Sunday, September 26, 2010

BALANCE IN SUBURBIA




     In 1945, even before troop ships brimming with returning World War II veterans hit ports in America, the suburban “plan” had been hatched. Defense contractors like Levitt & Sons knew many of these men, and some women, would never go back to their cities after their breakout. No longer were aspirations shelved by the make-do years of the Great Depression and then a devastating conflict. As well, there was renewed confidence in survival. The G.I., the sailor, the Marine, the airman, had made it back, and maybe these Americans could forge yet a new frontier, as is written in our national genetic code.

The newest frontier was affordable housing for the average American, to fulfill the dream of home ownership. William Levitt and his family, businessmen surely seeing great profit as well as possessing the ability to meet a need, were the first to step up to the plate in 1947 when they began selling homes fabricated in an assembly-line method, with payment as low as $57 a month. “Levittown” would completely alter the Long Island farm landscape, and everywhere else. Quickly, housing developments would grow across the nation, including in New York City’s suburbs, fertilized by eager investment and cultivated by willing towns and villages, which envisioned much more money for tax coffers. What was not expected in the heady rush was suburbia’s cost, its great and growing expense that today is helping drain treasuries from the federal government to the states to communities. 


Aging infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, utilities, parks and public buildings; hastily built homes now requiring new plumbing and electrical work; houses illegally modified over the years against zoning regulations to create multiple units; insufficiently maintained homes, some of which stand out as eyesores, with unregistered cars on lawns, litter and unpainted siding; and bulldozed-over floodplains that raise the water table for other residents, filling their basements in storms – all these concerns now haunt graying suburbia, just as many of them have afflicted the old cities from which suburbanites fled in the decades after World War II. Yet, ironically, many of our urban areas have been rebuilt in their rediscovery. Children of suburbanites, turned off by the great development expanse, shopping strips that you have to drive to and the loss of old neighborhood downtowns, seek closer community in walking, downtown areas in Brooklyn, for example.

But this leaves suburbia wanting, for our growing national, state and local deficits and the ever-escalating cost of government combine to raise taxes prohibitively while concurrently not providing sufficient re-investment. Our infrastructure repair budgets are cut; our social services and health care expenses increase as suburbanites age. Reductions in manufacturing jobs and other workplace losses shrink the ranks of the middle class, the suburban bedrock. Suburbia no longer is growing, yet the rather big elephant in the room needs to be fed, its appetite almost insatiable. Who will pay?

A partial answer is in balance, which is necessary in the maturing of the suburbs. When the suburban boom began, planners, developers, investors  and government should not have abandoned our downtowns and hamlet centers, instead balancing rebuilding there with the growth of fringe development. Without visionary thinking, we left areas to sometimes unscrupulous, exploiting landlords who turned them into substandard housing. And we vacated our downtown shopping zones in the process.

The proper plan would have been to reinvest in the downtowns, to tear down and renew the old and build a community of shops and housing, tied to outer suburbia. Instead, a gazillion shopping strips went up, with yet another pizza shop, dry cleaner and now the standard bagel joint. No visionary was available then (1945-2005 at least) with a strong enough voice. Everyone thought the suburbs were the best thing since toasted bread. Leave the crowded cities behind, people said. So, many Gothamites fled to the suburbs, but many, too, have now fled from them as well in the inevitable aging of suburbia.

Balance is required in development, particularly in rebuilding suburbia; that is, if growth and regrowth ever happen in this scary economy. But will visionaries speak up and be heard this time,  over the shuffling of the mighty greenback?

Monday, September 20, 2010

A NEIGHBORLY VACATION


ABOARD THE NORWEGIAN DAWN (Sept. 12-19) – I’ve cruised seven days as a tourist in calm waters, though in truth I would rather have been on a high seas adventure as correspondent during trying times.  I saw clear to the horizon, literally and otherwise, no other vessels near, the Norwegian Cruise Line ship, its ballasts and stabilizers set for a senior citizen-comfort ride, pushing along at 13 knots, bound for Halifax, St. John, Bar Harbor, Boston, Newport and then back to New York City.

Security was tight shore-wise, ship-wise. It is the price we pay these scary days – 99 percent of the people showing photo ID, facing deep scrutiny by eye, computer and X-ray detector against the 1 percent who might do harm. This puts a damper on fun activities, especially when the rare official is overzealous, but not so much that what you pay for doesn't deliver on a cruise. If you are a casino aficionado, a shuffleboard player, a Las Vegas-type show lover; if you like to eat, to socialize, to relax on deck lounges, a cruise is custom-made; if you like to get off the ship in varied ports (not all do), this is the way to travel.

For me, a cruise is a way to people watch, to observe humanity, to overhear accents - from England, the American Midwest, Canada, France, all over the world, 70 nations represented on my trip alone. It’s been an opportunity to have conversations – so many people were friendly, so many were interesting. Some were endearing. Living as most of us do in a microcosm, interacting with the same neighbors, workers, family and friends every day, immersed as we are in whatever region in which we live, we get used to the habits – the politeness, the impoliteness, the yin/yang – of our particular little world – the moaning and groaning, the good deeds, the annoyances.

I can report that getting out of our cubicles and meeting new people makes you feel optimistic about humanity. You are reassured once again that while we have always been troubled by greed, hate, wars, the better nature of us all is still a good bet for the long run.

As I cruised along, my sense of pioneering, the security blanket of independent spirit that I have carried since birth still wrapped tightly, I was reassured that this nation, this world must never be looked at through the eyes of the self-annointed suspicious, through the greedy, through those who profit by hardship and who would have us live in fear, but through the hearts, minds and values of the corn farmers I met on this trip, and of the English couple bent simply “on a holiday, you see,” and of the Filipino staff most courteous, and of the American westerners with wonderful, disarming manners, and of the older lady looking at an immigrant baby who saw only promise in a nation that once gave her Polish grandfather a shot at a dream.

If only the world we live in – the one determined by our governments – was as neighborly as this cruise has been.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

WEEPING IN PEARL RIVER


     In honor of Sept. 11, this is a reprint of my column for Sept. 14, 2001, just days after the awful attack on America.


They are weeping in Pearl River. Weeping for New York City’s Bravest and Finest, lost in the rubble and horror and smoke of the World Trade Center disaster.

They are weeping elsewhere in Rockland County, surely, for civilians and city workers alike, but it is Pearl River and all of Orangetown where so many of the Bravest and Finest live.

Some neighborhoods are almost an extension of the city, and firefighters and police officers living there have taken the jobs of fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers.

This is another Rockland, set apart from the country and historic days, and distinct from the regular post-war suburbia of New City or the ethnically diverse neighborhoods of Spring Valley and Haverstraw.

In that, there is as much heritage, distinction and pride as in any section of this geographically small county so close to New York City. Indeed, it is the physical closeness that makes Pearl River, particularly, so attractive to city workers.

When the Palisades Interstate Parkway partially opened in 1955, Orangetown was the first accessible Rockland area, 16 miles from the George Washington Bridge. Firefighters and police officers, seeking a country life for their families and unable by law to live in New Jersey, which is closer to Gotham, flocked to the relatively affordable housing here.

And they formed a community. It is not the usual suburbia. Yes, there are the bi-levels; the block parties; the hustle and bustle of car pools and family activity. But there is also the “Brotherhood.” The Brotherhood of deep concern and respect for each officer, active or retired, and son or daughter or father or grandchild of that officer.
You might just as well be in the firehouse or the police precinct station house on many streets of Pearl River. These people stick together, and when one suffers, all do, fueled by the deep sense of mourning that the Irish (so many of these officers are of that heritage) instinctively carry in their souls and hearts.

     Rockland, Pearl River, do not yet know how many of their New York City Bravest and Finest will be counted on the honor roll of the dead. That may take weeks, and the toll may be high. But already the darkness of grief has descended, and with that sweep of fate are also seen angels of mercy and comfort.

The mutual-aid system of the Brotherhood of firefighters and police officers has eased into the grief, separating the dark from hope and resurrection and thanks for sacrifice.

The bagpipes will be playing a long time in Pearl River and in Rockland. The Masses will be many. There will be a lifetime of sorrowful memory. But already there has begun a healing, thanks be to God, by the goodness of the Brotherhood. 

Monday, September 6, 2010

CURIOSITY CAN SAVE AMERICA


     Curiosity, we are warned, killed the cat, but the naysayers never tell you about the nine lives.

In the University of Higher Education that is life, you can earn a doctorate via Curiosity 101, 201, 301, 401. Curiosity was a  welcome affliction for Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein, who thought out of the box, who often applied barely basic skills of learning to journey, as Buzz Lightyear says in “Toy Story:” “To Infinity and Beyond.”

Einstein did poorly in school arithmetic and early math. Had he been the traditionalist, had he earned his gold stars in calculus, he might have ended up a fine professor of that discipline instead of spending 10 years daydreaming about gravity and the speed of light and whether a fellow saw himself in a mirror the same way traveling through space as he would moored to earth. His e=mc squared formula might not have been written.

Tom Edison endlessly tinkered in his lab, trying this and that out of curiosity more than straight applied science. Had he followed strict dictum, he and his people might have given up. If they had let curiosity kill the cat the first time out on light bulb filaments, there would have been no ninth life, no pushed inquisitiveness that found carbonized thread as the winner. And then there was light, literally.

Edward Hopper, the famed American realist painter whose works of solitude and intensity of emotion are so especially defining to the world right now, spent long months in utter curiosity, going to 1930s movies, peering out his Washington Square studio window, looking away from the sea at South Truro, Mass., walking Gotham’s streets and reaching into his mind's file cabinet for human and architectural sketches squirreled away on so many trips of curiosity. From here and there, Hopper took what he needed, and when the time was right, he brushed in strokes of interpretation that make us shiver decades later.

So, I say to all of you, especially the young yet not spoiled by too many limiting rules: Go for it – be curious, day dream, move to a different, unique place in your mind. Be independent, dare to “go to infinity and beyond.” This America, in particular, needs your innovation right now.