Monday, May 31, 2010

'LES COCHONS' AMONG US


     ALMOST ANYWHERE, USA – One of the problems with a graying, older suburbia, which is the lower New York State area in which I live, is that often land and building neglect have arrived over the decades. The same is true of urban sections of this nation, surely, and rural and other regions, though untidiness certainly seems dependent on the people who live in a particular place. Some, bless them, always take care of their property, no matter how little money they have. Others are, well, simply “les cochons,” a much nicer, French way of saying “pigs.”

If I had a magic wand, I would compel communities that have property maintenance laws to enforce them, and make those that do not enact such ordinance. It is in the general public interest to protect property values.
    
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 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 falling off roofs, when sidewalks are not cleared of snow or are hazardous because tree roots have pushed up the slabs? And what about shopping centers where debris is not picked up, the parking lots are shabby and the building facades rundown?
    
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 sold.
    
Neglected property not being sold should be cited.  We realize building inspectors are busy enough, but while they are in their cars going to their jobs, they can jot down addresses. 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 can step in and do the work, adding the tab to the annual tax bill. However, the property owner cannot afford repairs because of illness, job loss, pending foreclosure, etc., perhaps community service organizations can lend a hand and take on these properties as projects.
   
 The point is to clean up blighted properties and to enforce the law, not just have it on the books. As James Dean, Orangetown highway superintendent, said recently about his campaign to prevent graffiti from spreading to the point of blight, “If you have a building with a broken window, it seems to attract more people to break more windows.” Property neglect can mushroom.

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 homes held in common. There is no room for “les cochons” to spoil it for the rest of us.
      

Sunday, May 23, 2010

THE MAD DASH

     It may be decades between runners, but the quick leap and the mad dash are the same, differing gender aside. As I was tooling down a local street at 7 in the morning last week, the high school gazelle sprinted toward the school bus. I am quite familiar with her story.

I, too – you, too – were late for the school bus, some of us chronically, others in the occasional mode. One awful morning, I heard my bus, No. 15, yellow (we also had green-colored ones) coming, its characteristic hissing air brakes announcing arrival at the Eckerson and Buena Vista roads stop in Hillcrest, N.Y.

I jumped out of bed, pulled on the pants I wore the day before (which had been left on a chair, natch), stomped my feet into already tied shoes, the heels pushed down, threw a sweater over my PJ tops, grabbed a coat after I almost fell down the stairs and ran for No. 15, just barely getting in the closing door at the Eckerson and Pascack roads stop.

My hair, then in ample supply, was uncombed, I still had to get my shoes on right, and my stomach was growling  for lack of breakfast. I had yet to go to the bathroom.

My father, who for years had gotten my brother and I ready for school, now left it to high school-age boys to do the job. My mother was already at work. So, there was no one to blame for my lateness but myself. Guess watching The “You Bet Your Life” rerun the night before, at 11:15, did the trick. Or maybe I was just lazy.

At least the high school gazelle who I saw barely make it to her bus – number unknown, but still yellow – looked in pretty good shape. Yet I had to chuckle that youngsters were still like we were now so long ago. Zillions of minutes later, in a life so quickly lived, I see today’s young world tethered to iPods, iPads, Internet everything. Schools are very expensive. Everything is expensive. There are so many things for a youngster to do, so much so that appointment books are kept. Yet the simple fact that the grandfather-aged fellow overslept in 1960 and so does the kid in 2010, and the same mad dash to the bus is made, offers comforting kinship. 

And renewal. It made me feel as if had to study for the upcoming June New York State Regents exams. 

Monday, May 17, 2010

THE HARBINGERS


     By Arthur H. Gunther III


     We have chirping birds in these parts, particularly in the spring, and they are the harbingers of Northeast America’s April to September love/hate affair with what now amounts to three seasons in two: early spring, summer and the newer mixed season of spring/summer, that one marked by un-delightful humidity. The birds are unusually silent in that developing “season,” initially  limited to a few days now and then and now sometimes lasting a week or more.

We know we have more humidity in 2010 than in 1990 or 1960, because clumps of green mold grow on the north side of buildings, rarely seen before. People report more headaches and sniffles and aches and pains. Even a little bit of garden work brings humidity-driven sweat, and the birds, a welcome accompaniment in the season of rebirth, don’t chirp as much.

Not all will agree with me about humidity. Millions live in parts of the United States and the rest of the world where it is a daily part of the weather and welcomed as such. But up here, as the saying goes, “It isn’t the heat that bothers me, it’s the humidity.”

We also proclaim, at least those who choose to remain here, that “We are fortunate to have four seasons,” even though we naturally complain when snow and ice overstay their initial holiday wonder arrival, or the winds of March chill us too much and extend impossibly high utility bills.

In this American democracy, at least when there was the requisite growing middle class so necessary for the economy, social progress, human rights and for fulfilling the ideals of the Founders, there was choice to move about, to take in four seasons if you wished, to enjoy humidity-laden areas, the dry sections of the West, the plains of the Dakotas, the light of the Pacific Coast.

I fear that with the extending polarization of the economy – the very, very rich, the high rich, the very, very poor and the poor – there will be fewer of our children and grandchildren in the middle-class ranks. I enjoy my four seasons, and I would fight any battle to assure my own and your own can choose different geography.

Perhaps my concern is unfounded, but I swear that even in spring’s renewal this year, there were fewer birds chirping. Seems there’s an ailment among us called Greed, and I guess even some of the songbirds have flown away.

Monday, May 10, 2010

REDISCOVERY




     NYACK, N.Y. – This is a community mostly of the later 1800s and the 20th century, along the shore of the historic Hudson River. It bustles in its moments, like most villages, though in 2010, much of the movement is by car or truck, with even many pedestrians hopping from those for small jaunts. So much is missed in the process.

Once upon a time, with walkers in the majority, the scenery didn’t just pass by. I rediscovered that fact on a recent four-mile walk from my home in Blauvelt to downtown Nyack.

On a hot and also humid early summer day that had its date confused and arrived in spring, with the temperature near 88, I found myself going to an appointment in Nyack and feeling bloated from too much of a love affair between a sweet tooth and pastries. So, I tried to work off the guilt and bring back the energy by burning calories on an over-the-mountain run. It’s a moderate hike up Clausland – not Mt. Everest, not San Francisco, but way beyond the plains of Iowa. It was challenge enough.

Most of the walk to Nyack via the mountain route is pleasurable scenically, since you pass through a town park, see deer, raccoons, even a fox or coyote, none of whom seem particularly interested in you. There are cars, too, more than enough of them, taking this shortcut trail to Nyack.

I saw what those motorists did not, and what I don’t spot when I often take this run in the car. Winter was harsh this year, with ice storms and high winds, and the woods were damaged. Many branches, even full trees, fell, but nature has already used that destruction as renewal for the land, with green shoots of new vegetation cropping up everywhere. I spotted so much of this beauty, and it was heartening. Made me feel like the perpetually optimistic Sagittarius.

I also saw rabbits and squirrels and chipmunks scampering amongst the green looking for food even though the fox and coyote were a challenge. I never notice the animal kingdom in my car while going 35 mph.

Looking up at the forest canopy, newly opened spaces offered funnels for great streams of light to the green floor and old Rockland County rocks. It was the very sight that Native American Lenni-Lenapes saw. I never think about that on the fast-paced car run over the mountain.

Once beyond the Clausland summit, I could see old Nyack as its 1800s and 1900s homes stretch down to the river on streets where my great-grandfather drove and walked. Walking and not riding in a car afforded me a great opportunity to see the magnificent handicraft of ancient carpenters who fashioned these Victorians, American four squares and Tudors. I could see the great variety of landscaping and the individuality of the homes, so common to any village in America but so often never spotted.

When I hit the downtown area of Nyack, I looked at the old storefronts, some of which I first noticed as a tiny youngster. Walking in downtowns, we usually don’t look up, to see above the stores. This time I did, since I was in the habit of spotting the usually unseen on this entire trip. Again, what fine architecture and craftsmanship.

Though I had just finished a four-mile walk over a mountain, I swear it seemed my heart was beating slower than it usually does in my busy world. I wonder if that’s because I took time to smell a flower or two? (Maybe I should eat pastries more often.)






Sunday, May 2, 2010

NO PIPE TALE, BUT ...



Recently, I managed not to put anyone sleep during an address I gave for the 75th anniversary of the Spring Valley, N.Y., Rotary Club. The speech was easy to do since the Rotary there has included so many influential, giving, caring business and other professional people over its nearly eight decades. It was a simple task to recall them and their influence on a village, from the Great Depression onward.
    
Since the address was given in the old Dutch Reform Church where 56 years ago I went to Boy Scout meetings and in the same building where I am fortunate to participate in a morning breakfast program as cook, there seemed to be a “speech angel” or two making sure my words were clear and not boring. Even W. Francis Scott, my speech teacher at Spring Valley High, would have passed me on this. Strangely, the last time I spoke publicly in the village was at the graduating speech dinner in spring 1961 (our “final exam”). I again thank Mr. Scott for giving all of us courage to stand before an audience.

What he could not prepare me for was the emotion you can reveal before an audience, with your raw insides showing, as it were. That happened as I talked about many people I knew in my small-town community who have moved on  – a bit of throat clearing was necessary. But I did not stumble in my 20-minute speech. That happened afterward.

When the address was over, and the audience generously gave approval, Ed Frank, president of the Rotary, Len Binder, a past president, and Jim Mellion, son of the well-known grocer in town, gave me a present.

In 1947, when Spring Valley was nearing the economic height of post-World War II renewal, the new Memorial Park was dedicated on the site of the old village dump. A time capsule was buried with the usual artifacts, such as a copy of the Rockland Leader (the village newspaper), a $2 million check to the present mayor from then Mayor Anthony Milewski (uncashable, of course) and a Smokemaster pipe manufactured by the Briarcraft Smoking Pipe Co. in Spring Valley.

Undoubtedly donated by Mr. Shoemaker, Briarcraft’s owner, it surely was handled, perhaps even made, by Arthur Sr., my grandfather and foreman of the factory. For 50 years, until 1997, the pipe was in a metal box under the memorial monument at the center of the park. I was in kindergarten when the time capsule was buried. I played in that park, walked through it on the way to elementary school and high school, passed the monument as I attended Boy Scout meetings and drove by in early adulthood.

Now, 63 years after my grandfather helped prepare that pipe for the time capsule, it has been presented to me and to my family. I was so overwhelmed that I could not speak for a moment. I hope the audience forgave me that.

It may be difficult for some to understand how Spring Valley was so life-forming to me, to my brother, my father and my grandparents and to so many thousands in our years there. Growing up, I had both success and failure in the Valley, and I have never felt satisfied that I was one of her better native sons. Now that almost does not matter, since I was welcomed home and perhaps forgiven with this precious gift. I must have walked by that buried smoking pipe and played above it on the big monument a thousand times. Now it sits on my desk. Amazing.