Posts Tagged ‘New York’

Thoughts On A Train

November 17, 2013

I love trains and I love rising early to board them going just about anywhere. Accordingly, this Saturday morning I was delighted to catch the almost empty 7:34 a.m. Stamford bound Metro North out of Grand Central on my way to Rye. The first 20 minutes of my journey found me gazing out the window down at the city of my birth, which somehow always looks so strange and unfamiliar from the angles given by the rails. Even the Harlem streets where I work five days a week took time to recognize.

As the train pulled into Fordham Road station at 7:55 my reverie was broken by the sight of something out of the Third World. Indeed, it was something out of the Third World as the Third World now exists in pockets right here in the First World; right here, that is, in the richest city in the richest country in the history of the world: the country with the greatest disparity between rich and poor and the greatest concentration of wealth in the fewest hands.
Dangerously few hands. And fewer and fewer all the time. Wealth moving ever upward to the already obscenely wealthy.

There on the platform stood perhaps sixty men and women who looked nothing like most people on the train heading to places where people look even less like them. The boarders were brown and black. My suspicion is great that many were undocumented: “Illegal aliens “ as the current nomenclature goes, made up equally of males and females.

They entered the train in silence and remained in that state. I heard not a single word spoken among them, only one voice pleading with someone in Spanish on a cell phone. Suddenly the car I was sitting in almost alone was teeming. I study their faces as discreetly as I can. No one is as much as looking at each other. It is a strange, sad scenario — not abject misery but a world seemingly void of joy.
It was disquieting if not disturbing.
They were, I imagine, on their way to the lily-white suburbs of Connecticut and environs to work as servants or menials of some kind or other.
I find myself thinking of their place in this world and in this strange thing called history that seems to move at the same time it seems to stand still.
Yes, jobs are good and all labor is dignified and even a lousy job is better that no job at all, especially if you have mouths to feed. And hasn’t this scenario played over and over and over again in the last century and a half with the wretched of Europe, the Italians the Irish, the Jews and the rest of the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free, ” fulfilling the same roles by the thousands only to see their children and grand children rise steadily in every aspect of American life? Isn’t this part of the process, cruel and unnecessary though it sometimes is, that made this country?

Yes, it was, and yes they did, but that was at a time when organized labor was ascendant, brutal and slow that the ascendancy was. Yes, they did, but that was at a time when, for the most part, the American economy was based on actual tangible goods – things — not legal swindles like credit default swaps, sub prime loans or hedge funds or what ever new parasitical racket Wall Street conjures up and our government treasonably allows or even encourages. Anything to keep the private party going and going. It was, in fact, during the late 19th century, when the government in the person of Teddy Roosevelt, began to awaken from its laissez faire stupor, to at least tentatively attempting to address abominations like child labor, starvation wages and the like. Laissez faire policies, now called neo-liberalism, have come roaring back utterly unbound with no Teddy Roosevelt even talking about reining them in, whatever the cost in human dignity. Indeed, such policies, we are told again and again and again are inevitable. What is more, they are what will save us even as they kill but not before completely degrading us.

So, yes, the situation is both very familiar and very different. Those earlier groups, despised and feared, mocked and sometimes attacked, arrived on these shores for identical reasons and, like these silent souls on the train, were willing to work like beasts of burden to achieve what they came for — and what both came for was some sense of dignity and freedom and security.
But the earlier groups had industries to work in and built institutions to protect each other.
Gone.
Poof.

What will happen to these people I wondered, as I exited the train? Will they spend their lives merely surviving in a world of less and less security and greater and greater surveillance? How will they feed themselves and their children in a world where jobs are not merely not being created but are vanishing at terrifying speed, sent to a land where human being can be worked to death and the environment utterly ruined, but never to return ?

What will happen to my daughter, I wondered. She with advantages the train boarders could only dream of but facing an increasingly similar world. What will happen to most of us, and sooner than we’d like to think, all of us who are passengers on this train not of our making and making no stops, hurtling at ever accelerating speed straight to hell?

Cycling the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail: A Pleasant Ride Through History

June 13, 2011

Some 150 odd years ago in the opening page of his magnum opus Moby-Dick, Herman Melville wrote the following to explain why his character Ishmael was, in lieu of a more reckless or destructive act, occasionally moved to set out to sea:

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.

Indeed.  I know the feeling.

But since it is not 1840 and I have no idea what “hypos” are, nor any inclination to knock hats off people’s heads for fear of getting my own blown off, and since there are no whale ships to sign up on,  when ever I feel  that “November in my soul”  I  set out to do something a bit different than poor Ishmael.

I ride my bike.

And I ride it as long, as hard, and as often as I can.  Or at least until my hypos cease having the upper hand on me.

Happily, there are interesting routes near enough by to do so.

For those New York based cyclists who like myself appreciate both a little history and a little variety in a hearty ride, they could do worse than take on the more than 150 year old Croton Aqueduct Trail which runs from Cortland, New York to Van Cortland Park in the Bronx.  (Or, for the more literal and adventurous, through upper Manhattan, through Highbridge Park and on to Bryant Park, the original site of where all the water led and, for  a time, from where all New Yorkers drank.)

Built as a response to both the devastating fires and epidemics that, due to a chronic shortage of water and contaminated wells, ravished 19th century New York, the aqueduct was rightly considered one of the great engineering achievements of the 19th century.  Riding upon 26 miles of it’s trail  — as you snake through Cortland, Ossining, Briarcliff Manor, Sleepy Hollow, Tarrytown, Dobbs Ferry, Hastings-on Hudson and Yonkers — you can easily see why.  It was a work of both genius and grueling labor and one that transformed the city for the better forevermore.

To begin at the beginning of the trail,  one can purchase a $5 lifetime bike pass at Grand Central ( no good during rush hour ) and board a Metro North Train to Croton-on-Hudson.  There is something beautiful about setting out early in the morning and sitting on a train watching the sun come up on the Hudson.  From Croton-on-Hudson you need  mosey up Quakerbridge Road   two miles or so ( up hill !)  to the New Croton Reservoir which, in itself, is a sight to behold.

Once on the trail proper, you will from time to time, find water ventilators that look like giant rooks from a giant chessboard.  From these structures the water that moved down underground from the reservoir to the city “breathed.”

Also from time to time the trail will be cut off and the cyclist will need to do a little road riding as one does through Tarrytown,  but this too is a pleasure.

Caveats:   For anyone interested in this ride, there are one or two areas where the trail is difficult to find without a map. The first time I rode it, I depended on a map I downloaded from the internet and that proved a foolish move.  I strongly suggest purchasing the Old Croton Aqueduct State Historic Park map, published by Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct and available at Urban Center Books in NYC.  The map also includes a brief history of the Aqueduct as well as brief descriptions of historical sites along the way.  Another  fine source is the Official Rails-to Trails Conservancy Guidebook for New York which includes the Aqueduct and many, many other excellent trails in the state.

Be warned that the trail at Yonkers is riddled with glass and it is strongly suggested you move to the street once  you enter that sad, abandoned  little city.

Also, finding the trail from Yonkers to Van Cortland Park is tricky and can be confusing.  On this  last outing, my friend and I  found ourselves lost until we encountered a huge, blonde, hatless, uniformed policeman wearing mirrored shades and jackboots standing inexplicably alone on a tiny dead end street staring into nothingness like something out of a dream or a David Lynch movie.   Anyway, he told us how to get out of Yonkers and for that we were grateful.

What follows are some photos from my last journey along the trail which I hope you enjoy.

Bloomberg’s Choice: This Is Not About Education

May 11, 2011

New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg is obsessed.   He is obsessed with his legacy. He is obsessed with abolishing the New York State seniority laws.  He is obsessed with the destruction of the United Federation of Teachers.  He is obsessed with the privatization of the New York City Public School system.

Like his fellow education reformers Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Walton family, Jeb Bush, and any number of hedge fund millionaires, Bloomberg is obsessed with imposing his will and his values on every square inch of the continental United States.  This is  to be done  via an utter transformation of the American public school system.

Like the rest of these people, Bloomberg is obsessed, not with education — a subject about which he knows nothing and cares even less — but with using education to transform the American ethos into something of a mirror reflection of himself;  obsessed with using education as a means to insure the absolute triumph and domination of the corporate state for decades if not centuries to come.

These obsessions are all intertwined. Recklessly, ruthlessly, dangerously intertwined.

Last Friday, at the conclusion of Teacher Appreciation Week, Mike Bloomberg showed New Yorkers just how recklessly intertwined his obsessions are when he announced that, due to the fiscal crisis, New York would need to lay off some 6000 teachers.  1,500 would go by attrition, 4, 500 by pink slip.  By virtually every estimation excepting that of Bloomberg himself and the Department of Education which he has ruled with an iron hand for almost a decade, a loss of such magnitude would be catastrophic for New York’s students as well as a personal disaster for each and every one of the unemployed former teachers.

Well, hard cheese old chap. Should  have thought of that before you were born.

Also, by virtually every estimation other than Bloomberg’s, the layoffs are simply not necessary.  Alas, says Bloomberg, the city simply does not have the 377 million dollars it needs to keep the 6000 teachers.  And for that, says he,  blame the state and the federal government.

Note:  even as he went to the trouble of secretly finding a stooge to introduce a bill abolishing seniority  — a certain Long Island Assemblyman named Flanagan who, though outside of the Mayor’s city is well within the Mayor’s control – Bloomberg has  steadfastly refused to help in the effort to retain the so called Millionaire’s tax. And  this despite the greatest movement of wealth upwards in American history.

Retaining the tax would have provided  the money needed to solve the problem of potential layoffs.

But Bloomberg does not want to solve the problem of potential layoffs.    He wants to use the problem to destroy the teacher’s union.

The UFT states unequivocally that there is a multi billion dollar surplus in the city’s education coffers.  The DOE’s Dennis Walcott, rather less unequivocally, denies it.   What is beyond dispute, however, is the fact that, in the midst of the greatest job loss since the disastrous teacher layoffs of the 1970’s which damaged the school system for decades, Mike Bloomberg has allocated $550 million for next year alone for technology upgrades and computers.

Such an allocation is, even by Bloomberg’s icy standards, a remarkably callous and insulting choice.  It is akin to his decision to hire Cathy Black and his failure to fire Iris Bilge to name two of a thousand such Bloombergian decisions in his reign as dictator of educational policy.    Such a choice says to teachers: This is what I think of you: a computer is more valuable.

At the same time, of course,  the allocation puts the lie to Bloomberg’s claims of having to lay people off.

No matter how you look at it, it  demonstrates that the layoffs, like the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq, are a matter of choice.

It is also, like the decision to invade Iraq, nothing short of an act of war.

The object of the war is the total destruction of the UFT and the consequent privatization of the school system. Bloomberg knows that if New York City schools fall, all other cities will fall afterward.  Bloomberg’s method is circuitous.  The idea is to  abolish state seniority laws and  allow the slow and ugly weakening and unraveling of collective bargaining rights and the union protections that would inevitably come in its wake.

Indeed, even as Bloomberg has worked to weaken and undermine the UFT at every turn since he was granted dictatorial power over the school system almost a decade ago, the removal of seniority laws — under the guise of “putting kids first” by keeping “the best teachers” in the class room,   – would, in short order, plant the seeds and harvest all of the poisonous   fruits of corporate business culture in schools across New York.

As rights and protections became weakened, dwindled or vanished altogether and teachers became “at will” employees, fear would become the normative psychological state  of the school building.   Perpetual and divisive competition between colleagues, informing, and shameless ass kissing would all become commonplace.  Moral autonomy would shrink into nothingness. The strong and original would be fired or driven out or beaten down.  Students would receive an even more anemic and insulting verison of corporate education than they do now,  and that is really saying something.  Bubble tests would proliferate even more mindlessly than they currently do.

In short, the abolition of  seniority  would, in time, produce an education reformer’s  paradise.  Bloomberg knows this – which is why he has been fighting so ruthlessly and insidiously to abolish the seniority law.  It is why he is, in essence, perfectly willing to throw 6000 teachers to the dogs of a brutal economy just to get his way.

As always, the press is only too happy to parrot the Bloomberg/ reformer line, distort the truth and wholly omit why the seniority laws were created to begin with. Seniority laws, imperfect as all man made laws are, were created as a response to   cronyism, racism, sexism, and, until very, very recently — indeed, until the sad advent of education reform — were commonly considered the only way to insure some modicum of fairness and some measure of job security in times of economic crisis and layoffs.

Suddenly, in the words of Fox News, seniority laws are “controversial.”

In the coming weeks Bloomberg and his billionaire friend will do everything they can to persuade legislators in Albany to abolish seniority.  We can expect no end of teary-eyed stories of young dedicated teachers tragically separated from their charges by the savage union thugs and their lackeys in the state.  Indeed, they have already begun.  Observe today’s  front page of the NY Times.

It is essential to understand that none of this, indeed none of education reform is  or has ever been, in any meaningful sense of the words,  about “education” or “reform.”   It is about transformation of values. It is about the final stages of creating a country  in which all public institutions will cease to exist for all will be privatized.    It is about the elimination of not only unions but the  very impulses and principles on which they are created:  the yearning for economic justice, fair play, compassion, fraternity,   and solidarity, all of  which are in direct opposition to the ethos of the increasingly a-human corporate state.

It is about institutionalizing the Hobbesian “war of one man against all men” and positing this bestial nihilistic high tech savagery as virtuous and divinely ordered.   It is about a right-wing revolution by stealth.   It is about the absolute triumph of the corporate state and the absolute removal of all opposition to it.     It is about driving a stake through the heart of unionism in America.

It is about servitude.

You do not appoint  people like Joel Klein or Cathy Black or Dennis Walcott Chancellors of Education of the largest school system in the USA if you have any interest in improving education.  You do not demand dictatorial  control over a system   of which you have no knowledge, no experience, and no interest if  you are interested in education.  You do not shut out parents from  any meaningful discussion of their own children’s education if you have any interest in education.   You do not impose business plans and call them education plans if you are interested in education.  You do not shut out the voices of real educators if you are interested in education.  You do not create Leadership Academies designed  to  spit out instant principals trained to act like CEOS if you are interested in education. You do not give public school buildings to charter schools empires if you are interested in public education. You do not heed the cynical advice of cynical billionaires who believe it their right to make public policy and experiment on other people’s  children if you are interested in education. You do not reduce students to bubble test taking guinea pigs  if you are interested in education.  You do not hound, harass, humiliate  and micro-manage teachers if you are interested in education.  You do not purchase technology at the expense of teachers if you are interested in education.  Above all you do not lay off thousands of teachers if you are interested in education. You do not set new teachers against experienced teachers if you are interested in education.

You do these things if you are obsessed with power over others.  Education is merely the means.