Chances are that if you grew up in a small town like me, you keep up with online versions of the local newspapers. For me that means bookmarking the Middletown Times Herald-Record and the Sullivan County Democrat. Back in the 1950s such papers were running stories on the front page about the opening of the county fair or some local hotel hosting Fourth of July fireworks. Some of you might recall that I grew up in Woodridge, a town celebrated in the pages of leftie NYC newspaper PM back in 1947 as a “utopia in the Catskills”. Now it is much more of a dystopia with items like this from the Middletown Times Herald-Record:
Heroin dealers busted at 53 Maple Avenue; I grew up at 66 Maple Avenue
In a related story, the Sullivan County Democrat reported about heroin turning up at my old high school:
Sullivan County Democrat, Mar. 31 2014
Fallsburg police replacing school resource officer
By Dan Hust – staff writer
FALLSBURG — The Town of Fallsburg Police Department has reassigned Martin Gonzalez from his duties as Fallsburg Central School District’s School Resource Officer (SRO).
Gonzalez, who found heroin inside a men’s bathroom at the Benjamin Cosor Elementary School in Fallsburg last month, remains a police officer with the department. A previous NYS Medal of Valor awardee for a 2011 rescue effort in Liberty, Gonzalez is not accused of any wrongdoing and is not under investigation, said Fallsburg Police Chief Simmie Williams.
Calling it “the toughest decision of my life,” Williams said Gonzalez is being replaced for the sake of the SRO program.
At Monday’s Fallsburg Town Board meeting, a group of teachers told town officials that they no longer trust Gonzalez and criticized the way the police had handled the heroin investigation, which focused on more than half a dozen faculty who had accessed the bathroom prior to the drug discovery.
That’s the school I graduated from in June 1961 at the tender age of 16. Back then the only thing we knew about heroin was what we saw in movies like “A Hatful of Rain” or “The Man with the Golden Arm” that were set in the slums of New York City and Chicago respectively. By 1975 most of Sullivan County had turned into a rural slum, mostly the result of the Borscht Belt hotel industry hollowing out.
In 2012, the median family income for New York State was $52,095, for Sullivan County it was $43,458. Most of the jobs are in the public or nonprofit sector, like working as a prison guard or as a hospital orderly. Back in the 1950s, many people who decided to remain in the area rather than moving to New York City opened small businesses or went to work for their parents. With the collapse of the tourist industry, that possibility no longer exists.
On October 21, 2013 a Monticello lawyer (the Borscht Belt town, not Thomas Jefferson’s plantation locale) named Steven Kurlander blogged in the Huffington Post about the need for casino gambling to revive the Catskills. After 35 years of wrangling, it looks like it might finally be coming. Here’s how he described the once thriving Monticello:
It’s not just that Sullivan County has had the highest unemployment rate, the worst health care outcomes, and the highest percentage of poverty in upstate New York for years.
Just walk down Broadway, the main street of Monticello, and the answer is clear.
Broadway, once a thoroughfare famed for being the epicenter of a booming Borscht Belt, is now basically an abandoned main street devoid of businesses, its storefronts empty and failing into disrepair.
The lights on this Broadway have been turned off for decades and Monticello’s business district is a ghost town.
Gangs and drug abuse run rampant in Monticello and prey on its poor residents living in subsidized projects and crumbling neighborhoods abandoned by a fleeing middle class and taken over by absentee Section 8 landlords.
Last summer I went upstate to do some video recording about my hometown and the surrounding environs. A major part of the film will involve interviews with Herman Goldfarb, a retired physician who has been involved with progressive politics for decades. I plan to work on getting that film together in the next few weeks but in the meantime here are his observations on the streets of Monticello’s Broadway:
Just around the time that the tourist industry began dying, Sullivan County began becoming more African-American and Latino. I am not sure what explains the demographic change since the region was not generating new jobs. One of the big employers for Latino workers is Murray’s poultry, a supplier of “organic” chickens and turkeys to NY grocery stores. Mrs. Murray Bresky was a woman named Ellen that was in my class back at Fallsburgh High School. I doubt that I spent more than five minutes in conversation with her my entire time there.
Despite his concerns about the health and well-being of his customers, Murray appears to care little about his largely Latino workforce:
At chicken plants, chemicals blamed for health ailments are poised to proliferate
By Kimberly Kindy
When Jose Navarro landed a job as a federal poultry inspector in 2006, he moved his wife and newborn son to a rural town in Upstate New York near the processing plant, believing it was a steppingstone to a better life.
Five years later, Navarro was dead. The 37-year-old’s lungs had bled out.
His death triggered a federal investigation that raised questions about the health risks associated with a rise in the use of toxic, bacteria-killing chemicals in poultry plants. Agriculture Department health inspectors say processing plants are turning to the chemicals to remove contaminants that escape notice as processing line speeds have accelerated, in part to meet growing consumer demand for chicken and turkey.
At the end of each workday at Murray’s Chicken, Jose Navarro would climb into his Ford station wagon, drive by the Holy Ghost and Fire Church, and pass a single stoplight to reach his rented home in South Fallsburg, N.Y.
His wife, Nicole Byrne Navarro, said he would give “lengthy, detailed reports” each evening about his concerns about the plant, which often focused on the chemicals used to disinfect both equipment and birds.
“Some themes that were constant were poor ventilation and overuse and mishandling of chemicals which constantly irritated his lungs,” Byrne Navarro said. “Sometimes he would hold his hand over his chest and talk about the chlorine reaching intolerable levels that day.”
Several months before he died, he coughed up blood, but it “self-resolved,” according to the autopsy report. Then on Nov. 19, 2011, he began coughing up blood and went to the hospital, where his lungs continued to hemorrhage. He died a week later after his lungs and kidneys failed, the autopsy report said.
At the time of Navarro’s death, Murray’s Chicken was using chlorine and peracetic acid to treat the birds, according to federal records and interviews with company officials.
Chlorine and peracetic acid are two of the most commonly used chemicals in plants, according to OSHA inspection documents and interviews with USDA inspectors and poultry plant workers.
At plants where line speeds have been increased, inspectors and plant workers say chemical use is on the rise and that the exposure time to the chemicals has been extended. Sometimes a third chemical is added, but that practice varies from plant to plant.
Back in 2008 Monticello elected its first Black mayor, a former prison guard who now ran a shoe store on the town’s decaying Broadway. While by no means a big a deal as Obama’s election, it was news enough to make the NY Times:
NY Times, March 27, 2008
A Lesson in Politics as Unusual
By PETER APPLEBOME
Gordon Jenkins outside his store in Monticello, N.Y. “You look at the heyday of this place, and it was beautiful,” he says.
You might think Gordon Jenkins would be excited.
He just made history, elected on Tuesday as the first black mayor of this faded resort town. And a day later, people filter nonstop into his G-Man shop, a beauty supply, hip-hop clothing and footwear store on Broadway, to shake his hand, give him a hug. Drivers honk at him on the street, and passers-by give him the thumbs-up and shout, “Jenkins for mayor!” They bring him free coffee from the bagel store next door. Big-shot lawyers wander in looking for jobs.
Not all politics is about race. Was it a factor? Sure. The town’s population is about 55 percent white, 30 percent black and 23 percent Hispanic. But Mr. Jenkins isn’t all that big on having a national or local conversation about race. “I hate racial issues; that’s not what this was ever about,” he said as some of his new constituents stopped by to talk about the flooding on their streets or how they were managing their diabetes. “It just brings up old wounds. We’d all get along a lot better if we could just get past it.”
Things went downhill rapidly after Jenkins took office, especially—surprise, surprise—when it came to the local cops who probably were not used to seeing a Black man in a position of authority. His first run-in occurred in February 2012 when police were summoned to his store to eject a 300-pound man who was trying to pick a fight with Jenkins. In the ensuing melee Jenkins accidentally hit one of the cops. That was not extenuating enough for him to be convicted of a misdemeanor last month.
His next run-in occurred on November 16, 2013 when he showed up at a major auto accident not far from his home, something he saw as his responsibility. Unfortunately, he had some alcohol on his breath and the cops ordered him to take a Breathalyzer test. Upon failing it, they took him to jail where he threw a tantrum while in custody. Carmen Rue, a Republican on the Town Board who has been spearheading a drive to remove Jenkins, made the tape of Jenkins available to the news media that played up the story as Monticello’s Rob Ford.
Michael Sussman, Jenkins’s attorney who specializes in civil rights cases, went on CNN (http://edition.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/1311/26/ijvm.01.html) to discuss the incident. The exchange reflects the state of race relations in the USA:
JANE VELEZ-MITCHELL, HOST: Tonight, the latest mayor gone wild. Yet another politician behaving badly. And once again, it`s all caught on tape.
Good evening. I`m Jane Velez-Mitchell coming to you live.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Charged with drunk driving, busted by his own cops.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It`s not a good example. He (EXPLETIVE DELETED) (EXPLETIVE DELETED)
GORDON JENKINS, MAYOR OF MONTICELLO, NEW YORK: And trying to do the (EXPLETIVE DELETED).
Straight out to the attorney representing this guy, caught on tape, Mayor Jenkins. Now, you`re reported as saying that the mayor`s base has suffered indignities at the hands of the local cops, and they understand what he was saying. Well, please translate, because I don`t really understand what he`s saying.
MICHAEL SUSSMAN, ATTORNEY FOR MAYOR GORDON JENKINS: I don`t think any of your guests understand. Listening to you, it`s a very ignorant group, honestly. Let`s start…
VELEZ-MITCHELL: Well, why don`t you educate us as to what this gentleman that you represent is talking about?
SUSSMAN: Let`s start with this, please. The mayor was at a social engagement Saturday night. The mayor understood there was a serious accident in his community, and he drove over to give assistance at the accident.
If any police person at the scene thought the mayor was in any way intoxicated, what a reasonable police officer would do is go up to the mayor and say to the mayor, “Do you need a hand? Do you need a ride anywhere?”
Instead, an individual who had been passed over for police chief has testified in his sworn statement that he waited for the mayor to get into a vehicle, thereby endangering the public if he was really drunk, waited for the mayor to drive away, and then picked up the mayor. He then brought the mayor back to the police station and chained the mayor to a wall for approaching nine hours. When the mayor asked to have his lawyer called they essentially laughed at him and never called me.
VELEZ-MITCHELL: All right. Hold on one second, sir. You`ve said something…
SUSSMAN: All of you have such strong opinions, but none of you know what occurred.
VELEZ-MITCHELL: His words are his words. He`s calling people names that I cannot repeat here.
SUSSMAN: Let me try to respond to what you`re all saying for a moment. OK?
It`s one thing if you have no life experience like Gordon Jenkins, 29 years a correction officer in New York state, an honorably discharged Army veteran, in the city government in Monticello as mayor for five years, on the board for nine years. If you have no track record and you have no experience and you don`t understand who you are dealing with, it`s one thing. What Gordon Jenkins did is…
VELEZ-MITCHELL: Well, that`s — all of that is even more of a reason why he shouldn`t do that. He should have known better.
SUSSMAN: Let me speak for a moment. You have five guests who have one opinion. Let me explain the situation, please.
VELEZ-MITCHELL: OK. Go for it. Because we`re running out of time.
SUSSMAN: You have — you have people on this force who have been engaged in — against Gordon for a number of years. Rather than do what any reasonable police officer would do, if they thought he was drunk, which is to go to — if it was a white mayor you mean to tell me that they wouldn`t have gone up to the man and said, “We think you`re drunk, Mayor. Can we give you a ride home?”
That goes across the board, obviously. Blacks get long sentences for selling or possessing crack cocaine while white professionals get a slap on the wrist for using powdered cocaine, a recreational drug. It doesn’t matter that Jenkins was once a law enforcement employee. Once he got on the wrong side of the Town Board, he would end up under a microscope.
What’s the lesson in all this? Fifty years ago I never would have imagined that my home town could end up looking like it does today, with heroin busts, vendettas against a Black mayor, and rural squalor. But then again I never would have imagined back then that the USA as whole would be as bad off as it is today, with cities like Detroit writing large what is happening in my old home town.