizen. We all have a financial and quality-of-life stake in how our villages and towns look. 
    If owners do not correct the neglect, the municipalities should step in and do the work, adding the tab to the annual tax bill. When the property owner cannot afford repairs because of illness, job loss, etc., perhaps community service organizations can  lend a hand and take on these properties as projects. 
     The point is to clean up blighted homes and to enforce the law, not just have it on the books. 
     Think of your mother, who I hope told you to wash your hands before dinner, to pick up your toys, to not track mud into your house. Well, communities are really homes and businesses held in common by the great expectation of observing standards. There is no room for pigs to spoil it for the rest of us. 


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