Saturday, December 24, 2005

The Frog and the Scorpion

Interest-Based Bargaining

Interest-based bargaining, or IBB, as an online site explains, “is an attempt to move labor and management from traditional confrontational and positional bargaining to problem solving bargaining by identifying issues and exploring the different possible solutions. The parties are encouraged to work together to find solutions to each other’s problems. They do not come to the bargaining table with proposals as in traditional bargaining. Instead, they present problems to be solved. Together they will seek solutions to those problems.”

Back in 1999 at Shawnee State University, when I was serving the first of four terms as president of the Shawnee Education Association (SEA), the faculty union, I and the other union officers, in spite of some misgivings, suggested to the administration that we use Interest-based bargaining for the 2000 round of contract negotiations. We borrowed the idea of using IBB from Bob Chase, the president of the powerful teacher’s union, the National Education Association (NEA), of which SEA was an Ohio affiliate. Interest-based bargaining was one of the elements in Chase’s innovative “New Unionism.” “After much soul-searching and self-criticism within NEA,” Chase had said in a speech in Washington, “we know it’s time to create a new union – an association with an entirely new approach to our members, to our critics, and to our colleagues on the other side of the bargaining table.”

SEA proposing to use IBB in contract negotiations at Shawnee State was like Geronimo proposing to General Custer that they bury the hatchet. In the past, the relations between the faculty and administration at SSU had been terrible, and we thought IBB might offer both sides the chance to improve the notoriously acrimonious relationship. The SEA leadership dared to hope it was possible to change because SSU had a popular new president, James P. Chapman, who publicly endorsed SEA’s Interest-based bargaining proposal. I would not have supported IBB if Chapman had not been president, but I trusted and respected him as a person of integrity, and so did many other faculty. Chapman’s predecessor, Clive Veri, had only a 5% approval rating in his last years in office. For Chapman, it would have been something like 95%

NEA's Chase at SSU

To help adjust the campus community to the idea of IBB, SEA hosted a banquet at the Riffe Center at which NEA president Chase was the featured speaker. In his address, Chase urged the SEA and the SSU administration to work with instead of against each other. He pointed out, “You do have a new president of both the university and the union who are willing to move in some different directions, to look at some different approaches.”


The trustees agreed, with some reluctance, to try IBB in the negotiations for the 2000-2003 contract, and the results were encouraging. For the first time in the university’s fifteen-year history, the word strike was not uttered once during negotiations. I later published “The ‘New Unionism’ Replaces the Old at Shawnee State,” in Thought & Action, the National Educational Association journal for higher education. I concluded that article by saying that the chances of the New Unionism taking hold at Shawnee State were at best about fifty-fifty, but I added that if the New Unionism could work at Shawnee State, “it could work anywhere.”

Undermining New Unionism

Those negotiations were a success, but the New Unionism, and the spirit of cooperation it represented, did not take hold at SSU, largely because some influential and unprincipled trustees, known as the “gang of four,” never intended that it would. These four trustees proved to be totally untrustworthy. What they did was take advantage of the campus thaw brought about by the New Unionism to allow President Chapman and the faculty to resolve several major chronic problems at the university, especially the problem of governance, which the North Central Association had cited as a reason for withholding full accreditation from SSU. President Chapman, working harmoniously with the SEA and other campus constituencies, was able to resolve the governance problem, and a number of other serious problems as well. His performance as president was remarkable, but because he was not the kind of rubber-stamp supine president that the trustees had become accustomed to during the nine-year tenure of Chapman’s incompetent predecessor, the gang of four had resolved that after Chapman had solved several of SSU’s most serious problems, he would not be rehired when his three-year contract expired.

The trustees had hired a lawyer in 1993 to be the de facto president during President Veri’s reign of error, and it was that lawyer, Stephen P. Donohue, not Chapman, whom the gang of four were rumored to want to be the next president. The gang of four preferred that SSU continue to be ranked as one of the worst universities in the nation rather than that they lost their control over and exploitation of it. In order for a former trustee and Republican committee woman to be able to unload her empty Franklin Blvd. house off on the university, which would take a $50,000 loss on it; in order for the chairman of the trustees, Frank Waller, with two partners, to start a fly-by-night travel agency that would become SSU’s preferred travel agency; in order for a failed president reportedly facing serious legal charges to resign and receive a golden parachute as a parting gift; in order for these kinds of shenanigans to continue, it was necessary to remove anybody with scruples and backbone from SSU’s administration. Because Chapman represented an honest and effective style of leadership, he was about as welcome to the gang of four and the over-privileged of Portsmouth as Eliot Ness had been to Chicago racketeers during Prohibition. In some ways, Bob Mollette is now in a similar embattled position on the City Council, and the over-privileged of Portsmouth will not rest until he is removed.

Karla “Kay” Boynton Reynolds showed what the gang of four was plotting even as the Interest-based bargaining negotiations were successfully getting started. On 7 June 2000, she sent a letter to SSU trustee chairman George Clayton. It was Clayton’s empty Kenrick's department store that was taken off his hands in a typical Portsmouth boondoggle, pork-fed real estate deal. “I realize we are in the mist [sic] of union negotiations,” Reynolds wrote, “and should present a united front. I firmly believe the leadership of SSU is the MOST important issue that we as trustees are handling. We should not let the negotiations overshadow our responsibilities.” What were those responsibilities? What was MOST important? To get rid of Chapman when the IBB negotiations were completed and provide new leadership, by which she meant another toady president like Veri, a president who would toe the line and allow the university lawyer to carry out the wishes of those non-educators who were in control of the university. If that president turned out to be incompetent, sleazy, and wildly unpopular, a president who had only semesters, football, and fraternities to offer a university in crisis, then that was a price they were willing to pay to maintain control over SSU. The university was treated as yet another of the pork projects on which the over-privileged of Portsmouth had come to depend economically since the city’s industrial and commercial base had begun migrating overseas a half century earlier.

The incredulous campus exploded when Chapman was not rehired, because during the relatively brief era of New Unionism he had worked miracles at SSU, and had given the faculty hope that we would no longer remain a dysfunctional institution at very bottom of the US News annual rankings of colleges. In three years, he had built up capital that the university has been living on – and frittering away – ever since.

In 2003, after Chapman’s departure, when I was again serving as SEA president, the administration suggested that we repeat the use of Interest-based bargaining to negotiate the 2003-2006 contract. The trustees may have concluded that the faculty was no longer as militant as it had been in the pre-IBB days. As a result of a presidential search committee’s unusual spunkiness, we had a new SSU president who gave us reason to be thankful simply because she was not Stephen P. Donohue or Michael Field, the presidential preferences of the gang of four. We did what we could to support Rita Rice Morris, including agreeing to use IBB again. We agreed to it, but we were wary, and wisely so. Mutual trust was lacking, and when we concluded that the leopard had still not lost its spots, nor the scorpion its sting, the mood turned ugly on campus once more, as it almost always had in negotiations in the past. The 2003-2006 contract was settled only after the SEA formed a Crisis Committee, which began to lay the groundwork for a strike, and only after SEA members authorized the negotiating team to conduct a strike vote. Whatever gains we made in the 2003-2006 contract we owed not so much to IBB as to the SEA’s traditional militancy. I have a shirt as a reminder of that militancy.

In recent SEA elections, the presidency and vice presidency were won by candidates whom faculty believed would be the strongest leaders in the contract negotiations that will begin in the new year. Whether IBB will be attempted again is up to a new generation of SEA leaders. Four past SEA presidents, including myself, retired this year, and a fifth will soon. A younger generation may find a way to end the dysfunctional state of affairs that has plagued Shawnee State in its 20 years as a university. Maybe something like IBB will eventually help end that cycle. But now that I am aware of the larger political context in which the university exists, I can appreciate the wisdom of something Professor Larry Essman, a Portsmouth native and a past SEA president told me some time ago, which is that you cannot understand SSU unless you also understand the politics of Portsmouth. In the last few years I’ve come to learn something about Portsmouth’s politics, and I believe the problems at SSU, because they a part of the political corruption of Portsmouth, are more intractable than most faculty have any idea.

I found it hard to believe that some of the trustees were unable to see what an extraordinary opportunity the New Unionism represented for SSU back in 2000. Only now that I better understand the pork politics of Portsmouth can I begin to understand why the gang of four did what they did. A steady diet of pork for over a half-century has resulted in a glaring loss of initiative, honesty, and competence among the over-privileged of our river city. Elsewhere in America, we hope, people are still competing; in Portsmouth they are colluding. Elsewhere in America, people are working to solve problems; in Portsmouth the over-privileged are covering them up. And they apparently cannot help themselves.

The circumstances surrounding the 2000 Interest-based-bargaining negotiations, and the current trustee chairwoman's untrustworthy role in them, reminds me of the fable in which a scorpion pleads with the wary frog to carry him on his back across a river. Knowing what scorpions are notorious for, the frog refuses, but the scorpion persists, pointing out that if he stung the frog, he too would drown. Persuaded by the scorpion's argument, the frog reluctantly agrees. Halfway across the river, the scorpion fatally stings the frog. The dying frog incredulously asks the scorpion, “Why? Why?” The scorpion, who will soon die himself, answers, “Because I could not help myself. It’s my nature.”

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Estate Plan Scam

Flyer from St. Mary's Church, Portsmouth

In November 2005, Teresa Mollette reported in her informative website that St. Mary’s [Catholic] Church was offering a free seminar in “estate planning,” (a euphemism for “making a will”) for older members of the parish. As a member of the parish, Teresa Mollete was offended by the flyer and by Clayton Johnson's name on it. As an ex-Catholic, I reflected on the flyer and the "estate planning" it seeks to promote, and here is my two cents worth.

I don’t know what it’s like to grow up Catholic now, in Portsmouth, Ohio, or anywhere else, but I know what it was like to grow up a Catholic in Boston back in the 1940s. At about the age of seven, some years before I had reached the stage where I could begin to think for myself, I was introduced, through priests and nuns, to all the horrors of hell that Catholic theologians had been imagining for centuries. I was taught as a child that that Protestants, Jews and almost everyone else were going straight to hell, and that only Catholics could escape this horrible place.

Back in the 1940s, many Catholics believed in the doctrine of Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus, or No Salvation Outside the Catholic Church. To say that this doctrine created a deep sense of dependency in Catholics upon the Church would be an understatement. Catholics were dependent not just upon Christ but upon the Church for their salvation. To use marketing terms, which are appropriate in this case, what the Church instilled in Catholics was the ultimate form of brand loyalty. Stick with the Church, be a good and faithful Catholic, and the reward will be eternal happiness. Could any other product possibly offer more?

Fast forward more than a half century. Those same children who were taught that the Church was their door to salvation are now senior citizens. Probably they have accumulated some worldly goods, they have an "estate." "If you have possessions you have an estate," as the first bulleted item on the St. Mary's flyer puts it. As a Catholic, you want to do right by those you love, especially your children and deserving relatives. But you cannot afford to forget heaven and hell, you cannot afford to forget the Church, which offered you the opportunity to escape hell. Yes, you have an obligation to those you love and who love you, but who loved you and offered you more than Jesus and his sacrifice upon the cross, and of all institutions on earth, which one truly represents Jesus? The Holy Roman Catholic Church. Of all your obligations, which is greater than your obligation, as a Catholic, to the Church? The mention of "stewardship" in the fourth bullet invokes the notion that whatever we acquire in life is a loan from the Lord, and Catholics need to pay at least part of it back, back not just to heirs but to the Church, which truly and exclusively represents Christ.

The St. Mary's flyer does not say anything about salvation. The closest it comes to tapping into the fears and hopes of seniors raised on Catholic dogma is the next to the last bullet, "It is easy to make a lasting contribution to our parish!" How easy? How lasting? Well, just "Come and meet our panel of professional Catholics who will answer your questions," to quote another of the bulleted items in the flyer.

Why is the Church engaging in this profane huckstering? Why is it resorting to flyers to promote estate planning, thereby putting it in the same class as Pizza Hut, three for the price of two, with three toppings? The Church is doing it because it is financially, not to mention spiritually, desperate. By the Church I mean the hierarchy, not the laity. Boston Globe columnist and former seminarian James Carroll wrote in "Basilica of Denial" that what the sexual abuse scandal reveals is “the moral bankruptcy of the entire Catholic clerical culture" (5 Dec. 2005). Whatever else it is, the Church is a business, a big business, and it is in big big trouble. Pride goeth before a fall, and flyers come humbling after.

Catholic anti-Semitism in Boston was no isolated phenomenon and found a champion in Father Leonard Feeney, who used to preach to large crowds on Boston Common. James Carroll writing in the Boston Globe (19 Dec. 2005) claimed in a column "What would Cardinal Cushing do?" that “there was an undercurrent of anti-Semitism in Feeney’s exclusivist claim for Catholicism.” Did Carroll hear Feeney preach on Boston Common, or did he stay away as Catholics were told to do by the Church? If Carroll had heard Feeney preach he would know that it was much much more than an undercurrent, and that Feeney was as anti-Semitic as Hitler was, and as for Archbishop, later Cardinal, Cushing, with his Jewish in-law, he was not the liberal hero Carroll makes him out to be. Although he was not crazy, as Feeney was, Cushing was a right-wing politician as well as a Cold War Catholic prelate with ties to such a right-wing figures of the period as candy manufacturer Robert Welch, one of the paranoid pillars of the John Birch Society. Yes, Archbishop Cushing took a stand against Feeney, but for the same reason the Republicans repudiated Senator Joseph McCarthy, because he was so mentally unbalanced he was doing much more harm than good in the crusade against communism. How was a Catholic like John F. Kennedy ever going to be elected president if Catholic doctrine condemned every non-Catholic voter to hell? No Feeney had to be muzzled, and there was time as it turned out, when Feeney was in his dotage, to claim that he had returned to the fold, something Feeney’s fanatical followers deny to this day.

The sexual abuse scandal that began proliferating more than a decade ago ended up costing the Church dearly financially, in terms both of draining legal settlements and of a further diminution in church attendance. The financial crisis created by pedophile priests forced the Church to “optimize” all sources of income. Bequests from deceased Catholics had always been important but now they are indispensable. After the financial meltdown of the last decade, Catholic laity with money, especially Catholic professionals, were among the few prized cash cows left in parish pastures. More aggressive estate planning became the most productive way of milking them. And it was to be done not in the name of the Church, the Holy Roman Catholic Church, whose name currently is mud, but in the name of the local parish. All politics is local, the Irish-Catholic congressman Tip O'Neill said, and so are all parishes.

In what typographically looks like a footnote, because it is at the bottom, unbulleted, and in small print, the flyer says "Clay Johnson, local attorney, will be participating in the presentation." (Beware the fine print in all documents, because the devil is usually in the details.) The flyer does not point out that Johnson is a Protestant, nor does it point out that in addition to being perhaps the most successful and influential lawyer in Portsmouth, he is also one of the most controversial and distrusted. In the view of his critics, he is the Presbyterian godfather of Portsmouth. He was the key figure in the notorious sale of the empty and virtually worthless Marting department building to the city for $2 million, a sale that has since been ruled illegal, and Marting’s, as visitors to Mollette’s website can see, is just the tip of the Johnson iceberg. But the important thing is not Johnson's religion but that he is successful, and usually gets his way, as he probably will in the Marting's deal, and why would you leave somebody like that off your Catholic dream team of professionals just because he isn't a Catholic?

St. Mary’s offering to assist seniors making out their wills, with Johnson as part of the team, sounds like a turkey farmer hiring a fox to help the turkeys prepare for Thanksgiving. St. Mary’s is not the only Catholic church offering to assist parishioners with their “estate planning." Parishes and Catholic agencies in other parts of the country are tuning up their estate planning efforts and occasionally turning to non-Catholic lawyers for advice and assistance. Martin M. Shenkman is a New Jersey lawyer whose practice focused on divorce cases before he shifted to estate planning. Shenkman’s publications include Divorce Rules For Men: A Man to Man Guide for Managing Your Split and Saving Thousands and also Inherit More, a how-to book on how children can maximize their inheritance from their parents, which sounds like a keep-it-in-the-family version of estate planning. Shenkman offered the following advice for Catholics online in a posting titled “Catholic Issues in Estate Planning”: “A religious person near the end of their life starts to look more towards spiritual matters. They often have the idea to do something good for their Parish, church or other worthy cause. It’s important for estate planners to facilitate giving clients the opportunity to accomplish these goals.” The use of the vague infinitive “to facilitate” and the somewhat paraphrastic construction of the sentences ("to do something good") is presumably evasive legalese whose goal is to avoid being too obvious about the underlying issue of “Catholic issues,” which is that while seniors are “looking towards spiritual matters,” the estate planners and lawyers should be looking toward financial matters and seeing that the Church gets its cut of the estate.

Magazine, looking at the Church as a business, said that “Between tort lawsuits and declining attendance, the Roman Catholic Church in North America is a financial mess. . . . No one denies the American Church is in trouble. Over the past four decades regular attendance at Mass has collapsed from 75% of those who professed to be Catholic to 40% today. Nearly one in five churches doesn't have a resident priest. In those that do, parishioners are increasingly likely to hear Mass said in thickly accented English by a prelate from Nigeria or the Philippines. Many parishioners are still furious about the sex-abuse scandals – as well as the coverups and sizable payouts that followed – comparing their impact to the shock of Sept. 11.”

Estate scamming Msgr.

It’s not just the pedophile priests who are the problem. Don't forget Monsignor Eugene V. Clark, the 79-year-old rector of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, in New York, who was caught motelling with his younger married secretary, as I pointed out in “Viagra Chronicles,” or the New York high-life Monsignor John Woolsey, a leader in the right-to-life movement, who reportedly bilked an elderly parishioner who was nearing the end of hers of $500,000 so he could finance his Gucci-golfing lifestyle. Operating his own estate planning scam, he also got her to write her will in his favor. While the priest's good looks may have charmed the old lady, someone of her generation was likely to be more influenced by her conviction that he was the representative of the Church, which held the keys to the kingdom.

Because of the role the Church has claimed to occupy as the exclusive mediator of salvation, it is a scandalous conflict of interest for parishes to let their lawyers have anything to do with the estate planning of elderly Catholics, just as it was criminally negligent of the Church, and in particular Cardinal Bernard Law, the Archbishop emeritus of Boston, to let pedophile priests have anything to do with Catholic children. Elderly Catholics of my generation, and younger, who were terrorized as children with the threat of eternal damnation, especially if they are being advised by a clever lawyers in the employ of the Church, would understandably be inclined to will the Church a good chunk of the goods they accumulated in this world as a way of insuring that they would not roast eternally in the next.

The battered cross that lay on the site of the future Catholic parking lot for a month could serve as a reminder of how spiritual things sometimes get neglected in property exchanges and estate planning. I was told by one source that the money that the Church of the Holy Redeemer used to buy and demolish the old Methodist church, whose destruction I described in “Double Cross,” came from an anonymous well-to-do Catholic, suggesting that, some of the faithful may feel the road to heaven is paved with parking lots.

The Forbes article on the Church’s financial crisis concludes with the question, “Is ANYONE up there listening?” I will conclude with a different question: Is ANYONE up there counting how much you leave to the parish, i.e., the Church? If as a Catholic you even remotely suspect there is SOMEONE up there counting how much you leave, and who is making a hit list and checking it twice, then sign up for a freebee church-sponsored estate planning seminar because it’s a hell of a bargain.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005



River Vices was born into the blogosphere in July of 2004, but I did not install a counter until six months later, on December 12th, 2004. I thought I would, on the occasion of this informal and otherwise unimportant anniversary, try to explain how this blog began, who and how many might be reading it, and where it might be heading.

But first the name. I chose River Vices as an ironic revision of River Voices, the name of the dvd documentary on the Portsmouth flood of 1937, produced by my Shawnee State colleague John Lorentz and his son Nathan. I had thought one of the first blogs I was going to write would be a deconstruction of the ideology of River Voices, but a year and a half later it is still undeconstructed. Less directly, the name River Vices owes something to Herman Melville's bitter novel The Confidence Man, about a riverboat con artist, in his various guises, and about an America that had become degraded by a hucksterist riverfront mentality.

How did I come to take a corrupt river town as the subject for a blog? For almost fifteen years I was deeply involved at Shawnee State University, especially in the affairs of the faculty union, the Shawnee Education Association, which I served as president for four terms. I was also managing editor of and wrote for the union newsletter, SEAView. I also wrote several articles on the shenanigans at the university in the Shawnee Sentinel, a newspaper started by students who were disturbed by the way in which some trustees and administrators acted as if SSU was just another of the pork-barrel projects that Portsmouth's over-privileged had come to think of as their private preserve.

Though I was deeply involved in the political life of the university for fifteen years, I cannot believe, looking back now, how little I knew about Portsmouth, the city the university was located in. What changed that was digital technology. As an English professor, I had come to feel that teaching most SSU students how to write essays was an exercise in futility. In culturally deprived families (which is to say in most American families) television has served as a babysitter for successive generations of American children, so it is not their fault that many of them, used to being entertained by Saturday morning cartoons, MTV, Walkmans and Ipods, find reading and writing as unnatural and difficult as walking on their hands. They are further disadvantaged by having the attention span of a fly as a result of having seen, in their formative years, 20,000 60-second commercials. I had come to feel that if they could learn how to create visual essays, with video cameras, they might understand that the same creative and editing skills needed to make a video essay were also needed to write a composition. I wanted to turn their cultrual disadvantages to their advantage.

But before I could teach students how to create essays with a digital camera, I had to learn how to do it myself. To help me learn, I chose as the subject for a video essay the political recall process that was going on in Portsmouth, focusing on the recall of the mayor in particular. When I started work on my video essay The Recall of Mayor Bauer, I had little knowledge of videography and even less of Portsmouth politics. I had no opinions about the elected city officials who were facing recall. Starting out, I assumed I was making a documentary, but even before I was finished I was persuaded by the “recallers” that Portsmouth city government was flagrantly corrupt. One of the persistent metaphors in Recall of Mayor Bauer and in River Vices has been prostitution, but I feel guilty about resorting to it because I know those hard-working and abused women on John St. do not deserve to be insulted by being compared with the crooked Portsmouth politicians and their over-privileged patrons.

I was all too familiar with the way in which the university was in the control of local politicians and the over-privileged, who were largely responsible for its poor academic reputation, but I had not understood how much the university was integrated in to and a reflection of the political corruption of the city and county, and to some extent of the state, government. What made the corruption so pervasive was that it was bi-partisan. Yes, Republicans predominated in southern Ohio, but only because the relatively few Democrats in public office played ball with them. At the local level, party affiliation is not important. If Portsmouth is typical, a popular aphorism should be revised to say, “All politics is local and all local politics is corrupt.”

River Vices was my attempt to use the new internet technology to write regularly about the political corruption of Portsmouth. Mark Twain was one of my inspirations for the undertaking. Not long after getting underway, I discovered another inspiration for sustaining it: the conservative Republican author, Jesse Stuart. What Stuart helped me understand, especially in his best novel Taps for Private Tussie, is how much government pork has corrupted the region.In his novels at least, Stuart was not sentimental or politically correct about Appalachian culture. You can take the people out of the hills, but you can't take the hills out of the people. If competition is a key to explaining the American character, (and I’m not sure that it is) don’t look for evidence of initiative in southern Ohio. With the departure of major manufacturing and industry from Portsmouth beginning over a half century ago, the politically shrewd realized that under the banner of the War on Poverty the government could be milked for many millions, much of which went into the pockets not of the poor but of the over-privileged of Portsmouth. Instead of initiative and enterprise, the traits that flourished were connivance and cover up, cover up of the corruption of local government, and cover up of the incompetence that the lack of competition has resulted in. Corruption and cover up are by now so deeply ingrained in the local culture that I can believe a political revolution could occur at the national and perhaps even state level and Portsmouth would hardly be affected by it.

Geographical Distribution of River Vices Readers

Over 20,000 hits have been recorded on River Vices in the past twelve months. River Vices now gets anywhere from 600 to 900 hits a week, and growing, so the numberof hits may be 40,000 next year. I know I have appreciative readers in Scioto County, because I have met some of them through chance encounters. But I have been surprised at how many River Vices readers are out of southern Ohio and how many, about 25%, in any given week, are outside of the United States. It may be, given the word “vices” in the name of the blog, that international surfers are expecting something other than southern Ohio politics. But the 2% in Iran who have shown up fairly regularly must know what they are looking for. The unexpected 5% from Italy for this past week might have something to do with the religious issues raised in my last blog “Double Cross.”

I early on decided I wanted to write essays, focused on one issue, and not just jottings or thoughts off the top of the head, as interesting as those can be from people smarter than me. The brilliant linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky is not a very good writer, but he is a good talker. Good talkers do not usually make good writers. Essays take time, even when they might not win any prizes. And an essay is not what busy people with lots of other ways to spend their time are looking for. One of my readers said it was necessary to have a master’s degree to understand my blogs, which remark is anything but flattering since clarity is my highest priority as a writer. But I also heard a veteran activist say that when he got discouraged and felt things are probably always going to be hopeless in Portsmouth, he reads some of my past blogs for inspiration. When I am looking for inspiration, I read Arthur Hugh Clough's poem "Say not the struggle naught availeth . . ."

There is a history of my hometown, Revere, Massachusetts, that I have been trying to finish for a very long time, and I am afraid because of River Vices I may never finish it, even though I am now retired. Ars longa, vita brevis (art is long, life is short) is the motto of the Modern Language Association. You have to retire to realize how very little time you really have. Given the slowness with which I write, I will not finish the book unless I stop or suspend this blog. The book I see as an obligation to the past and to my hometown; River Vices I see as an obligation to the future and to my adopted town Portsmouth. But either way I am sentenced to the sentence, or in my case to the essay, and there is no escape from the blogosphere, with or without an M.A.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Double Cross

Architectural Blight 

       The over-privileged of PortsmouthOhio, most of whom are white males, have blighted the city not only economically but also architecturally, giving residents of the city a double cross to bear. Not only must residents live with poverty but also with ugliness, for the relatively few public buildings with historic value and architectural distinction are torn down to make way for parking lots, jails, and shopping centers while millions of dollars of public monies are used to save unattractive virtually worthless commercial structures and convert them at great public expense into public-use buildings, as is the case with the former Kenrick’s store, which is now the architecturally soulless Scioto County Welcome Center. That will probably eventually also be the case with the 100-year-old Marting’s department store, which may become Portsmouth's city hall, and the Adelphia Cable building, which will become the police station. The reason why empty relatively worthless commercial structures in downtown Portsmouth are saved is not because they have any commercial, historic and certainly not any architectural value but mainly because they are owned by the over-privileged, who are accustomed to having the politicians whom they help elect to office bail them out by taking their worthless properties off their hands with monies derived from pork barrel subsidies and increased taxes.

When the Cross Came Crashing Down

Since the cross is the most sacred symbol of Christianity, I expected at some point prior to the demolition of the tower that it would be carefully if not reverentially removed. Certainly the time and small additional expense that removing the cross entailed should have been no impediment to removing and safely storing it. There is a protocol for the treatment and disposal of American flags. Isn’t there also for the treatment and disposal of crosses? My curiosity about the cross increased after I heard a news report about the bombing of two Shiite mosques in Iraq. When Shiite rescuers rushed in, they reportedly looked immediately for two things: worshippers who might have survived the blast and copies of the Koran, the Muslim holy book. I wondered if the Methodists, or Neal Hatcher, would show anything like that regard for the cross. They did not, for the cross was still on the top of the tower when it came tumbling down, and after it was dragged off the pile of rubble (pictured above), it lay, battered on the ground (pictured below), for over a month afterwards.

Cross Rusting in Two Pieces Months Later

     On Saturday, November 19, 2005, another of the city’s architectural treasures, the old Methodist church at the northwest corner of Gallia and Offnere Streets was torn down to make way for a parking lot. As it scrambled to survive, the Methodist church changed names several times. To distinguish it from the new Methodist church on the northeast corner of Offnere and Gallia, I will refer to the old one on the northwest corner by one of its previous names, the Wesley United Methodist Church.

Shall We Gather at the Wrecking of the Church?

      Though it was a mild afternoon, only a handful of curious onlookers had gathered on Gallia Street to watch Neal Hatcher’s J.N. H. Company complete the demolition of the Wesley Church. Yes, this would be another Hatcher job. (I am told Boone Coleman, the Portsmouth demolisher of choice who has had his problems with OSHA, was tied up with the work on Route 23.) Only the tall tower of the Wesley United remained, for in the preceding weeks the rest of the church had been gutted and demolished.
      Possibly the crowd would have been larger if Ohio State had not been playing Michigan that afternoon, which may have been why some of the spectators remained in their cars – to listen to the Buckeyes, for whom there is a kind of religious devotion and even fanaticism throughout Ohio. If there were state religions, as there are state flowers, birds, and songs, Ohio’s would be the Ohio State football team, the dearly beloved Buckeyes. Nothing is more important to the fanatical Buckeye followers than the defeat of the hated Michigan Wolverines, so this Saturday of all Saturdays was not a good time for demolition watching.
      Most of the people sitting in their cars and standing around in small groups appeared to be curiosity seekers who were willing to wait hours to see the four-second spectacle of a tower crashing to the ground, just as pedestrians might gather silently on a street of New York City to watch someone on a ledge jump to his death, or just as a crowd might have gathered to see a public hanging or a burning at the stake in Europe in the Age of Faith. “Portsmouth is a boring town. There’s not much here to do,” someone said to me recently. I saw no sign of reverence for the building or regret that one of Portsmouth’s architectural landmarks was about to come crashing down. I had thought that at least a small delegation from the church’s now relocated congregation would be present to witness the final hour of their historic church, as children might gather at the bedside of a dying parent, but there was no sign of mourners. A few older members of the old church, some of whom left the congregation in silent protest, subsequently told me the demolition was too painful to witness. We live now in a throw-away economy, and apparently old churches, like disposable contact lenses and razors, can be tossed out unceremoniously.
      The Methodists had sold the old church and the site to the neighboring Holy Redeemer [Catholic] Church, which wanted the land for a parking lot. According to a Catholic friend of mine, the Holy Redeemer Church did not want to have the onus of tearing down a historic Protestant landmark to make way for a parking lot for Catholics. Perhaps they did not want to appear to be violating the commandment, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s church for a parking lot.” As Pilate washed his hands of any responsibility for the execution of Christ, the Catholics wanted to wash their hands of responsibility for the destruction of a Protestant landmark. They wanted somebody else to do the dirty work, which fell to Hatcher. But to judge by the apparent indifference of most Methodists to the demolition of their church and the treatment of the holiest symbol of their faith, the cross, the Catholics’ concern about Protestant sensibilities appear to have been unwarranted.
      I had followed the demolition for several weeks and especially wanted to see what would happen to the large white cross in the tower of the old church. I had learned that a cross had first been added to the church tower in 1930. Because it was illuminated by screw-in light bulbs, like an old marquee, and because it also revolved, the cross was something to behold on Portsmouth’s skyline in the 1930s, and of course a cardinal rule of our commercialized world is "It pays to advertise." An older member of the church who had changed burned-out bulbs in the old cross way-back-when told me of the heart-stopping challenge the wind and a rickety ladder presented.
     The revolving cross was later replaced by the seven-foot white hollow sheet metal cross that remained on the top of the tower until the demolition of November 19, 2005. Another older member of the church told me she was present at a dedication ceremony for the new cross, suggesting that the putting up, if not the taking down, of a cross was a still an occasion for solemn commemoration. The contrast between the Muslims’ reverence for copies of the Koran and the Methodists’ casual attitude toward the cross may reveal something important about differences between Islam and Christianity, and particularly the tactical advantages the followers of Mohammed have over the followers of Christ. Muslims and Christians both believe in their faith, but, judging by actions, not words, the Muslims believe more fervently in their faith than Christians do in theirs. The Muslims are more willing to kill and sacrifice their own lives for their faith than Christians are, which gives them an enormous tactical advantage in the religious war in which the U.S. and Islamic fundamentalists are now engaged. Muslim places of worship are places of worship, not glorified daycare centers, which is what I heard someone call the new Cornerstone United Methodist Church on the northeast corner of Gallia and Offnere.
     As I understand it, there is a place for worship in the new Cornerstone Church, but the space is not so sacred that it cannot be used, thanks to folding chairs, for some other purpose. And the sacramental space must not be so large as to displace the gymnasium. The old church had a gymnasium, too, but it was behind the church, where it was too accessible to rowdy elements, I was told. The new gymnasium is in a virtual gated community, which to a degree is what the whole new church is. The sacred and the inspiring have been replaced by the mundane and the useful: that is how I would summarize the criticisms I have heard of the new church. I am not criticizing the unorthodox architecture of the new church. Having closely studied the history of one New England church over its 200- year history, I know how the disposition of space in a church can change drastically to accommodate to the needs of successive congregations.
     There are rumors that other beautiful and historic Portsmouth church buildings will bite the dust, in some cases in order to provide more parking space. I said rumor, but remember that in Portsmouth a rumor is often a truth that readers of the Portsmouth Daily Times are the last to learn about. Not a believer myself, I appreciate the uplifting architecture of churches, and while the cross is not a sacred symbol to me, I can see in the slighting of it evidence that another symbol has replaced it in Portsmouth, namely the dollar sign. That would be bad enough, but in Portsmouth the dollar the sign stands for is often not earned, in the old- fashioned way, through initiative, rugged individualism, and competition but through cronyism and political corruption, which lead to pork and higher taxes.

Through transfusions of pork and higher taxes, the Marting Foundation is attempting to preserve the Marting department store as a shrine to the commercial spirit of Portsmouth. Older even than the Wesley United Methodist Church, and uglier than hell, the Marting department store is commercialism’s shrine in Portsmouth, whose putative prosperous downtown past is the Paradise lost which the Foundation is seeking to lead us back to. The appropriate symbol to put on top of the Marting building, if it becomes the Portsmouth city hall, is the dollar sign, for the double-crossers in the city hall will be as devoted to selling their souls as the sales people in Marting’s were to selling shoes. The dollar sign is held in greater awe in Portsmouth than the cross, and has followers who are even more devoted and passionate than Buckeye fans. Tear down all the churches in the city, and let the crosses fall where they may, as long as the public dollars continue to cross the palms of Portsmouth's over-privileged.