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.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

A DEBT OUTSTANDING



By Arthur H.Gunther III
     I don’t know what karma or the gods have in store for this great nation of ours, conceived in the stew that is the rights of humankind and progressed enough to have earned its mettle despite horrific mistakes. As Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Yet a particular debt is outstanding, and it must be repaid before the finish line is reached.
I write of our Native Americans, those people of spirit and great humanity who were pushed aside in the name of progress, in westward expansion, in the never-ending chase for a constant frontier. That is America’s leitmotif, its source of inspiration, its reason for being, indeed its excuse for bettering all classes, but it is also its shame. It is more than the moment to revisit what has been done to the first settlers of this land, truly the only ones who do not need a green card.
Last week, President Obama became just the third president to visit the Indian nations, his trip to Cannon Ball, N.D., where sit the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Nation. Sits there, too, is a 60 percent unemployment rate, 40 percent of its people in poverty, 50 percent student drop-out figure. These statistics in a USA that can pay defense contractors billions, that can write foreign nations of dubious intent a blank check.
To be fair, while this was the president’s first visit to an Indian reservation, his administration has paid more attention to Native Americans and their concerns about education, health care, jobs and respect than his predecessors. There is at least some recent dialogue on schooling, for example.
Yet how do you do more, so much more, in particular erasing the distrust built up over centuries and finally recognizing the substance of treaties signed in the 1800s? It was convenient for progress to move Native Americans to reservations. It can even be argued that it was a saner way than killing them off. But the late-1800s’ attempts to “Americanize” Indians through forced education in the white man’s way and then what continues as the almost complete rejection of their rich, cultural history and lifestyle, with prejudicial portrayals of “redskins” the usual offering all a sad part of our national history.
We non-Indians owe a debt to Native Americans -- for their land, for their sacrifices, for our insults, and especially for not taking lessons from them about land and resource management, about treating people with respect, about using accumulated  wisdom. It is a debt overdue.
Some way, some day, perhaps in the setting sun of this great American democratic experiment, the long-whispered spirit that is now kept to the reservations will be spoken. That could prove our salvation in the maturing of a dream that must be fulfilled for all -- not just some -- in this epic journey called America, taking place on Indian land.

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

Sunday, June 8, 2014

A SOUND MEMORY


By Arthur H. Gunther III

     If you are fortunate, before you grow up but as you so quickly grow up, you’ll get to spend a few years with a patient, somewhat quiet, a bit odd grandfather like I did, who had a knack for fixing almost anything with a pocketknife or a squirt of oil from the old-style  cans, made of metal with a long spout. You thumbed the bottom, which was made of spring steel, and out came the oil. My grandfather could handle so many household problems with basic tools that it became a metaphor for building confidence.
     To this day, the sound of the popped can brings me to a place where I did not pay bills, where I was fed without cooking for myself, where I was chauffered in my parents’ car, where I was tucked in at night, where the sunrise and chilled air of spring promised  a good day of day-dreaming and hope for the future.
     My grandfather did not say much, perhaps because he was raised in a time when you sat at the table with parents and simply ate, speaking only when spoken too. That he came from a Prussian family probably enforced the discipline. Yet he talked a bit at his own table, and certainly went beyond his usual word-thrifty ways when he took time to explain carpentry to me, or a fix for a leaking faucet or to tell me my bike needed oiling. Even if it did not, I would ask him to do so, having ridden the three miles from my home to his for that reason and others.
     Out to the garage he would go, an old, wooden structure with “novelty” siding the floorboards of which had absorbed so many car leakings that the warming sun produced a woodsy, oil smell which in time would no longer be an odor but a tug at great and warm memory whenever I come upon a similar scent.
     So out to the garage my grandfather went, grabbing the copper oiling can from a shelf in the corner, just below markings my father made in the garage when he was my age. The bike would be oiled,  as my  dad’s bicycle had been, and I would be off on the same streets he rode upon.
     That ride home would mostly include a look for friends, or a stop at the small downtown A&P for a plum or two or three at 19 cents a pound, or some thoughts about where I would be in a few years, driving a car, not a bike.
    I did not usually think about my grandfather on that ride  because I foolishly took him, my grandmother, their fine home and everything then existing for granted. I never thought that all could go away.
     Now I know better, which is not a better thing. It is simply reality,  so nicely interrupted when I again hear the spring sound from my own oiling can.

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

Sunday, June 1, 2014

LIFELONG TEACHERS


By Arthur H. Gunther III
ahgunther@yahoo.com


    The average teacher's pay amounts to about one cent per hour if you consider that for almost all humans, at least one educator proves to be our lifelong teacher, frequently remembered, still instructing us. Yet respect often does not come with the job, at least from government, from taxpayers, even from some parents.
     Now, off the bat, there are some poor teachers, those who should never have taken the job nor kept it after failing to learn how to relate to the young and their minds. But there are also poor business people, poor law enforcement, poor clergy, poor everybody. It may be that some critics of our teachers, including one New Jersey governor, spotlight education because it is an easy hot-button issue.
     In my time, the several teachers who still come to mind when I make crucial decisions, when I do math, when I read about history, when I seek to be honorable enough, were poorly paid, about $100 a week in the 1950s. Mr. Hopf supplemented teaching science  with bagging at the local A&P. Mr. Gram, the English instructor who influenced my writing, had two gabardine suits, both gray. One morning he came to school in a car with a leaking radiator. And the next day, too. A lady social studies teacher lived in a rented room for her entire 40-year career, after losing her husband of one week in the Great War.
     Each of these people not only managed to teach fairly large classes of students from mostly lower- or below-middle class, blue-collar families, half of them day-dreamers. Yet as our preliminary Regents exams in the eighth grade would reveal, they instructed us well enough.  And to this day, I think of Mr. Gram when I write essays; Mr. Hopf when I read about science; the social studies teacher when I watch the History Channel. These three, and others, teach me every day, and sometimes I can still hear, and emotionally feel, the sting of a reprimand or the gentle persuasion of  “Why not try it this way?”
     Because my teachers, enough of them, are lifelong, now-a-day talk of overblown salaries, inflated pensions, poor teaching and failing schools rankles. There are problems everywhere -- in government, in education, in security, in society -- and blame is easily placed. We are all such quick and easy critics, especially with the tweets of Twitter beckoning.
     Yet I would challenge Gov. Chris Christie, the Jersey governor who frequently blasts teachers for every sin under the sun and who last week refused to fund the legally required pension payment for them and other state retirees, to teach a month in most schools.
     Give him the seventh grade, where hormones block out every third word a teacher utters. Give him and other critics a first grade where 90 percent of the students are learning English as a second language. Give them an urban classroom where there are no recent textbooks and where an empty seat in the third row once held the promise of a young girl shot killed by a stray bullet in her neighborhood. Give Christie and others brilliant students, who, yes, can learn on their own, but who need to be challenged by the brightest of instructors, not enough of whom are attracted to the profession.
     And then send the governor and others to a factoid session where they are instructed as to how poorly most state pension systems are run; how special interest inflates some pensions and strangles others; on the almost total elimination of private pensions, which,  is supposed to be adopted in the public sector as the Era of Greed marches along.
     Were it not for at least one fine, hardworking, ever-instructive, lifelong teacher, the Jersey governor and the other critics who seek not the full story in a complex world, would not even be able to sign their names to no-funding bills for education.

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