Leaving One’s Mark: Letter Writing As History

By Richard Poethig
June 13, 2018

Poethig family in the Philippines, circa 1960

This Spring I learned the importance of letter writing in the preservation of history. Following my wife Eunice’s Memorial Service at Lake View Presbyterian Church in Chicago, my son Scott invited me to spend time in Philadelphia. I used the time to research Eunice’s and my archives at the Presbyterian Historical Society library located in Philadelphia.

Over sixty-six years of marriage we have saved correspondence related to life together. Our files revealed the crucial role letter writing plays in a family’s history. It tells the story of the times in which a person lives. This was true in the letters Eunice wrote from the Philippines to her mother in the United States. The letters brought me again in touch with her fine and steady hand and her ability to provide the detailed description of events she was reporting. This was an expectation that her mother had for family correspondence. Letter writing was a family tradition even as long distance telephone calls became more frequent.

There was a warm connection in the words Eunice wrote home. Her words and stories were meant to bring her mother close to the happenings in family life. As our family grew the various diseases of our children became a daily and weekly concern. The letters carried all the specifics of the illness, its duration and the final remedy. We knew that living in a new region of the world we might encounter new versions of a local malady. But in the end there was always Dr. Reyes who seemed to have a solution to all body ailments.

Then there was the buying and sending of fabric to make the dresses for the first three daughters to keep them in style. Some of the need for new clothes for the growing girls was solved by the school uniforms worn in Philippine schools. The exchange of fabric went both ways. The fashion and design of Philippine dress material had an appeal to Stateside relatives.

We now lived in a hemispheric and geological sphere where the natural world makes dramatic appearances. In his letter for the family, Scott at age seventeen recounted the events of 1970 which he called our Christmas “disasters” letter. He named five typhoons for the year in which the fifth typhoon “zipped right through Manila and its 200 MPH maximum winds broke a record set in 1882.” He also recounted the two earthquakes that he surmised was “one good method of discovering which buildings public officials made a profit off of…..one school building collapsed.” Then there were two floods that “seemed to be the advent of another 40 days flood, but the waters in Manila subsided with 37 days left to go, and no sign of Noah’s ark.”

Never to be dismissed from the correspondence was the recognition that we were residents in a new nation. We were sensitive in our responses to the political, economic and social events in a country in which we were invited participants. We could not easily disengage from our nation’s part in the 400 hundred years of colonial history of the Philippines. Neither could we live apart from the issues that were part of our daily life. There was a fine art to being invited workers in the Philippines and also inheritors of Philippines colonial history.

Eunice’s letters reflected the reality that we had been invited by the United Church of Christ in the Philippines which expected us to live out our religious commitment. The tenets of our Reformed faith allows no separation between that faith’s commitment and its engagement in the world. The letters were a witness to the fact we were not outside arbiters but fulfilling the task of providing our faith’s insight into the issues of emerging society. If we overstepped these bounds we were responded to with silence.

One event our son Scott listed in his review of 1970 was the student riots of January. The riots erupted when the global oil crisis of the early 1970s struck the Philippines. The rising price of gas in the Middle East forced up the costs of both global and local transportation. President Marcos immediately imposed a 50% tax increase on gas, which raised the prices of transportation in Manila. The jeepney drivers, the heart of the Manila transportation system, in turn raised their own rates. Financially hard pressed students, riders of the jeepneys, were the end recipients of the financial crisis. The students, already wary of the growing power of Marcos, had set in motion a season of unrest.

This was the beginning of the political drama that embroiled Manila and the Philippines for the next two years. The words in the letters in those two years were carefully chosen in reporting the events that ultimately led to the Marcos declaring martial law in September 1972. They painted a picture of the response our Philippine friends and others were making to the rising political crescendo leading to the diminishing of Philippine democracy.

When our family returned to the United States in the summer of 1972 daughter Kathryn remained behind to finish her senior year in high school in December. She continued the family letter writing tradition. She experienced and reported the immediate effects of martial law declaration in September 1972. She told of the unease among our friends, particularly those taken into custody and she described the beginning of what was to be fourteen years of Ferdinand Marcos authoritarian rule. Remarkably it was Kathryn who returned to the Philippines to work at a Vietnamese refugee processing center in 1984 and who was present to see and report on the dramatic end of Marcos rule in 1986.

The Missionary as Change Agent

Richard Poethig as a fraternal worker in the 1950s in the Philippines

Richard Poethig as a fraternal worker in the 1950s in the Philippines

by Richard Poethig

A recent Wall Street Journal item caught my attention.

The title “Christian Missionaries Against Colonialism” set my mind in motion. Part of my life had been dedicated to work overseas within the context of what had been called Christian mission. The WSJ article writer David A. Hollinger was making the case that the old image of missionary as a carrier of colonial imperialism had taken a sharp turn in the 20th century.

His recent book “Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America” tells the story of the changes in the mission experience which brought a new brand of missionary into being.

I respond to Hollinger’s thesis from within our family’s overseas experience. We served in the church overseas in the mid-20th century when the post-World War II period was bringing dramatic global changes. The global conflict was a challenge to the colonialism which had dominated the history of the previous four centuries. Our family spent fifteen years in the Philippines, a nation which had been within the Spanish orbit since 1517. The United States began its own colonial experience in its victory over Spain in 1898 and its colonial administration of the Philippines in the 20th century.

The change in mission thinking came with the political and social upheaval at the end of the war in the Asian arena. The global conflict, especially in Asia, challenged the Western presence in former colonial nations. Mission churches had become national churches. Nationals had become leaders in the churches and in the schools, hospitals and other structures begun during the missionary presence. National leadership within the churches in Asia was called to deal with the post-war rebuilding in their nations.

The churches in Asia renewed their relationship with the counterpart Western church bodies. The leadership in the Asian church bodies chose the fields in which they needed special help. The leadership in the Presbyterian Church, USA was especially aware of the new day in its overseas mission. Charles Leber, the leader in the Board of Foreign Missions, was the initiator for change in the 1950s.

In twenty three years from 1936 to 1959, Charles Leber visited 58 churches in fifty-eight countries. Dr. Andrew Thakur Das memoralized the work of Leber in changing church thinking: “Of these 18 journies, perhaps the eleventh in 1953, was the most significant. On this trip he visited Switzerland, India, Pakistan, Thailand, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong, Malaya, Indonesia, Philippines and Germany. Somewhere on his way to Bangkok, he wrote to his colleagues at “156.”

“Let us change the name of the Board; let us eliminate the term ‘home base’; let us change the name ‘missionary’ into ‘fraternal worker’; let us invite fraternal workers from other lands into the United States of America.”

Thus began the reality of the new day which had come to mission. Action was taken by the PCUSA for a name change from “foreign missions” to The Commission on Ecumenical Mission and Relations, A person in overseas work was no longer a missionary but a fraternal worker. A person was no longer sent, but was called by the overseas church to a special work which that church saw as their need. The fraternal worker was linked with a national who was the primary partner and the supervisor.

As a case in point, my work to which I was called by the United Church of Christ in the Philippines was in the field of industrial evangelism. Across Asia and in other “so called” developing countries, the emphasis was upon the growth in urban centers and in the industrialization process. The term ultimately developed for the field of work was urban-industrial mission. Our minds were on the social changes taking place in the developing world. The emphasis was on justice ministries.

Cross cultural friendships developed out of this cooperative work. This brought changes in the way the work was carried out and the way this change was communicated to the those in the congregations in the United States. It is here that Hollinger’s thesis carries weight. The message and the engagement in the overseas work changed the thinking on mission within the U.S. churches. It dramatically changed the “colonial” view which had been part of the mission message in previous generations.

These changes in the Western churches overseas mission took on a global meaning with the creation of the World Council of Churches in 1948. The representation of the churches in one global organization opened the door for the leadership of the former overseas mission churches on the world scene.

Within the Asian region the ecumenical process had been underway with the creation of the East Asia Conference of Churches in 1956, later renamed the Christian Council of Asia. The organization of regional council of churches had a direct impact on how work among the regional churches was to be organized and supported. One case in point was the immediate recognition within the churches in the region of the growth of urban centers and the force of industrial development upon the people and culture of their nations.

The changes in urban and industrial development hastened the cooperation of the churches globally in the field of urban-industrial mission. The regional councils in Asia, Africa and Latin America each had their counterparts in this area of social change. At the global level a desk was created at the World Council of Churches in the 1960s in Geneva, Switzerland which gathered the stories, the work and the issues of urban-industrial in these global regions. Those who worked in these regions became change agents both in the work of urban industrial mission and in the consciousness of the countries in which they were citizens. In his writing Hollinger touches upon the ecumenical churches reconsideration of the meaning of mission in this current age and how it strengthened the sense of globalization within the congregations in the United States.

Hollinger makes the case that in the 20th century the attitudes of the missionary community, by their commitment to the people and the work in overseas communities, had opened a cross-cultural understanding. The acceptance of the traditions and the history of the nations in which they lived and worked provided a new framework for their own lives. It was this view which they brought back to their own country. The missionary and especially their children became among the strongest opponents of racism and the colonialism formerly associated with Christian mission.



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.






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.



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.

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 www.onthesidewalksofnewyork.com.) 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

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

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.

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.”

Getting Labor Day Straight


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.