Monday, June 23, 2014

COMMUNITY PRIDE AT RISK


By Arthur H. Gunther III
      SUBURBIA -- The New York State of my lifelong existence ranks among the top 10 nationwide in hosting foreclosing properties -- about 15,000 -- some of them traced to  irresponsible mortgage lending by banks that quickly flipped the notes for sure profit, others to those who never could afford the homes and, sadly, more than enough to people who have lost jobs as the middle class dwindles in the Greed Era. Now many of these homes are abandoned, with no upkeep. Neighbors who take care of their houses are essentially insulted for their effort.
     While Albany is considering legislation that would force lenders to recognize their stakeholder role, it should not be necessary to remind them of their responsibility to community appearance. Nor should anyone have to wonder why there is so little enforcement of town and village property upkeep laws, whether the land/house is in foreclosure or not. It all comes down to community pride, without which aging suburbia will continue to deteriorate.
     Abandoned properties are not only unsightly, but they attract rodents, break-ins and squatters. 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 the law is not enforced? 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 hanging  off roofs, when sidewalks are not cleared of snow or are hazardous because tree roots have pushed up the slabs -- where is the municipality watchdog? And what about shopping centers where debris is not picked up, the parking lots are shabby and the building facades run down? 
     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 listed. 
     We realize building inspectors are busy enough, but while they are in their cars going about to their jobs, they can jot down the addresses of unkempt property. 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 should step in and do the work, adding the tab to the annual tax bill. When the property owner cannot afford repairs because of illness, job loss, etc., perhaps community service organizations can  lend a hand and take on these properties as projects. 
     The point is to clean up blighted homes and to enforce the law, not just have it on the books. 
     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 really homes and businesses held in common by the great expectation of observing standards. There is no room for pigs to spoil it for the rest of us. 


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

Sunday, June 15, 2014

A DEBT OUTSTANDING



By Arthur H.Gunther III
     I don’t know what karma or the gods have in store for this great nation of ours, conceived in the stew that is the rights of humankind and progressed enough to have earned its mettle despite horrific mistakes. As Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Yet a particular debt is outstanding, and it must be repaid before the finish line is reached.
I write of our Native Americans, those people of spirit and great humanity who were pushed aside in the name of progress, in westward expansion, in the never-ending chase for a constant frontier. That is America’s leitmotif, its source of inspiration, its reason for being, indeed its excuse for bettering all classes, but it is also its shame. It is more than the moment to revisit what has been done to the first settlers of this land, truly the only ones who do not need a green card.
Last week, President Obama became just the third president to visit the Indian nations, his trip to Cannon Ball, N.D., where sit the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Nation. Sits there, too, is a 60 percent unemployment rate, 40 percent of its people in poverty, 50 percent student drop-out figure. These statistics in a USA that can pay defense contractors billions, that can write foreign nations of dubious intent a blank check.
To be fair, while this was the president’s first visit to an Indian reservation, his administration has paid more attention to Native Americans and their concerns about education, health care, jobs and respect than his predecessors. There is at least some recent dialogue on schooling, for example.
Yet how do you do more, so much more, in particular erasing the distrust built up over centuries and finally recognizing the substance of treaties signed in the 1800s? It was convenient for progress to move Native Americans to reservations. It can even be argued that it was a saner way than killing them off. But the late-1800s’ attempts to “Americanize” Indians through forced education in the white man’s way and then what continues as the almost complete rejection of their rich, cultural history and lifestyle, with prejudicial portrayals of “redskins” the usual offering all a sad part of our national history.
We non-Indians owe a debt to Native Americans -- for their land, for their sacrifices, for our insults, and especially for not taking lessons from them about land and resource management, about treating people with respect, about using accumulated  wisdom. It is a debt overdue.
Some way, some day, perhaps in the setting sun of this great American democratic experiment, the long-whispered spirit that is now kept to the reservations will be spoken. That could prove our salvation in the maturing of a dream that must be fulfilled for all -- not just some -- in this epic journey called America, taking place on Indian land.

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

Sunday, June 8, 2014

A SOUND MEMORY


By Arthur H. Gunther III

     If you are fortunate, before you grow up but as you so quickly grow up, you’ll get to spend a few years with a patient, somewhat quiet, a bit odd grandfather like I did, who had a knack for fixing almost anything with a pocketknife or a squirt of oil from the old-style  cans, made of metal with a long spout. You thumbed the bottom, which was made of spring steel, and out came the oil. My grandfather could handle so many household problems with basic tools that it became a metaphor for building confidence.
     To this day, the sound of the popped can brings me to a place where I did not pay bills, where I was fed without cooking for myself, where I was chauffered in my parents’ car, where I was tucked in at night, where the sunrise and chilled air of spring promised  a good day of day-dreaming and hope for the future.
     My grandfather did not say much, perhaps because he was raised in a time when you sat at the table with parents and simply ate, speaking only when spoken too. That he came from a Prussian family probably enforced the discipline. Yet he talked a bit at his own table, and certainly went beyond his usual word-thrifty ways when he took time to explain carpentry to me, or a fix for a leaking faucet or to tell me my bike needed oiling. Even if it did not, I would ask him to do so, having ridden the three miles from my home to his for that reason and others.
     Out to the garage he would go, an old, wooden structure with “novelty” siding the floorboards of which had absorbed so many car leakings that the warming sun produced a woodsy, oil smell which in time would no longer be an odor but a tug at great and warm memory whenever I come upon a similar scent.
     So out to the garage my grandfather went, grabbing the copper oiling can from a shelf in the corner, just below markings my father made in the garage when he was my age. The bike would be oiled,  as my  dad’s bicycle had been, and I would be off on the same streets he rode upon.
     That ride home would mostly include a look for friends, or a stop at the small downtown A&P for a plum or two or three at 19 cents a pound, or some thoughts about where I would be in a few years, driving a car, not a bike.
    I did not usually think about my grandfather on that ride  because I foolishly took him, my grandmother, their fine home and everything then existing for granted. I never thought that all could go away.
     Now I know better, which is not a better thing. It is simply reality,  so nicely interrupted when I again hear the spring sound from my own oiling can.

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

Sunday, June 1, 2014

LIFELONG TEACHERS


By Arthur H. Gunther III
ahgunther@yahoo.com


    The average teacher's pay amounts to about one cent per hour if you consider that for almost all humans, at least one educator proves to be our lifelong teacher, frequently remembered, still instructing us. Yet respect often does not come with the job, at least from government, from taxpayers, even from some parents.
     Now, off the bat, there are some poor teachers, those who should never have taken the job nor kept it after failing to learn how to relate to the young and their minds. But there are also poor business people, poor law enforcement, poor clergy, poor everybody. It may be that some critics of our teachers, including one New Jersey governor, spotlight education because it is an easy hot-button issue.
     In my time, the several teachers who still come to mind when I make crucial decisions, when I do math, when I read about history, when I seek to be honorable enough, were poorly paid, about $100 a week in the 1950s. Mr. Hopf supplemented teaching science  with bagging at the local A&P. Mr. Gram, the English instructor who influenced my writing, had two gabardine suits, both gray. One morning he came to school in a car with a leaking radiator. And the next day, too. A lady social studies teacher lived in a rented room for her entire 40-year career, after losing her husband of one week in the Great War.
     Each of these people not only managed to teach fairly large classes of students from mostly lower- or below-middle class, blue-collar families, half of them day-dreamers. Yet as our preliminary Regents exams in the eighth grade would reveal, they instructed us well enough.  And to this day, I think of Mr. Gram when I write essays; Mr. Hopf when I read about science; the social studies teacher when I watch the History Channel. These three, and others, teach me every day, and sometimes I can still hear, and emotionally feel, the sting of a reprimand or the gentle persuasion of  “Why not try it this way?”
     Because my teachers, enough of them, are lifelong, now-a-day talk of overblown salaries, inflated pensions, poor teaching and failing schools rankles. There are problems everywhere -- in government, in education, in security, in society -- and blame is easily placed. We are all such quick and easy critics, especially with the tweets of Twitter beckoning.
     Yet I would challenge Gov. Chris Christie, the Jersey governor who frequently blasts teachers for every sin under the sun and who last week refused to fund the legally required pension payment for them and other state retirees, to teach a month in most schools.
     Give him the seventh grade, where hormones block out every third word a teacher utters. Give him and other critics a first grade where 90 percent of the students are learning English as a second language. Give them an urban classroom where there are no recent textbooks and where an empty seat in the third row once held the promise of a young girl shot killed by a stray bullet in her neighborhood. Give Christie and others brilliant students, who, yes, can learn on their own, but who need to be challenged by the brightest of instructors, not enough of whom are attracted to the profession.
     And then send the governor and others to a factoid session where they are instructed as to how poorly most state pension systems are run; how special interest inflates some pensions and strangles others; on the almost total elimination of private pensions, which,  is supposed to be adopted in the public sector as the Era of Greed marches along.
     Were it not for at least one fine, hardworking, ever-instructive, lifelong teacher, the Jersey governor and the other critics who seek not the full story in a complex world, would not even be able to sign their names to no-funding bills for education.

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