March 27, 2017

By Arthur H. Gunther III

When we come across the Jacob Riis photographs of late-1800’s lower New York City poverty, in his book “How the Other Half Lives,” most of us feel sad yet grateful for our family’s escape, if forebears had lived, say, in Irish Five Points, as some of mine did. Those terrible tenement conditions, the utter poverty, alcoholism, crime, domestic abuse, official disdain and abandonment are difficult to take. But then,
we flip the history book shut and conveniently say to ourselves, “Well, that was a long time ago.”
Forgotten, those troubles, until you come to 2017 and the great eye-opening that social media provides, despite half-baked “news” and the ego-pushing of self-aggrandizement.
Last week, I happened upon a post by Briton Ella Murtha, who posted emotionally searing photographs of poverty-stricken areas of Newcastle, in the north of England, during the controversial Margaret Thatcher years of the early 1980s.
The images, brilliantly captured by her mother Tish, are as heart-rending as those taken by Riis about 100 years before.
(The personal irony for me was that some of my family lived in Hartlepool, near Newcastle, before they moved to other poverty at Five Points in Old New York.)
When Jacob Riis documented dismissed humanity so long ago, the hope was that society would pay attention. That has happened to a degree in the United States, but only in spurts. Appalachian poverty continues, many decades after President Lyndon Johnson visited in 1964 in his “War on Poverty.” The rural South, inner-cities, old farm areas and even parts of promising suburbs remain in decay, with worsening expected as the middle class declines and the government of the people, by the people, for the people once again hardens its heart.
In the Thatcher England of the 1980s, the prime minister’s “Free Market Philosophy” was supposed to trickle down opportunity to the masses so they could pull themselves up by the bootstraps, but as with Reaganomics in the U.S., greed intercepted the pass. Now, at home, President Trump may deflate the ball entirely.
Just as Riis spotlighted failure in humanity, the late Tish Murtha told Parliament in a 1981 address, “Hidden in a smokescreen of cynical double-talk and pious moralising, the shape of the future is nevertheless clearly discernable. Cuts in social spending, including unemployment benefits, mean that the conditions under which they must endure their enforced idleness will rapidly deteriorate to become an intolerable burden, the consequences of which will be enormous. Society
has withdrawn its contract from these young people, can they now be expected to live by its rules?”

In her Facebook post, Tish’s daughter Ella added, “My mam was extremely sensitive to people and their emotions and really, really cared. That is what I see when I look at her work, and that is what I hope people see and feel when they look at them. They are incredibly powerful and evocative, and I hope that the images remain with people long after they have looked at them. Even the least empathic person must be able to see the truth in them.”
Here is Ella Murtha’s link to another episode in, yes, “dismissed humanity”:


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



March 20, 2017

By Arthur Henry Gunther III

One of the benefits of social media (and there are significant downsides) is that much information is presented, all of it requiring prudent review. But so deep are the vaults that many looksees are self-educating, even the “fake news.”
Included in the social media explosion is Pinterest, an image-sharing site that links you to information about photos or paintings or drawings. In turn, that brings you to other images and more info. You can go down many streets and then turn to alleys and to more paths. It can be fascinating and enlightening.
It can also be a history lesson, and in that, an eraser for prejudice like the sort that is being re-enabled in the “Whom do you hate today?” rhetoric from some D.C. officials who need their own educating.
Scanning through Pinterest, I came across many photographs of immigrants at Castle Garden in New York City, but also paintings done on site in this pre-Ellis Island
arrival center. One piece, a 1884 painting by Charles Frederic Ulrich, stood out.
“In the Land of Promise” is remarkable. Eight million people passed through Castle Garden between 1855 and 1890, including my Irish and Prussian forebears, and Ulrich’s art clearly demonstrates the exhaustion of a long and perilous sea journey but also the hope upon arrival. There is no greater evidence of that than a mother nursing her baby. What opportunity she passes to the child, in the sustenance of her milk and in the determination that the infant succeed in this new land.
There are various faces from different lands in this nearly 131-year-old painting, probably not a terrorist among them though surely some ne’r-do-wells, just like in the general U.S population. There are also sick people, as diseases were common in the crowded, noisy conditions of Castle Garden, as in New York City itself.
This painting is America itself. How many such people built the society we have today? How many died in America’s wars? How many invented things and saved lives? How many married our ancestors? How many are woven into our national fabric? How many are related to officials today who have turned their backs on their heritage?
John Lyons, my English grandfather, a merchant seaman from England’s north,
saw promise here and so, in difficult times in his native land, took refuge, contributed to a degree and caused no trouble. He was also illegal to his passing, which was not right. But he was no terrorist, no criminal of any sort, just slow on the paperwork.
I shudder to think what his fate would be today. Or my own. Or that of any of the people in Charles Ulrich’s magnificent “American” painting.
We are better people than this.

The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached via ahgunther@hotmail.com


March 13, 2017

By Arthur Henry Gunther III

My week just past had two “JR” moments, and the thought of that had me smiling. In a time when simplicity and common sense, just the basic black and white of things, seem to be obscured by grayness, slowness and complexity, the get-it-done, no-big deal method was refreshing.

First, I was called to United Church in my old hometown of Spring Valley, N.Y., which fit the “JR” angle, as I will explain. The church hosts a food program ongoing since 1985, and these days, as well as being the Tuesday cook, I am also the handyman.
The call was for the ice-maker, indispensable if you serve up to 100 or so souls each weekday. “No ice,” said the caller. So I drove the five miles from Blauvelt, in comparison to the one mile It took to walk to a Boy Scout program in the same church when I was a boy. Same look, same feeling, this 1865 structure decades apart.
I was at the ice maker for just 15 seconds when I saw that the electrical circuit was shut off. Perhaps that happened as a protective measure since water and electricity do not mix.
Anyway, a quick reset, and the machine began freezing water for ice cubes. A “JR” moment, and steps away from the inspiration, as I will tell you.
Later last week, I got another telephone call, this time from the Edward Hopper House Art Center in Nyack, home of the famed American realist painter. “No lights,” said the caller. This time I immediately surmised a “JR” moment since the art center just had its floors refinished, and the crew probably tripped circuit breakers using their high-powered equipment.
Sure enough, there were switches to be reset. The staff had tried that but were fooled because the electrical installer had placed the breakers upside down, and “on” seemed to be “off”. Another “JR” moment.
Now, what is this all about. What is “JR”?
Well, “who” is the accurate question. JR, John Romaine, was a radio and TV shop co-owner and repairman, with his store, “Ro-Field Appliances,” located just across the way from United Church.
He would often get calls, first at the Main Street shop and then at his Hillcrest home, from customers who swore that they were watching TV, and the set “just stopped working.” Mr. Romaine would tell the client that he would be right over, and soon he would be heading off in his light green Ford station wagon. A few minutes later, he would replug the TV, and the mystified customer would either feel silly or suddenly remember that the spouse was vacuuming and pulled out the power cord. A “JR” moment.

What made the homeowner’s day was that John Romaine never charged for such a call. It didn’t seem right to do so, and that simple, uncomplicated, common-sense act made an impression. Just get the job done — no fuss, no theater, no drama, no big deal, no charge.

The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached via ahgunther@hotmail.com



March 6, 2017

By Arthur H. Gunther III

I wrote “The Column Rule” as a weekly– at times semi-weekly — newspaper essay for 25 years, principally because I had the opportunity, and there was never a dearth of subjects in my countryfied suburb of Rockland County, N.Y. The column had readership, touched some people, informed others and otherwise justified the use of daily newspaper space. The editors would have spiked it if it didn’t do the job.
Yet “The Column Rule” wasn’t exceptional, did not win vaulted awards, and true be told, there were better writers.
But I had the perch, and I tried to deliver a piece of nostalgia or insight or thanks in a way that was conversational, as if you were in a car with me on an evening ride and I later wrote of not just my thoughts but yours, too. Sometimes I can finish another’s sentence, but that’s just my equipment. You have yours.
It was a privilege penning essays in the original Journal-News, and it was humbling to be among their columnists from 1850 through the paper’s absorption in 1997 by a Westchester County-based big newspaper chain subsidiary.
True community newspapering depends on voices, be they eloquent, rough-hewn, brash or with delivery in silk. Informative and fact-based the voices must be to keep away the cancer of fake news. And the media voices must not only include staff columns and editorials — the paper’s voice — but letters, the people’s voice.
I write all this now because not only does it seem topical post-2016 but as a way of thanking the various Journal-News editors and loyal readers back then.
Since my “early” retirement in 2006, I have continued writing a weekly essay online, simply because I am driven to do so. It is an indulgence that I hope does not prove me ego-centered or boorish. After all,
as always, the reader can ignore. I will always stop the car and let you out.
The audience is far less these days, but I pray that I still have a few folk taking that car ride with me, for however more miles there may be. Thank you for the company.

The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached via ahgunther@hotmail.com