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.

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.

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?


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

The Metamorphosis of the Tavern on the Green

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

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

Engaging the Past: Inventing the Future

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

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

Remembering New York in the Thirties

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

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

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

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

Chapter 26 – Leaving New York Behind

“We’re off on the trip of our lives!”

Richard introduces Eunice to the Poethig clan at a raucous feast at his aunt and uncle’s apartment in Yorkville. Eunice introduces Richard to her mother and brother at Christmastime in Dayton, Ohio. They begin plans for a June wedding. All the time Richard is writing his senior thesis on “A Christian Doctrine of Work for a Modern Technological Society” and trying to tie down a job. An intriguing prospect is a new church development in a working-class, industrial suburb of Buffalo. Richard travels Upstate to meet with the organizing committee. The folks in the Town of Tonawanda invite him to organize their congregation, and Richard and Eunice agree. They finish up their studies, graduate, and head for Dayton to be married. The wedding on June 7, 1952, is a joyous assembly of people from Eunice’s and Richard’s lives. The couple returns to New York from a honeymoon camping trip in New England in time for Richard’s ordination at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church on June 27th. After saying goodbye to his father and sister, Richard and Eunice drive north out of New York City. As Richard watches the skyline change, he has a strong feeling that a new book is opening in his life.

Chapter 25 – Starting A New Chapter

As seniors at Union, Richard and his roommate, Jim MacNaughton, are responsible for welcoming the incoming students through “round robins” hosted in the homes of faculty. Richard takes notice of an attractive newcomer in Jim’s group. He conspires with Jim (who owns a car) to drive Eunice Blanchard back to her residence at the James Foundation, with a stop on the way at the Gay Vienna, a German restaurant in Richard’s old neighborhood. Over apple strudel, coffee, and dark beer (for the men), a romance begins that in less than a month, on Columbus Day in October, 1951, becomes an engagement.

Chapter 24 – An Adirondack Summer

Jim McNaughton (left) and Richard in 1951 at Stony Point Center, New York.

Richard decides he needs a change of pace for his second summer field assignment and signs up to work amidst the lakes and falls and trees in Upstate New York. He and his roommate, Jim MacNaughton, team up for a project in the Adirondacks larger parish. But first, during their second year at Union, Richard and Jim liven up Union Seminary politics, and Richard gives his first sermon in the wreckage of a violent wind and thunder storm that whips through the New Jersey Palisades community where he is doing his church field work. In the Adirondacks, Richard and Jim divide up the Sunday preaching responsibilities of a four-point parish, centered at the Syracuse University School of Forestry in Wanakena. Richard gets his fill of fresh air and sunshine as he and Jim spend the weekdays saving White Pine trees from weevil damage in the forests planted during the New Deal. They returned to Union with much preaching and even more “weeviling” under their belts.