Monday, October 12, 2009

Lessons to Congress From The South Bronx

There are certain landmarks that should be preserved because of their historical value. Following are some accepted sites that "belong to the ages."

1) When I was a child, a lot of places in Boston were landmarks of the American Revolution. The Old North Church, Faneuil Hall and the site of the Boston Massacre were among the sites that comprise the Freedom Trail, a popular course of landmarks for tourists and history buffs.

2) The South also does a good job of preserving its history. I visited a slave market in Charleston, South Carolina. It is a bleak and sad feeling to stroll through what used to be a site where humans were bought and sold and to reflect upon how different the City of Charleston must have looked to those who were being auctioned off.

3) The Tuol Sleng internment center in Pnom Penh, Cambodia was one of the many sites where the Khmer Rouge perpetrated the Cambodian Genocide, an event in which over a million Cambodians were killed for" crimes" that could be as trivial as wearing glasses, which was considered a sign of being a member of the intelligentsia.

4) Many visit concentration camps to pay respect to relatives who were murdered there. When I visited Dachau, I was remembering a great uncle who was murdered there and the genocide network that was part of the attempt to wipe out the Jewish people as well as Romany,religious and political dissidents from the various occupied countries.

5) The Berlin Wall was a monument to the failure of communism for as long as it stood. It was bizarre to see the Wall cutting across subway tracks and to see an entire side of an apartment building bricked up.

Landmarks can be quiet places such as the Roosevelt summer home in Campobello, New Brunswick or they can be somber and tearful places such as Babi Yar in Ukraine, in which the ground was literally soaked with the blood of Jews who were murdered there by the Germans and their Ukrainian collaborators. It remains to be seen whether the Russians will turn Lubyanka Prison and other sites in the Soviet prison network into places of memorial.

There is a site that I used to pass through daily on my way to work. It was the South Bronx. I used to hear fond reminiscing from people who had lived there up until the 1950's. It was a network of vibrant communities. But when I passed through, it was a bleak landscape that was every bit as desolate as the site of the London Blitzkrieg in 1940, when the Nazis had hoped to bomb the British into submission.

Despite their visual similarity, bombed out London and the burned out Bronx came to their bleak appearance through vastly different routes. No one ever attempted to conquer and annex the South Bronx to another country. The South Bronx was an example of well intentioned but disastrously awful legislation.

Back in the 1940's rent control was instituted in New York City. large numbers of apartments had their rent frozen at 1943 price levels. By the 1960's many buildings were simply abandoned by owners who lost money for every month that they owned such a property. Many buildings were stripped and then put to the torch for insurance money. Before rent control was instituted, there was a housing surplus. I spoke with old timers who told me of times when landlords would offer one, two or three months rent to prospective tenants. Despite its compassionate motivation, rent control and rent stabilisation laws have actually created the very suffering they were meant to alleviate.

What is the solution? Repealing all forms of rent regulation in New York City would lead to a stamped of avarice in which the working class would be squeezed and trampled. It would be far better for the government to recognise its power and to offer tax breaks for construction of moderate income housing. While the government can not solve every problem, it can not pretend that it itself does not exist. Laws governing commerce are a fact of life. Those who make such laws should recognise this and tread lightly and wisely.

We are in the first year of a presidential administration with an activist philosophy. The heavy hand of government in economic recovery and health care is highly visible. America's friends have voiced their concern. China has counselled fiscal prudence and France has pleaded for steely resolve. The dollar has fallen steeply in what is perhaps the most eloquent voice of "no confidence" in our chosen economic course.

As we debate economic and health legislation, it would be wise for Congress to deliberate in New York City, which was after all our nation's first capital from 1785 to 1790. But Congress should not deliberate on Wall St. as it did in America's early days, but in the South Bronx. There should be no grand classical architecture underscoring the gravitas of our elected leaders. It would be far better for them to meet in the shell of a burned out ruin to serve as a sobering reminder of the havoc wreaked by bad legislation and its costs to common folk.

The South Bronx is at least as vivid a backdrop of our nation's history as is the Freedom Trail or any battlefield in or beyond our borders. Although no one died there for our freedom, in a ral sense, many died there of our mistakes. As we stand at the threshhold of troubled times, we should be mindful that there is a past to guide us into the future. We would be well served by leaders who remember our past and wish to learn from it. A walk through the South Bronx would serve that purpose well. Sphere: Related Content

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