Sunday, July 20, 2014

136. Francis J. Spellman, the Controversial Cardinal

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Cuddly and cherubic?  Appearances
     He was born to an Irish American family in Massachusetts in 1889, as a child served as an altar boy, graduated from Fordham in 1911, decided to study for the priesthood, and was sent to pursue those studies in Rome.  Ordained in 1916, he returned to the U.S. and did pastoral work in Massachusetts, but was unable to become a military chaplain during World War I because he failed to meet the height requirement.  Other posts followed, including U.S. attaché of the Vatican Secretariat of State in 1925.  He was in Rome from 1925 to1931, where he made useful contacts in the Curia, and in 1927, during a trip to Germany, he began a lifelong friendship with Eugenio Pacelli, then the papal nuncio to Germany.  Named Auxiliary Bishop of Boston in 1932, he had strained relations with his superior, Archbishop O’Connell of Boston, but did further pastoral work in Massachusetts, and in 1936 helped arrange a visit by Pacelli, now the Vatican’s Cardinal Secretary of State, to these shores, where he countered the influence of the Detroit-based Father Coughlin, whose popular nightly radio broadcasts were harshly critical of President Roosevelt.  But the real reason for the visit was to meet secretly with the President and discuss establishing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the Holy See; Spellman was present at the meeting, though no formal diplomatic ties resulted at this time.  It should be clear by now that Francis J. Spellman had a genius for making the right connections almost from the start of his career.

     In 1939 Pope Pius XI died, to be succeeded by Pacelli as Pius XII.  One of the new Pope’s first actions was to make Spellman Archbishop of New York and vicar of the U.S. armed forces, just in time for World War II.  The new Archbishop moved into the archiepiscopal residence, a handsome neo-Gothic structure at 452 Madison Avenue, at the corner of 51st Street, adjacent to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, where he would reside for the rest of his life amid oak paneling, thick red carpets, ornate furniture, priceless antiques, and a quiet almost unheard of in busy midtown Manhattan.

     Spellman was soon exerting great influence in religious and political matters 
Francis J.Spellman.jpgand hosting prominent figures of the day like Joseph P. Kennedy, the Wall Street speculator turned Securities and Exchange Commission chairman turned Ambassador to Great Britain (and, incidentally, another Massachusetts-based Irish Catholic), and financier and presidential adviser Bernard Baruch.  Clearly, he had a genius for relating to the rich and powerful.  Once the U.S. entered the war, His Eminence supported the war effort vigorously.  In 1943 President Roosevelt sent him as his agent to Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, where the peripatetic Archbishop covered 16 countries in 4 months, rivaling the whirlwind tours of American tourists of the postwar era; he met with Franco in Spain, the Pope in Rome, and Churchill in London, and on his return to the U.S. helped arrange to have Rome declared an open city and thus spared further bombing.  Roosevelt’s death in 1945 diminished his influence in higher circles, but after the war Pius XII made him a cardinal in 1946, just in time for the Cold War.  As always, Spellman’s timing – or was it just dumb luck? – was flawless.  And he was impressive to behold in his scarlet cardinal’s robes.
     In the years that followed – the years when I first became aware of him – Cardinal Spellman showed that, much as he loved the red of the cardinal’s  robe, he loved the red, white, and blue just as much.  “A true American can neither be a Communist  nor a Communist condoner,” he declared.  “The first loyalty of every American is vigilantly to weed out and counteract Communism and convert American Communists to Americanism.”  Needless to say, he was a fervent supporter of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who without offering hard evidence had the public believing that there were Communists in every nook and cranny of the government, and that -- as I heard the Wisconsin senator say once on television, ever so convincingly – the world was going up in flames.  The politics of fear, always effective.

     In 1949, when the gravediggers of Calvary Cemetery, a Catholic cemetery in Queens, went on strike for a pay raise, he called them Communists, labeled their action an immoral strike against the innocent dead, recruited seminarians as strikebreakers to dig graves, and set them a vigorous example in that worthy activity.  In that same year he locked horns with former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, when in her newspaper column “My Day” she opposed federal funding to parochial schools.  He accused her of anti-Catholicism and “discrimination unworthy of an American mother,” though in time he met with her and made peace.  But peace was not his prime concern; he was too busy denouncing immoral Hollywood films and, in time, comedian Lenny Bruce, who had often satirized the Cardinal. 

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Arrested in 1961, one of his many arrests.
     The irreverent comedian, who was no stranger to obscenity, sometimes imagined Christ and Moses returning to earth to observe people in East Harlem crammed 25 to a room, and then notice the Cardinal’s ring, worth ten thousand dollars.  Or the two visitors would enter Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, followed by lepers whose flesh was falling on the polished floors, causing His Eminence to phone Rome in a panic and tell the Pope to put the holy duo up, since he was up to his ass here in crutches and wheelchairs.  Admittedly, Bruce was breaching the limits allowed to comedy in America; jibes at religion were risky, and out-and-out obscenity taboo.  No wonder the Archbishop encouraged the D.A., another Irish Catholic, to charge Bruce with obscenity.  Bruce was convicted after a controversial and widely publicized six-month trial in 1964 and sentenced to four months in a workhouse, but was set free on bail pending an appeal.  He died of an overdose in 1966 before the appeal had been decided, and in 2003 received a posthumous pardon, the first in New York State, from Governor George Pataki.

     The Cardinal that I knew from photos at the time showed a portly, spectacled, jowly prelate whom some thought cherubic and humble (I would have said a cuddly, well-fed little porker), a man with a ready smile but perhaps not too bright.  But behind this façade was a shrewd, almost ruthless player on the world stage who had no qualms about fighting, and fighting hard, to get what he wanted.  A longtime Jesuit friend and his official biographer described him as “fearless, tireless, and shrewd, but at the same time humble, whimsical, sentimental, incredibly thoughtful, supremely loyal, and, above all, a real priest.”  A complex individual, then, a seeker and wielder of power whom others playing the same game had to take into account and respect.  But also  a tireless worker, a skillful administrator, a shrewd negotiator of real estate deals, and an excellent fund-raiser – in short, a first-rate businessman.  And a poet and novelist, his novel The Foundling coming out in 1951.  But not one to admit error or to give up an opinion, no matter now outdated or unpopular; prudence was unknown to him.

     A participant in the 1958 papal conclave that elected Pope John XXIII, Spellman, though a conservative, was in some ways progressive, insisting on a declaration on religious liberty, yet in the long run he was critical of the new Pope’s liberal and reformist leanings.  “He’s no Pope,” he reportedly said.  “He should be selling bananas.”  In the following year, during a visit to Central America, he disobeyed the Pope’s instructions by appearing in public with Anastasio Somoza Garcia, the right-wing dictator of Nicaragua, of whom President Roosevelt had once allegedly remarked, “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”  (There is some doubt as to which Latin American dictator he was referring to.)

     In the 1960s the escalation of the Vietnam War, and the eruption of antiwar protests on college campuses across the country, brought new opportunities for the zealously patriotic Cardinal and his critics.  So outspoken was His Eminence’s support of the war that protesters labeled it “Spelly’s War.”  He spent the Christmas of 1965 with the troops in South Vietnam, said Mass in Saigon, sprinkled holy water on B-52 bombers and blessed them just before they departed on a mission, and described the war as “Christ’s war” and a “war for civilization.”  This did not go over too well with the Vatican, since Pope Paul VI had urged negotiations and an end to the war; sources made it clear that the Archbishop spoke only for himself, not for the Pope or the Church.  Back home, where humorous buttons were now all the rage, one saying  DRAFT  CARDINAL  SPELLMAN  was popular, and in January 1967 war protesters disrupted a Mass in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral.

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University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1965.

     In 1966, when Pope Paul initiated a policy whereby bishops would retire at age 75, Spellman, then 77, offered to resign, but the Pope asked him to remain at his post.  He died in December 1967, of what has not been disclosed.  His funeral was attended by President Lyndon Johnson, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, New York State Senators Robert Kennedy and Jacob Javits, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Mayor John Lindsay, and others, and he was buried in the crypt under the main altar of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, alongside other deceased archbishops and cardinals.  No question, he went out in style.  His 28-year tenure as Archbishop is the longest to date in the history of the Archdiocese of New York.  A New York City high school bears his name.

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Cardinal Spellman's coat of arms.
Sequere deum = Follow God.


     And now we come to the crucial question: Was Cardinal Spellman gay?  Rumors then and now have abounded.  A friend informs me that in the standees line at the Metropolitan Opera in the 1950s gay jokes about “Franny” Spellman were rampant, especially among standees with a Catholic upbringing, though all the ones he remembered are too bawdy to bear repeating here.  I’m always skeptical about such stories, until conclusive evidence appears.  Some elements of the gay community commonly assert with conviction that this or that world leader or celebrity is or was screamingly gay, without offering any such evidence.  Long ago a dapper Brooks Brothers-clad East Sider who had been in the military in the Pacific during World War II assured me that reports of General Douglas MacArthur’s homosexual escapades had constantly surfaced and of course had been vigorously suppressed.  I didn’t believe him then and I don’t believe him now, since I know of no reliable confirmation of his story.  But the case of Cardinal Spellman isn’t that simple.

     One of Spellman’s biographers, John Cooney, whose work The American Pope: The Life and Times of Francis Cardinal Spellman appeared in 1984, mentioned four interviewees who stated that Spellman was indeed homosexual; Cooney offered no direct proof but was convinced that the allegations were true.  “I talked to many priests who worked for Spellman and they were incensed, dismayed, and angered by his conduct.”  Not surprisingly, Monsignor Eugene V. Clark, Spellman’s personal secretary for fifteen years, promptly labeled Cooney’s accusations “utterly ridiculous and preposterous,” adding that "if you had any idea of [Spellman's] New England background and his Catholicism, you would know it was a foolish charge."  (Interestingly enough, Clark, an arch-conservative who was notoriously anti-gay in his pronouncements, had to resign as rector of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in 2005 when, at age 79, he was named as the “other man” in a divorce case.)

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David Shankbone
     Reinforcing Cooney’s claim is gay author and journalist Michelangelo Signorile’s online article “Cardinal Spellman’s Dark Legacy” (2002), which labels Spellman “one of the most notorious, powerful, and sexually voracious homosexuals in the American Catholic Church’s history.”  According to him, the closeted Cardinal was known as “Franny” to assorted Broadway chorus boys and others, but the Church pressured Cooney’s publisher, Times Books, to reduce the four pages on the Cardinal’s sexuality to a single paragraph that only mentioned “rumors.”  Signorile also asserts that Spellman was involved in a relationship with a dancer in the Broadway revue One Touch of Venus, whose original production ran from 1943 to 1945; Spellman would have his limousine pick up the dancer several nights a week and bring him to the archiepiscopal residence.  And if a portly prelate might seem lacking in sex appeal to a frisky chorus boy, his status as the Cardinal Archbishop of New York probably enhanced his image considerably.  All of which prompts a titillating nocturnal fantasy: the young man exiting the limousine discreetly and slipping into the neo-Gothic mansion, with its ornate furnishings and uniformed servants, for a most clandestine tryst.  When he asked Spellman how he could get away with it, His Eminence allegedly answered, “Who would believe that?”  It should be noted that Signorile has made a name for himself by “outing” public figures whom he claims are closeted homosexuals, a practice that is highly controversial and will be discussed in the next post.

     Further complicating the picture is Curt Gentry’s biography J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets (1991), which alleges that Hoover’s files had “numerous allegations that Spellman was a very active homosexual” (p. 347).  Still, these are only allegations.  Surprisingly, thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request, the FBI’s declassified file on Spellman is available online and I have looked at it.  Unsurprisingly, what are probably the most informative and juicy parts are blacked out.  So what do we learn?  Here is a sample from the 1940s:

·    A letter of June 16, 1942 to Hoover (signature deleted) giving him the names of all those attending a luncheon at the Archbishop’s residence on June 11, 1942, with all those names blacked out.

·      A letter of June 21, 1942, to Hoover from Spellman’s office (signature deleted) saying that the sender is glad he enjoyed the luncheon, and that the Archbishop has confirmed his standing invitation to Hoover to lunch at the Archbishop’s residence whenever he is in New York.
·      A letter of November 30, 1942, from Spellman to Hoover congratulating him on “your twenty-five years of devoted, patriotic, successful service to the country in the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” and Hoover’s appreciative reply on December 10, 1942.

·      A letter to Hoover from Rome (signature deleted) of February 7, 1946, noting that Spellman will arrive in Rome on February 14 to be consecrated a cardinal by Pope Pius XII.  The writer believes it will be of interest to the Bureau to know that there is speculation in Vatican circles and the Roman public at large regarding Spellman’s perhaps being appointed Papal Secretary of State, a position giving the recipient a better than average chance of being elected Pope.  Feeding the speculation is the fact that Pius XII is said to be tubercular and in poor health generally.  [Spellman was indeed offered the position but turned it down.]

     So what have we learned?  About homosexuality, nothing; if there are any files mentioning it, they must still be classified.  The letters show Spellman and Hoover exchanging cordialities, and His Eminence and others keeping the Director well informed about Spellman’s activities and a possible significant appointment.  Spellman was careful to maintain friendly ties with Hoover, and Hoover was keeping track of Spellman’s career.   Which shows how powerful people deal with one another, and that in itself is hardly surprising or shocking.  

     But does this exchange of cordialities mask another game?  If Hoover reportedly had a file on President Kennedy's sexual escapades and was quite willing to use it as blackmail to get what he wanted from the Kennedys, he would surely have had a similar file on His Eminence's escapades, if such there were.  If so, this unclassified file shows the Archbishop making nice with J. Edgar for the best of reasons: to flatter him and lessen the chance of any embarrassing revelations from that quarter.  In 1972, when Hoover at last relinquished his position and power through death, many a public figure must have clandestinely sighed with relief.

     Certainly it is in the Church’s interest to squelch, whenever possible, even rumors or allegations about His Eminence’s sexual proclivities.  After all, what would happen if the charges turned out to be true?  Would the Cardinal Spellman High School have to be rechristened?  Would His Eminence’s remains have to be disinterred from under the main altar of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, and if so, where should they go?  Messy, messy, messy.  But if he made a full confession on his deathbed, probably it wouldn’t be necessary.  Who among us has not sinned?  Still, messy in the extreme.

     So what do I conclude?  Was Cardinal Spellman gay?  Possibly.  Monsignor Clark's argument citing Spellman's New England background and Catholicism doesn't impress me, since I have known, and known of, gay men raised in a very traditional Catholic environment who, but for their sexuality, would have been classic conservatives in life style, politics, and religion, and who sometimes, with great anguish but without success, tried to be so anyway.

     Is Spellman's homosexuality absolutely certain?  No.  Is it probable?  I haven’t quite decided.  What would nudge me toward “probable”?  If one or several ninety-year-old ex-chorus boys surfaced and announced, “Yes, I had sex with His Eminence back in the 1940s,” that might do the trick.  In the meantime I’ll only say, Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.  But given the specificity of the charges, the more I ponder, the more I edge toward “probable.”  Yes, he probably was.  

      So what is one to make of all this?  I don't share the opinion of Michelangelo Signorile, who labels Spellman "the epitome of the self-loathing, closeted, evil queen," for no known facts substantiate the statement.  We have no glimpse into the inner workings of the archbishop's mind.  Perhaps his sex life was high drama or even tragedy, perhaps it was comedy laced with farce, perhaps it was something in between; we will probably never know.

     Contact with the rich and famous, luncheons with J. Edgar, a confident of three presidents, a strike-breaking gravedigger, a white-hot patriot who went against papal pacifism to bless departing bombers, and posthumously the subject of a passionate controversy – what a career!  They don’t come like that very often. 

     A Spellman quote:  “There are three ages of man – youth, age, and ‘you’re looking wonderful.’ ”  So he did have a sense of humor.

     Coming soon:  Roy Cohn, attack-dog lawyer and AIDS denier.  Also: Is outing a closeted homosexual ever justified?  Followed a week later by: Gentrification: Good or Bad?  With a look at the many lamented lost Golden Years of Greenwich Village, and featuring such vanished amenities as the Women’s House of Detention, crumbling piers the scene of wild doings, and The Toilet.

     ©  2014  Clifford Browder

Sunday, July 13, 2014

135. Carmine DeSapio, the Last Tammany Boss of New York

Carmine De Sapio      Tall, deft, sophisticated, courteous and smooth-talking with an imposing manner and a winning smile, he was the very antithesis of the stereotypical big city boss, promoted himself as an enlightened modern reformer.  He favored well-tailored dark business suits and striped or patterned ties, his wavy black hair always meticulously trimmed and neat, his nails manicured.  Because of a chronic eye condition he wore dark glasses that in the opinion of some made him look like a gangster, the very image he meant to scrupulously avoid.

     Living modestly with his wife and daughter in an apartment on Washington Square West, he began his long workday with phone calls before breakfast, and while still in pajamas and bathrobe received favor-seekers who lined up on the sidewalk outside, awaiting their turn.  Then, having dressed and breakfasted, he sortied, sleekly and immaculately groomed, to visit his various offices – one for each of his many titles – attend fund-raising events for charities, give speeches, appear on radio and TV, and maybe attend a late-night political dinner.

     Such was Carmine DeSapio at the height of his power in the 1950s.  Born in 1908 to a family of Sicilian immigrants in Greenwich Village, he got his start in politics as a teenager running errands for the Tammany machine, delivering coal and Christmas turkeys to poor immigrant families in winter, blocks of ice in the summer, and turkeys on Thanksgiving, thus assuring that the recipients would vote Democratic in the next election.  By the 1930s he had his own club in a rented hall on Second Avenue, helping blue collar Villagers find jobs or deal with their landlords, and receiving ambitious lawyers eager to get Tammany-appointed positions and judgeships.  And in 1949 he became the first Italian-American to be elected leader of Tammany Hall.

     DeSapio’s rise signaled the end of Irish-American dominance of the machine, just as, in his native Village, the Irish were yielding in numbers to the Italian immigrants.  His power base was the South Village, where Italian immigrants lived in crowded tenements, did their shopping locally, and had little contact with the rest of the city.  There were pushcart men on the streets, and ragmen and watermelon vendors and icemen, all Italian.  The kids played games on the sidewalk, and the boys formed gangs that fought other gangs, but knew that to trespass on another gang’s turf was to risk getting beaten up.  It was a tough, raw working-class world, a world that DeSapio knew and courted for votes.

     By now he wore many hats: leader of the assembly district including Greenwich Village; chairman of all the assembly districts in Manhattan; grand sachem of Tammany; and chair of the Democratic National Committee.  All of which, in overwhelmingly Democratic New York, gave him significant power – power that he knew how to use.  His influence was conclusive in getting Robert Wagner elected mayor of New York in 1953, and Averell Harriman elected governor in 1954; he became Harriman’s secretary of state.  So respected now and feared as a kingmaker was he, that at fund-raising dinners those seeking favors would brush by the governor and mayor to shake his hand.  In 1955 his face appeared on the cover of Time magazine, and the Washington columnists Joseph and Stewart Alsop opined that he could name the next president.

     His success marked a resurgence of Tammany, which had long been in decline, but he sought to give Tammany a modern, progressive image.  He shunned secretive deals in smoke-filled back rooms, preferring to work through consultations and consensus-building, and announced his decisions to the public.  A self-proclaimed liberal, he helped minority politicians obtain important posts, supported progressive legislation, rent control, and lowering the voting age to 18. 

     But try as he did, for many he never quite scraped off the taint of the old, corrupt Tammany machine.  In time it became clear that he was staffing the city government with clubhouse hacks, selling judgeships, and awarding lucrative city contracts to a company later found to have cheated taxpayers of millions of dollars.

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Costello testifying before the Kefauver Committee.
A man you wouldn't want to know, or at least, you
wouldn't want it known that you knew him.
     Worse still, rumors circulated of his ties to Frank Costello, New York State’s most powerful mobster, who controlled a vast nationwide gambling empire.  When Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee held hearings in 1950 and 1951 to investigate organized crime, Costello became the star attraction, watched by millions on TV.  DeSapio of course always denied any connection to the mobster, but the Mafia had long since infiltrated Tammany, and Costello stated that he knew DeSapio “very well” and had done Tammany leaders “personal favors.”

     DeSapio survived these rumors for a while, but in 1957 a taxi driver found an envelope on the back seat of his taxi containing $11,200 in worn and dirty $50 and $100 bills.  Taking it to the police, he described his last passenger as a tall, well-dressed man wearing dark glasses, which strongly suggested DeSapio.  DeSapio admitted taking the taxi but denied that the money was his, and when no other claimant appeared, a year later the money was given to the driver.  But the incident raised more questions.  If the envelope wasn’t his, how could DeSapio not have noticed it?  And if it was his, why did he deny it, and what was the money for? 

     Meanwhile DeSapio’s Greenwich Village base was changing, which boded ill for him.  Moving into the neighborhood were reform-minded younger Democrats like the people I came to know when I moved here in 1961: editors, writers, teachers, white-collar office workers, and people with steady jobs in theater and the arts.  These middle-class professionals wanted no part of a Tammany politician, no matter how well-groomed and slick, who might have links to the mob and denied leaving a bundle of cash in a taxi.  The Village was no longer dominated by the old immigrant groups that Tammany could count on; reform was in the air.  Founded in 1957, the Village Independent Democrats (VID) launched a campaign to unseat DeSapio, whom they saw as a traditional back-room boss.  They found a powerful ally in Eleanor Roosevelt, who resented DeSapio’s talking her son Franklin, Jr., out of running for governor in 1954, so he could promote Averell Harriman for that office.  Slowly, year by year, the campaign against DeSapio gained ground, and Democrats who had once hailed him began to denounce him as an old-fashioned Tammany boss.

     In 1961 Mayor Robert Wagner won reelection as a reformist candidate who denounced his former patron as corrupt.  In that same year DeSapio lost the district leadership of Greenwich Village, a post he had held since 1943; clearly, he was on the way out.  “We tried and we lost,” he told his supporters.  “Don’t let’s get sick about it.”  Hearing of his loss, Eleanor Roosevelt is said to have announced, “I told Carmine I would get him for what he did to Franklin, and get him I did.”  If true, this shows that the globe-trotting former First Lady, known and respected the world over, was quite capable of personal venom and skilled in the nasty infighting that practical politics often requires.

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Loudmouths sometimes win.
     In 1963 and again in 1965 DeSapio tried to regain his position as Village district leader, running against an upstart who had, a little belatedly, joined the reformist camp: Ed Koch, who was his polar opposite.  DeSapio was smooth; Koch was jagged.  DeSapio spoke softly; Koch was a loudmouth.  DeSapio was deft, courteous, urbane; Koch was in-your-face.  A gangly bachelor from Brooklyn with less than stellar looks, Koch, blunt and balding, had only recently moved to the Village.  When the polls closed on September 23, 1965, Koch seemed relaxed and self-confident in the VID clubhouse, but with a huge turnout reported in the South Village, which was considered DeSapio territory, his backers were preparing a concession statement.  At 10:20 p.m. the returns began coming in.

     “The thirtieth election district,” the club president shouted, “Koch 113, DeSapio 65.”

     Cheers from Koch’s supporters, but this was reform territory and not a good indicator.

     “The tenth election district, Koch 60, DeSapio 162.”
     Groans.  But this was an Italian-American neighborhood.

     Next, the sixth election district: Koch 65, DeSapio 243.  But the results were still too fragmentary to be meaningful.   As more results came in, there were groans and cheers, as DeSapio took the South Village districts and Koch prevailed in the others.  Tension mounted, and only Koch seemed cheerful and unperturbed.  Then, at 11:00 p.m., DeSapio appeared on television. 

     “I’m behind by seven hundred votes,” he announced.  “It would be difficult, if not impossible, to catch up.”  And he conceded.

     Tumult in the clubhouse, as weary campaign workers hugged each other and shouted, and swirled around Koch, who beamed a quiet smile.  DeSapio had lost his home district, his power base; his political career was practically over, whereas Koch’s had just begun.

     From then on it was downhill for DeSapio, the acclaimed kingmaker of only a few years before. In 1969 he was convicted by a federal court for conspiring to bribe a former water commissioner, and for getting kickbacks on lucrative city contracts from Consolidated Edison.  His moving fifteen-minute plea for leniency failed to sway the judge, who declared the evidence “overwhelming.”  He could have been sentenced to 15 years in prison, but the judge, taking into account his age and his record of public service, gave him only two.  Upon release he kept shy of politics but supported various charitable and civic causes.  He evidently accepted his final defeat with dignity and without bitterness.  If he met Ed Koch, by then mayor, who lived not far from him, they exchanged friendly greetings.  “He is a crook,” Koch remarked later, “but I like him.”  Many did.  DeSapio died in 2004 at age 95.

     Happy Bastille Day!  Yes, that will be tomorrow and I want to acknowledge it because France is the only foreign country where I lived for any length of time.  As we all know, on July 14, 1789, an armed mob lay siege to the Bastille, a royal prison in Paris, and when the marquis in charge there agreed to surrender on condition that the lives of the defenders be spared, the mob poured in, freed the handful of prisoners, and massacred the garrison, parading the marquis’s severed head through the streets on a pike.  Ah, they don’t make revolutions like that any more … or do they?  Anyway, our signing of the Declaration of Independence seems tame and sane by comparison, and we honor our national holiday with the same patriotic fervor that the French honor theirs; we do barbecues and munch wienies, while they forgo the Marseillaise (I can handle the first verse, I’m proud to announce) but shoot off fireworks and dance in the street.  (I once saw the fireworks shooting off from the medieval walls of Carcassonne – unforgettable; it was as if the whole old city was aflame.)

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     Ever since Yorktown or soon thereafter, we and the French have enjoyed an enduring love/hate relationship, summed up in an American tourist’s cliché comment to me on the ship coming back (yes, this was back when one still went by ship): “Loved the country, hated the people!”  (Granted, he and a bus full of American tourists had been ripped off by a greedy bus driver who demanded an additional handout during a nationwide strike, when there was no other way for the tourists to get back to Paris.)  And to this day the French resent our superpower status, which they now lack, even when that status – to their gleeful satisfaction – seems to be fast eroding.  They think us primitive and adolescent, and at times a nation of cowboys, and we think  them overcentralized, overcivilized, even decadent.  There’s some truth in both assertions, but things are far more complicated than that. 

     Today the French government seems a bit decapitated (or should I say guillotined?), given presidential failings and scandals, but with our own government supremely dysfunctional, who are we to criticize?  And the city of Paris, as I noted recently, is replacing its ancient gas mains, which we are not doing over here, with resulting explosions in our cities.  French economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century is now #3 on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list, and has taken the world by storm. 

     Finally (as if there could be a “finally”), the French, who aren’t afraid of government intervention, have just passed an “anti-Amazon” law prohibiting online booksellers from offering free shipping on discounted books.  So determined are the French to encourage diversity in books, booksellers, and publishers, they already have a law preventing booksellers from offering a discount of more than 5% off the cover price of new books.  The French buy books – mostly in bookstores – and actually read them.  Their government classifies books as an “essential good,” along with electricity, bread, and water.  A Times op-ed piece reporting this recently noted that the author, strolling through central Paris, counted seven bookstores within a ten-minute walk of his apartment.  The French aren’t going to let Amazon or any monopoly put those stores out of business.  If this is overcivilization, maybe we primitives could use a bit of it.  Be that as it may, Happy Bastille Day to all from a confessed Francophile!

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     Coming soon:  Cardinal Spellman, friend of Presidents and kingmaker.  But shh … was he or wasn’t he?  We’ll explore it.  And after that, one of the most controversial -- and many would say obnoxious -- figures in U.S. politics, Roy Cohn, friend and consultant of Presidents, and the question of outing: is it ever justified, and if so, when?  Juicy times ahead.

This is New York

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     ©  2014  Clifford Browder

Sunday, July 6, 2014

134. Our Crumbling Infrastructure, or Where Can I Vacation?

     When I go out on errands in my West Village neighborhood, the sidewalks are fine, but the street crossings are a patchwork of potholes and patches over patches, lumps and bumps from one curb to another.  And often Con Ed is busy repairing who knows what underground, with huge construction vehicles advancing and backing up, and barricades forcing pedestrians to make detours, some of them out in the street inches away from traffic surging past.  If I ride a bus, it’s bumpity bumpity bump bump bumpity bump bumpity.  And if I venture into a subway car, I hang on to a pole for dear life, since the train will start with a lurch and stop with another lurch, sending any unprepared passenger onto the floor or into the lap of a stranger.  But these daily inconveniences are trivia, compared to what I will now chronicle.

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A pothole on Second Avenue, big and deep enough to
hold a traffic pylon and several bags of garbage.

David Shankbone

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Damage after a water main break at 106th Street
in 2011.  Workers pumped out 10 feet of flood
water on subway tracks below.

Metropolitan Transportation Agency of the
State of New York
     At 12:30 a.m. on Wednesday, January 15, 2014, a water main at East 13th Street and Fifth Avenue in Greenwich Village broke.  Water surged onto Fifth Avenue and made the pavement buckle, turned nearby streets into rivers, and gushed through sewer gates to flood subway tracks below, disrupting service in three boroughs for most of the morning rush hour.  It took hours to shut off the right pipes, find the one that had burst, and stop the flooding.  Fifth Avenue was closed between 12th and 14th Streets, and bus service in the area was rerouted.  Nearby parking garages were also flooded, and five buildings nearby were without water.  By 6 a.m. the water had receded below street level, leaving a layer of sludge that would require several days to clean up.  The main that broke dated from 1877.

     On the afternoon of Monday, January 27, 2014, a weather-related transformer fire blew a manhole cover in Park Slope, Brooklyn, sending flames into the air, causing another fire down the block; then, an hour later, a water main burst.  Buildings along 21st Street between 5th and 6th Avenues lost power and many residents were without water, power, or heat through a bitterly cold winter night.  Then, shortly after midnight, a 140-year-old water main ruptured at the intersection of Greenwich and Clarkson Streets in the West Village, causing several street closings, and another main burst open in Corona, Queens.  The city’s aging water mains were giving way under the subfreezing temperatures of an unusually harsh winter.

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Street damage after the water main break at 106th Street in 2011.
Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of new York

     Would the coming of spring bring relief?  Shortly before 11 a.m. on Thursday, May 22, 2014, a water main broke on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, flooding East Houston Street and suddenly creating a huge sinkhole in front of Katz’s Delicatessen that blocked traffic in both directions.  Water broke through the wall of the famous delicatessen to flood its basement, causing an estimated loss of $100,000 in ruined food, supplies, and equipment.  Water was shut off to five commercial and eight residential buildings in the area while repairs were being made.  The main that broke dated from only 1959. 

     The explanation of most of this mayhem?  Over 1,000 miles of New York City’s water mains are more than 100 years old, causing 370 breaks in 2012 and 403 in 2013.  Some are so old that, should there be a break in Lower Manhattan, engineers wouldn’t even be able to locate it.

     But water main breaks only cause flooding; casualties are rare.  But at 9:31 a.m. on Wednesday, March 12, 2014, a gas leak caused an explosion in the East Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan, leveling two five-story buildings on Park Avenue just north of 116th Street, killing 8 people and injuring at least 70 others.  Entire buildings nearby shook as if an earthquake had struck, and their windows were blown out.  More than 250 firefighters rushed to the scene.  Bricks and wood from the explosion landed on the adjacent Metro-North Railroad tracks, suspending service to and from Manhattan on this essential line for most of the day, while crews worked to clean up the debris.  The following morning rescuers using spotlights and  cadaver dogs were still searching the smoldering ruins for victims.  The gas main responsible dated from 1887.

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The East Harlem gas main explosion of March 12, 2014.
Adnan Islam 
     Of course there have been other such explosions, but why repeat?  Underneath New York City, unseen and rarely noticed until an emergency arises, lie 6,302 miles of pipes transporting natural gas, more than half of them installed before 1940 and therefore over 70 years old and made of leak-prone materials.  In 2012 alone 9,906 leaks were reported, more than half of them considered hazardous, meaning they posed a danger to people or property.  But not all leaks make the headlines and the evening news on television.  In 2013 a Bronx wife woke up in the middle of the night to detect a pungent odor of gas.  Her husband investigated, smelled nothing unusual, lit a cigarette; suddenly there was a flash of fire that burned his face.  Some such incidents may not even get reported.

     To the above can be added these depressing facts: 30.4% of the city’s roads are in only “fair” or “poor” condition, up from 15.7% in 2000.  Every day 2.7 million cars drive over bridges rated structurally deficient.  And since 37% of the city’s subway signals have exceeded their useful life, trains move less rapidly, and maintenance workers have to improvise replacement parts that manufacturers no longer make.  Also, the average age of the gas mains is 56 years; the bridges, 63 years; the water mains, 69 years; the sewer mains, 84 years; and the subway machine shops and repair yards, 90 years.  (Source: “Caution Ahead,” a March 2014 report by the Center for an Urban Future.)  To put it bluntly, the city's infrastructure -- the stuff we rely on in our daily lives -- is decrepit.

      Depressing, isn't it?  Not the kind of tidings likely to bring visitors flocking to the City That Never Sleeps.  As for us who live here, well, one can always get out of town.  How about a vacation?  Maybe San Francisco, since I lived there once when it boasted Beatniks and cheap rents; it would be fun to see the old town again, ride the cable cars, and register the changes.

     In September 2010 a gas explosion in San Bruno, a suburb of San Francisco, sent a plume of flame a thousand feet into the air, killed eight, injured nearly 60 others, created a massive crater, and ignited fires that gutted dozens of homes.  Of course I wouldn’t be in San Bruno, but the thought of a plume of flame a thousand feet high puts me just a bit off.  So maybe the City of the Angels, to see if ladies in black are still putting red roses on Valentino’s grave.

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Devastation in San Bruno after the 2010 gas explosion.
Brocken Inaglory
     In January 2010 a steel water main dating from 1914 broke in Los Angeles, flooding dozens of homes and businesses and sweeping cars down Ventura Boulevard.  Maybe I wouldn’t be anywhere near Ventura Boulevard, but why take a chance?  Then how about the Pacific Northwest?  I passed through it once, marveled at the forests and mountains.  And they say Seattle is a beautiful town well worth visiting, and a perfect base for expeditions hither and yon.

     On May 23, 2013, a section of a bridge over the Skagit River 60 miles north of Seattle collapsed when hit by an oversize truck.  Fortunately, there were no deaths and only three injuries, but the year before the Federal Highway Administration had declared the bridge “functionally obsolete.”  So maybe I’ll skip Seattle and the Pacific Northwest.  Well, why not Detroit, to see that financially stressed city’s fabulous art collection before they sell it all off, as may well happen?

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The collapsed Skagit River bridge.

     In May 2014 heavy rain caused a water main to burst under Detroit’s IndyCar racetrack, which then buckled.  I didn’t have indycar racing in mind, but even so…  Okay, Philadelphia.  They have a splendid Fine Arts Museum and lots of Rodin as well, and of course dear old Independence Hall.

     In June 2014 a water main in North Philadelphia sent a surge of water down Master Street and created a gaping hole that closed the street to traffic.  And another break in South Philadelphia flooded several streets and made residents move their parked cars to avoid damage from the rushing waters.  So good-bye Philly, hello Houston.  Because there must be something there I ought to see.

     In August 2011 the city of Houston, in the grip of a record-breaking heat wave, experienced 700 water main breaks a day, as old pipes were pressured by increased water use.  Are you kidding – 700 a day?  Well then,  Massachusetts, a state I’ve often vacationed in, charming, quiet, quaint, if you get away from the hurly-burly of Boston, though I love that city, too.

     In Taunton, Massachusetts, in 2005 only quick action by engineers avoided a major disaster when heavy rains threatened to break the 173-year-old wooden Whittenton Pond Dam.  And in the spring of 2010 a crisis likewise precipitated by heavy rains at the Forge Pond Dam in Freetown led to the evacuation of downstream residents so an emergency breaching could be performed; the dam was over 200 years old.  The state, I now learn, has no less than 2900 dams, many between 100 and 200 years old.  So I won't be vacationing downstream from any of them, and since they seem to be everywhere, I won’t be vacationing in Massachusetts at all.  In fact, it looks like I won’t be vacationing anywhere in the U.S., at least not safely, since there’s no escaping our crumbling infrastructure.

     But is it really that bad?  Every four years the American Society of Civil Engineers releases a Report Card assigning letter grades to each type of infrastructure in the nation.  So what does the Report Card for 2013 say?  Aviation, D; bridges, C+; dams, D; drinking water, D; energy, D+; levees, D-; ports, C; rail, C+; roads, D; transit, D.  The highest grade they give us is C (mediocre); no F’s (failing), but not one B (good), much less an A (excellent).  So we aren’t quite flunking, but we’re close to it.

     It wasn’t always this way.  For perspective, allow me a brief digression.  Let’s zoom back to the year 1951 when, just out of college and back home in Evanston, Illinois, I was studying classical Greek at Northwestern while hoping for a Fulbright Scholarship to France.  Back then I worked afternoons in a local insurance company’s filing department, retrieving files needed by the agents upstairs: a brainless job that passed the time and brought in a little bit of money.  My boss, Mr. Minick, had just retired and taken a job there while waiting for the completion of his new home in a residential community in Florida, so he, like me, was marking time.  Mr. Minick was small, neat, soft-voiced, and likable, his world limited to the tranquil Midwest, with anticipation of retirement to a warm, sunny clime.  A quintessential white-collar Republican, he deplored the fact of Harry Truman in the White House and thought Senator Robert Taft “a good safe man for the country” (unaware of the coming “I like Ike” groundswell that would carry Eisenhower into that same White House).  The soul of order, every Friday afternoon, just before five, he would announce, “We’re in good shape,” meaning that all the requested files had been delivered, none were missing.  And when the subject of my learning Greek or getting a scholarship to France came up, he would state with passionate conviction, “The best that ever was is right here!”

     There was smugness in that statement, but this was soon after World War II, from which we, unlike the other participants, emerged fat and prosperous and powerful, the very image of Success.  Certainly we were the envy of the world, and if Republicans and Democrats squabbled over the usual differences of opinion, they agreed wholeheartedly with Mr. Minick that we were the best ever, that nothing like us ever was, an attitude that I have since labeled Minickism.

     Now let’s fast-forward again to the twenty-first century.  In contrast with New York’s bumpity-bump bus rides and screeching, jolting subways, certain cities of Europe, I’m told, have trains and buses that glide smoothly along without a single jolt.  And for longer trips?  In China glistening white bullet trains with large windows, looking like long white snakes, speed along at 200 to 300 kilometers an hour, shrinking from 15 to a mere 5 hours the 746-mile trip from Beijing to Shanghai.  They are free from the hazards of weather, traffic jams, and bad roads, and have comfortable seating as well.  In Japan shark-nosed bullet trains race along a network of lines, providing safe, fast, punctual service.  And in France a train à grande vitesse (TGV) or high-speed train from Paris can reach Lyons in 2 hours 10 minutes, about a third of the time the old trains took years ago when I made the exact same trip.

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A bullet train in Japan. 
     And in this country?  Plans for high-speed trains go back to the High Speed Ground Transportation Act of 1965.  And today, 49 years later?  There will be high-speed service in California, the Midwest, New England, Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, the Pacific Northwest, Colorado, New Mexico, and the Southwest … someday.  Promises, promises.  In this region Amtrak hopes to have 94-minute high-speed service between New York and Washington … by 2030.  That’s right, 2030.  Because the initiative requires a whole new system of track and stations.  So by 2030 we can hope for high-speed trains on our busy Northeast Corridor route, the equivalent of what trains in China, Japan, and France have already achieved long since.  In the meantime, while their trains race smoothly to their destinations, ours just creak along, often interrupted by fallen trees, signal failures, police activity,  collision with a vehicle, downed power wires, a derailed freight train, anticipation of a winter storm, or a pedestrian fatality, to cite the interruptions of Amtrak service here over the last few months.

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Power lines down at Valhalla, halting Metro-North service on the Harlem Line in 2011.
Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York

     Now I don’t mean to be an alarmist.  This country has many fine things going for it -- video games, high-speed Internet, NASCAR auto races, Coke and Pepsi, stunning baton-twirling drum majorettes, Walmart and Google, vampires and werewolves, and pornography at your fingertips – so we have much to be proud of.  But not, alas, our infrastructure.  We fight futile foreign wars, and it crumbles.  Congress (approval rating 7%) launches an investigation (the fifth, I believe) of the Benghazi attack, and it crumbles.  Or the House votes, once again, to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and it crumbles. 

     But I repeat: I don’t mean to be an alarmist.  This blog is meant to inform and entertain, not to provoke or debate or agitate.  Our infrastructure overall is rated D+, just short of C-, so there’s hope.  And what happens in San Bruno, California, or 60 miles north of Seattle, or along Ventura Boulevard in the City of the Angels is pretty remote from New York.  I don’t really need a vacation; I’m much too busy here.  Yes, we have water main breaks and gas main explosions in New York, but usually off in some other borough, or at the other end of ours, and not in our immediate vicinity.  Let’s look at the bright side of things.  How about a luscious cupcake at the Magnolia Bakery just downstairs?  Gooey gobblers sitting on my doorstep assure me that they are scrumptiously delicious.  On this happy note I’ll sign off.  And next time I’ll try to be perky and upbeat.  How about a post on the environment?

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Finger-lickin' good, and right downstairs from me.
Andy C

     A note on the Fourth:  So what did you do on the Fourth, fellow Americans?  (Ukrainians and other foreign visitors are not required to answer.)  As for me, I did nothing special.  How many of us took time off from backyard barbecues or acquiring a deeper tan at the beach to read the Declaration of Independence?  Not many, I suspect.  But here's what Tammany politician George Washington Plunkitt had to say about Tammany on the Fourth in the early 1900s, when reformers would run off to Newport or the Adirondacks.

     "The very constitution of the Tammany Society requires that we must assemble at the wigwam on the Fourth, regardless of the weather, and listen to the readin' of the Declaration of Independence and patriotic speeches....  The great hall upstairs is filled with five thousand people, suffocatin' from heat and smoke.  Every man Jack of these five thousand knows that down in the basement there's a hundred cases of champagne and two hundred kegs of beer ready to flow when the signal is given.  Yet that crowd stick to their seats without turnin' a hair while, for four solid hours, the Declaration of Independence is read, long-winded orators speak, and the glee club sings itself hoarse....  Sometimes human nature gets the better of a man and he begins to nod, but he always wakes up with a hurrah for the Declaration of Independence."

     Of course it didn't hurt that many of the Tammany crowd were Irish Americans and therefore eager to celebrate America's breaking away from Great Britain, which Ireland at that time had yet to do.  But it can't be denied that Tammany, for all its faults, was red, white, and blue to the core.  And us?  Hmm...  The Times printed the complete Declaration on the Fourth; I have taken a vow to read it, and soon.

This is New York

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Stinkie Pinkie

     Coming soon:  Carmine DeSapio, the Last Tammany Boss.  In the offing: Cardinal Spellman, arch patriot, supporter of Joseph McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover (who had a file on him), friend of Presidents, etc.  And the crucial question: Was he or wasn’t he?

     ©  2014  Clifford Browder