Thursday, April 14, 2016

Night Train at Wiscassest Station




Showdown at Roundhouse Corral, (Boston Railyard) © 2000 ~ David Tutwiler (b. 1952)
Showdown at Roundhouse Corral, (Boston Railyard) © 2000
David Tutwiler (b. 1952)

I come from the era of trains.  As a child during the war, I would lie in bed on Perkins Road listening to the shrill whistle of the Boston & Maine’s  Gloucester Branch crossing the trestle over the Annisquam River.  Ever since then I have associated trains with the mystery of travel.  I could never get enough of them, pestering my grandfather Angel Polisson to take my brother and me to the station in Gloucester to see the trains arrive.  I especially loved it when we could watch the passengers getting off and I could only imagine where they had been or where, if the train was about to depart, they might be headed.

As we got older, our mother took us to Boston on the train, when she went shopping at Jordan Marsh’s or Filene’s.  I’ll never forget the time I got separated from her in Filene’s basement.  I went screaming up and down the aisles of bargain clothing piled on tables that women fought over, cursing each other, sometimes tearing the garments to shreds in their furious attempts to possess them.  After that incident, my mother took to pinning a name tag on my brother and me, so that if we got lost or separated from her the clerks would know whom to page.  Luckily, it never came to that, and we quickly learned how to navigate our way around the big department stores, or the Peabody Museum in Salem, where our mother also took us so we could look at the ship models that fascinated us, or the life-like local birds and mammals that the taxidermists had exhibited in large glass cases.

Recently I thought of those cities I came to know in wartime when the gasoline ration prohibited travel by car—Boston, Salem, even New York when we got older—and the trips on trains it took to get to them.  I was on the train to New York again, racing along the Connecticut coast, in and out of harbors and across russet colored fields on the way to see my new grandson in Brooklyn.  The train was packed, the early spring day was bright, and I felt like a child again on an adventure.

It was the way I felt in Europe, where I took the train everywhere, never thinking of schedules or reservations.   If you wanted to go somewhere, you showed up at the station and there was a train waiting or about to arrive.  One night a group of us were sitting over dinner at the Buca Niccolini, on Via Ricasoli in Florence, just behind the Duomo.  It had been a grand meal, well moistened with the local red wine the Florentines call “vino nero.”  We were about to order desert when someone suddenly suggested, “Let’s go to Vienna for desert!”

We jumped up, settled the check and set out for the railroad station, a short walk from the restaurant.   The Brenner Express was about to depart.  We knew we would never get to Austria for desert, but we did arrive in time for one of those marvelous Viennese breakfasts.  We took a spin around the city and got back on the train, arriving in Florence in time for dinner.

Naturally, this was the kind of gambit you engage in when you are young—we were in our early 20s, students: Americans, English and Italian.   I never did it again, but I took the train at every opportunity—to Bologna for lunch (best pasta ever); Pisa for a run up the steps of the Leaning Tower with my high school classmate Bob Stephenson; Viareggio to get my beach fix when I missed Gloucester.

Trains were even more important for me before I lived in Europe.  I went to college in Maine and most of the time I took the train to Brunswick or back home.  I’d hop on a Gloucester train to North Station, where the Flying Yankee left for Portland, Bangor and points north.  There was a club car serving beer and other alcoholic beverages all the way to Portland, where it was uncoupled before the train left for Brunswick.   On many a night we could be seen stumbling up to our rooms from the Brunswick railroad station.

At midnight the mail train stopped in Brunswick, allowing those who had girlfriends in Boston to post letters that would be delivered to them that morning.   I can see myself hastily typing a letter, throwing on parka and boots, and trudging through the snow from my room on Federal Street down to the railroad station on Maine Street, often getting there just as the train was about to pull out.  The guys in the mail car knew us.  Obligingly, they would lean out of the doors to accept our letters on the fly.

While some students had their own cars, most of us depended on the train for a fast getaway to Portland to see a movie or to eat Chinese food.   Often enough we traveled north to Rockland, and sometimes further Downeast, stopping at Wiscasset on the way to Rockland, Camden or Belfast.   There was something special about Wiscasset, a sense of arriving in a small riverine town with redbrick buildings, the train pausing, it seemed, until the very last passenger appeared out of the dark, the conductor waiting with his lantern and finally shouting, “All aboard, all aboard,” as the train pulled slowly out of the station.  I can still hear the chugging of the steam engine, the way the wheels clicked on the tracks, and the eerie whistle as the train plunged into the darkness.

It is the image of that night train at Wiscasset Station that remains with me above all others, a sense of the isolation of the station itself and the deserted town, the slowly diminishing sound of the whistle and the rhythmic clicking of the wheels on the tracks, the lights from the cars gradually becoming bright points in the darkness and then disappearing altogether as the train itself faded into the night.   It is an image that takes me back to the boy awake in his bed on Perkins Road, listening attentively each time for the train to cross the trestle over the river, imagining what it might be like to travel on it, to arrive in unknown places, connected only by the trains themselves, the infinite network of tracks, as they raced through the vast spaces of the night.

Peter at Museum (1)Peter Anastas, editorial director of Enduring Gloucesteris a Gloucester native and writer. His most recent book, A Walker in the City: Elegy for Gloucester, is a selection from columns that were published in the Gloucester Daily Times.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Consequences of Unplanned Growth

Prospect Street, Gloucester. 1928 Hopper, Edward (1882-1967)  

“Stop this renewing without reviewing.”
–Charles Olson, “A Scream to the Editor”

What do the proposed “Soones Court” Back Shore luxury housing project and the recently floated ideas for the development of Ten Pound Island have in common, aside from the fact that they have provoked vociferous public opposition?

These are projects that have no foundation in planning.  They were neither anticipated nor considered as part of an overarching plan for the growth and development of Gloucester or the protection of our natural resources.  Why is this?  Simply put, it is because the city effectively does not have a Master Plan that is currently valid.  Our Master Plan is neither valid nor relevant because, having last been drafted and voted upon in 2001, it is fifteen years out of date.  As such, it does not—and did not—anticipate major projects like Gloucester Crossing or the Beauport Hotel on the Fort, both of which also stirred divisive public opposition.

The purpose of good planning is to avoid such controversies as much as possible and make clear in a democratically created document what is needed for the orderly growth and development of the community; in other words, what should be built in the future and where it should be built.  Such a plan also provides for what the community wishes to preserve in  terms of landforms, historic sites and buildings, neighborhoods, or cherished places— iconic locations like the shore side of our Back Shore, Ten Pound Island, Dogtown, or the Magnolia Woods.  It is possible through planning to set aside such “magical places,” as Janice Stelluto, who shepherded Plan 2001 from the talking stages through to its completion, called them, so that they would remain undisturbed to be enjoyed by future generations of Gloucester citizens and visitors drawn to the natural beauty of our city.

Good planning also anticipates the impact on the economic and social well- being of the city of foreseen growth; for as a community considers what it hopes to live with in the present—which amenities it needs, what kinds of new business might be provided to create necessary jobs, how new growth and development will affect tax base—it also looks at what is not wanted.   It provides for the preservation of what is valued like the untrammeled view out to Thatcher’s Island from the Back Shore, or Ten Pound Island left in its natural state for students to study its geology and birdlife.

Plan 2001 did not call for a shopping plaza adjacent to the Fuller School, nor did it consider the marine-industrial Fort as an ideal location for a “boutique” hotel or conference and function center   These were not developments growing out of the community’s pressing desire to have them (there was consensus about a downtown hotel but not on the Fort); they were developer-driven projects, coming, as it were, from a vacuum created by a lack of planning.  Taken by surprise, as the community was when these unanticipated and unplanned for projects first surfaced, many in the community reacted like we all do when we are confronted with the unexpected.  There was anger, frustration and, naturally, resistance, creating rifts in the city, which deepened as one unanticipated and unplanned for project followed another.

To be sure, the planning process cannot anticipate or parry in advance every controversy; nor can it satisfy all sectors of the community.  But it can help us to avoid the divisive acrimony we now experience in Gloucester with the concomitant anger against and distrust of government and public officials, neither of which help to promote or sustain our wellbeing as a people, collectively hoping for a deserved quality of life in the place we call home.

Without good planning a city is helpless in the face of the relentless drive to develop that we and many seaside communities like Gloucester are facing, just as a family that does not budget its finances or plan for the future is stymied when there is job loss or catastrophic illness.  Good planning can help to avoid the raucous public hearings that have been a sad feature of local life, pitting neighbor against neighbor and ward against ward, only fueling the enmity and distrust of government that have come to characterize national life as well.  Good planning can also help the community avoid costly litigation that drains both public coffers and private citizens of funds that could be more wisely and creatively spent.

So, before we get into another battle royal over the next development proposal to come down the pike (and there will be many), would it be too much to ask if we, as a community, could take that superannuated Master Plan off the shelf and revise it?  Or better: couldn’t we begin again, utilizing all the experience we have gained during the past fifteen fractious years, and write a new one?   Call it a roadmap for the present, or a GPS helping us to navigate our way through the complex terrain of the future.  Call it what you will, but for the sake of all of us let’s not move forward without knowing what’s ahead.

(On Thursday, March 4, 2016, the Gloucester Planning Board said “No” to preliminary plans for Soones Court.  Shortly afterwards, it was announced that Save Our Shores Gloucester had entered into an agreement with the developers to purchase the site for $75,000.

On Monday, March 21, a community meeting was hosted by Ward One city councilor Scott Memhard, at the Rocky Neck Cultural Center, 6 Wonson Street, at 7 p.m., to discuss “Ten Pound Island: Recognizing its Past, Planning its Future.”  The consensus was that the island should be left in its natural state.)

Peter at Museum (1)Peter Anastas, editorial director of Enduring Gloucesteris a Gloucester native and writer. His most recent book, A Walker in the City: Elegy for Gloucester, is a selection from columns that were published in the Gloucester Daily Times.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Toward a Vision for the City's Future

 

With Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken, Inauguration Day, January 1, 2016, City Hall


            The American Heritage Dictionary defines inauguration as “to induct into office by a formal ceremony” or “to cause to begin, to dedicate, to consecrate.”  Our Gloucester High School Latin teachers, Josephine P. Ray and Vincent Elmer, would have taken pains to point out the Latin root “augurare,” “to presage, to foretell, to look ahead.”  This gave us the Italian “augurio,” “to wish, to be of good omen, to give one’s best wishes,” as in auguri.   So, in effect, we are here today not only to celebrate the induction of Sefatia Romeo Theken into her first full term as mayor of Gloucester, we are also gathered to look ahead, to consecrate ourselves and the city we love to a future of good omen, to wish our new mayor and her administration, our new city council and school committee—the community itself— tanti auguri for the New Year ahead and for our hoped for future.

            Before I speak of that bright future we richly deserve, I’d like to look back for a moment, to pay tribute to those who have made it possible, particularly our parents and grandparents; and for Sefatia, her mother and father, Rosalia and Enzo Giambanco.  Enzo Giambanco, was president of the Board of Directors at Action, Inc., Gloucester’s antipoverty agency, when I first went to work there in 1972.  I found in Enzo not only a mentor but a person of deep compassion for the low-income families we were serving, including out-of-work fishermen, children who needed a pre-school education their parents could not afford, people who did not have health insurance, and elders who were torn between paying rent and utility bills and eating.  As an immigrant he understood what it felt like to be on the outside, whether you spoke a different language or your customs differed from those of the community.   Along with Executive Director Bill Rochford, Enzo helped to steer the agency through some of its most challenging times, while never abandoning those who depended on our services, whether it was help with fuel bills, home care, or after-school care for the children of working mothers.

I will never forget the time when, after the construction of the O’Maley middle school, the city was deciding what to do with the suddenly empty Central Grammar School with its beautiful WPA murals, where many of our parents had gone to high school and my generation had spent our 7th and 8th grade years.   Action proposed a reuse of the stately building for apartments for the elderly; but there were questions about the need for such housing and the ability of an agency like Action, which had never done bricks and mortar, to undertake such a project.  A public hearing was to be held at City Hall to determine which direction the city would move, and it was necessary to show support for the agency’s plan to create quality housing for our senior citizens.   Enzo told Bill not to worry.  And that night he arrived with 500 elders and their families, filling city hall auditorium and convincing the council of public support for the project.   The present Central Grammar Apartments not only met a crucial need in the city, it became a pioneer project in the regional movement to adapt former schools into much needed housing.

            Sefatia learned these innovative and caring ways from the cradle.  She has spent her entire life helping the people of Gloucester as one of the city’s hardest working councilors and as a health care advocate and human services liaison at Addison Gilbert Hospital.  During her tenure as interim mayor, Sefatia again demonstrated her skills at reaching out to citizens across the entire social and economic spectrum of the city, listening compassionately to their concerns, hearing the ideas they shared, and making decisions in a thoughtful and intelligent manner, while relating to all of us in an open, caring and humane way.  When you are hugged by Sefatia you know she means it.

            Sefatia has roots that run deeply into the community and its history.  She’s gone to school and raised a family here.  She can walk down the street and recognize everyone she meets.   She can tell you who lived on which street, who worked where, and what happened to them if they got laid off.  This kind of knowledge that comes from growing up in one place and feeling it in your blood is indispensable when it comes to understanding the needs of neighborhoods and their residents, no matter which part of the city they are located in.  A public official who is not deeply in touch with the culture of the community he or she hopes to serve is already at a disadvantage.

We need a mayor who encourages our community to engage in the kind of constructive dialogue that is the cornerstone of our democracy, a mayor who will lead us toward a more vital sense of community in education, civic responsibilities, historical awareness, fiscal prudence, economic and social self-sufficiency, and love of place.  We particularly need a mayor who understands and cares deeply about our fishing industry and the importance of our working waterfront and the innovative Blue Economy.  I believe that Sefatia will be this kind of mayor.   Just as we need to move ahead, we equally need to maintain our roots as a city of families and neighborhoods, where everyone has a place at the table and everyone’s  voice is listened to and respected.  There is a yearning all over America for the sense of place, of shared history, of belonging, that we in Gloucester are fortunate to enjoy in abundance.

            Gloucester has always been a city of ethnic and economic diversity—and this diversity has been one of our greatest strengths.  We live in dangerous times and we need the peace and comfort that a community like ours affords.  It is through community that we learn together and grow together, as we help our children and grandchildren grow and prosper. 

            Concretely we must address the following issues as we look to the city’s future:

            --We need a revised and updated Master Plan so we can best manage growth and know where to build and what to preserve.

            --We must recommit ourselves to our embattled fishing industry and to the working waterfront itself, continuing our long history of adaption to change with the creation of a strong seafood innovation cluster economy and the good local jobs it will create.   We are also a great boating community and while we work to make our waterfront a more welcoming place for recreational boaters, we must not forget the importance of community boating facilities for our own residents.

            --We will need to look newly at tourism and its impact on the city’s life and infrastructure (traffic, the harbor, the beaches, the land), with a special conversation about the role of a smart,  human-scale visitor-based economy, the corner stone of which should be cultural and eco-tourism.

            --We need to continue our conversation around the development of a public arts policy with added discussion on the place of the arts in local life and the visitor-based sector.  Essential to the future of the city as a magnet for the arts is the development of live-work housing for local artists, who constitute a bridge between the life we all enjoy here and what we want to offer to those we welcome into our community.  

            --Essential also is an initiative to involve more citizens in public life, volunteering for boards and commissions.  We must especially nurture a new generation of engaged citizens: our democracy will depend on it.

            --As for schools, plant is important, but what happens in the classroom is paramount.  We must transcend the tyranny of standardized testing, reasserting the primary role of the imagination, critical thinking and creativity in art, music, drama, science and the humanities.

            --We must do everything to keep our city beautiful, not only for those who wish to visit but for those of us who live here year round.  The restoration of Stacy Boulevard, Gloucester’s crown jewel, is long overdue.   Dogtown is our refuge for hiking, cross country skiing, berry picking, and the exploration of nature.  Let us continue to support the work that volunteers are engaged upon in preserving this treasure and keeping Dogtown unspoiled for future generations.

            What we especially need, along with careful planning to account for inevitable change, is a land ethic, a way in which we view the land and its uses beyond mere profit-taking and commercial development.  We must build what we need, but we must do it in a way that does not destroy the unique character of neighborhoods or disrupt human and natural ecologies.

            We must plan regionally as well as locally, always with a sense of preserving the character and integrity of particular communities; for I believe that only those places which are sensitive to their uniqueness will survive.  Without an informed, coherent and humane vision of ourselves in relation to our environment we will not survive as a community, let alone as a planet or a species.

            So as we inaugurate our new mayor and congratulate the city councilors and school committee members we have elected to represent us, let us re-commit ourselves to working together, to building “not only for today alone but for tomorrow as well.” If we expect it of ourselves, those who come after us will thank us for our vision, our imagination, and especially for our commitment.

            Thank you e tanti auguri a` tutti for the New Year and for Gloucester’s future.

            (This speech was delivered at City Hall, on January 1, 2016, at the inauguration of Sefatia Romeo Theken as Mayor of Gloucester)

           

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Isaac's First Fiesta




Peter Anastas

St. Peter’s Fiesta, which opens its 88th year with music on Wednesday, June 24, at St .Peter’s Park and concludes on Sunday night, June 28, with a procession through the Fort, is Gloucester’s most meaningful celebration of our collective identity. Watching the lights and the altar go up this week and feeling the excitement in the air of impending carnival, which so many of us have experienced since childhood, I couldn’t help but remember the first time I took my grandson to Fiesta…
Isaac and Papou.St. Peter (2)
Isaac and “Papou” go to Fiesta

 It was June of 2009.  My son Ben and I were taking his 19-month-old son Isaac to his first St. Peter’s Fiesta.  My mother had accompanied my brother and me when Fiesta started up again after the war, and I, in turn, took Ben and his two siblings, beginning in the 1960s.  If you count the fact that my mother, who was born in Gloucester in 1910, had attended the earliest Fiestas, beginning in 1927, four generations of our family have been celebrating the Feast of St. Peter with our Italian friends and neighbors.

Though a bit overwhelmed by the crowds along the midway, the music from the rides, and the amplified voices announcing games of chance, my grandson seemed to take to Fiesta.  Eyes shining with wonder, he refused to be carried by his father or me, rushing instead among the legs of those on their way down Beach Court to where we could watch the seine boat races and greasy pole contest from the shore.

Isaac at greasy pole (2)
Isaac with “Papou” and his dad watching the greasy pole contest

Returning to Commercial Street, we decided to walk to Fort Square for a better view of the events and so that Isaac, who loves to play in the sand boxes of Brooklyn’s city parks, where he lives, could fully enjoy Pavilion Beach.  On the way there I pointed out the old Birdseye plant with its iconic white tower to Ben, where, from 1928, his grandmother had worked as Clarence Birdseye’s secretary.  On our way back to Fiesta we walked around Fort Square to Charles Olson’ house, where we took a picture of Ben, Isaac and me in front of the commemorative plaque to Gloucester’s great poet.

Isaac at Olson house (2)
Isaac points to the memorial plaque for Charles Olson at 28 Fort Square

That afternoon we covered the entire Fort, from Beach Court to Fort Square.  We shared fried dough and Ben shot a few baskets to see if he could win a stuffed animal for Isaac.  What came home to me during our walk, along with the powerful sense of attraction I’ve always had for Fiesta and for the Fort itself, where I once worked on fish, was an increased concern that if a proposed hotel were to be built at the Birdseye there could be unforeseen consequences.  Prospective developers had already expressed reservations about this traditional marine industrial neighborhood (one was quoted in the Gloucester Times as having said, “When our guests arrive we want them to know they’ve arrived somewhere”—as if the historic Fort were nowhere!); and one wondered how many of their guests would spend a lot of money to stay in a busy neighborhood full of trailer trucks and early risers. What would be the impact of the new hotel on Pavilion beach, which was public and protected as such?  And while I could imagine some hotel guests enthralled by Fiesta, would others on vacation be annoyed by the noise, the crowds, or the smells from the working waterfront—the engines of the fishing vessels, the early morning activity of taking on ice?


During our walk I tried to envision the Fort with a fancy upscale hotel in its midst.  All I could think of was that the hotel might ultimately displace the neighbors, the neighborhood, the Fiesta, and all the traditional kinds of single and multi-family housing on the Fort.  Once the hotel was in place, there was certain to be greater pressure for upscale housing or condos.  Then, quite covertly, we would have the beginnings of Newport right in the heart of the waterfront.

I was especially concerned about the potential for “collateral damage” in the neighborhood as a consequence of outsize development, especially if traditional fishing industry businesses were pushed out, and long-term residents with them.  These thoughts troubled me as I walked with my little grandson and his father—three generations of Anastases enjoying Fiesta (and a fourth if my mother, who first took me, were still alive)—and suddenly a great sadness came over me, followed by a profound sense of loss.

What should ultimately have been an occasion of joy with my family, my grandson’s first Fiesta, prompted a bittersweet reverie, in which I could imagine all that has meant so much to our family and every other Gloucester family of Fiesta and of the Fort itself, taken from us were we not vigilant about protecting our heritage and the very places in which it lives and breaths.

Today the hotel, so utterly alien to everything the Fort has stood for, is fast becoming a reality, and we can only hope that Fiesta, along with the Fort itself, will not be swept away by this new wave of urban renewal called gentrification.

Viva San Pietro!

Ernie.Fiesta.1
Photo courtesy Document/Morin
Peter Anastas is Editorial Director of Enduring Gloucester

Monday, May 25, 2015

Kenneth Warren (1952-2015)





Kenneth Warren was a rare public leader who knew when/how to push the envelope of public discourse, to seek and participate in deep, locally defined values in an era nonetheless when the local is being uprooted in favor of global development. He was a man dedicated to finding the deeper currents that might drive a community, and thus a world, forward into a brighter and more humane future of greater good.
                                                            --Daniel Slife

The sudden death of writer, critic, editor, Jungian scholar and astrologist Kenneth Warren has a special poignancy for his friends in Gloucester.  Many of us first met Ken when he and Fred Whitehead were editing The Whole Song, the landmark volume of selected poetry by Lynn native and Gloucester poet laureate Vincent Ferrini, published in 2004 by the University of Illinois Press.

            Ken visited Gloucester frequently, reading at the Writers Center, where he was an advisory board member, and The Book Store.  He also spoke at the centenary celebrations for Ferrini and Charles Olson, about whom Ken was working on an important series of essays in House Organ, the quarterly publication of contemporary poetry and prose he edited and published, first from Lakewood, Ohio, where Ken was library director for 25 years, and later from his home in Youngstown, NY.

            Ken was that rarest of critics, who could write about avant-garde poetry, Punk Rock, the interface of astrology and the arts, and the complexities of Jungian analysis, often in the same review.  To read his 2012 collection of essays, Captain Poetry’s Sucker Punch: A Guide to the Homeric Punkhole, 1980-2012, is to gain a sense of one of the most original and capacious minds of our time.

            Yet Ken was far from self-involved.  As editor and publisher of House Organ, he sought out a stunning array of contributors, from former Black Mountain, Beat and New American poets to those who  were young and unpublished, to review some of the most exciting experimental writing in print and to submit their own poetry and prose.  To experience a single issue of the magazine that appeared in one’s mail box punctually each season, in its idiosyncratic 4 by 11 inch format, was to have an entrĂ©e into some of the most exciting work in poetry and personal and critical prose of our time.

            Speaking for myself, it was a privilege to be asked by Ken to submit work he’d heard about, or to have been sent a series of remarkable collections of poetry or prose to review.  His editorial style was supportive rather than intrusive.  He let his writers be themselves, and in the process I believe we all flourished.  In asking me to contribute to House Organ, Ken literally gave me a second career as a critic and essayist, one that I would not have enjoyed without Ken. Ken also published Gloucester poets Melissa de Haan Cummings and Josie Schoel.

            Ken and I did not meet frequently, but when we did the talk was incandescent—largely from Ken’s side.   I would always leave with lists of books to read or new writers to discover.  With Ken one did not need to take a post-graduate course in innovative writing; one simply listened to him talk or read his extraordinary study of the work and thought of Ferrini and Olson that had been appearing serially in House Organ

            In writing to tell me about Ken’s death, our mutual friend, novelist and critic Bob Buckeye, described the void created by his leaving: 

We have suffered a great loss.  Something has stopped and I don't know if it can start up again.”  

Andre Spears, a member of the board of directors of the Gloucester Writers Center, wrote:

“Ken Warren departed the planet on Thursday (May 21), as the sun was transiting from Taurus into Gemini. He was, and remains, a beautiful spirit, particularly open to the world, and he leaves behind, in the singular poetic community he made cohere, a terrible absence that only time, sooner or later, will erase."     

Ken loved Gloucester.  He knew the city from his deep immersion in the poetry of Olson and Ferrini and from his own time spent here absorbing the look and feel of the place, its history.  Ken understood community and how it could be uprooted by gentrification and unwarranted development.  As his friend Daniel Slife wrote:  “He was a man dedicated to finding the deeper currents that might drive a community, and thus a world, forward into a brighter and more humane future of greater good.”

Goodbye, Ken.  We will miss you sorely.

Peter Anastas

(This tribute was originally written for and posted on the blog Enduring Gloucester)




Thursday, April 2, 2015

Un-American Activities: A Review



Benjamin Hollander, In the House Un-American, (Clockroot Books, 2013), pp.150, $15.


Carlos ben Carlos Rossman, Benjamin Hollander’s alter ego in his account of discovering what it is to be, or not to be, an American, describes his father, “a Jew hiding in plain sight,” as living “between false options: as a worker among workers speaking outside his class, or as the quiet American hiding the languages he knew they distrusted, since they insinuated, in phrase or condition, heard or unheard, ‘the un-American,’ the un-welcomed.”

            I spoke Greek before I spoke English.  It was the language of our home, the one I absorbed from the cradle, spoke with my parents and my grandmother, who never learned English.  But when I went to school, one day in second grade (this was during the early years of WWII), our teacher Miss Parks asked each one of us to tell where our parents were born.  When I offered that my father came from Sparta, Greece, a girl piped up—Marie Byrnes: how can I ever forget her name?  “Sounds like a can of grease,” she said.  From then on my brother and I were called “Grease Balls” or “Greasy Greeks.”

            I went home crying.  As soon as my father returned from work at the corner store he owned, I explained to him what had happened.

            “You tell those kids you’re proud to be Greek,” he said. “Tell them that the Greeks invented the democracy they live in!” 

            Of course, my father was right to comfort me, giving me an argument for my defense.  But my brother and I knew that such a response would only lead to more derision, if not physical retaliation.  For in those xenophobic war years in Gloucester, Massachusetts it was the Greeks and Jews against the Italians, Portuguese and Irish, who had arrived in America before our grandparents and staked out their claims earlier as Americans.  As a consequence, my brother and I never spoke Greek again.  We literally expunged our mother tongue from our consciousness for the rest of our lives.

            No wonder I can relate to Hollander’s harrowing account of his own, his family’s, his friends’ and immigrants like them as they attempted not just to live in this country but to become Americans.

            Cut to a 1947 hearing of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington, before which Bertolt Brecht is questioned about his possible ties to the Communist Party, by definition believed to be un-American: 
 
            “Now Mr. Brecht, what is your occupation?”
            “I am a poet and a playwright.”
            “A poet and a playwright?”
            “Yes.”
            “Where are you presently employed?”
            “I am not employed.”

            About poetry Hollander writes:

“[It] comes like this kind of underwater English to one who speaks like this, because poetry is already the sounding of a second language within an American culture that does not count it among its facts, its culture of evidence.” 

            Equating poetry and alienation, exclusion—poetry and anti-intellectualism, Hollander continues:

            “This is what the un-American feels, his condition, if you care, is that he appears to others like a poem, quizzical, without much use, just standing around.”

            But Hollander, to his credit, does not stop with “the role of the Un-American Committee in determining political alliances or questioning who among the native-born or naturalized among us was or was not a patriot.”  He brings us immediately to the present: “Just as today FBI counter-terrorism media consultant Brad Garrett can warn us about the thoughts of a Muslim citizen of America, who, himself, may not be capable of being a threat to the country, but. . .may be drawn to the ‘bad guys’ who are not citizens but bomb-capable, which is why we have to be in a state of vigilance towards the un-American American’s ‘bad thoughts.’”

            So not only in America do we police what we fear may be potential actions of the putatively “un-American,” we also strive to monitor their thoughts or what we think may be their thoughts from their ethnic and cultural origins, or from those of the individuals or groups they may be associating with.

            It’s an old story for anyone who grew up during the McCarthy anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s, or who knew people whose phone calls were monitored, mail read, and movements recorded; yes, and whose family members lost their teaching jobs, as Vincent Ferrini’s Radcliffe honors graduate wife Peg did (a brilliant teacher, incidentally, who had a school building named for her after she was “allowed” to return to teaching).  And it hasn’t ended but only continues with our phone calls and emails collected and stored today, potentially to be used against us, for communicating with each other.

            Hollander’s narrative—part memoir, part fiction, part history and part documentary—is so utterly relevant as to have been written tomorrow.   For In the House Un-American is not only an account of an immigrant’s voyage of self-discovery as he uncovers the very nature of belonging “in an exceptional country that makes no exceptions,” Hollander writes.  There is also sharp social criticism here, much of it as biting as it is humorous, as Hollander skewers the sentimentality that papers over every national excess: “When in America did this start, this ritually honored public sentimentalism as a form of redemption for your violence?”

            I want to conclude with language because language is at the heart of Hollander’s inquiry (or should I say inquest?)— the languages our families arrived speaking, the languages they adopted or abandoned.

            The Dartmouth-educated son of a Jewish immigrant of my father’s generation once accused my father of “murdering the English language” as he claimed his own father did.

            “I’d like to know what you would do,” my father retorted, “alone in a strange country, with no one to understand you and not a soul to turn to.”

            That pretty much encapsulates the condition Hollander opens his account by describing.  I know it well from growing up caught between two languages.  I saw how my father struggled to make himself understood in his second language, and how my mother and her siblings, all well-educated, tried to transcend their own embarrassment at their parents’ imperfect and accented English.  My brother and I joked about how our father called the World Series “the World Serious,” but beneath our laughter was our own fear that we too, even though we could speak the native tongue, did not belong.  To this day I do not feel that I belong.  And yet I wonder, as Hollander calls into question, do any of us belong in a culture that is more fable than reality?

(This review appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of House Organ, edited by Kenneth Warren)