Author Archives: Richard Paul Poethig

Memories from the Past: Launching of the U.S.S. Missouri

Seventy-five years ago on December 7th the United States entered into a global conflict which shaped history for the 20th century. There are dates you remember which were events in  a major historical happening. In my memory such an event occurred in New York in the Winter of 1944 on January 29th. We were in the middle of war on two fronts – in Europe and in the South Pacific. My close friend Jerry Pospisil had been inducted into the 66th Infantry Division and was on his way to Europe. Before he was to leave, he wanted to see the launching of the U.S.S. Missouri at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The U.S.S. Missouri was to be one of our major naval additions to the war in the Pacific.

We headed downtown from our eastside Yorkville  neighborhood to a spot across the East River from the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It was close to the Brooklyn Bridge with a clear view of the U.S.S. Missouri from the Manhattan side of the East River. The January day was cold and cloud filled. The overcast skies set the tone for the day and the event. We could see the battleship U.S.S. Missouri waiting for its launching from the Brooklyn Navy Yard into the East River. We waited for a half hour until the Christening by Margaret Truman, the daughter of the President. As the Missouri slid down the long incline and hit the East River, there was a sudden break in the clouds. The Sun broke through for a brief moment on the battleship, as an omen.

Friend Jerry Pospisil sailed for England in the Fall. His 66th Infantry Division landed in England in early November 1944. The D Day invasion of France had taken place in June 1944. Following the invasion of Normandy, the battle for Europe was intense. The 66th Infantry Division would be in the struggle to overcome the Germans in France. Belgium and Germany. In England, the 66th Division boarded the Leopoldville, a Belgian troopship which was to land U.S. forces in France. On Christmas Eve, the Leopoldville was torpedoed in the English Channel on Christmas Eve just off the coast of France with major losses in the 66th Infantry Division.

Jerry was one of the survivors. He later told me  the story of that Christmas Eve night. “The ship sank slowly.  More lives would have been saved if the Captain had steered the ship closer to the coast of France. The Captain thought the ship had hit a mine and he was afraid there more mines around the ship. He dropped anchor miles from the French coast. A British destroyer had pulled alongside us. Someone threw me a rope and I swung myself onto the deck of the destroyer. Others in my platoon took a different route. They took off to the other side of the ship. I never saw them again.”

On August 29th, 1945, after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the U.S.S. Missouri arrived in Tokyo Harbor. On the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri representatives of the Imperial Government of Japan signed the instrument of surrender of the Japanese forces in the Pacific to end hostilities. When I read of the signing of the surrender by the Imperial Government of Japan aboard the U.S.S. Missouri my mind flashed back to the launching of the Missouri on the 29th of January in 1944 and the Sun which broke through on her through a clouded sky.u-s-s-missouri

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A Twenty-first Century Yorkville

0208-rea-web-LIVINGmap-300The February 4th New York Times issue states that Manhattan’s Upper East Side Yorkville  neighborhood is on the rebound. A recent visit to my old haunts at the Heidelberg Restaurant at 86th and Second Avenue was hampered by a hole in the ground, the new Second Avenue subway.   Eighty years ago, when I was ten, the Second Avenue Elevated Line provided the means of transportation for the neighborhood. That line along with the Third Avenue El bit the dust in the late 1930s.

The Times article is filled with pictures of high rise rental and co-op towers which now dominate the Yorkville scene.  The five story First Avenue old law tenement into which both my mother and I were born passed out of existence in the 1960s.  When I returned to First Avenue with members of my family in the 1990s, on the city block on First Avenue between 80th and 81st, now towered a twenty-seven story high rise.  The line of five and three story tenements were gone.  Rents for the newly constructed high rise co-ops sell for $ 350,000 to $ 500,000 for a studio apartment to $ 600,000 to $1 million for a one bedroom.  The remaining rehabilitated  tenement  two bedroom apartments rent for  $ 2,500 to  $ 2,800.  These are usually shared by the young aspiring urban dwellers.  As I reminded my grandson Luke who not lives in such an apartment in Brooklyn, the monthly rent the up and coming millennials now pay would have covered the rents for all the tenement families on my First Avenue block back in the Depression years.

The New York Times lead-off picture showed residents casually strolling along the East River promenade in Carl Schurz Park.  The East 84th Street scene in Carl Schurz Park in the 1930s were rocks off  which Yorkville boys took their diving and swimming lessons.  At 86th Street a large drain pipe poured the affluence of the neighborhood into the East River.  In the center of the Carl Schurz Park was the attractive Gracie Mansion.  For those of us who played ball in the Park, the Gracie Mansion provided the public toilets from our game breaks.

The Yorkville map which accompanied the article sparked memories of the role that the neighborhood provided for growing up on the East Side.  The neighborhood as I characterized it represented the remnants of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Among my friends there were those of Czech, Slovak, Austrian, Hungarian and German background, and others of  Russian, Irish, Scots-Irish and Italian heritage.  The languages of the various ethnic groups were still heard on the streets and in the shops.  As the New York Times reminds us this ethnic blend is missing from Twenty-first Century Yorkville.  But one thing does remain: The public school which provided a lively mix of all these children.  I noted on the map on 82nd Street between First and Second Avenues the notation of Public School 290.  Back in the 1930s this was P.S. 190.  Except for the numerical change the public education of the children of the neighborhood continues on.  There were many happy memories of P.S. 190.  As the article  tells us that even today that families moving into Yorkville are attracted by the quality of the public education in the area.  Life in Yorkville says the New York Times “is relatively quiet and family oriented compared with other other Manhattan neighborhoods.”

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Getting Labor Day Straight

Ernie_Henny_Zuccoti

Doll Images of Henny and Ernie 1930s working class parents at Zuccotti Park and the Occupy Movement

 

Labor Day comes upon us as the end of our summer vacation and the beginning of the school season.  There is very little in the celebration of Labor Day that tells the story of the history of the struggles that working people have gone through or the ones they are still battling.  Everywhere else in the world the struggles of working people are celebrated on May 1st..

May 1st actually began in the United States with the fight for the eight-hour day in Chicago and the Haymarket affair of 1886.  Already in the making was corporate power in alliance with the press and civic authorities, which sidetracked and suppressed the issues of the workers represented by the Haymarket event.   Labor Day in the United States, instead of memorializing the continuing struggles of working people, has come to represent the end of summer and the beginning of the school year.

As we approach Labor Day in 2014, it doesn’t take much common sense to recognize the gross inequities in the U.S. economic system.  The Occupy movement came into being as a 21st century witness to the loss of the economic equalization process that happened in the post-Reagan era.  The voices of the 99% were pointing to the tremendous imbalance in the sharing of the rewards of the productivity of the U.S. work force.  In the 1947 through 1979 period the family income of the lower 80% of the economy grew by 108% and the family income of the top 1% grew by 63%.  In the period of 1979 through 2007 the family income of the lower 80% of the economy grew by 16% while the family income of those in the 1% grew by 224%.  This great imbalance can be attributed, in part, to the loss of the bargaining power of the labor union movement.  It was the ability of organized labor during the mid-century period to increase middle-class incomes.

As we approach the 2014 mid-term elections, the power of the oligarchy in the United States to shape Congressional elections and legislation favoring their interests is unparalleled.  The celebration of Labor Day becomes a farce in speaking for working people’s justice in our economy.  This is especially true as we recognize the loss of the voices of the marginalized in our society. Conservative forces continue to eviscerate social programs related to the well-being of low income and middle income families, i.e., children’s education and health, child care programs for working mothers, affordable medical programs for low income people, and preserving the hard earned social security benefits for retirees.

In the political arena, legislative actions are already underway in some states to target vulnerable people’s right to cast their vote.  In other states and regions, the program and policies of the Tea Party and similar conservative groups are ardent in turning back the social justice gains of the last century.  The very people who are part of these conservative movements have gained their own status by the sweat and the perseverance of their own forbearers, who fought the very entrenched economic interests to win their fair and just rights from them. Thomas Frank illuminated this story in his 2004 book “What’s the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.”

In the 1930s, the farmers and the workers of Kansas faced the depressed economy and fought those forces that would keep them in poverty.  This was the story for many Kansas families.  Jump ahead a half century: the offspring of these folk having forgotten their family’s struggles are now listening to voices that direct them to the moral issues of the times, i.e., abortion and gay marriage.  Lost to their attention are the new economic power players who would keep them from seeing the real social and economic issues of the day.  Working people are often blindsided by those voices calling for so-called moral values and vote against their own best interests.

New attention must be paid to Labor Day as it tells the story of the inequities which still exist within the U.S. scene, and it calls for a new reckoning with these inequities through the political process.  Let us get the meaning of Labor Day straight in 2014.

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Restoring Justice in U.S. Cities

Painting of Early Morning City by Aline Feldman, 1988

Early Morning City by Aline Feldman, 1988

Over forty years ago, while living in Manila in the Philippines, I wrote a pamphlet titled “Cities Are For Living” on the growth of Manila as a city. Like all Southeast Asian port cities, Manila was the center of the nation and the nation’s political future. Southeast Asian port cities were trade centers and drew people from the provinces and from overseas nations to make them the principal city of their particular nation. 

The central role of a region’s principal cities was called to my attention by the April 21st article in The Nation on “Power to the City.” Michelle Goldberg aptly points out the importance that cities have come to play in progressive movements as a balance to the gridlock that has become the nature of national politics in Washington, D.C. The gridlock has unfortunately given an upper hand to conservative voices in Congress who have blocked any move toward more economically equitable solutions to the nation’s issues.

The redistricting that ensued after the 2010 U.S. Census set in motion a right wing shift that has deadlocked any forward motion in Congress.  Although the popular vote nationally represented a shifting toward Democratic policies, the larger representation within the House of Representative from the nation’s rural and redistricted areas outweighed the more Democratic urban centers.  Unfortunately, this imbalance remains as we enter the 2014 electoral season.  Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s latest action taking restrictions off the political contributions encouraged by Citizens United, a larger amount of money flowing into Republican candidates’ campaigns threatens the Democratic majority in the Senate. 

This situation raises the question:  “What hope is there for any progressive movement toward social and cultural advancement and toward economic justice for the 99 percent in the nation?”  It is here that Michelle Goldberg makes her case for the role of urban centers as a counter force to the debilitating climate in our national politics.  Urban centers, which by their nature are cross cultural and are more representative of a society’s economic classes, have a greater tendency and wider possibilities to engage in more progressive policies. The recent election of Bill de Blasio as mayor of New York City is a case in point. Against the background of former mayor Michael Bloomberg’s moves to beautify New York and draw larger numbers of professionals and the elite to the city’s environs, de Blasio was elected in a counter effort to provide more space and opportunity to the lower classes in New York society. 

Goldberg points beyond New York for examples of the victories of progressive mayors: Betsy Hodges elected on the new Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party in Minneapolis, former construction laborer Marty Walsh to head the city of Boston, and Ed Murray elected as Seattle’s mayor on a proposal to raise the minimum wage in the city to $15 an hour.  Even in Republican Texas, the State’s largest city of Houston is run by Annise Parker, a lesbian who is a third term mayor on the Democratic ticket.

When it comes to progressive policy, San Francisco, with its countless professionals who live in the city but take arranged transportation to work in Silicon Valley, the policies of a progressive administration are a harbinger of the future. Goldberg cites the research of Michael Reich, Ken Jacobs, and Miranda Dietz, who have enumerated in their studies the decade-long progressive movement in San Francisco. In 2003, San Francisco had established $8. 50 as a minimum wage and by 2013 it had increased to $10.55. In 2006, the city was first in the nation to require employers to provide paid sick leave.  Moving on from there, the city passed the San Francisco Health Care Security Ordinance, which “mandated minimum health spending requirements for businesses with twenty or more workers, and created Healthy San Francisco, which provides comprehensive healthcare to uninsured city residents.”

There is a growing movement to reverse the prevailing  antagonist conservative spirit.  The obvious conservative goal is to block any move that reverses the growing economic divide in the nation. For the conservative mind any federal program that seeks to ameliorate human distress and dislocation is anathema. On the other side of the equation are  progressive efforts at the local base to  advance and strengthen programs  that serve lower income and middle class persons and families. This message of social justice being acted out in our cities cannot be contained.  They have won to their support the new generations who recognize the need for a society in which all people, no matter their race, ethnic or gender background, have an opportunity to participate  in a more open and equitable society.

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Remembering May Day – 125th Anniversary – Haymarket Square

416px-Haymarket_FlierWorking people still struggle to win their rights in workplaces around the world.  One hundred and twenty-five years ago at Haymarket Square in Chicago, the struggle for the eight-hour day in 1886 led to an event that forever memorialized the rights of working people as an international holiday.  The Haymarket Square gathering began as a peaceful demonstration on May 4th for the eight-hour day.  As police moved into to disperse the participants, a bomb was thrown which ended in the death of seven police officers and a number of the demonstrators.  Eight of the organizers were convicted of conspiracy and four were hanged in 1887.  In 1893,  newly elected Governor Peter Altgeld, who criticized the original trial, pardoned those still remaining in prison.  May 1st  was chosen to represent working peoples’ struggle for justice and became a holiday around the world.  In the United States,  those in the economy and the government distanced themselves from May 1st celebrations and instead chose the first Monday in September to memorialize Labor Day.  In the United States, Labor Day is celebrated as the end of Summer and the beginning of the Fall season.  The underplaying of this holiday that celebrates the rights of working people is even starker today against the backdrop of increasing economic and social distance between the oligarchs and those who are the primary producers in our society.

Even those who are on-the-line or over-the-counter workers sometimes lose sight of their democratic rights in the functioning of our economy.  The recent negative vote for a union to represent the workers in the newly built Volkswagon factory in Tennessee is a case in point.  The Volkswagon management, growing out of a history of German labor-management cooperation, favors working directly with democratically elected unions within their plants.  Within Germany since the 1950s the policy of mitbestimmung has been part of the German economic environment.  Mitbestimmung guarantees the rights of workers to elect a worker’s council that deals directly with management in those areas that concern the rights and conditions of workers.  In the Tennessee case, the anti-union stance of local politicians and “the right to work” climate in the South worked against a favorable vote for a union.  Too bad the workers at Volkswagen didn’t look to the Harley-Davidson Company as an example of  labor-management cooperation. Harley-Davidson management moved to a labor-management cooperation model in the 1980s.  In the process the  Harley-Davidson workers won fairer equity and greater work security and  the company saw higher productivity and better quality in their products.

This year on May 1st, the  labor community in Chicago will not forget the long tradition it has in the Haymarket event.  The Illinois Labor History Society and the Chicago Federation of Labor will celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Haymarket struggle, also called The International Workers’ Day, at 3 p.m. in Haymarket Square at Randolph and Desplaines Streets.  To lift  up the global character of May 1st, representatives of the French General Confederation of Labor (CGT) will place an international commemorative plaque on the Haymarket Memorial.  One would hope our U.S. government would recognize and accept our own dramatic part in this global event and celebrate May 1st as a national holiday.

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What Would the Ashcan Artists Paint Today?

Ashcan Artist Everett Shinn Painted "Eviction" in 1904

Ashcan Artist Everett Shinn painted “Eviction” in 1904

 The Ashcan Artists who inhabited the physical realms of New York City in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were renown for their depictions of a city in motion.  The sheer power of their representations of human life against the background of a transforming New York made them prominent as prophets of 20th century modernization.

As a born-and-bred New Yorker, I was deeply moved by a review of their works in a Smithsonian volume titled “Metropolitan Lives: The Ashcan Artists and Their New York,” which my sister presented to me on my 80th birthday.  We grew up on Manhattan’s Upper East Side during the Depression years and were aware of some of the scenes painted at the turn of the century.  Some of those scenarios still existed in our neighborhood.  We knew that our father, who was in this late teens at the turn of the century, had lived through the events depicted by the Ashcan artists.  He might have been in the crowds of the city scenes. So the paintings were very real to us.

But as I read the stories of current New York dramas today—for example, the explosion and collapse of the tenement buildings in Harlem—the thought occurred to me, “If the Ashcan artists were to return to New York today, what would they paint?”  Several of them had come from journalism backgrounds and had sketched for their newspapers the urban disasters that made news headlines in their time.  They brought these skills to painting the events that were shaping people’s lives in a changing New York.  

The artists were part of the Progressive Era, which the new century had ushered in within the metropolitan centers.  Manhattan’s West Side was being dug up for the Pennsylvania Railroad Station and New York’s elevated lines were being extended into upper Manhattan.  Horse-drawn wagons were being replaced by faster motor vehicles travelling on newly covered asphalt avenues.  New department stores displaying the latest women’s fashions were vying for the attention and business of the growing population of female workers.  These same women inhabited the offices of the newly built high-rise buildings and also the sweatshops within the lofts in the garment district.  The Ashcan artists caught all this action in their timepiece paintings of New York.

Ashcan Artist William Glackens Painted " Far From the Fresh Air Farm" in 1911

Ashcan Artist William Glackens painted ” Far From the Fresh Air Farm” in 1911

It has been said that the Ashcan artists were not the social protestors of their time.  They were not making a statement.  They were painting what they saw in the life of New York.  This was the reality of a New York on its way to becoming a major metropolitan center.  In the process, the Ashcan artists were providing the evidence and giving voice to those who were protesting the widening gap in the U.S. economic system.

What would the Ashcan artists paint today if they returned to New York?  What are the realities of New York life in its contrasts today? The New York Times recently reported on the real estate market on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.  The scene was the perpetual hunt for a livable space among the young in the competitive housing market of New York.  Some of the apartments in which they finally settle down are in the tenement buildings, in rehabilitated form, from which poorer tenants have had to move. The rent for a one-bedroom apartment, which now runs from $ 2,500 to $2,700, would have paid all the rents in the tenements on the First Avenue block from 80th to 81st Streets where my family lived in the early 1930s.  Where do the poor move to who can’t afford to live in New York? What does poverty look like today?  What scenes would the Ashcan artists be attracted to in the new milieu of New York City life?

 

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H*Y*M*A*N* K*A*P*L*A*N* Returns to New York

 

DSC_3426_2For the past sixty years the garment industry, which was a major provider of jobs in New York, has withered away to a minor economic actor.  Over that time the jobs that provided a good income to many immigrant people just beginning life in New York have moved overseas. The stories we have seen in these last months of the death of 1,100 garment workers in the illegally built factory in Bangladesh are representative of the result of the global relocation of the garment industry.  It is a story of the inexpensive clothes we buy in our malls mixed with the travails of the poorly protected workers who produce them overseas.

I took part in a version of this story over sixty years ago when I spent three summers during my college days working for the Dress Joint Board of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in New York City.  The Dress Joint Board, for which I worked during the summers of 1947 through 1949, was composed of Locals 22 and  89.  I was assigned to interview workers who were applying for union benefits, and, if time would permit, to do research on the background of the union membership. The Local 22  workers I came into contact with were of Puerto Rican, African-American, and European Jewish background.   The workers of Local 89 were largely of Italian descent.

My daily work was to interview workers who were seeking unemployment benefits during lay-offs and others who were applying for specific health care benefits.  This required checking against the manufacturer’s payroll to determine how long the worker was employed and whether the manufacturer had been paying the special assessment.  The stream of people I interviewed was like a cast of characters out of Leo Rosten’s “The Education of H*Y*M*A*N    K*A*P*L*A*N.”   Hyman Kaplan was a garment worker who was learning to speak English in a night school. He spoke his own version with amazing and unbelievable creativity.  Kaplan’s fellow immigrant classmates added their own peculiar interpretations and flavor to the beginner’s English language class.

Those summers I spent working at the Dress Joint Board were a continual replay of the book. I heard more variations of accents and more unique spoken English than I had heard in my lifetime, and I had grown up in an immigrant neighborhood.  The working people I encountered were just getting a start in the economy, and with the protection of the union, were representative of the vitality of the garment industry and of the economic health of  New York in the 1940s.

There was also another side to the story.  Garment workers were also subject to the conditions of a highly competitive industry.  Dress manufacturing is made of numerous small shops, and very mobile.  The small “fly-by-night” operations are difficult to track and are prone to “sweat shop” conditions.  This is where the trade union stepped in – to assure just wages and safe work conditions.  Many garment manufacturers operated a step ahead of union organizers. 

I became aware of this when less than a decade after I had worked in the garment district, I moved with my wife and children to Asia.  On a trip to Hong Kong in the 1950s a Chinese friend took me on a visit to small dress-making operation in a high-rise building, which produced clothes for the U.S. Market.  It was a shop similar to the ones I had known in New York, but  the jobs which had employed the immigrants in New York, were being moved to Hong Kong.  For the last sixty years this has been the nature of the garment industry.

Can this story be turned around?  In an article in the February 17th issue of  The Nation, the author Elizabeth Cline sees hope for a rebirth of the New York garment industry.   She sets the stage by citing the colorful designer coat worn by the wife and daughter of Mayor Bill de Blasio at his recent inauguration.  Cline sees in “The Economics of A Raspberry Coat” a story of the new mayor’s opportunity to restore the garment industry to New York.

Efforts are already underway, says Cline, with the move by Manufacturers New York to support fashion designers in finding the work space and the work force to produce their new clothing lines.  Some of the areas for development are already in place with the creation of the sixteen industrial business zones (IBZs) set aside by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.  Even though Mayor Bloomberg’s plan called for the rezoning older manufacturing areas for the rebuilding of high-rise condos, the sixteen IBZs are prospective spaces for new industrial businesses with incentives in the form of technical assistance and employee training.

Under Mayor Bill de Blasio attention is being given to those areas in the metropolitan region, ie. Sunset Park in Brooklyn, where older industrial buildings can be rehabilitated and where a local work force is already existent. Alongside the beginning of an upstart new clothing industry measures are in place to modernize the industry by encouraging “the most innovative and sustainable design entrepreneurs.” In areas like Bedford-Stuyvesant plans are underway to train local people in the technology and methods now being used to modernize the garment industry.

Attention must be paid to the Hyman Kaplan’s of  our day, and to assuring them a just wage and safe conditions in the their work space.  And always support  for the right of  workers to organize, on their own behalf, and for the well-being of the industry and the economy. 

(see also Chapter 14 ” A Union Summer ” in www.onthesidewalksofnewyork.com)

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The Metamorphosis of the Tavern on the Green

AFC 175047This past February 5th the New York Times carried a story on the reopening of the Tavern on the Green on the west side of Central Park.  The Tavern on the Green, which has lasted almost a century and a half,  has seen  many transformations.  Back in 1871 it began as a sheepfold when Central Park was one great green pasture.  Over the years the sheepfold had become a miniature zoo which had come to include camels, bisons, pumas, llamas,  and buffalo, besides the sheep.  By the 1930s the sheepfold had been transformed into a  small restaurant.  The  wildlife  had been auctioned off or moved to Prospect Park in 1934. The caretaker of this menagerie, Frank Hoey, the last shepherd on Manhattan island, was transitioned into caring for the sea lions and bears in the Central Park Zoo.  The Tavern of the Green, bereft of its animal life, went through many stages of life growing from a 8,000 square foot sheepfold to a 10,000 square foot restaurant and on to a series of expansions into the late 1970s reaching  a 30,000 square foot  elegant restaurant and dancing pavilion.

The story of the rehabilitation of the Tavern on the Green brings back memories of high school days in the late 1930s.  After graduation from Junior High School 30 in Yorkville on mid-town East Side, five of us went on to the High School of Commerce on west 66th St.  For three years  we made the  two mile daily trek  from Yorkville on the East Side to the High School of Commerce on the West Side.  Along the way coming and going we passed the Tavern on the Green in west Central Park.   Beginning in the Fall of 1939, Johnny Palazotto, Jack Saitta, Saul Mines, Hank Yost and myself, a miniature League of Nations, began our daily early morning two mile jog from the East Side beginning at 7:10,  Johnny Palazotto starting out at  85th and York Avenue, ringing my bell at 7:20 at 82nd and First Avenue,  picking Jack Saitta up at 81st St. and First Avenue, and then meeting Saul Mines and Jack Yost at 81st St. and Second Avenue. We headed west for the 79th St. entrance to Central Park, jogging diagonally through the park and aiming for the Tavern on the Green exit on the West Side.  When we reached the Tavern on the Green we made our mad dash for 66th Street and Amsterdam Avenue and into Commerce High  hoping to beat the 8:00 AM  late bell.  The journey was repeated in reverse each afternoon.  For three years we passed the Tavern on the Green as a major marker  on our daily circuit.  We regarded the Tavern as a special place.  We looked upon it as a symbol of success: frequented only by people of means.  On the morning of  Monday, December 8th of 1941, in our senior year, we were called to gather in the assembly hall  of the High School of Commerce.  Over the speakers that morning,  in the intense quiet of the hall, the voice of  President Franklin Delano Roosevelt broke the silence with the U.S.  declaration of war on Japan.  In June we graduated  into the War.  I never heard from my four high school mates again.  The Tavern on the Green closed in 2010.  The High School of Commerce is gone.   As well as Junior High School 30. The 2014 rehabilitation of the Tavern revives the good memories of my high school friends, our  jog through Central Park  to the Tavern and our race to the High School of Commerce to beat the 8:00 AM bell.  Hear the continuing story on: www.onthesidewalksofnewyork.com

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Engaging the Past: Inventing the Future

This Sunday, June 9th, thousands of high school students from across the country will be gathering in Maryland for the National History Day contest.  I became aware of this event when my sister’s granddaughter Marissa Galardi suddenly appeared in a photo with our daughter Margaret, a resident of  the D.C. area at a Metra station.  Marissa is a finalist from Nebraska among hundreds of other students chosen because of their history research and topic.  Marissa’s study is on the horrendous nature of the meat industry, awakened by Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle ” in the early 1900s,  and the federal creation of the Food and Drug Administration .

The reality of this National History Day, centering on the past history of our nation, brought me great delight,  not only for the fact  that history is my own field, but because we have often despaired at the lack of  historical consciousness  among  the U.S. populace.  Running down the topics which the high school students have chosen for their research and presentation, many from the field of racial equality and  the development of democratic government where justice is a central issue,  awakens a hope that we are raising a new generation equipped to bring greater equity to our country and the world.

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Remembering New York in the Thirties

The  May 6th issue of  The Nation on the current state of New York City stirred up many memories of my growing up years in Manhattan.  Manhattan, or more specifically my Yorkville neighborhood, was the locus for many of the changes lifted up in the story line of The Nation.  

The name of Fiorello La Guardia raised some delightful images of my early years.   In the midst of  a newspaper strike during his mayoralty,  La Guardia took to the radio waves and read the comic strips that New York youngsters were missing.  I can still see him in a Pathe News film replay with the Sunday newspaper in hand, giving his all to the actions of our favorite comic strip characters.   His rotund figure, as he rolled into some event with his entourage –  in my case  a N. Y. Giants game at the Polo Grounds,  always brought delight to his New York  constituents.  La Guardia, as I came to realize in later years, and as The Nation so aptly points out, was one of New York’s few truly progressive mayors.  The demography and the nature of New York politics hasn’t been fertile ground for mayors who can bring off solid social change in the city.  La Guardia was fortunate to come into his political prominence during the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal.

Here The Nation points out the largesse that came to New York through the variety of New Deal programs that provided New Yorkers with jobs, housing and medical programs.  I still remember during grade school  traipsing  off to the Guggenheim Clinic for dental work with fear and trembling.  I may still have  ancient fillings provided by a neophyte dentist in the 1930s.  Part of New York’s change, however, came through the controversial power broker Robert Moses. Many of the still functioning public works were brought off by Moses.  He built the East River Drive Extension, now called FDR drive.  Moses used Works Projects Administration money for  building the Triborough Bridge, and  the Grand Central Parkway.   With the help of La Guardia, the  New York airport named for the mayor was also brought off.

As we agonize over the problems our cities face today, in our aging infrastructure, the despoiling of our  environment, the failure of our educational system,   our conservative politicians  need to recall the help their constituencies received  from the federal government in times when their backs were against the wall.

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