Category Archives: Current Reflections

Out A Hospital Window

by Richard Poethig

Photo of mural Ang Lipi Ni Lapu Lapu (The Descendants of Lapu Lapu) by Johanna Poethig

Ang Lipi Ni Lapu Lapu (The Descendants of Lapu Lapu), mural by Johanna Poethig

My thoughts were on the health of my wife this afternoon as she lay asleep in a Weiss hospital bed in Uptown Chicago. My eyes wandered from her face to the scene outside her 3rd floor window. Through the branches of a tree I caught the sight of a bronze statue and behind that two flags hanging at half-mast. The massacre in Las Vegas was being remembered by the Stars and Stripes and the flag of the Philippines. The Philippine flag suddenly awoke me to the fact that the statue was of the Filipino revolutionary hero Jose Rizal.

Many images came to mind as I remembered our family’s fifteen years’ residence in the Philippines. We learned much Philippine history in those years, both past and present. In fact our growing children learned more Philippine history than U.S. history. They learned of Jose Rizal, a Philippine patriot, and his execution by the Spanish colonial government, which saw him as a threat to their presence in the Philippines. We became aware of the fact that the U.S. occupation of the Philippines after the Spanish-American war in 1898 was met with opposition from a Philippine revolutionary army, which wanted Philippine independence. The victory of U.S. forces brought the Philippines into the American orbit and, along with the U.S. presence, an effort to build a democratic form of government. Our presence in the Philippines over the next half-century provided a road for the immigration of many Filipinos to the United States for study, work, and, ultimately, citizenship.

Cover of book titled Empire of Care.

“Empire of Care: Nursing and Migration in Filipino American History” by Catherine Ceniza Choy

As I thought of our family’s good years in the Philippines, and of our learning experience, I found this reality coming to fruition in our presence at Weiss Hospital. Among the Filipinos who had joined the stream of immigrants coming to the United States, many had provided their skills in the health system of their newfound home. This was apparent as my wife received dedicated care from nurses and hospital attendants of Filipino background. Currently, as a resident of a Chicago retirement community, there is evidence that those of Philippine heritage provide a strong contribution to the U.S. health support system. We found in our health care experience that the presence and the skills upon which our medical system depends has brought peoples of many different overseas regions to the U.S.—from Asia, from Africa, from the Middle East, from Eastern Europe, and from Central and South America. A recent article in the New York Times, “Why America Needs Foreign Medical Graduates,” explains that almost a quarter of all doctors and residents across all fields, and more than a third of residents in subspecialist programs, are foreign medical graduates.

This fact our daughter Margaret responded to with this comment: “I can’t stop thinking about the fact that about 98% of the doctors, residents, therapists, medical students, nurses, patient care technicians, caregivers and housekeeping staff at my mom’s hospital were people of color and 70-80% were immigrants. And they were awesome. When are the Republicans going to wake up to this reality?” The New York Times article confirms Margaret’s observation, pointing to recent studies showing that “patients with congestive heart failure or myocardial infarction had lower mortality rates when treated by doctors who were foreign medical graduates….and that older patients who were treated by foreign medical graduates had lower mortality as well, even though they seemed to be sicker in general.”

Postcard of Johanna Poethig's mural, "Ang Lipi ni Lapu Lapu."

Postcard of Johanna Poethig’s mural, “Ang Lipi ni Lapu Lapu.”

Daughter Johanna, a visual artist, captured the reality of the Philippine immigrant experience in a mural in San Francisco that depicted the history of the Philippines and the Philippine immigrant impact upon the United States. The mural is on a 90-foot wall of Dimasalang House, a Filipino retirement community located behind the Moscone Convention Center.

The upper section of the mural tells the story of those who participated in the struggle to bring independence from colonial control. In the middle section are the Filipinos who immigrated to the U.S. and added their various professional and work roles to the history of the United States. In the lower corner of the mural is seated Lapu-Lapu, the Malay chieftain who thwarted the earliest attempt to colonize the Islands by the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan. The title of the mural “Ang Lipi ni Lapu-Lapu” tells the story of the descendants of Lapu-Lapu.

There is much history for us to learn from all of those who have made their way to our shores. We should cherish this history and add it to our own national heritage.






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A Word to Guide Life

by Richard Paul Poethig

This October 2017 we celebrate an event which changed the course of religious history 500 years ago. Martin Luther challenged the practices and belief of the Roman Catholic Church in which he was an active priest. His thinking established a new road to travel in abiding by the life and teaching of Jesus. Among Luther’s teachings he provided words to guide one’s life.

Luther was an Augustinian monk. One of the words crucial to Luther changed the role of the priest in the life of the faith. His awakening came when he confronted the status of the religious orders in the light of the Scripture. In his reading of Scripture, religious orders were not superior to the common folk. The word Luther saw as describing the faith of all believers was the German word “Beruf.” In English this meant “calling.” For Luther the same religious calling was open to the dairy maid as it was to the monk. From this understanding came the major breakthrough of the Reformation – the priesthood of all believers.

If Luther’s word had moved to it ultimate conclusion it would have dramatically changed the institutional Church. If all people were “called” there would have been no separation between those in church orders and ordinary believers, the “laity.” The church would have been an equally called and blessed community – there would have been no hierarchical order.

In a deepening and widening understanding of “calling,” individuals would have not only a place in God’s community, but also a revelation of the special talent with which their genetic inheritance had endowed them. This genetic inheritance was also written into their sexual orientation. It was a responsibility of both the individual and the community to encourage and to enhance the fulfillment of this genetic inheritance.

The word “calling” had meaning in the thinking of the Reformer John Calvin. Calvin expanded on the word “Beruf” used by Luther and provided a word which had impact in the outcome of the Reformed movement. Calvin used the Latin word “vocatio” to describe the relation of the believer to the world. “ Vocatio” translates in the English to “vocation.”

For Calvin the sense of vocation engaged people directly in the events of their world. This was the center of Reformed theology. To be called was not just within the church community, but to be called was to live the faith in the midst of your daily encounters in the community. A believer’s vocation was to pay attention to what was happening in the world. They were to be actors for justice and fairness in the conducting of community affairs.

This was true in the governing of the community of which they were citizens. If a magistrate governing a community was unjust in office it was in the citizen’s vocation, or calling, to bring the magistrate to justice or to see him/her removed from their position of authority.

This is the heart of the social message of the Reformed faith.



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Remembering Reinhold Niebuhr in the Era of Trump

by Richard Poethig

This past season a PBS documentary titled “An American Conscience” lifted up the life and work of the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr is remembered for the crucial role that he played in mid-20th century international affairs. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama, who saw the dimension of Niebuhr’s understanding of power in politics, have kept his influence alive in their own political thinking through these latter years.

This week as James Comey, former director of the FBI, testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee on his conversations with President Trump, the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr in his thinking will come to bear. A June 4, 2017, article in The Guardian, a British daily newspaper, relates Comey’s attention to Niebuhr’s theology of power. The Guardian quotes Karen Greenberg, of Fordham University, on how Niebuhr’s influence on Comey will play out in the upcoming Congressional inquiry: “If you think of moral man caught in an immoral society, for someone who truly understands Niebuhr and the inherent conflicts between power and justice, this all has an aura of destiny to it.”

Niebuhr’s strength was in his ability to speak an incisive and prophetic word to the power politics of his day. I was fortunate to have sat under Niebuhr when he was a professor of Christian Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. My years at Union—1949 to 1952—coincided with a crucial period in Niebuhr’s teaching and political influence.

It was the period of the Cold War. Niebuhr was invited by George Kennan, the U.S. Secretary of State, to participate in the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff.   Out of these policy discussions was borne the Cold War policy of containment. In this period Niebuhr wrote one of his most influential works on international politics, “The Irony of American History,” which showcases the maintenance of the balance of power between the Soviet Union and the United States in a nuclear age.

Niebuhr’s understanding of the way power is used in society was the strength of one of his first books: “Moral Man and Immoral Society.” It was written in the depths of the Depression in 1932 and after a ministry in Detroit, in which he faced off against Henry Ford and his domination of the automotive industry and the workers under his control. “Power,” Niebuhr wrote, “has become the significant coercive force of modern society. Either it defies the authority of the state or it bends the institutions to its own purposes. Political power has been made responsible, but economic power has become irresponsible in society. The net result is that political power has been made more responsible to economic power. It is, in other words, again the man of power or the dominant class which binds society together, regulates its processes, always paying itself inordinate rewards for its labors.”

Niebuhr wrote this in 1932 at the depths of the Depression. It has a ring for us today when we realize that what is happening to us is a replay of the economic power, in the hands of political power, which is calling the shots, rewarding itself, and telling us this is all in the cause of “making America great again.” Niebuhr’s words ring true today and we hope that there will be those who will give leadership in bringing justice to the work of our government agencies, in the deliberations of our courts, in the freedom of our media in support of the truth, in the health of our unions on behalf of worker rights and in the voice of our people to be heard in the preservation our democratic processes and pursuit of human rights.

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Parks I Have Known

Aerial photo of the Highline Park in New York City

The Highline Park in New York City

A recent PBS/TV documentary on the impact of parks on life in U.S. cities opened a page in my growing up in New York City. The documentary showed the importance which the natural world had on the lives of urban dwellers. City life, it said in a loud voice, cannot survive without providing the blessings of the green and open environment which the natural world provides.

The images of the parks which the urban planners set in motion within expanding American cities often put immigrant urban settlers in touch with the countryside of the lands they left behind. For young people being born into these cities the only touch of green they might see was in the parks which planners like Frederick Olmsted and Daniel Burnham envisioned and planned for New York City and Chicago. Having lived in both cities, my life has been touched by the inheritance they left us.

The New York old law five story tenement where I spent my first nine years was a closed-in experience. The earliest pictures I had of green space were trips with my mother to Central Park and Carl Schurz Park on the East River. My next ten years I lived in a railroad flat where 83rd Street between First and York Avenues was my improvised ball park. Our gang played four varieties of ball games with our “spaldeen” in the street and off the walls of Yorkville tenements. (You can listen to the tale of these games in chapter four of Our one venture away from 83rd Street was a trip to Carl Schurz Park to play stick ball in a long and open space set up for volley ball. Our Carl Schurz excursion ended dramatically when I ran into a pole set up for volley ball trying to catch a long fly ball. My friends hustled me to Misericordia Hospital on 86th Street and York Avenue where the doctor marveled, after stitching my forehead, that no glass from my shattered eyeglasses had entered my eye.

My other park venture was the journey five high school mates made from Yorkville on the East Side to the High School of Commerce on the West Side through Central Park. We entered the Park every morning at 79th Street on the East Side and exited at the Tavern on the Green on West Central Park. The five of us made this round trip every school day morning for three years, even in the snows of New York. We only took the cross town bus to high school in torrential rains. The journey through Central Park was our touch with the epic work of Frederick Olmsted who had brought green life to Manhattan.

One New York park experience which came late in life was a return trip to Manhattan with two friends from my Yorkville days. Now in our eighties, we agreed to journey to New York with our wives to visit our old haunts. We returned in the Fall of 2009 and found lodging at The Leo House on West 23rd Street, a former 19th century convent of a German Roman Catholic women’s order which now was a Hotel and Guesthouse.

The Leo House was conveniently located for our jaunts around New York and back to our old Yorkville neighborhood. The location of the House was a short walk to 11th Avenue where we discovered the rehabilitation of the High Line. The work on the High Line was a plan to turn a 1934 built elevated line into a 21st century urban park. For strong urban environmentalists, we were encouraged to witness the conversion of a 20th century remnant of city transportation into an imaginative pedestrian experiment. The exceptional urban renewal character of the High Line was in its grass roots origins. A community based group, Friends of the High Line, were the initiators and promoters in carrying out a campaign to save the 11th Avenue elevated line from destruction to see to its resurrection into a pedestrian friendly and attractive example of the new urban spirit. The three old New Yorkers left their city inspired to the urban park experience in a 21st century version.

Richard P. Poethig

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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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Lessons From Life on Earth Day 2016

Photo of acacia treeEarth Day was jogged into my consciousness this past week when a National Geographic photo essay on Ancient Trees popped up on Facebook. The photographic collection by Beth Moon was of ancient trees from many lands. Each had their own story to tell in the history of the land in which they had grown. A yew tree with a girth of 31 feet in Surrey, England with an age of 1500 years was found to have a cannon ball buried in her from the English Civil War. A baobab tree shaped in the form of a teapot whose trunk is 41 feet in circumference has grown on the west coast of Madagascar for 1200 years.

The trees in the essay stirred in my mind all the trees I have come to know in my history. As a New Yorker my first acquaintance with trees was in Central Park. As a high schooler, five of us walked across Manhattan from the East Side to Commerce High on the West Side through Central Park for three years. This was our encounter with the natural world. In adulthood there were the hemlocks on a lake island where we vacationed in northern Wisconsin. The acacia tree pictured in this blog stood in front of our house in central Manila. Son Scott, a plant geneticist, tells me there are 1200 species of acacias in Australia. Then there were the trees in our backyard in Louisville, Kentucky which were visited by at least twenty-five different species of birds. For an old New Yorker, who know only pigeons and sparrows, this was a new slice of life.

So it is that trees play a special role in our lives. A cousin wrote me recently about what the loss of trees meant to her in her Minnesota home. “Three times when I had some part of the woods cleaned up, I lost a species of birds that never came back: an old log…was the favorite pecking place for the brown thrasher, the brush pile…was home to chattering blue jays and the tall thin oaks…were where the rose breasted grosbeaks perched before gliding down to the feeder outside the kitchen window.” She goes on to tell about the grove of trees her father had planted as a wind break on the farm and a cottonwood tree in which a redheaded woodpecker lived. “One day a woodsman…offered to take down the old trees free for wood. When I demurred because of the woodpecker, he said: ‘So you are one of those!!'”

On this upcoming Earth Day we need more people “who are one of those” in the world. We need people who think twice about the loss of our natural habitat. Trees have a special place in the preservation of life on this plant. They have been with us a long time. They keep us alive in the process of osmosis and photosynthesis, which were among the first things we learned in school. These are the processes that plant life uses to change carbon dioxide in the air into the oxygen we breathe. Without plant life, e.g. trees, life on this planet would have a hard time surviving. So on this Earth Day take up the cause of our planet so we can breathe more freely and look forward to a green future.

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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

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