Monday, July 29, 2013

THE SUBURBS ARE GRAYING



By Arthur H. Gunther III

Thecolumnrule.com


     I live in Rockland County, N.Y., a semi-rural land when I was young but now a New York City suburb that is graying with older housing stock, demands for more urban-like density, rising infrastructure costs and threats to quality of living. It is  the typical U.S. suburb, sometimes a worrisome place with a future uncertain in an economy that may never again see a vibrant middle class. And it was then middle class that thirsted for the burbs, which kept it going but which today cannot afford it. Suggestions follow for Rockland as it faces the years ahead; perhaps they are apllicable elsewhere.
     Rockland municipalities must act now on joint planning issues if taxes, diversity and quality of life are to be best managed in the the fast graying of suburbia. Some of the county’s post-World War II housing is among the nation’s oldest, and there should be common thought as to how to keep development stable as well as to renew it.       
     Towns and villages should come together, with the county leading, to devise shared standards for future growth and regrowth. What happens in one town or village affects the others, especially in infrastructure such as water supply and sewers, density, drainage, traffic and the county tax load.
      Rockland’s cost of living is well above the national average, and its budget, which zoomed from about $489 million in 2001 to $723 million in 2013, is not sustainable. Those cost are directly attributable to population changes, including aging out and poorly planned density growth, as well as unfunded mandates that should be protested jointly by all municipalities.
     Economic and quality-of-life pressures will continue to push residents from the county, some taking with them a sense of history and dedicated community involvement that may not necessarily be replaced. The worry is that we will urbanize in anonymity, with 60-70-year-old housing not renewed, with some areas grossly neglected as the cost of home ownership rises.
     Municipalities must prepare now to obtain the best outlook. Towns and villages, with the county in the lead, should form the “Rockland Outlook Consortium” to:

      Set common zoning standards for housing density, recognizing that much of the county developed after the war has 1/3-acre or 1/4-acre housing plots with 1,600-1,800 square-foot homes. Redevelopment at greater density will invite a population increase that cannot be afforded by municipalities and school districts. The architecture will also overwhelm and green space will dwindle. There must be a planning balance if suburbia is to survive and redevelop with quality of living.
      Require sufficient drainage ponds and storm sewering with a look at what happens downstream. For example,  irresponsible growth in Ramapo along the Pascack Brook affects homes in Orangetown, even in New Jersey. Residents elsewhere should not suffer flooding and remediation cost because Ramapo has licensed overgrowth. There must be a better look at the effect of development or regrowth in one municipality versus the quality of life in other communities.
      Seek balance in growth/regrowth. From its beginning, Rockland has been diverse, and that enriches our lives and our history. There must be housing for all incomes, but much better planned and in a mix. We must guard against decaying neighborhoods, leaning on unscrupulous landlords who take single-family homes and illegally convert to boarding houses.
      Work with the Rockland fire coordinator and volunteer fire departments to require landlord-paid six-month re-inspections of all multi-tenant housing for housing and fire code violations. Building inspectors must be much more pro-active, and the courts must jail repeat slumlords. Property appearance codes must be better written and enforced.
      Discourage suburban shopping, rezoning to eliminate further development. Instead, we must renew village downtowns and hamlet centers, with sufficient parking and walkable areas. Existing strip owners should be made to clean up their acts, with litter, poor paving and neglected storefronts rehabilitated.
      School districts should work even more fervently to support one another so that we do not have the imbalance that now exists -- East Ramapo students without enough teachers and courses while just next door the Clarkstown School District offers relative educational riches. We should all be ashamed of such inequity in Rockland. Albany aid formulas, income-based school taxation and mandate relief must be the continuing agenda, and the better-off Rockland districts must help their brothers in the fight. 
         Rockland County will continue into this century, but with what future? Are we to face unsupportable deficits? Stressed schools and disenfranchised children?  Run-down, unsafe housing? An imbalance of housing density that favors some and shuts out others? Perhaps a “Rockland Outlook Consortium” that agrees on common planning standards and even shames wayward municipalities can begin to steer our troubled ship off the rocks.

The writer is a retired newspaperman who lives in Blauvelt, N.Y. ahgunther@hotmail.com

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

LESSONS AT GRANDMA'S


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By Arthur H. Gunther III
thecolumnrule.com/blog

For a child staying overnight at grandma’s, the sounds of a kitchen are never forgotten. It is always an adventure to sleep away from home for a four year old, and a grandparent’s house is a special place, full of treats, nooks and crannies in which to seek adventure and a sanctuary from routine. Even a child needs to get away sometimes, if only to grow a sense of security.

And security comes at grandma’s. She has snacks for the youngster and  perhaps too many hugs, but such is love, and it is reassuring and certainly remembered more fondly in later decades.

Each grandmother’s house has its idiosyncrasies, as does every child, every adult, and that’s another lesson to be learned at grandma’s. The child newly awake not in his or her regular bed hears a cupboard door creak open, and he knows that breakfast is coming. What child does not want breakfast? We wake up hungry, the child in all of us.

Then the youngster gets a whiff of pancakes grilling, and he can already taste grandma’s brown sugar, honey, vanilla and extra egg in the mix. Oh, and those blueberries, too.

The youngster is thus encouraged to get out of bed, forget the slippers that grandma is always telling him to put on -- splinters on the old wooden stairs, you know -- and bounce on downstairs to the kitchen where he will sit in that very big chair that will always be huge in his mind, even at age 70.

His grandma will go to the metal spice cabinet tucked away at the top of the cellar stairs and take out what she needs for a pie to be prepared as the grandson eats his pancakes. He will never forget the sweetness of that cabinet, its door held open just a quick moment. He also notices, if only out of the corner of his eye, his grandmother’s kitchen competence and confidence, another lesson.

Life unfolds on another morning in grandma’s house, one so precious that it seems it might burst into a thousand pieces of china but which actually proves so durable that all through life, grandma’s early attention is indeed a form of building security in what can be a tough world for all of us.

The writer is a retired newspaperman.

Monday, July 15, 2013

FORGOTTEN SKILLS


By Arthur H. Gunther III
thecolumnrule.com

One of the non-dynamics of “progress” is that as new technology replaces the old, or brings it on in the first place, tried and true habits honed by trial, error, ingenuity, make-do habits and survival are lost.

For example, in this age of omnipresent air conditioning, a simple concept like hot air circulation is forgotten. Recently, I was in an old New York village on a very hot day attending a gathering in a late 1800s building, three stories high. No AC, and it was stifling with perhaps 100 people there. The windows were open, but they were awning types, so there was no circulation like you get with double-hung windows. Wiping away the sweat, I looked up, and at about three stories there were other windows, all shut but with long chains dangling. It was soon obvious that the chains were pulls meant to open the upper windows so that the hot air could escape, replaced by cooler ground-level air.

Once upon a time this building would have had a sexton whose job it was to open those upper windows, or there would have been a fellow who understood the common sense of air circulation that he would simply have opened pulled on those chains. An art lost, it seems in the modern AC age.

You can extend this thinking to other things: When I was younger there was a neighborhood carpenter who would fix furniture so that you didn’t have to throw it out. Someone brought him a large table, probably 100 years old, most likely made from wood that was 200 years in the growing. The table had split after decades of drying, and it looked lost by today’s standards. But this crafty fellow, after scratching his head a bit, reached into his coveralls’ upper pocket, took out his folding rule, measured in three places along the table’s 8-foot length, went over to an old woodpile, pulled out some oak scraps similar to the table’s stock, hand-cut these pieces into wedge shapes, traced them on the table, cut holes and then glued everything together with huge pipe clamps, the tools also made from scrap -- old plumbing. 

That table is still in my friend’s house. Today it would be on the junk pile, replaced by a new one much younger and less beautiful.

The moral of the story is that in a faster-paced world, on the quick journey, we have forgotten to bring along the skills that once made us survive, those efforts that instilled pride in what we could accomplish.

The writer is a retired newspaperman.

Monday, July 8, 2013

CELEBRATION IN NYACK


By Arthur H. Gunther III
thecolumnrule.com

NYACK, N.Y. -- You would expect July Fourth fireworks -- and the gathering in public area that comes with that -- to be boisterous, noisy, of course, celebratory. It was all that in this village along the Hudson River just north of New York City, but this year there was an even stronger reason why America celebrates its birthday so heartily: the people who were there.

More than ever, there was a veritable league of nations in Memorial Park, partly because Rockland County, so close to the port of New York and diverse even before its 1798 founding, is becoming more so. Sitting near me in the park, with thousands attending, were women dressed in Islamic headwear, Orthodox Jews, people from India wearing red, white and blue shirts and saris, African Americans whose families who have helped build Nyack for centuries and men, women and children of so many national backgrounds that I cannot remember the total count of different countries.

And all here on July Fourth, a distinctly American holiday that was probably new or certainly newish to many in the park. Some had come from countries where no celebration is allowed save bowing to the national leader.

It is usual practice to recall America’s history on July Fourth and for politicians in particular to make note of how immigrants built the country after the almost suicidal chances taken by those at Lexington and Concord, by our Founders, by Washington and by the citizen-soldier. It is reaffirming to hear our narrative, even if over and over, even if we must accept the flowery praise of some of our speakers.

Yet nothing gives truth to the story like people -- free people with many different faces -- enjoying July Fourth fireworks on a majestic river, picnic at hand, family and friends there.  That this is allowed -- yes, allowed -- is the greatness of America. It is our blessing. It is our hope. It is our present and our future, built on our past.

On July 5, Congress, the president, the Supreme Court, state and local governments and all officialdom went back to “work.”  Today we question what work is being done and how democracy can thrive through special interest, political correctness without common sense and greed. We are a nation in trouble, in a troubling world. A downer if you mull on it. When I do, I switch the senses back to the Nyacks of America, where on July Fourth the people’s faces gave a different perspective.

The writer is a retired newspaperman.