Monday, May 26, 2014

IF THEY COULD SPEAK ...



By Arthur H. Gunther III
ahgunther@hotmail.com

      No Memorial Day, USA or elsewhere, is without heartfelt words and tribute, parades, wreaths, re-mourning. What is always missing, though, are the voices of the fallen. Would that we could hear them. What would they say?
     “Mom, I was as scared as you, but I could not show that with you there. So I never really said ‘goodbye’. ...”
     “Dad, you told me about your ‘war stories,’ and I figured we’d swap them when I came back. ...”
     “Mary (any sweetheart’s name), I was crying inside when you were showing tears, and we both felt that we had been pulled from our door to the future so that I could enter another, for a time. ...”
     “Mr. Singer (any teacher’s name), I know you expected me to be the same distracted fellow day-dreaming in the back row, but I was really awake that final day, and I remembered you telling me to pay attention. It helped my pals in the squad, the ones who survived. ...”
     “Mayor Jones (any public official), I know there are speeches every Memorial Day, and parades and gun salutes and tears and then the barbecues, fireworks,  leisure. Understand that all this is fine with me. I’d be there, too, if I could. But also believe that the man who fell next to me, the ‘enemy,’  isn’t one for me any longer, and he has mourners, too. ...”
     “I read the ‘Red Badge of Courage’ in Miss Rouy’s literature course and could not understand then the fine line between courage, the chance of it, the millisecond for choice, and the instant when cowardice could win. I thought it was black and white but now understand it is not really so, that military training and society’s expectation may of necessity set it up as clear choice, but in the moment of decision, there is fear, opportunity and the possibility of both heroism and cowardice. There is much more humanity to it. ...”
     And it is for humanity that I am ‘gone,’ the hope of it anyway. I am not truly ‘gone,’ of course, since I have not died in vain. The sacrifices of any of us, dead or living, is for betterment, for that continual ‘thirst’ for the world’s life and its great possibilities. Otherwise, why did you all lose me? ...”
 The writer is a retired newspaperman. He can be reached at ahgunther@hotmail.com This essay may be reproduced.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

WHEN THE LAW HURTS


By Arthur H. Gunther III

     Rockland County, N.Y. -- Though this suburb 20 miles north of New York City has been most diverse since the Dutch came in the 1600s, a religious  community movement strongly under way threatens the balance of planned growth and opportunity for all, including current residents.
      In recent years, large Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish families have been moving, from Brooklyn principally, so that their communities can grow. Such religion-based intent surely must be respected, but so must the effect of rapid and great growth, which is creating an imbalance as housing density and numerous religious schools stress the infrastructure, municipal services and taxing ability. 
     Local, long-developed zoning, set forth in master plans, is being challenged through a 2000 federal law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, the key provision of which is to blanket-grant religious institutions a free pass to circumvent zoning.
       The law is not well-conceived, rushed into law by voice vote in both the Senate and House to fix portions of the 1993 Religious Freedom Act, which had been found unconstitutional over Congress’ enforcement powers. If there were an appeal of RLUIPA, it might well be found unconstitutional. While it was designed to protect religious groups against prejudicial local zoning, in fact it actually disenfranchises existing residents by forcing them to adopt a community environment that is negative to what they have agreed is planned development. You can’t have balanced law if it promotes one group over others, and that is what RLUIPA does. 
           And it avoids what should be sensible community discussion rather than law enforced from on high: How can we plan for diversity, for the inclusion of all, in a way that harms no one, that is fair to everyone, that is affordable, that continues the area’s overall vision?
     While the laudatory intent of both the original RFA and RLUIPA is to battle against prejudice, to be an ally for religious groups, the law has been taken misused in Rockland.  It has forced density in a suburb where one-third acre zoning has been the average since farmers’ fields were plowed under post-World War II. 
     The effect has been to stress municipal resources in the Town of Ramapo, negatively affecting the expensive water supply for all of Rockland, the sewer system and town services such as police and building code enforcement. In addition, there is a growing county social services tab for the poorer religious communities. Most impacted has been the East Ramapo School District, which is now serving  far more private (religious) school students than public and which has a school board elected principally from the religious bloc that, in effect, has disenfranchised public schoolchildren through numerous cuts and management decisions. 
     Given rapid and continuing growth in the religious community and the subsequent legitimate need for housing, schools and services, other Rockland towns, villages and school districts can expect religious community expansion, some of which will come via RLUIPA. Government may well be scared off, coerced into abandoning long-developed, sound zoning and planning by the guillotine effect of RLUIPA:  Plaintiffs can collect attorney fees and, in some cases, receive damages for the delayed cost of construction. This is great incentive for zone busting.
   The Orthodox have been a vital part of Ramapo since the 1800s. But now RLUIPA is encouraging such a great imbalance that parts of the Rockland suburb soon will no longer be recognizable as such. Housing density already has brought stressed infrastructure and higher taxes; education in East Ramapo is unequal to that offered literally next door in the other districts; building departments in Ramapo and Spring Valley, as well as volunteer firefighters, are overwhelmed by dangerous code violations that are the result of great, haphazard, ill-planned growth. There is much fallout in the rapid, imbalanced, unplanned growth.
     The future promises much more of the same, and, economically that is not sustainable. Nor is it socially, with such great imbalance in community, one that fosters prejudice rather than Rockland’s traditional acceptance of diversity. Educationally, children are already disenfranchised.
     RLUIPA was never meant to cause all that. It is flawed law, and either Congress should rewrite it to balance the needs of the existing community with that of religious institutions, or an appeal should be brought before the Supreme Court. Clearly, too many are deprived of the lives they want to lead 
to satisfy the needs of others. There is great imbalance, and it must be addressed.

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

Monday, May 12, 2014

GET IT DONE



By Arthur H. Gunther III
ahgunther@yahoo.com

     The world has always had potholes -- that’s why it is not Heaven. And it has always had people who fix potholes as well as the many more who fail to do the assigned job.
     These days in the United States, potholes -- the literal type that forms on roads in freeze/thaw or the ruts in government -- take forever to repair, some without any fix ever. Regulations, political priorities, a “not my job” attitude, red tape -- all get in the way. Once, things were better. Not that there weren’t potholes, not that government worked, for often it has not, but once more individual pride and moxie got the job done.
     An example: In Orangetown, N.Y., back in the 1950s, the highway chief was one Sterling Theis. A former mechanic and road repair guy himself who worked his way up the ladder in an old-fashioned way, he would get up at 4 every morning, have coffee and then head out in his truck. Each day he would take a different route in his town, which covers a number of hamlets and, back then, quite a few rural roads. Theis would note of every pothole or developing one that he saw, or a clogged storm drain or a missing curb section. He would jot down the location of each one.
     When he got  to the DPW office, his foreman would take the expected list and, following Theis’ standing order, get the jobs done or either started that very day. No excuses, no matter the weather, the sick list, the budget.
     Sterling Theis retired long ago and is now gone. His method of pro-active repair did not continue. Today, a pothole fix probably has to go out to bid.
     You can extend this metaphor to any part of government's “service to the people.” Things just do not get done these days, at least not as many, not as quickly. Perhaps there is some good reason, such as making sure the repair will last, observing environmental rules, providing jobs, etc. But mostly the slowdown is because government -- ever bigger, ever more complex, ever more a "system" -- falls all over itself, and along the very expensive path on which the turtle moves, bricks of gold are taken up by the favored few who work the system.
      Another example: In our Washington, D.C., which is our land, our seat of government, the George Washington Monument formally opens today, May 12, 2014, after being shut for three years following a 5.8-magnitude quake in August 2011. Three years, when our involvement in the great landscape of World War II was three years, nine months. How many tanks, ships, Jeeps, training camps, rifles, bridges, etc., were built in that period?
At the Monument, more than 150 cracks have been repaired, rainwater leaks have been sealed, and the 130-year-old structure is OK to go so that we, the people, can once again visit our tribute to the Father of our Country. But why three years?
     Yes, the memorial  was properly closed so that engineers could conduct an extensive analysis and restoration of the 555-foot stone obelisk that once was the tallest structure in the world. But should that have taken three years? And why $15 million for the repairs, or about $10,000 per crack? That’s a big hit for taxpayers, even with half of the tab paid by philanthropist David Rubenstein.
     Once, initiative got you to the top, and that kept service to the people at a higher level, too, whether in government action or manufacturing product quality. For whatever reason, with some great exception, general no-nonsense, get-it-done, non-bureaucratic service that's so overdue everywhere is as illusive as was the Washington Monument when it, this people’s statue, was closed to the people.

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

Monday, May 5, 2014

NO FAST LANE FOR 40 MINUTES



By Arthur H. Gunther III
ahgunther@yahoo.com

     Blauvelt to West Nyack, N.Y. -- Along the Western Highway, simply named centuries ago because so few roads existed that there was no need to use developers’ favored children’s monikers, a three-mile walk to the great hullabaloo of suburban growth that is a major shopping center brought quiet that you can never get in a car here, even an effortless, whisper-like electric model.
     I had an errand to run and someone to meet, and I drive enough locally to hit 16,000 miles yearly, so, on a decent day, with sun out and the humidity not yet oppressive even in the 70s, I combined exercise with contemplation. It was a trip of nostalgia, history, appreciation and relief. It was also hairy at times since Western Highway is a major road that has endless traffic, no sidewalks on my section and motorists who think they are heading in a race for a pot of gold, so fast they drive.
     Western Highway is as famous as many others in roads in this nation. Washington and  Lafayette went down it in wagons. It led to the major Northeast supply depot for the Continental Army. President Martin Van Buren, dining at the Clarksville Inn, came along. Long before that, of course, the original Native Americans forged the trail, and the Dutch built sandstones along it. One such house, the old Leiper manse, was a stopover for U.S. Army personnel and family during World War II, as it was near Camp Shanks, the largest  Army embarkation port in the world. The Order of Battle for the D-day invasion was set at Shanks.
     When I was a child of the 1940s-'50s, my father would take us to look at Shanks’ remains, then called Shanks Village as it became housing for returning GIs studying under the GI Bill at Columbia University. Situated along  Western Highway, Shanks Village was visited by university President Dwight Eisenhower, who called it “the best damn place to live in the world.”
     Also along the road, the Hackensack River wanders in and out of a marsh, or what remains of one after suburban development. Species of the same birds and critters, including long-living turtles, call the marsh home. It offers the greatest peace on Western Highway, for looking at it is the reverse of studying "progress."
    It took just about 40 minutes to get to the hullabaloo of noise, commerce and people that is the mall, but by then I was fortified enough by the appreciation of what has happened over the centuries along my old road. You see so much more on a walk than a drive.

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