Saturday, January 31, 2009

Crazy? Crazy? Of course it's Crazy!

It’s a crazy world we live in, isn’t it?
by Charlie Leck

Here’s a sign: Natalie Dylan, a student who lives in San Diego, is auctioning off her virginity. The bidding, as of today, is approaching 4 million dollars. It's so incredible that I ought to have said… “approaching 4 million f—king dollars.” [story]

Now why didn’t I think of auctioning off my virginity back when… when…. when… when?

Here’s another sign: Sean Hannity, the dumbest radio talk show host in America, is carrying on with his charge that Barack Obama is trying to steal the legacy of Abraham Lincoln from the Republican Party. Geez! I can’t go on using profanities, but how else do you react to something as completely moronic as this? Hannity needs a refresher in the history of our modern political parties so he can understand that the Republican Party of today doesn’t really have genealogical lines back to the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln. That’s like saying Thomas Jefferson was a Democrat of the same lineage as Bill Clinton. [See this video on The Political Carnival]

And another sign: Joe the Plumber was in the Middle East reporting on the war in Gaza for some frickin’ dumb organization that hired him. Just for the record, Joe the Plumber’s real name is Samuel Wurzelbacher. He was in the region as a reporter for a web site – a conservative web site, don’t you know – Have you heard this guy talk? Can you believe it?

Then, according to a report by the Southern Policy Law Center, Obama's election is swelling the membership rolls of the nations racial supremacy groups.
"Neo-Nazi David Duke says Obama will be a "visual aid" for angry white Americans and will provoke a backlash among relatively mainstream whites that will "result in a dramatic increase in [the] ranks" of extremists. Many other hate group leaders agree."
What a country, ey?
Oh, why not another sign? Here it is: A book on phone sex was published this past September. It reveals a lot about the ladies who answer the calls and “perform” for the “gentlemen” who call in. The book also publishes some of their photographs. In case you’re addicted to phone sex, get a copy of the book, look at the photos and, voila, you will be cured! Crazy friggin’ world, isn’t it?

I could go on and on you know. There are just a million points of evidence that indicate how crazy we are, but do you need anything else? Is any more evidence required? This is a crazy world we live in, no?

And, just for the record, Sean Hannity is the dumbest idiot in this crazy world – with the possible exception of you, of course.

Alan Uthman and Ian Murphy, at Buffalo Beast, put Hannity on their list of the 15 Most Loathsome People in America. Oh yes, Rush Limbaugh is there as weel. And so is Michelle Bachman. It would be difficult to guess that Dick Chaney is on the list, too. Go see the rest.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Some of the Good don’t die so young!

The spiral galaxy in the constellation Camelopardais.

Some of the good live rich and old lives!
by Charlie Leck

The theme about the good dying young is so common and popular in poetry and musical verse. Yet, it’s not so true.

However, even when our heroes live rich and old lives we are still singing: “I just looked around and he’s gone.”

The last year has seen a number of the old gents I so admire depart these “surly bonds” and move beyond us to the stars. Some of the names are known to all of you and some only to me and a few of the friends who visit here and read these blogs.

I think, at first, that it will be so difficult to live in a world without them; yet, they left so much of themselves behind, to remind us of their creative genius, that we will not be totally without them.

These giants meant so much to me and my life…
Kurt Vonnegut
William F. Buckley, Jr.
Paul Newman
Studs Terkel
Andrew Wyeth
John Updike

How very special that they lived so fully – so completely – and so long. How glorious that they are now at rest after such daringly wonderful lives. There’s so much I admire about each of them, even though I was not always in agreement with them. As a matter of fact, I found myself often disagreeing with Buckley, but I admired his complex mind and his logical writing and the sharpness of his wit.

And, I disagreed with Updike’s theological thinking. By making the great stories of scripture so literal, he stole their power. Yet, no one could argue with the beauty of his resurrection poem.

Seven Stanzas at Easter
by John Updike

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His Flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

What matter does it make? I prefer to think that the resurrection gives us the power to live freely and bravely, unbound by guilt and unafraid of evil. After life? Who knows?

Here again, I prefer to think that I shall move out among the stars, adding some lovely dust to them, in blissful peace and for everlasting rest.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The House of Fools!

The U.S. House of Representatives is a place of fools and we should throw all the simpletons out!
by Charlie Leck

The House dithers while the nation falls deeper into the Abyss!

It’s not just Republicans, but Nancy Polosi and her Democrat colleagues are also stumbling around like fools, while the President calls for action. Our new President is calling for legislation that might reverse the nation’s horrible economic slide into destruction. He calls for a new approach of bi-partisanship, setting politics aside. Nevertheless, the imbeciles on the majority side of the house begin throwing their own pet wishes into a bill they know will pass Congress – things like hundreds of thousands of dollars for condoms. There is only one result to an action like that. It is going to raise the hackles of conservatives. Put it in another, independent bill, Ms. Polosi, and let’s see where it goes. That’s only one example. A host of Democrats have rushed to include their pet requests in the bill also.

The Republicans are using the occasion to open their 2010 campaign to recapture the majority in the House of Representatives. If the President fails to curtail this spiral into economic oblivion, the nation will send him a signal, in the middle of his term, by electing many Republicans to Congress. So, Republicans dally instead of supporting the new President and his efforts to stem the tide. It is as if they are wishing for his failure.

The Republican caucus is recommending that its members vote no on the emergency legislation. Then, they'll hope for the bill's failure and have a mighty target to hit in the election campaigns next year.

It is at a times like this that one can understand the frustration of the people about the politics of Washington.

How does the nation manage to survive such low-down sons-of-bitches?

As FDR said in his 1932 Inaugural speech, “The people want action and they want it now!”

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A Spark Needs Fanning!

Perhaps Obama can inspire even us!

The following comes from the writings of Justice Louis D. Brandeis
There is in most Americans
some spark of idealism,
which can be fanned into a flame.
It takes sometimes a divining rod
to find what it is;
but when found,
and that means often,
when disclosed to the owners,
the results are often extraordinary.
That, it seems to me, is what our new President in trying to do with us – he is trying to fan some spark within us that it might become a flame.Should we, as Americans, somehow decide to get involved in making America great again, the results could be quite extraordinary.


Louis Dembitz Brandeis
was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1916 by President Woodrow Wilson. He was the first Jewish Supreme Court Justice.

Brandeis was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1856 to parents who had migrated from Prague. He graduated with honors from Louisville Male High School at the age of 14. He studied for two years at the Realgymnnasium Annenschule in Dresden. He enrolled in Harvard Law School in 1875 and graduated in 1877 at the top of class and with the highest grade achievement of any student who had ever attended the school.

The law school at the University of Louisville is named after him. His official papers are housed at that school. Brandeis University, founded in 1947, is also named after him.

In the face of staunch opposition, he was confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice in 1916. He resigned from that bench in 1939.

[Read more about Justice Brandeis]

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Run, Rabbit, Run

Updike headed out for the stars today!
by Charlie Leck

John Updike died today. So long, fellow. There are a lot of reasons I liked this writer so much. He tended to write about very ordinary people. He wasn't hell bent for adventure or excitement. He just told a good story and he told it as well as it could be told. His writing was gentle, easy to read and purely smooth.

His obituary appeared today on the front page of the NY Times.

His Rabbit books were, of course, so extraordinary; however, when I think of Updike's wonderful writing style, I always think about Of the Farm. I think this simple, beautiful novella is my favorite of all his works.

"All afternoon the signs of a storm gathered. The translucent clouds developed opaque bellies and were hurried sideways by a rising wind. From my stately tractor I admired, what I had forgotten, how dramatic the clouds in this hill country could be. Diagonal shafts of sun and shadow and vapor steamed earth-ward from glowing citadels of cumulus spaced as if strategically across the illusory continent above; the spectacle was on the high grand scale of history, so that the elidings an eclipsings and combinings of cloud-types suggested political situations -- wispy cirrus playing the aristocrat, a demagogic thunderhead moving against a parliament of mackerel sky."
[Updike, John: Of the Farm (Alfred Knopf, New York, 19650]
I read this book with a great, talented poet. We took a bachelor weekend and went to an old farm house he had arranged up in the north. It was quiet and peaceful and regenerating. We cooked some good food, drank some good wine and found out about sweet martinis. And, we read Updike. It was easy to work our way through Of the Farm. We hadn't expected it to be so good.

My friend kept calling across the room.

"Listen to this," he'd say, and begin reading several sentences that had struck him more as poetry than prose. "Wow! Can he write, or what?"

So long, John. Rest so well. Enjoy the stars!
“The miracle of turning inklings into thoughts and thoughts into words and words into metal and print and ink never palls for me.” (John Updike)

All Politics is Local

And other rules of the game…
by Charlie Leck

Now, the big national election is over. So, it’s time for a political junkie to take a break. Right?


Ten months from now we’ll have a very important local election here in my town. This is where one really feels the startling impact of politics – right here at the local level. Things are not very good here, at that level, right now. As a matter of fact, they kind of stink to high heaven.

Here’s a good indicator of the problem. Our city depends on capable citizens to fill its elective and appointed positions. Right now there are openings on our Parks and Trails Commission and we can’t get one single person to volunteer to serve.

Our Planning Commission also had a recent opening. The elected City Council usually gets a number of volunteers to choose from for a position like that. This time, only one person offered to sit on that commission.

This is not a good situation. As a matter of fact, it’s a very bad circumstance.

A major part of the problem is that we’ve got a stinking bad City Council right now. There are three cowboys serving on the council who rule fiercely and reign proudly as libertarians. They get recommendations from their Planning Commission – recommendations upon which there have been hearings and to which that Commission has given serious thought – and the elected Council all too frequently dismisses those recommendations and rules otherwise. That sets a bad tone. It gets Planning Commissioners disappointed and angry. This is why it’s difficult to get people to serve.

These three cowboys also make the atmosphere at meetings pretty unsettling. They’re loud and rude and pretty much stifle discussion. They aren't open to opinions that disagree with their own and they discourage public comment. That’s no way to run local politics!

In addition, we have extremely bad communications with neighboring cities right now. That’s too bad. We were formerly pretty good at that. However, these cowboy City Council members are arrogant and rude and closed minded. One can’t communicate with a closed-minded person. One of the rules of good communications is to be open-minded.

We’ve got a good Mayor in my town, but his hands are tied right now. For years he’s had wonderful relationships with surrounding communities. The ruling cowboys have made the Mayor pretty powerless in terms of working with our neighbors.

This is local politics at its worst. As the famous Tip O’Neill pointed out, this is where politics is most important because this is where we who live in this town feel the impact of poor decisions.

So, we’ve got to get things squared away here. We need some gentlemen and ladies to serve our city. Be gone with the cowboys! We have the opportunity to get rid of one of them this fall anyway! We need bright, polite, open and considerate men and women to step forward as candidates.

We must find some willing folks right away and then we have to step up and support them with all our might.

O’Neill, Tip: All Politics is Local, And other rules of the game [1994 Times Books, NY, 1993]

Monday, January 26, 2009

Has Suburban Sprawl Reached its Limit?

Development of far reaching suburbs was stopped in its tracks by the economic implosion. Will it take up where it left off, or is a higher density life-style pattern in our future?
by Charlie Leck

Just two years ago, just a few miles west of us and 30 west of downtown Minneapolis, a developer put up a big sign in an open farm field announcing plans for 80+ homes. It’s been the American dream for a couple of generations now – build a home in the countryside with a yard, and then fence it in so you don’t have to look at your neighbor’s yard, and then put an outdoor cooking contraption on your outdoor deck and, when you get home after your hour and a half drive from downtown, you can burn a couple cheap steaks and sit with your wife and kids in front the television, watching Barney Somebodyorother, who lives in a ficticious suburban community, very similar to the one you live in, and he has kids who can’t stand his guts and they hate the long bus ride to their school and they hate the suburban place where they live because all the real action is right back in the uptown area out of which Barney just moved his entire family.

A lot of you won’t believe this, but that day may be over. The suburban dream may be a fatal victim of the 2008 economic crash and the realities of diminishing fuel sources. It all started to fall apart when the gas prices got so high, but, as it turns out, high gas prices weren’t even a sniff of what was to come.

People around here are already talking about what to do with the few homes they did sell out there in that huge farm field, now foreclosed upon, as naked as Adam in the Garden of Eden and as empty as the mind of George W. The developer has gone belly-up and no one is making payments on the big old farm field and the farmer who sold it is now having trouble making his payments on the little lot and mobile trailer he purchased in the village of Homosasse down there in Florida.

To see how crazy the discussion is getting, take a look at this little excerpt from a recent article in the New York Times (What Will Save the Suburbs?)

“There has been a nationwide shift toward de-construction (led by companies like Planet Reuse and Buffalo Reuse, the surgical taking-apart of homes to salvage the building materials for reuse, but often the building materials used in these developments aren’t of good enough quality to warrant salvaging.

“I don’t have the perfect solution for how to transform these broad swaths of subdivisions, and while I’ve heard much talk of the foreclosure tragedy, I’ve heard nary a peep about what to do about it.

“A recent article in The Times spotted an emerging trend of kids usurping the abandoned pools of foreclosed homes for use as temporary skate parks. (Interestingly, this was big in the ‘70s, as you can see by watching the rad skate documentary “Dogtown and Z-Boys.”) It’s a great short-term strategy for adolescent recreation (and for ridding neighborhoods of fetid pools, which often harbor West Nile virus), though it’s not a comprehensive solution to the problem of increasingly abandoned, ill-maintained and more dangerous streetscapes.

Oh, my god, are they crazy? I can just imagine 120 acre farm field down the road, with three lonely houses sitting it, being turned into skate parks for the 6 or 7 kids who skate out there.

But, I’m not writing this to discuss what to do about the problem of vacant and unwanted houses out in the countryside. Rather, I’m wondering if the days of suburban expansion are at an end. What do you think?

Is there a chance America will look again at higher density living. Can we really live closer to one another? Live in high rises! Live in cities!

And then we’ll leave the country as country and it will be a beautiful place in which to wander and frolic. There will be cows behind fences and deer and rabbits hopping and loping through the open fields. And all of this only an hour or so outside the city where we live – in the city where we can catch a train or bus to work and where we can buy our groceries just down on the corner, and where we can walk the kids to school on nicely paved sidewalks and catch a movie, without driving, in the theatre that’s just 3 blocks down the street.

“I’m not saying! I’m just saying!” As a well-known radio jerk around here is always saying: “Either I’m on to something, or I’m on something!” What do you think? Can the American spirit of expansion be reined in? Can we reveal the suburban dream to be more a nightmare? Is there a new life style ahead for middle-class Americans?

“I’m not telling! I’m just asking!”

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Red Badge of Courage

Among my collection of Christmas Books is this
extraordinary edition of Red Badge of Courage,
published in 1968 by the West Virginia Pulp and
Paper Company (WESTVACO) as a Christmas gift
for their finest customers and clients.The book
also included a reprint of the U.S. War
Department’s manual on the management and
care of the Rifle Musket, Model 1863. Notice the
bullet hole through the book. The hole get more
diminutive as the pages in the book increase until,
near the final pages, the hole is discontinued.

Stephen Crane’s extraordinary novel was published in 1895, when he was 24 years old. He would die in 1900.
by Charlie Leck
“The simple questions of the tattered man had been knife thrusts to him. They asserted a society that probes pitilessly at secrets until all is apparent. His late companion’s chance persistency made him feel that he could not keep his crime concealed in his bosom. It was sure to be brought plain by one of those arrows which cloud the air and are constantly pricking, discovering, proclaiming those things which are willed to be forever hidden. He admitted that he could not defend himself against this agency. It was not within the power of vigilance.” [Stephen Crane, Red Badge of Courage: 1895]

Saturday, January 24, 2009

A Great Investment for America

President Obama wants to get the economy rolling by investing billions in the nation’s infrastructure. Here’s an idea for an investment that will pay off in a big way.
by Charlie Leck

I’ve got some good advice for our new President – for the fellow who wants to rebuild the nation – for the fellow who said he wants to get the economy rolling again by investing billions of dollars in our nation’s infrastructure.

One of the things I love about visiting Europe is its trains. Wow! They’re really wonderful. A few years ago, while visiting France, I needed to travel from Paris to Lyon. That’s a trip of approximately 310 miles. I boarded a trained right within the city of Paris and I was in Lyon less than 2 hours later. That’s an average speed of 155 MPH. Wow! I sat in splendid comfort. A steward came by with coffee and a croissant. I had a good book with me.

Bill Moses, a scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab in California, wrote on-line about his experience with French high speed train (TGV) from Paris to Lyon (click here to read).

“I can’t say enough good things about the TGV in general. Although the raw speed lies between that of a car and an airplane, it tends to be significantly faster than air travel because 1) you start and end in the middle of the town instead of at an airport 30 minutes outside of the town and 2) boarding (and disembarking) is so fast that you can arrive at the station without a ticket 5 minutes before the departure time and still have the train depart (on time) with you on it. I don’t necessarily recommend this, but from personal experience I can vouch that it can be done!”
In 2001, I did the same thing in Japan. I took a train out of Kyoto on approximately a 300 mile trip and arrived in approximately an hour and a quarter later – whoosh! It was a totally restful and relaxing trip.

You know where I’m going with this. It’s too late for me, but America needs this option for travel around our nation. We need seamless, smooth tracks, capable of handling high speed trains that travel at speeds greater than 200 MPH and connect virtually every major city in the nation. What a comfort it would be to travel that way.

Imagine! I could get on a train here in Minneapolis for a trip to Denver, 900 miles away. I'd been in downtown Denver in less than 5 hours later, having made stops in Des Moines and Omaha on the way. Frankly, that's faster than I could make it by air and I'd be able to sit in comfort all the way and, probably, for much less money. A side benefit is that it would take pressure off the airports in both these cities -- two of the busiest of all U.S. airports.

Or, I could board a train in Minneapolis and travel to Atlanta (a bit more than 1200 miles). I could make the trip in approximately 7 hours from downtown to downtown with 6 or 7 stops along the way in Milwaukee, Chicago, Indianapolis, Louisville and Chattanooga. The cars would be sleek and comfortable. Steward service would be available. There’s plenty of leg room and comfortable, reclining chairs.

Build it, President Obama, and they will come. It would be a thrill to start catching up with the other civilized nations of the world.

Imagine traveling from New York City to San Francisco on a high speed, comfortable train. 3120 miles in just about 15 hours. As it is now, by the time you get out to the airport, get through security, board and then go through it again at the arriving end, air travel would take about 8 or 9 hours. And, you wouldn’t be treated like branded cattle on a high speed train.

[Read what David Houle had to say about the future of high speed trains in America – that they “must, and will become an essential component of the U.S. transportation system during the next 20 years.”]

Friday, January 23, 2009

Preacher Cracks Out a Homerun!

I’ve heard good sermons in my life and I’ve read most of the classic ones, and Pastor Sharon Watkins’ message stands with the better ones.
by Charlie Leck

Sincere congratulations to the Reverend Sharon Watkins for delivering a block-buster sermon at the National Prayer Service on Wednesday. This service has become a historical and traditional part of the Presidential Inauguration. In one form or another, the roots of this prayer service go all the way back to the presidency of George Washington. Members of the House, Senators, the President and Vice President and other government dignitaries gather to pray for the success of the new administration. In addressing, particularly, the President yesterday, Pastor Watkins said in her opening:
“There is still a lot of work to do, and today the nation turns its full attention to that work.“As we do, it is good that we pause to take a deep spiritual breath. It is good that we center for a moment.“What you are entering now, Mr. President and Mr. Vice President, will tend to draw you away from your ethical center. But we, the nation that you serve, need you to hold the ground of your deepest values, of our deepest values.”
Pastor Watkins heads the Disciples of Christ Church, one of the large, mainline Protestant denominations in the United States and Canada. It is a church of great openness and thoughtfulness and I admire it. Were I not a member with the United Church of Christ, I would probably lean toward being a Disciple.

My goodness, I’ve encountered a lot of good sermons over the years – those of the great, classical preachers and those of the brilliant international theologians. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing (live and in person) many of the great preachers of my life time. I attend a church where solid, meaningful preaching is a key ingredient in its history and traditions. I know a good sermon when I hear one.

The power of this sermon was that it was faithfully based on the scriptures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

I don’t tend to like those preachers who get too emotional and excited in their delivery. I prefer something calm, solid, reasoned and logical. Occasionally one encounters a preacher who can also let emotions soar within the bounds of good taste. I think Pastor Watkins can!

As far as I’m concerned, on Wednesday, Pastor Watkins hit a bases-loaded home run and I rank it right up there among the finest sermons I’ve ever heard. I’m going to do you a great favor here by providing you with this link to watch a video of the sermon(select webcast and when the service starts, advance the time to about 39:40) and this link where you can find the manuscript of the sermon.


The pastor established the theme for the sermon with this little story that she said comes out of Cherokee traditions.

“One evening a grandfather was teaching his young grandson about the internal battle that each person faces.

“There are two wolves struggling inside each of us,” the old man said. “One wolf is vengefulness, anger, resentment, self-pity, fear . . . “The other wolf is compassion, faithfulness, hope, truth, love . . .” \

“The grandson sat, thinking, then asked: ‘Which wolf wins, Grandfather?’ “His grandfather replied, ‘The one you feed.’”
Our instincts, the pastor made clear, urge us to lean toward the fearful wolf.

“In international hard times, our instinct is to fight – to pick up the sword, to seek out enemies, to build walls against the other – and why not? They just might be out to get us. We’ve got plenty of evidence to that effect. Someone has to keep watch and be ready to defend, and Mr. President – Tag! You’re it!"
That line drew plenty of laughter. This extraordinary preacher built toward a remarkable finish.

“It is right that college classes on political oratory already study your words. You, as our president, will set the tone for us. You will help us as a nation choose again and again which wolf to feed, which fast to choose, to love God by loving our neighbor.

“We will follow your lead – and we will walk with you. And sometimes we will swirl in front of you, pulling you along.”
The sermon was directed at and to the new President. Did he feel uncomfortable? I don’t think so. Does he fully understand the role of the biblical and contemporary prophet (this daring preacher standing before him or his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright)? I don’t think so. Yet, I could see the words boring into him. There were no nods from him and no evidences of agreement, but he was attentive and listening with both heart and mind. It appeared he showed some particular interest, considering the difficulties his nation is having with the Arab Middle-East these days, when the pastor spoke these words.

“Recently Muslim scholars from around the world released a document, known as ‘A Common Word Between Us.’ It proposes a common basis for building a world at peace. That common basis? Love of God and love of neighbor! What we just read in the Gospel of Matthew!

“So how do we go about loving God? Well according to Isaiah, summed up by Jesus, affirmed by a worldwide community of Muslim scholars and many others, it is by facing hard times with a generous spirit: by reaching out toward each other rather than turning our backs on each other.”
She banged hard on the incessant Judaea-Christian –Islamic theme!

“In times, such as these, we the people need you, the leaders of this nation, to be guided by the counsel that Isaiah gave so long ago, to work for the common good, for the public happiness, the well-being of the nation and the world, knowing that our individual wellbeing depends upon a world in which liberty and justice prevail.

“This is the biblical way. It is also the American way – to believe in something bigger than ourselves, to reach out to neighbor to build communities of possibility, of liberty and justice for all. This is the center we can find again whenever we are pulled at and pawed at by the vengeful wolf…"
Pastor Watkins was soaring as she neared her conclusion. She quoted the familiar, poetic lines of Emma Lazarus.

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses
Yearning to breathe free,…
Send these, the homeless,
tempest-tossed to me.”

And, on top of those lines, she looked hard at the President and Vice President and went further.

“Emma Lazarus’ poetry is spelled out further by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

“As long as there is poverty in the world, I can never be rich, even if I have a billion dollars. As long as diseases are rampant and millions of people in this world cannot expect to live more than twenty or thirty years, I can never be totally healthy…I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the way our world is made.”
Flying high, she implored reason and generosity from the powerful legislators and executive leaders in front of her.

“…Even in these tough times, we can feed the good wolf, listen to the better angels of our nature.”
My heart was leaping and I was shouting multiple “amens” when she closed with a prayer taken from James Weldon Johnson. It was a perfect choice.

Thou who has by Thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us…in the path, we pray.

Lest our feet stray from the places,
Our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world,
We forget Thee;

Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Speech

It’s no secret that I was prepared for the finest inaugural speech in history. I didn’t get it, but there may be reasons.
by Charlie Leck

I wasn’t really crazy about the speech as I listened to it. Frankly, I was downright disappointed. One of the friends with whom I watched the inaugural said that I was probably expecting too much.

Well, I was expecting a lot. This is one of the finest orators I have ever heard. As he rose to speak, my insides were screaming, “Bring it, man! Bring it!”

This is a guy who is supremely confident in his ability to address big crowds. I was so sure he would stun his audience with an address supremely more dramatic than anything he had ever delivered. Yet, it wasn’t that at all. Bill Safire, a speech writer for Richard Nixon and a former NY Times columnist saw it the way I did.

“Our 44th president’s Inaugural Address was solid, respectable, uplifting, suitably short, superbly delivered, but — in light of the towering expectations whipped up that his speech might belong in the company of those by Lincoln, F.D.R. and Kennedy — fell short of the anticipated immortality.”
Why? Was he already acting too Presidential? Was he being too cautious – too politically correct?
No, I think it was more than that. The speech didn’t have cogent theme – one that would be stated in the introduction and reaffirmed near its conclusion. Nor, as I look back on it, was there anything particularly quotable in this speech and that actually astounds me with surprise.

Obama chose to point back to George Washington as a symbol for his speech. How much I thought he would lean more heavily on Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt. There was gold to be mined in these two later Presidents’ speeches and Obama’s speech writer failed to pan for it.

The New York Times had generally high praise for the speech.

“The speech was not programmatic, nor was it filled with as much soaring language as F.D.R.’s first Inaugural Address or John Kennedy’s only one. But it left no doubt how Mr. Obama sees the nation’s problems and how he intends to fix them and, unlike Mr. Bush, the necessary sacrifices he will ask of all Americans.

"The American story ‘has not been the path for the faint-hearted, for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame,’ he said.”
Yes, it was a clear and well delivered speech. There were points when I thought it might take off and soar, but it never did. It was a very good speech and maybe even an excellent one. It was not, however, a great one.

Jeff Shesol, a speech writer for President Clinton made some interesting observations. Among them was this one:

“Of course, the thrust of today’s speech is that an era of dogmatism, ‘petty grievances and false promises”’ has come to an end, and that “a new era of responsibility” is dawning. Like Franklin D. Roosevelt, President Obama clearly understands that change is terrifying to most people, and he stresses, therefore, the continuity of his aims with enduring American principles. “What is demanded,” President Obama said today, ‘is a return to these truths.’”
Well, the speech was about the only thing that disappointed me today – although the Chief Justice’s fumble during the swearing-in also stunned me – and it was a marvelous display of Democracy in action as the transfer of power took place so smoothly.

Michelle Obama and the children were beautiful. The music was very nice. The highlights for me were, as I said in my blog yesterday, the incredible poem by Elizabeth Anderson and the benediction by the Reverend Joseph Lowery.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

How Did He Do It?

Frontline Documentary shows how Obama did it – from child, to college, to community organizer, to law school, to head of the Harvard Law Review, to the State Senate, to the U.S. Senate to the Presidency!
by Charlie Leck

The Obama story is an incredible one and the best telling of it, which I’ve encountered, came from the PBS documentary on Frontline: The Dreams of Obama. [Watch it here!]

One of my good friends recommended it to me. I watched it this morning and found it most illuminating and explanatory. You won’t be sorry if you take this production in.

The Good, the Bad and the Wonderful

It was a fine inauguration, but it had its shaky moments!
by Charlie Leck

It was a fine inauguration in spite of the stumble by the Chief Justice of the United States when he was swearing in our new President.

There were two extraordinary highlights for me.

One came when the highly respected black pastor and devoted civil rights worker, the Reverend Joseph Lowery, gave the benediction and concluded it before a President who was giggling and smiling (reverently)…

“Help us work for that day
when black will not be asked to get back,
when brown will stick around
when yellow will be mellow,
when the red man can get ahead, man,
and when white will embrace what is right”
The other was when the poet-friend of the President’s, Elizabeth Anderson, read her special creation for this occasion, “Praise Song for the Day.” It knocked my socks off and big, salty tears rolled down my cheeks as she concluded. Here's the full transcript, but the conclusion, beginning with the words, "What if the mightiest word is love..." is what got me.

Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each others’ eyes or not, about to speak or speaking. All about us is noise. All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues. Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.A woman and her son wait for the bus.

A farmer considers the changing sky; A teacher says, “Take out your pencils. Begin.”

We encounter each other in words, Words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; Words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark the will of someone and then others who said, “I need to see what’s on the other side; I know there’s something better down the road.”

We need to find a place where we are safe; We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle; praise song for the day. Praise song for every hand-lettered sign; The figuring it out at kitchen tables.

Some live by “Love thy neighbor as thy self.”

Others by first do no harm, or take no more than you need.

What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to preempt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp — praise song for walking forward in that light.

Wow! Were you listening? Did you hear her? Just imagine! “What if the mightiest word is love… love with no need to preempt grievance?”

Oh my! White America, were you listening. It seems over! Over! There is no need to preempt grievance! From here, from now, we start even and your guilt you may shed and the excuse of the black slaves ends here and now -- if we both buy into the bargain.

We start on even footing and we go forward, together, to make an incredible, beautiful America.

I need time to reflect on Obama’s speech. A dozen emails tell me it was perfect… “wonderful”… “inspiring”… “unparalleled”…. I need time to think about that. I need to read it again… and again… and, perhaps, again, to understand where he was going. It was not what I hoped for, but I need to quietly read it again and again.

Pastor Rick Warren’s invocation was embarrassing. When I was just a kid, my father used to say, “They should have a trap door!”

But, not only was it too long, the totally Christian tag at the end was uncalled for. This is “no longer just a Christian nation.” This is a land of many religions and many faiths. The Bible thumpers think that they must pray using the name of Jesus every time because he is quoted in the gospel as saying, “When you pray, pray in my name!” That’s fine, but that doesn’t mean that every prayer must verbally state it is in his name. The Christian may be praying in the name of Jesus, but those of the Islamic faith are praying in the name of Mohammed. Grow up you fundamentalists and let your minds relax and your hearts be more open. The inclusion of the Lord’s Prayer by Warren was a real shocker.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

This is the Day!

What we’ve been waiting for – George W. Bush will exit and Barack H. Obama will make his entrance!
by Charlie Leck

It is early! I’m having some neighbors in to nosh and watch the inauguration on the telly with me. I need to filet some lox and make a quick run to the bakery for a nice fresh coffee cake. I’m praying no one will care to look at my library because I won’t be able to get it cleaned up this morning. Stacks of books and piles of papers and photos just seem to grow wildly here. Someday I really need to attack this mess; however, when I sit here to work these piles are comforting and companionable.

No one more excitedly anticipates the inaugural address as I. I’ve been thinking about it since election night, vain enough to arrogantly wish I was somehow involved with the writing team.

No thunder and lightning from Obama today – no black expressionism – no standing on the shoulders of Martin Luther King, Jr..

Today he rides the historical speeches of Lincoln, Roosevelt and Kennedy. He must express strength, courage and fearlessness. He’ll call on us to be involved in the healing and rebuilding of the nation. He calls on us to be team players and to unite for the sake of the nation.

There will also need to be a warning to potential foes and heavy-handed nations. He won’t mention any names, but Korea and Iran will clearly get the message. The implications will be precise – that he won’t make the mistakes of George W. Bush and any military involvements will be sharp and thorough.

It will be very brief. It won’t break records for brevity, but it will surprise us when he utters the final words: “And God bless America!”

Monday, January 19, 2009

Hating Obama

We need to understand that there are many people who are actually frightened about living in a nation presided over by Barack Obama!
by Charlie Leck

Did you watch any of the incredible concert from the Lincoln Memorial Sunday?
My, it was difficult to control my emotions. What an exciting show! Springsteen was spectacular and his song with Pete Seeger was nearly too much for the emotions. What a line-up of the spectacular entertainers. [Read the NY Times review/report of the event!]

It’s hard to believe, after watching that concert yesterday, that anyone in America wouldn’t like Obama.

Yet, a friend writes about the pride he’s feeling as the election nears and about how impressed he is when watching Obama in these few days before the inauguration. Then he ponders about something that I find myself wondering about, too.
“I can't imagine what it must feel like for people who are hard core anti matter what their reason. I’m gonna wait a little while and then talk to my friend ***** (whom you met) and try to see what this is like for him, as a conservative, Republican racist, and not a stupid man. He told me, 6 months ago, that his son, a career Air Force officer would resign from the military, before serving under Obama... He told me that mutual friends of ours, a very wealthy attorney and his wife, were making plans to move to Australia if Obama was elected. What must it be like for people like that?”
I know we were feeling so strongly around this house that we were actually talking about what it would be like to live in Ontario – near Toronto – rather than in the states. We were so upset about the negative direction of the country and the very hateful people who seemed to be in control. We weren’t sure we could abide four more years like that.

Now, to realize there are those who feel that strongly about not wanting to live under Obama gives me pause and I actually feel some sympathy for them. My hope is that they will give this new President a chance and that they’ll see he is a President for all people, and all states, and all times.

I’m so sure of it. I am so confident that his speech tomorrow is going to win a lot of people over. I hope those who thought they couldn’t exist under him – couldn’t continue what they were doing – couldn’t abide his leadership – will give him a chance.

Do you know that nearly half the population of America hated Abe Lincoln when he took the oath at his first inaugural? Seems like, historically, there was more rationale for that.

When I look at that smile that Obama flashes and when I see the warmth of his eyes, I can’t imagine that everyone wouldn’t be as encouraged by him as I am. Obviously, I don’t understand completely.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Andrew Wyeth Remembered

Andrew Wyeth Paintings
by Charlie Leck

Yesterday, I posted a blog about my one-time, bump-into, meeting with Andrew Wyeth – one of my life-thrills.

Today I’m posting for your enjoyment, small images of a several of his paintings.

If you want to purchase prints of Wyeth works, the best place for you to do it is at the on-line store of the Brandywine River Museum. Wyeth worked just down the road from the museum.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009)

He popped his head in through the open window and laughed heartily toward us, and shouted his greeting!
by Charlie Leck

About 15 years ago, in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, my wife and I were sitting in one of the most charming little inns in America, having lunch with a dear artist-friend. It was a perfect spring time day. The little window by our table was open and some sweet floral aromas were carried in and to us by a delightful little, wispy breeze. We were sipping a very good wine that the barman had recommended. All in all, things were about perfect and I couldn’t imagine them being any better, when suddenly a diminutive fellow with white hair and a craggly face stuck his head through the window and softly shouted a greeting to our friend.
My wife was startled by the sudden manifestation of the slight fellow and I, recognizing who it was, felt my nerves tingle with excitement. I was utterly star-struck.

“Andrew,” our friend called out, stretching out to offer his hand, “come in and join us and have a sip of wine.”

“I suppose I have time,” the head-in-the-window said. He withdrew and began his little walk along the porch toward the front door.

My wife could see that I had identified the face in the window, and her eyes quizzed me as to who it was.

“Wyeth,” I said to her, “it’s Andrew Wyeth.”

“Yes, yes,” our friend confirmed, “and no nicer man will you ever meet!”

And for the next half-hour, Andrew Wyeth sat with us and charmed us with brightness and cheerfulness. We sat mostly in silence, content to listen to the two artists sharing jibes and tales.

Eventually he turned cordially to us and asked curious questions about our reasons for being in his hometown and then pursued those questions with others, sounding all the while genuinely interested. Of course, I couldn’t be so simple as to tell him he was, by far, my favorite artist and that we had just spent a few hours in the Brandywine River Museum going through its private vaults, looking at the dozens and dozens and dozens of his works that are held there.

He laughed heartily at almost everything.

“So, Frolic, they’re into this craziness of yours, also?” he asked our friend. “They look far too normal to be doing these wild things you do.”

Our friend, you see, had gotten more than one DUI ticket as a result of driving his horses down the road after having had a touch too much alcohol. He also was known for the time he hired a naked lady to sit on a branch that hung over a trail upon which his visiting friends would be driving their carriages on that particular day.

“No, no,” he replied to Wyeth, “they’re not so eccentric as I.”

Today, as I write this, I find myself so wishing I had recorded more about the encounter in my journal, but that’s all I wrote down.

Now, mind you, I find it totally boring when folks begin telling me about their encounters with famous people. I really don’t care much for that line of conversation. I’ve had enough of those encounters myself, and I generally prefer not to bother people with recollections about them.

But, sitting with Andrew Wyeth in such a casual, comfortable manner, really did blow me away. Here was this man whose paintings tear into my inner soul, and tantalize all the nerves of my body, and stimulate my imagination to incredible heights – and he was merely an arm’s length away, talking about all sorts of normal, everyday kind of things and never once mentioning what he did or hinted that he was any more important or distinguished than we. He departed, it seemed, as swiftly as he had stuck his head in through the window. He rose from his chair with a little jump and laughed pleasantly as he shook our hands and took his leave.

From that day on, I paid even closer attention to his creative work. I think I have looked at all his paintings and drawings – the entire breadth of it, at least in photographs. How entrancing and enchanting they are!

A few moments ago, I heard that he died today (16 January 2009). Of course, he will live on and on through the immense body of his work. He’ll live on in my mind, too. I will go again to the Chadds Ford Inn and remember my few moments with him there. And then, I will go over to the museum and see everything of his at which they’ll let me look. Never will I forget his bright, lively eyes and the feeling of having his hand – that talented, remarkable, creative hand – in mine, if only for a moment.

The Andrew Wyeth Web Page

New York Time Obituary (Andrew Wyeth)

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Counting Today

Counting today, there are 5 days between then and now and, frankly, I can barely wait!
by Charlie Leck

I am trying to think of any day in my life that might have had the strength of historical implication and significance that 20 January 2009 will have.
Those days of World War II when Pearl Harbor was attacked, when our troops went ashore at Normandy, when Germany and Hitler fell, and when Japan Surrendered? Perhaps!

That awful day, 22 November 1963, when the assassin’s bullet killed a young and exciting President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy? Maybe!

The day, 8 August 1974, that Richard Millhouse Nixon became the first President to resign from office in disgrace? I think not!

The April day in 1968 when Martin Luther King, Jr. fell dead on the balcony of a motel in Memphis, Tennessee, the victim of a sniper? It was dreadful!
An African-America will assume the office of President of the United States of America on Tuesday morning – only 5 days from today, counting today – 20 January 2009.

The horrible, filthy and crowded slave ships are now only a dim spot in history! The Africans aboard them were not treated as humans and not even as well as animals would have been cared for. The institution of slavery, the great sin of our fathers, became our national shame. Our treatment of the descendents of those slaves over the next four centuries remains our national disgrace and the great sin of the sons of our fathers.

I’ll repeat myself. Counting today, in 5 days, a man with African blood – a man of color – will take the oath of office and assume his place as President of the United States. He is not descended from a southern slave. His father was a Kenyan of pure African blood, born on the shores of Lake Victoria, in the small village of Nyang’oma Kogelo. His remains were buried in that village in 1982.

I expect that on Tuesday, 5 days from today, counting today, there will be some spirits looking on and they will be at peace.

The father of the man, Barack Obama Senior, and his mother, Ann Dunham, a white woman, and her mother, the man’s grandmother, will be watching too.

Martin Luther King, Jr. will be smiling. He had been to the mountain top and had looked over to the other side. He had seen this day coming. He knew, unlike any of us, that it was near. On the night before he was murdered, he said:
"He's allowed me to go up to the mountain.

"And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

"And so I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man!

"Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!"
On Tuesday, Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman will be there, looking on also and, as I will, they will shed some tears of happiness.

The slaves will be there as well. The spirits of those who died aboard the ships and were tossed, without ceremony or identity, into the rugged sea. They will look down and they’ll be singing African songs of joy and victory. And a giant chorus of all those slaves, who did not live long enough to taste the sweetness of freedom, will sing the soft quiet songs they hummed as they picked the white man’s cotton.

"Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home

I looked over Jordan and what did I see
Coming for to carry me home
A band of angels coming after me
Coming for to carry me home

Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home

Sometimes I'm up and sometimes I'm down
Coming for to carry me home
But still my soul feels heavenly bound
Coming for to carry me home

Booker T. Washington, W.F.B Du Bois and Marcus Garvey will look on in utter happiness and listen intently to the new President’s inaugural speech. As will A. Philip Randolph.

James Farmer, Edward Brooke and Thurgood Marshall will watch the swearing in with special reverence and interest.

And Malcolm X, too. He’ll be there and he’ll laugh and cheer! And, Stokely Carmichael. And Medgar Evers. And Emmet Till.

Some artists and writers will gather together and look over at the events of the day with great interest. Among them will be Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Arna Bontemps, Jean Toomer, Bayard Rustin, James Baldwin and Paul Robeson.

Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Satch Paige, Arthur Ashe and Joe Louis will be watching, too.

So will Ella Fitzgerald, Marian Anderson and Ertha Kitt. Mahalia will be warming up her pipes. Muddy Waters will be peeking over and watching it all. Thelonios wouldn't miss it! And Satchmo will be carrying his trumpet, getting it ready for the evening parties.

Abe will be there as well. He’ll want to hear the tall, lanky, big-eared guy from Illinois, who is supposed to be a speaker as remarkable as he was himself.

An inauguration for the ages!
This is not just any inauguration. This is an inauguration for the ages. The ceremony will fully ratify the dream of the nation and those recorded words that created it, confirming once and finally that “all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

And perhaps those founding fathers, who signed those words and sent them off to the repressive King of England, may be watching, too, and winking at one another and whispering softly: “I told you so!”

Friends, this day coming on now in 5 days, counting today, may turn out to be the most momentous day in the history of the union – no less just in our time alone!

Wherever you are, and whatever you are doing, stop when this man of African blood raises his hand and puts the other upon the same old Bible upon which Abe himself swore his sacred oath; and listen with keen attention as he swears the words that will sound across the nation and beyond the seas to far off lands and peoples who will watch in utter disbelief. Hopes will be raised around the entire world. What once seemed improbable and even impossible will no longer seem so -- not to any child across the wide, wide world.

"America, this is your moment!"

America, you are coming of age and fulfilling your promise and I am proud of you. So proud!
A remarkable column in today's NY Times (Return of the Natives) explains the Native American reaction to Tuesday's inauguration of Barack Obama. It is very much worth your time to read it. [click here]

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Very Dangerous Terrorist

We are now holding a very dangerous terrorist and, thanks to Rummy and his buddies, we can’t take him to trial and can’t convict him and we don’t know exactly what to do with him.
by Charlie Leck

Since writing this blog I have come across a very serious and profitable discussion of this issue, involving a number of talented voices. It's in the New York Times section called "Room for Debate." On this particular issue the questions I raise below are discussed and the possible solutions are presented and debated by 5 different experts in the field. [Take a look!]
There’s an extremely significant story in the Washington Post of 14 January 2008 about the 20th Hijacker of the 9-11 planes. Susan J. Crawford told investigative reporter Bob Woodward: “There’s no doubt in my mind he would’ve been on one of those planes had he gained access to the country in August 2001. He’s a muscle hijacker.”

Crawford is a Pentagon official responsible for deciding whether to bring detainees to trial. She’s determined that Mohammed al-Qahtani was tortured while detained at Guantanamo.
"His treatment met the legal definition of torture,” Crawford said, “and that's why I did not refer the case…"

The torture has tainted the case against him and Crawford has determined he can’t go to trial. If he can’t go to trial, what’s to be done with him? Do we release him? Put him back out into the world now that he hates us even more than he did before?”

Crawford added: “He’s a very dangerous man. What do you do with him now if you don’t charge him and try him? I would be hesitant to say, ‘Let him go.”

Susan Crawford is a retired military judge and a former Pentagon inspector general She knows her stuff. She has flatly stated that she would not allow the prosecution of al-Qahtani.
Isn’t this a wonderful mess? Such wonderful gifts the likes of Rumsfeld—Cheney—Bush have given us![Read the story and see what a mess this torture has created!]

There were many people who were predicting our policy of torture in the Guantanamo prison would lead to problems like this. Now, here’s living proof. We have a monster among us and, legally, we can’t do anything about it.

And don’t say, “Forget the legalities!” That’s what got us into this mess in the first place. It is not the American way!

Another ominous warning some military people have been giving us about our program of torture at Guantanamo is that it endangers our own military personnel who might get captured. Those in charge of their incarceration will know about Guantanamo and what we did there and they will likely believe it gives them “cover” if they use the same techniques on our citizens.

An interesting web site,, revealed the list of interrogation techniques, approved by Donald Rumsfeld, that could be used against Mohammed al Qahtani.
  • Beatings

  • Severe sleep deprivation combined with 20-hour interrogations for months at a time

  • Threats of rendition to other countries that torture

  • Explicit threats made against his family, including female members of his family

  • Strip searches, body searches and forced nudity, at times in the presence of female personnel

  • Sexual humiliation

  • Humiliation by forcing him to bark like a dog, dance with a mask on his face, and pick up piles of trash with his hands cuffed while he was called “a pig”

  • Denial of the right to practice his religion, including prohibiting him from praying for prolonged times and during Ramadan

  • Threats to desecrate the Koran in front of him

  • Attacks by dogs

  • Forcible administration of frequent IVs by medical personnel during interrogation

  • Being placed in acute stress positions for hours at a time

  • Being placed in tight restraints repeatedly for many months or days and nights

  • Exposure to low temperatures for extended periods of time

  • Exposure to loud music for prolonged times

  • At least 160 days of severe isolation

Inaugurals in Times of Peril

I recommend a very good video on the NY Times web page!
by Charlie Leck

For those of you who enjoyed my series reviewing some of the great inaugural speeches, I recommend a very good video the NY Times has running right now, called Inaugurations in Times of Peril. [Go here and then select it to view]. It’s less than 6 minutes long.

Harlem Collage

I created this little collage of Harlem from photographs I took during my visit -- from my hotel on the far right to the extraordinary New York transit system on the far left top. More photos follow.

Harlem: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
by Charlie Leck

My little visit (5 days) to Harlem over the New Years Weekend has set me to thinking about that place -- about the image and visceral feeling the name calls to mind, and about the realities of Harlem as it was, is and will soon be.

What does the mention of Harlem bring to mind? Violence and black segregation? Malcolm X and his assassination in 1965? The freeing of the slaves? Black migration into the north? Black music and cultural accomplishment?

As a child and young boy, I thought of Harlem as that part of the world into which one did not venture. Once, when I was probably about 11 or 12 years old, at a subway stop at 125th Street and Lexington Avenue, I slid off my #6 train that was headed into downtown, where I was to meet up with my older sister. The train is elevated at that point and I wandered over to a part of the station where I could look out over the world of East Harlem. There was no way that I would have ventured down the staircase to the street. It was enough of a daring adventure to get off the train to look out over this magical, black part of the city.

Harlem encompasses an area of uptown Manhattan north of 96th Street (north of the Park), moving north all the way to Washington Heights. It's bounded on the east by the Harlem River and runs west to Saint Nicholas Avenue and beyond.

I'll present a brief, little history of Harlem, in case you're interested, but, before I do, here are some contemporary photographs.

Correcting a Myth
Before going further, let's stomp on a myth. Harlem is not the largest black community and not even the largest in New York City. Jamaica in the Queens is larger and so is Bedford-Stuyvesant. But, as Manning Marable tried to explain on the Columbia University web site, Harlem is something special for most black Americans.
" the imagination of black people throughout the world, and of people throughout the world, regardless of race and culture and ethnicity, Harlem is a site of black urbanism, it's a site of black culture, it's a site of imagination, it's magical terrain, where anything is possible and all kinds of creativity can be, and has been produced."
A good point to hop off...
The following treatment of Harlem is not brief, as I expected it to be when I began writing here. The subject just grew more and more fascinating as I proceeded and, even though I left out much that could have been included, this essay just grew and grew in length. So, if you are not interested in spending the time, learning about the Harlem of yesterday and today, this is a good point for you to hop off. Get off the subway here at 125th Street and head back downtown for more playtime in glorious New York City. We'll see you here at the blog another time.

A Little History of Harlem
The original village of Harlem was established by Dutch immigrants and was called Nieuw Harlem after the Harlem of the Netherlands. It 1658, the Dutch Governor, Peter Stuyvesant, established the village. The eastern portion of the community was flat and moist and it made for wonderful farming. The more hilly, rocky and rugged western portion of the area became home for many of New York City's most illustrious early families -- the Delanceys, Bleekers, Rikers and Hamiltons. They built and maintained large estates that looked out over the lower farmland to the east.

Things changed for Harlem in the 1830s, when the farmland got played out and tough economic times visited the entire nation. The great Harlem estates were closed down and broken up into small plats and the farms were abandoned. The neighborhood became a refuge for those who could not afford property in other parts of the city and the destitute built up shantytowns. Compared to the rest of Manhattan, the area remained very rural in character.

The entire New York metropolitan area began to grow rapidly following the Civil War. Transportation within the entire city was also improving. Harlem was transformed into a middle and upper-middle income neighborhood. In 1881, three elevated rail lines were built to connect upper Manhattan with the rest of the developed city. At first, the lines extended only to 129th Street, but, in 1886 they were extended much further north.

In the 1870s there was a great deal of speculative development in Harlem and many types of new single-family housing was built, including row houses, tenements and luxury apartment houses. Churches were established and many commercial establishments were also built. The western half of Harlem was considered the more fashionable area and was home to the more prosperous of those who established residences there. Many of the residents of the downtown area began to relocate into Harlem.

Additional new transportation routes into western Harlem brought with them even more real estate speculation and market values became very inflated. By 1904, virtually all the vacant land in Harlem had been built upon. The speculation led to overbuilding and there were an enormous amount of vacancies and, finally, a real estate collapse. Property values and rental rates dropped wildly. Loans went unpaid and foreclosures became common. By the end of 1905, landlords had dropped rents to drastically low rates in order to attract tenants.

Philip Payton, an ambitious black businessman, took great advantage of the situation. In 1904, he founded the Afro-American Realty Company, and began acquiring five-year leases on many white-owned properties. His little company managed them and rented them to to African-Americans. New York's black population, anxious for better homes and housing, began renting from Payton's company. They came from other sections of New York where blacks had settled -- Hell's Kitchen, San Juan Hill and the Tenderloin.

Harlem looked like heaven to these African-American families who happily moved there. The community's broad and tree-lined streets and all those lovely, up-to-date homes made it very special. There was no more attractive community in all of America that was also available to African-Americans.

In the period immediately prior to and during World War I, Northern manufacturers kept recruiting southern blacks to come north to work in their factories. The population of cities like Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit and New York grew rapidly, swelled by in-coming southern black folks.

Yet, Harlem was identified as the Capital of Black America. And, the grand Abyssinian Baptist Church seemed to be the Capital Building of the black nation. The massive church is located at 132 West 138th Street, between Lenox Avenue and 7th Avenue (Malcolm X Boulevard and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard). Under the leadership of Pastor Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., the Abyssinian congregation moved into Harlem and broke ground for their current "edifice" in 1922. Organized in 1808, far downtown from their current location, the congregation claims to be the first organized black Baptist Church in the state of New York.

The popular German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, worshiped frequently at Abyssinian Baptist in the early '30s. It had a great influence upon his thinking and he frequently wrote about it and the effect it had on his decision to stand up to the social and racial injustice of the Nazi Reich. I've written at length, here on my blog, about Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

The big church made significant contributions to the cultural life of Harlem. It was a center for non-secular music and is still today the seat for the great tradition of gospel music in Harlem. Fats Waller's father was a minister at the church for a time. Nat King Cole was married there and the funeral of W.C. Handy ("the Father of the Blues") was held there.

If not still the most powerful institution in Harlem, it certainly remains one of the most powerful ones under the direction of its current pastor, the Reverend Calvin O. Butts.

No name in Harlem rings with a sense of more power than that of Adam Clayton Powell. The Senior Powell turned the leadership of the Abyssinia church over to his son, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., in 1935. At that time, it was the largest Protestant congregation in all of the United States.

The younger Powell used this local church as a power base to rise to a position of virtual leadership of the black political movement in the United States. At the age of 37, he began a 26 year tenure in the United States House of Representatives as the Congressman from Harlem. He was the first African-American elected to Congress from New York. In 1961, he took up the chairmanship of the Education and Labor Committee. During his chairmanship came the passage of a great deal of important social legislation.

Powell played the power game as many white Congressmen had played it before him. He won many favors for Harlem while sometimes staining and straining his own reputation. Nevertheless, he was admired and, perhaps, revered in his own home district. As a first-term Congressman he challenged the "whites only" House restaurant and often brought black constituents into the dining room with him. He also clashed publicly with some of the segregationists within his own party. As a result of Powell's protests and formal complaints, the leadership finally stopped southern, segregationist Congressmen from using the word "nigger" on the floor of the House. In '56, he broke with his party and supported the candidacy of the Republican, Dwight Eisenhower, for President.

Many of New York's most powerful political interests (Tammany Hall) tried to oust Powell from office, but the good Reverend-Congressman always had the support of the huge Abyssinian congregation. By the mid-60s, Powell was constantly criticized for absenteeism and for general mismanagement of his committee budget. He took frequent trips, at public expense, to his personal retreat on the island of Bimini. He also refused to pay a slander judgment back in his home district and that made him subject to arrest, so he spent all his time away from the community he represented. His power base, naturally, began to diminish. Early in '67 he lost his committee chairmanship and the House refused to seat him and finally excluded him. In a special election back in his district, he won his seat back, but never took it. In '69, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the House had acted unconstitutionally when it excluded Powell. Minus his seniority, Powell returned to the House.

Charlie Rangel defeated Powell in a Democratic Primary in 1970 and Powell's political career came to an end. He resigned as Pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church and established his home in Bimini. He died in 1972 at the age of 63.

By 1923, approximately 150,000 blacks lived in Harlem; and by 1930 there were more than 225,000 living there.

The black migration into Harlem continued throughout the 20s. People came in droves from the West Indies and from the southern states. It would be wrong to say there was no racism in New York, but compared to the south, blacks found New York remarkably free. They could go into any store. Eat anywhere. Drink from any water fountain. And, vote! And blacks who came to Harlem from the south wrote home to other blacks in the south and encouraged them to come and join them in this land of freedom and (relative) prosperity.

Rents began to rise dramatically as the demand for housing increased, even while landlords began neglecting routine repairs and general maintenance. Many renters were forced into taking in boarders in order to make payments and, in many cases, families doubled up in units that had clearly been intended for only a single family.

As one walks around present-day Harlem, one is struck by the numbers of churches. They are everywhere. The church has played such a central part in the story of African-Americans and one sees that clearly in Harlem.

Jewish Harlem & Harlem's Grand Churches
Until the period of World War I, Harlem had retained a strong Jewish population. There were several major synagogues in the community and several more not so major ones. Writing in the New York Times, David Dunlaps said: "In its churches, of all places, Harlem reveals its Jewish past."

"The synagogues of Harlem," Dunlaps wrote, "have served as Christian churches far longer than they were used for Jewish worship."

Congregation Ohab Zedek is now the Baptist Temple Church near the corner of Fifth Avenue and 116th Street.

At 25 West 188th Street, the Bethel Way of the Cross Church of Christ was originally built in 1900 as Congregation Shaare Zedek.

The Salvation and Deliverance Church at 37 116th Street was once Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein's Institutional Synagogue.

Tikvath Israel, at 160 East 112th Street, is now Christ Apostolik Church of U.S.A..

Mount Neboh Baptist Church, at 1883 7th Avenue, was once Congregation Ansche Chesed.

Mount Olivet Baptist Church, on the corner of Lenox Avenue and 120th Street, was built in 1907 as Temple Israel.

Temple B'nai Israel on West 149th Street, after some years of abandonment, has become the Gospel Missionary Baptist Church.
"It is as if Jewish Harlem sank 70 years ago beneath the waves of memory, beyond recall.

"At least until you spy the Star of David medallions atop the Baptist Temple Church. Or the cornerstone of the Mount Neboh Baptist Church that says it was built in 5668. Or the marble pediment leading to the baptismal pool at the Mount Olivet Baptist Church, on which is inscribed the Old Testament verse: 'Jehovah is in his holy temple; be silent, before him, all the earth.'"
The over population and the declining living conditions of the 20s and 30s prompted the Jews to flee. They, unlike the black population, were able to move easily into other parts of the city (new buildings were being constructed in the Jackson Heights, Astoria and Grand Concourse neighborhoods of the Bronx, under new tax incentive laws that had been passed by the city in an attempt to meet housing needs) or into the urban areas of bordering states. Nearly 175,000 Jews had once lived in Harlem. In 1920, cencus figures show that 2,260 Jews lived in North Harlem. Only 430 were left in 1930 and there were barely any by 1940.

Harlem's Decline
had its roots in its great popularity and in several economic and real estate disasters. In the 20th Century it would never again be that elegant and lovely African-American community that black people the world over had found when they began arriving there in the early 1900s.

Now, until stalled by the most recent economic crisis, there appeared to be a rebirth and a reconstruction going on in Harlem. Certainly, that recovery and renewal will have to take a momentary breath as the nation recovers from this recession, but it looks like Harlem is on the rise again. It's becoming one of the more affordable in-places to live and one senses that the white population in Harlem is increasing.

Politics in Harlem
Harlem has had a larger influence on politics in America than any other black or African-American region in the country. Why so, for a community smaller than many others? Because it is on the island of Manhattan and that is where things in New York City happen. It's a more prestigious black community than other such neighborhoods in New York City or America.

Harlem has produced a long list of political heavyweights that have had an amazing impact on both New York and the nation. They run from Adam Clayton Powell to Al Sharpton. There are other names instantly recognizable to anyone who follows politics and national politics -- Charlie Rangel, David Dinkins (the only black mayor New York City has ever had), and, of course, Malcolm X.

Famous African-American Residents of Harlem
One would need to go on and on to list the famous residents of Harlem. I can't do that in this space; however, I can give you a teasing taste of a few of these distinguished people.

A. Philip Randolph,
labor leader and Harlem journalist, is best known as the organizer of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first successful African American union. Randolph came to Harlem in 1911, wanting to become an actor. In 1917, with a Columbia student, Chandler Owen, Randolph began to edit and publish the socialist magazine The Messenger. It published union news and stories about world-wide radicals, but it also presented both literary criticism and the creative writing of well-known
African American intellectuals, including Paul Robeson and Claude McKay. Randolph was one of the distinguished marchers on Washington in 1963.

Langston Hughes,
Harlem poet and writer, lived "down the street from Columbia, and Columbia never took the time to find out what he was about." So said a Columbia professor at the school's memorial service for Hughes. He "even attended Columbia for a while, and yet he never received an honorary degree from here. When we buried him, then we gave him a memorial. But, after all, that's the experience of the black man down the street from Columbia."

Hughes himself said that "there are many barriers people try to break down... I try to do it with poetry."

He was born in Joplin, Missouri, in 1902 and died in 1967. He wrote his first poetry while he was in high school. Hughes came from Cleveland, Ohio, to New York to study at Columbia University. His father, who lived in Mexico, had agreed to provide the tuition if Hughes would study engineering. Though his grades at Columbia were acceptable, he became much more interested in the activities in nearby Harlem than those at the University.
Hughes spent some time working as a seaman, traveling to West Africa, and then in Paris in the late 20s as part of that ex-patriot community there. He returned to America and enrolled at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and studied as a classmate of Thurgood Marshall. After receiving his degree from Lincoln, Hughes settled down in Harlem and spent the rest of his life there, writing. His remains are interred beneath a floor medallion within the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.

Many of his poems are exceptionally familiar, but I'm most taken by The Negro Speaks of Rivers:

"I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I've known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers"
There's much that could be said about Langston Hughes and his philosphy, his sexuality, his black pride and his poetry style; but it is probably most important to point out that he was at the beginning of the revolutionary movement of "black pride" and he was unashamedly and joyfully black. That attitude permeates his work.

Bayard Rustin,
moved to Harlem, from Pennsylvania, in 1937. He would live there, until his death, for the next 50 years. Though working behind the scenes, he was certainly one of the important civil right activists. He often counseled with Martin Luther King, Jr. on matters of protest and nonviolent resistance. He was one of the organizers of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Toward the end of his life, he became a strong advocate for gay and lesbian causes. His own sexual orientation had led to many attacks upon him by both conservative organizations and government offices, including by Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr..

Just before his death in 1987, Rustin said:

"Twenty-five, thirty years ago, the barometer of human rights in the United States were black people. That is no longer true. The barometer for judging the character of people in regard to human rights is now those who consider themselves gay, homosexual, lesbian."
Thurgood Marshall,
was born in 1908 and lived until January of 1993. A lawyer and jurist, he became the first African-American to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States. As a lawyer he is most remembered for his success in urging the Supreme Court to rule favorably on Brown v. Board of Education.

Scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Thurgood Marshall on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.

Malcolm X
is familiar to almost all of us. His autobiography is, as it should be, essential and required reading in nearly every liberal arts college in America. I've written about Malcolm X in a previous blog and I refer you to that if you'd like to read about my feelings about him. Suffice it to say here, a major thoroughfare in Harlem, formerly Lenox Avenue, has been renamed Malcolm X Boulevard. One feels this extraordinary man's presence and spirit everywhere in Harlem.

Scott Joplin,
is only one of many great musicians who lived in Harlem. Why would I pick him rather than so many others, like Lena Horne? I guess it's because I liked his music so much myself. Great notes! Great sound! Man!

Joplin was Mr. Ragtime and no figure is regarded as highly in that genre. He was born in 1868 and died, too young, in 1917. Long after his death his music is still popular and certainly enjoyed a burst of popularity after the movie, The Sting, with Paul Newman and Robert Redford

Joe Louis,
was an extraordinary boxer, who became the Heavy Weight Champion of the world when it meant something. He is regarded as one of America's best known athletes. He was born in 1914 and died in 1981.

Paul Robeson,
was an extraordinary example of the man for all seasons and reasons. The tale of his life is nearly impossible to believe because it seems, to we ordinary folks, to be nearly unaccomplishable.

Robeson was an actor, an athlete, a concert singer (Basso cantante), writer, civil rights activist and much, much more. He was multi-lingual. Among other awards during his life, he won the Lenin Peace Prize. He ranks among those Americans I most admire. I urge you to read more about him by clicking here.

He was born in 1898 in New Jersey. He studied at Rutgers University and went on to fame as an athlete, actor and vocalist. He died in 1976.

my trip there made a huge impact on me and I'm so glad I got to know that part of the world better.

Welcome to Harlem: A History of Harlem (web site)
Columbia 250: History of Harlem (Columbia University web site)
Kaperman, Libby: When Harlem was Jewish [Columbia University Press, New York, 1979]
Wikipedia (various entries in this on-line encyclopedia)