Monday, May 28, 2012


By Arthur H. Gunther III
ANYWHERE, USA -- It is the custom of the nation to pause this official Memorial Day and recall those who passed in our wars, then and now, and to take a gift from the men and women who sacrificed earthly living: some hours off for picnics, parades, fireworks, backyard ease. It may be said that the somberness of reflection is lost in such activity, but to accept that would be to say those now gone would not be here themselves doing what we all do, if they could.
Ernie Pyle, the insightful G.I. Joe’s writing buddy, who sat in foxholes with the ordinary “citizen soldier,” as he put it, defined World War II and its great assemblage of draftees and enlisted from all over the country as a time to get a job done and then return to forging America and its never-ending frontier. Ernie, who took a bullet to the head in the Pacific in 1945, did not come back to resume his weekly newspaper columns of hometown USA, but most of his “boys” did. If he were alive today, he would note the morphing of Joe the tail gunner or Bill the seaman into suburban great-granddads.
War can never be praised, as Ernie Pyle told us, though the valor of the individual cast in its acts must be. He never wrote of the gung-ho military fellow who somehow might enjoy death and destruction, but he did speak eloquently of men cast as leaders when they did not seek such a role. On Jan. 10, 1944, at the front lines in Italy, he wrote of Capt. Henry T. Waskow, company commander in the 36th Division and a Texas native: “In this war I have known a lot of officers who were loved and respected by the soldiers under them. But never have I crossed the trail of any man as beloved as Capt. Waskow.”
Just in his 20s, this citizen soldier “carried in him a sincerity and gentleness that made people want to be guided by him.”
Under a nearly full moon that night in Italy, mules brought down five bodies of ordinary citizen fighting men -- fellows who just months before had been long unemployed in the Great Depression or just out of high school or in various trades or other jobs. They arrived from all over our America.
“One soldier came and looked down, and he said out loud, ‘God damn it.’ That’s all he said, and then he walked away. ... ‘I sure am sorry, sir,’ said another soldier. ... (one man) squatted down, and he reached down and took the dead hand, and he sat there for a full five minutes, holding the dead hand in his own and looking intently into the dead face, and he never uttered a sound all the time he sat there. ...”
On this Memorial Day, it is best to recall such men as Capt. Waskow and those who gave him respect in life and death. That this nation endured and moved on from World War II is the true tribute to them. The “normalcy” they and others sought is still illusive -- witness that there have been and still are other wars. We must still return to forging America and its never-ending frontier.

Sunday, May 20, 2012


By Arthur H. Gunther III
Rockland County, N.Y. -- What has happened to the suburbs, our great, post-World War II promise of middle-class life away from the smog-filled cities where so many immigrant forebears sweated and were blessed to have a chance at the American Dream?
     Well, the burbs have gotten grayer, and the promise of bettering the dream has not always been met. For we historians, for lovers of old Rockland, the coming of “Huggy Bear Estates” on a zillion cul-de-sacs and the consequent loss of so many farms and irreplaceable Dutch sandstone, Victorian-era and other houses, the immense growth has been a jolt.
Not because there are more people in Rockland. This county had to grow after the war, a terrible conflict that ironically ended a terrible depression, offering a chance for G.I.s in particular to broaden their horizons, have a patch of land, send their children to better schools, maybe even build a society that could prevent war. The old World War I song, “How 'Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm? (After They've Seen Paree?)” was more true after the Second World War, principally because of the G.I. Bill and the G.I. mortgage. Opportunities to become educated and to buy into the American Dream of improving life beyond urban centers became a very proper investment that saw America boom in the 1950s.
Trouble was -- trouble still is -- and this is where the jolt comes in --  too many hucksters sold off our land, and more than enough old-time Rocklanders bought the bait. Farms that had been worked for decades, even centuries,  were proving difficult to sustain economically. Refrigerated trucking, super farms owned by conglomerates, supermarkets -- all under-cut truck farm profit. Even just $100 an acre for long-inherited farmers’ land seemed a way out of the hole in 1950. And there were the usual political connections, then as today, which gained property and its development at any cost, whether it was farm land or flood plain where there should have been no building at all.
Planning and zoning boards were rare after the war, and well-intentioned officials were inexperienced against some slick individuals. The net effect of rapid growth, strong demand, quick land grabs and almost non-existent planning was to bring too much development, too fast, at the cost of heritage homes, neglected village downtowns, which have their own history, and poorly built infrastructure such as sewering and drainage that must now be restored at great cost in an economy hobbled in recovery by greed.
What has happened to the Rockland suburbs is neglect -- in planning, execution, re-investment, and that has stunted our history education as well. 
Just where our graying development is headed is uncertain. It surely is a challenge and a quandary. The grandchildren of our 1950s’ eager residents want to live not in the burbs but where their forebears did -- in trendy Brooklyn, or in rare village downtowns like Nyack where you can walk to a store, sit on a porch and chat with a neighbor. When the suburbs were built, each home got a backyard, not a front porch, and that’s where the new owners disappeared, only to come out of the garage in a car, drive to one of too many strip-shopping centers or malls and perhaps live on a development street for 30 years and never know the neighbors’ names. In such a setting, how could they realize that a home built in the 1600s was a few streets away? Or that a Revolutionary War battle happened in Stony Point? Or that British recognition of the United States began with a gun salute off Piermont? How could they care, caught in the hustle and bustle of suburban life where communities were the developments themselves? Where in the suburbs has there been sufficient opportunity to build the sort of cohesive neighborhood that values history, protects it, preserves it and passes it to the next generation?
I’ve painted a picture of anonymity and disconnect in the suburbs with little mercy because I do not think the promise has been met and that our heritage has been bulldozed over by a march of progress without thought.   Despite early neighborhood associations, block parties, civic groups and a generally euphoric feeling of creating a new and better world, anonymity and disconnection have indeed been the overall characteristics, however the opportunity for out-of-the-city living and improvement in the American Dream has presented itself since World War II. 
Maintaining our burbs will be ever more costly, and good planning for the land that is left, largely illusive in the past, will be even more necessary since there will now be a call for density construction. But what of the expense of that in added police, DPWs, education needs and decreased quality of life? Isn’t there a point at which we all say “enough” and then slowly but surely seek to redefine the suburbs, to save them? Can we, for example, connect existing development to renewing hamlet and village downtowns by foot and bike paths? Can we tear down some of the too numerous strip shopping centers, with so many empty stores,  and some older development as well and rebuild as hamlet-center, walkable communities that mix commercial and residential with green space, perhaps even constructed around an old homestead that we want to save? Can we return a bit of the land for uses such as small local truck farming that is cost-competitive given fuel expense and that offers so much better quality than supermarket produce?
Maybe if we think out of the box on our suburbs’ future rather than continue the hellbent quest for development at any cost,  with planners and zoners listening only to the promises never met, maybe if we finally slow down for the first time since 1950 and think fast and hard about what the burbs really should be, Rockland’s towns and villages will also look at the few heritage homes that are left and also literally smell the flowering of our great history. Perhaps then, our historical names, this historical society and local historians will be as recognizable on the suburban map as are “Huggy Bear Estates,”  or say the West View Shopping Center on Highway 59 or the Palisades Center Mall, set in a flood plain, which, history tells us, our Native Americans deliberately avoided.
If only the burb makers had read history first. ...
This essay was read to the Historical Society of Rockland at its 22nd annual Preservation Awards ceremony in New City, N.Y., May 20, 2012.

Monday, May 14, 2012


By Arthur H. Gunther III
Of late, nature has been as cranky, even downright mean, as a hen with stolen eggs, inflicting disastrous storms and fickle weather in most parts of the world. Attribute the bad mood to climate change or anything else, but the realization is there’s been no party time.
Now if you look in history, you’ll see this has happened before -- nothing especially cyclical, but terrible weather nonetheless. It’s almost as if the gods were angry, and they pulled our hair. More than a few cultures believed that and gave up sacrifice, human and otherwise.
Of course, I don’t mean to joke about storms that kill and injure, which destroy livelihoods, which are hell on earth. Yet their fact is as real as the old bromide --  that if you had to wait for your date to fix her hair and you were stuck shuffling your feet while her mother stared you down, you talked about the weather. I sure did, whether it was hot and sunny or icy and cold later.
I propose to mention weather like you note the state of politics, which is to say, what state are we in anyway? “Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore,” Dorothy says in the “OZ” spectacular, and while a tornado moves her out, it is really the imagination, wishes, aims, needs, desires and the great, unfulfilled, incomplete world that was both Depression-era Hollywood and L. Frank Baum’s turn-of-the-20th century Populist era. 
His novel for children was sort of an “American fairy tale” without European-style  scariness. That author Baum lived during the great Populist movement of people against the elite and that Hollywood was in its own era (and imagination) when it made the movie have led to political interpretations of “The Wizard of OZ.” Who knows? Maybe it’s like the weather, seemingly predictable, then not, cause straight from the heavens but effect from earthly misfits.
As a third grader in a fine, little school called South Main Street in Spring Valley, N.Y., I was privileged to hear, every afternoon for two weeks, passages from an original copy of “Oz” as beautifully read by teacher Miss Helen Rouy. I -- nor as I recall, any of my classmates -- did not find the story frightening, and we all seemed carried off to the Land of Enchantment. 
But for us in those days of 1950, tornadoes seemed distant to the Northeast, and we were just beginning to worry about a mushroom cloud called the Cold War H-Bomb. The afternoon’s reading (always a treat to be read to, no matter the age) left us with good feelings about the story’s central theme -- love, kindness and unselfishness.
That storms have since come into all our lives, some so very great that we cannot seem to define the why and wherefore of them, that storms today also mean politics, the fact that we are weathering any sort at least promises us that harm has not chased Baum’s penchant for reassuring children. That is the true, great magic of the Wizard, though he knew it not.
And that would be my weather report for today.

Monday, May 7, 2012


By Arthur H. Gunther III
I live in the neck of the woods where men and women of all economic, ethnic, religious and political circumstance, with varying age, height, weight and physical ability all do the same job:  They protect their communities as volunteer firefighters. Yet, ironically,  an increasing number are left without protection of their own, sent to the fires of hell by greedy landlords. The brethren are joined by the many paid New York City fire eaters who live in my -- our -- Rockland County, N.Y. They, too, are at the mercy of  property owners who illegally sub-divide what are usually single-family houses. Some have died.
What these money-grabber landlords do in Gotham is to take old buildings and construct  partitions, creating rooms to rent. They get no building permits, which would not be granted anyway. There may not even be smoke detectors let alone carbon monoxide units. A fire strikes, smoke, flames and 1,200-degree temperatures quickly eat at the structure (fire is like the devil himself -- it has a life of its own, licking its way around corners and striking as a snake). Firefighters become trapped in illegally walled-off structures with no way out, quickly disoriented. Walls fall down, air supply runs out, communication fails and these men and women die in a maze that should never have existed.
In Rockland, the volunteers are facing the same situation. Former summer-use bungalows that would not have met modern building codes had they been in place in the 1930s as well as suburban 1950s cape cods, split levels and bi-levels are subdivided as illegal multi-family housing, or worse, as rooming houses. A bad housing market drives up rents, which fuels greed. The homes may look the same outside but have the potential mazes of fire hell inside. In addition, some wood-frame and other substandard structures have been converted into schools, placing children in danger. Access for firetrucks is limited and buildings are so close that flames can leap over.
Rockland firefighters, who respond at all hours and under all conditions, are fed up with the unnecessary jeopardy that has been added to their lives. Some are preparing to quality for planning and zoning boards, to use the system to limit development and to insist on stricter standards, inspection and compliance. Other firefighters are tracking properties already cited, the ones that somehow get lost in the weak court system or which seem to curry political favoritism.
Perhaps working in the system will produce greater safety. I’d add, though  I am not an expert (regrettably I never volunteered as a firefighter  though relatives have) an idea mentioned when I was a newspaper editorialist. I suggested for the paper that every rental property in Rockland be required to have a renewable certificate of occupancy. Annual inspections would be conducted to note building changes and condition, wiring, heating, detectors, sanitation and sufficient parking. Inspections would be by capable, trained retired or jobless people whose part-time salaries would be funded by reasonable permit fees. Rental units would be shut down immediately if safety were compromised.
As for illegal construction that may not be obvious at first glance, the law should be toughened so that building and fire inspectors can gain property entry to check, say, smoke detectors. Any illegal walls, etc., would then be spotted.
In January 2005, a Bronx, N.Y., fire in an illegally converted apartment house took the life of a Rockland resident, John Bellew of the FDNY. Lt. Curtis Meyran was also killed, and firefighter Jeff Cool of Rockland was severely injured. Such needless death and injury should not occur again. Most landlords may  be responsible, but the ones who are not are potential killers who must be thwarted.