The Chair

February 7, 2018

 

— Calvin Luther Martin, PhD

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Behold the chair!   What’s remarkable is its location.  (As realtors are fond of saying, Location, location, location!)  Several weeks ago its owner, a tenant at 21 Washington St., discarded  it as trash, dropping it off the front porch where it shamelessly sat in full view in a neighborhood trying oh-so-hard to be a showcase for civil behavior in this beleaguered village of ours.

The neighborhood is mine, and by “civil behavior” I mean public behavior that respects the social contract.

21 Washington

The social contract?  Never heard of it?  Actually you have, though perhaps by a different name.  The social contract has been the linchpin of community organization dating back to Paleolithic times and doubtless even earlier, into the distant horizons of human evolution.  We witness it among hunter-gatherer societies as well as modern nation states.  It’s what makes group living bearable—or hell.
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Jesus of Nazareth, the man who said he knew the mind of God, invoked the social contract when he exhorted us to, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  In fact, 95% of his teaching and public performance were about the social contract—as in feeding thousands of hungry people on several occasions.
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The social contract—be decent and courteous and thoughtful toward your neighbors and community—has been, for millennia, a major theme in philosophy, ethics, and community governance the world over.  Along with the Ten Commandments, God gave us lawyers and judges to get us out of a jam or provide a reality check when we fail to honor this contract.  Everyone in the slammer violated it in one fashion or another.
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Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote passionately on the social contract, as did his compatriot Voltaire, both of whom were struggling to reform French society from the top down.  (Lots of people lost their heads in this fiery debate known to history as the French Revolution.)

“What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?” — Jean-Jacques Rousseau

I write this on behalf of the Clay-Milwaukee-Washington Neighborhood Group, a loose collection of homeowners, landlords, and tenants living in this section of town where this offending chair brazenly held forth.  (I will hereafter refer to us as the CMW Group.)  Although our agenda is more modest than that of Rousseau and Voltaire—we’re merely endeavoring to clean up Malone’s act—we are indeed invoking the principles they championed, while bearing in mind that “those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it” (Harvard philosopher, George Santayana).

Malone has a serious social contract problem.  This piece-of-crap chair outside this landlord-neglected house is a perfect example.  The chair in this photo isn’t explained by “poverty”; it’s a symptom of a sickness of the mind that says, “I don’t give a damn about anyone else!”
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We can refine this disease of the mind further.  The problem comes down to (a) slumlords and (b) the riffraff they often rent to.  The two seem to have a synergistic relationship, feeding off one another in some weird parasitic dynamic.

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We’re all familiar with the spectacle of the riffraff’s slacker offspring slouching through the downtown and residential streets, generally down the middle of the street in the latter case, shouting foul language.  (My neighbors and I are training them to do less of this in our neighborhood, I’m pleased to say.  Incidentally, I am not claiming that all tenants living in slum housing are riffraff.  Some of the finest people I know are indeed poor and live in a slumlord’s excuse for a home, yet they live there with dignity and courage and respect for everyone around them.)

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The way to treat this disease of the mind is to firmly take the slumlords in hand—something that has never happened in the years I’ve lived here.  Malone needs to insist they clean up their shitty housing.  By “Malone,” I mean first and foremost the mayor, village trustees, and code office.  So we get these bums in front of Judge Gardner or Judge Robert, who either shut them down or fine them.  Heavily.

Full disclosure.  I’m a landlord in this neighborhood.  I own two rental buildings and I’m responsible for several tenants.  Having put several hundred thousand dollars into one of these buildings, with its sister building likewise slated for renovation, I doubt I could legitimately be called a slumlord.  I monitor my tenants and their behavior.  As in the other day when one of my tenants let me know she wished to get rid of an old sofa.  I told her I would store it temporarily in one of my empty apartments till such time as she or I could pass it along to a new home or the county landfill.  Notice, I did not recommend she discard it at the front of the building, nor would she have thought of doing so, for this would transgress the social contract.

Let me say it again.  The social contract is a sacred, unspoken yet implicitly understood, courteous and respectful relationship between every single person, young or old, living in a community, whether it’s 6 castaways adrift in a lifeboat or 8.5 million people crammed into New York City.  Nobody in any community gets a free pass to be a jerk or psychopath or anything in between.  (Note that the social contract antedates the municipal code—any municipal code—by tens of thousands of years.)

I am aware of 4 other landlords in my neighborhood.  Only one of them is a slumlord:  the present owner of 21 Washington St.  I’m told by Mayor Joe Riccio that the owner is a faceless Limited Liability Corp. (LLC) from downstate.  The other 3?  Frank Bova is a local landlord.  He’s terrific.  So is the lady who lives in North Carolina and owns the rental at 23 Clay.  She keeps the property well-maintained and monitors tenants.
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4-apartment rental at 23 Clay

Jack & Elvira Stewart who own 28 Clay are also superb.  Years ago I flogged the Stewarts in these pages for their deplorable buildings and the behavior of their tenants.  Since then they have gone to great lengths to spruce up and maintain their buildings and properties, and they are careful about who they rent to.  When they get insane tenants at 28 Clay, they respond to community pleas and toss them out.  Hallelujah!  (I might add that the Stewarts not infrequently find their apartments trashed by degenerate tenants or degenerate friends of tenants—”trashed” as in holes in walls, graffiti spray-painted on walls, feces smeared about, etc.)

Frankly, Jack & Elvira are good people who are trying hard, and I applaud!

Judge Gardner

As a neighborhood group, we work closely with the village police and village board and mayor, and I’m pleased to say the municipal judges take us seriously when we file complaints against wild and crazy behavior—as in screamed obscenities by hyperventilating screwball tenants.

The only disappointing agency in the mix is the code office.  It might as well not exist, as far as this neighborhood is concerned.  Back when John Leclerc was code officer, followed by Charlie Robert—back then the code office was attentive to infractions of the social contract.  John and Charlie did something about it.  The village currently has a young code officer named Angela Lucey (full surname, Sirianni-Lucey) who has been on the job for at least a year and, regrettably, is invisible.  Except when she checks rental buildings for fire code compliance.

The Code Officer is a ghost

Besides Angela, the village has a part-time code officer named Bob Rowe who, according to Mayor Riccio, is responsible for “complaints.”  “Complaints” is an unfortunate word to use, since it hides something much deeper, something systemic.  Referring to these matters as complaints obscures a shattered social contract, with repercussions which can be enormous.

Let’s consider this crappy chair and garbage cans out front of 21 Washington.
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21 Washington

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Start with the home immediately next door, at 17 Washington.  A lovely home owned by Paul & Maria Ward, a couple who moved to Malone decades ago to flee the hurly burly of NYC.  Paul set up an in-home tax business.  The home is currently on the market.  A responsible mayor and village board would take note of this and ask, “Why? Why are they selling?”  Yes, the mayor should make it a point of stopping by nice homes owned by responsible people and inquire, “Why are you leaving?  Is there anything we can do to encourage you to stay?”

Are they leaving because of the nut cases who have for years occupied 21 Washington, immediately next door?  (Our group has had to report several of these tenants to the police and court over the years.)  Are they leaving because they find themselves living next to a slum whose owner doesn’t give a damn?
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Across the street from 21 Washington is another lovely home, owned by Bonnie & Mike Radomski (16 Washington).  How do they feel about this slum?  I happen to know the answer.  Two doors down, across the street, live the Smiths.  Fine people in a fine home once owned by Judge Champagne.  I happen to know how they, too, feel about this slum.
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TAP Industries, in the Depot

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What the mayor and board need to grasp is that people with money, with means, pack up and leave in the face of “slummification.”  What’s ludicrous is that the mayor and board talk about attracting jobs and good people to the village, while, before their eyes, good people and their jobs are fleeing the village owing to metastasizing slum housing with its attendant slum behavior.

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Were I the mayor, I would make it my business to drive around, weekly, and note the slum houses.   Think of each slum house as the equivalent of a cosmic black hole within its neighborhood, threatening to devour every nearby home and apartment  that’s not a slum.  For, with the slum-appearance inevitably comes the slum-behavior.  Loud.  Music.  Brawls (often).  Crazy friends visiting.  Drugs (often).  Trash (invariably).  Sooner or later, the owners of healthy homes and healthy minds—pack up and leave.

The mayor and board don’t seem to grasp this insidious “voiding” (emptying) of the village, which they don’t realize they can prevent.  The  municipal governments of Princeton NJ, Hanover NH, Cooperstown NY, Santa Barbara CA—all places I have lived—forestalled this process by cracking down on slumlords.  Why on earth the Village of Malone can’t do this is beyond my comprehension.  We tend to elect people who can win elections, but have few if any leadership skills.  True enough, they can pay the municipal bills, keep the streets plowed, and say “Yes sir!” to state mandates—but have little vision and little capacity to make a vision come to pass.
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Let’s come back to the Ward’s home, next door to 21 Washington.  As I say, it’s on the market (click here).  Here are some photos from the listing.

Ward home, 17 Washington, above. The slum at 21 Washington can be seen through the window.

17 Washington

17 Washington

17 Washington

Question:  What impact do you think the crap next door, at 21 Wash., has on the sale of this charming home at 17 Wash.?  (For years I was married to a real estate broker in Princeton NJ.  I can tell you the answer to my question if it’s not glaringly obvious.)
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So, the mayor and board want to attract and keep good, decent, solvent, employed people in town, right?  Say, people who create jobs, as Paul & Maria Ward did.  And the mayor and board want a thriving real estate market, right?  So why in hell do they allow this junk property and junk behavior to thrive next door to this home?  There’s a serious disconnection going on here.  Perhaps it’s better described as acute tunnel vision.

Imagine this.  Malone has a thriving hospital with half a dozen satellite clinics.  Part of the University of Vermont Health system.  This means lots of physicians, nurses, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, techs, etc.  They come here and interview, as my wife and I did 20 years ago.  They drive around the village and do something the mayor and board neglect doing:  They scope out homes for sale and then look hard, very hard, at the neighborhood.

Let’s pretend I’m a psychiatrist checking out Malone and a position at Alice Hyde.  I drive through the Clay-Milwaukee-Washington neighborhood and see a charming home for sale at 17 Wash.  But then my wife says, “Whoa!  Look at what’s next door!”  (This is what she’s referring to.).
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21 Washington in Nov 2017. Notice the chair on the porch migrated out to the front yard subsequent to this photo.

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Then I hear her exclaim, “Oh God, Calvin!  Look 2 doors down at 27 Washington!”  (This is what she’s referring to.)
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27 Washington. Currently empty and gutted. This trash never moves an inch. The storm door is generally flapping in the breeze.

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You get the picture.  At this point in the tour, my wife and I would either look for a home outside the village or we head the rental car back to Burlington and get on a plane to look at the other job offer in [fill in the blank].

We are back to square one. A piece-of-junk living room chair tossed off the front porch, screaming at the neighborhood, “I don’t give a damn! And you can take your so-called social contract and shove it!”  People who behave this way have, by definition, surrendered the privilege of living in a community.  It is absolutely the responsibility of the village government to let them know they either move out of town or they respect the non-negotiable foundation of community living. If the code officer lacks the training or vision or backbone to handle this, then it’s up to the mayor and the board to intervene.

Remember this story next November when we elect or re-elect village officials. One of the key questions to ask yourself is, “Does this candidate have the leadership and visionary skills necessary to enforce the social contract?”  When the day comes that we have 5 individuals on the village board who grasp the message of this essay and have the backbone to enforce it, on that day Malone will take a giant step forward. On that day, we will take a giant step toward understanding the real, age-old meaning of being a human being.

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Postscript:

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The junked chair at 21 Wash. was brought to the attention of the code officer, Angela Sirianni-Lucey, via email dated Jan. 16, with the mayor and all the trustees copied.  I also put a message on Angela’s voicemail at the village office.  As is customary with Angela, she neither returned my call nor acknowledged my email.  Complete silence.  As I say, this is par for the course with her.  I heard not a word from anyone (code officer, mayor, trustees) till Jan. 25, when I sent the mayor, Joe Riccio, an email asking him to follow-up.  He immediately responded, saying he would get back to me shortly.  On Jan. 26, Trustee Andrea Dumas sent me an email, asking if the code officer had responded to me.  I replied with this:

No. None. Angela never responds to either my emails or phone messages. This is a disgrace. It’s also unprofessional. Needless to say (though I’ll say it, anyway), it’s unacceptable. She is the face of the “village” for many people. If she treats the rest of the community the way she treats this struggling neighborhood group, there’s a serious problem.

Calvin

(Andrea was ill with the flu during this period, which explains why she didn’t give it the attention she typically does.  Andrea, by the way, is an outstanding public officer!)

Andrea Dumas

Not hearing back from Joe (which is unusual; he almost invariably gets back to me right away), I sent him another email on January 29, asking where things stood with the infamous chair. Joe immediately responded, saying that he and Trustee Norman Bonner met with Bob Rowe, our new, part-time code officer who handles complaints and inspections. Joe said that Bob “went to investigate the chair in late December.”  Bob discovered “greater issues within the home” and these “took priority.” “Because the investigation is ongoing,” he added, “I cannot share the details until actual violations are issued.” He ended with, “Bob is moving toward prompt resolution of this issue.”

Joe Riccio

Here is my reply to Joe:

Is it reasonable to ask the owner of the chair to put it inside while this investigation is underway? Or is the fact of the investigation equivalent to giving the tenants a free pass to trash the neighborhood? I guess what I’m saying is, I don’t see the connection between requiring these people to make the chair disappear, and an investigation into serious problems inside the building. Somehow the logic escapes me. Besides, ultimately the chair (and interior problems) are the responsibility of  the landlord. Same as I am responsible for my tenants’ public behavior. Happens, today, that one of my tenants moved a ratty stuffed sofa out of her apartment. I told her she could not put it out in public view—for the same reasons my neighbors and I are objecting to [this] chair.

To which I added a postscript:

It appears to me that the village is being pummeled by an assortment of slumlords (this LLC, now, among them, and of course Denny of Gorman Building infamy) who are taking advantage of the slow wheels of due process while they swiftly gut and trash our community. Leaves me wondering if the village should rethink its “how to stop slumlords from f**king us in the a*s” policy? As in, authorize Code and Cops and Village Attorney to move swiftly and decisively in shutting down these hell-holes or scofflaws. Or lock out Denny from his slums, as a public menace or public health violator. (Note: Rats, lots of them, in his apartments on Spaulding Ave., I’m told by several of his tenants.)

In short, the village might need to become more tough and aggressive.

Joe, it’s not a small matter. The village suffers from decay and despair and disarray. There are many of us trying our damndest to keep things looking and behaving respectably. It’s a slap in the face (or kick in the ass) to those of us trying to cultivate what I will call civility (trashed furniture sitting out front of a residence is not “civil” behavior) when the village overlooks so much and moves soooooo slowly.

At 4:24 pm two days later, on Jan 31, Joe delivered the glad news.  “Hi Calvin!  The chair has been removed from the front lawn of 21 Washington.”  In fact, it was still there.  The following day, sometime in the late morning, it vanished.
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It’s said that the Almighty created the earth and all that dwells therein in 7 days.  (Actually 6.  He rested on the 7th.)  The mayor and code office took 17 days to make a friggin’ chair disappear.
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In case you think I’m pillorying Joe, let me clarify.  I am, albeit in a friendly way.  I admire Joe and I think he’s a fine mayor.  (Joe and I go away back to his time as editor of the Telegram, hands down the best and smartest editor in the 20 years I’ve lived here.)  At the same time, I think Joe and his colleagues on the village board are caught in powerful cross-currents of legality and custom and community expectations and landlord intransigence.  Not to mention obstinate or defiant or simply clueless tenants.  Okay okay, I get it.  But—we have to muscle ourselves out of these immobilizing cross-currents; we have to move forward boldly, creatively, courageously.  And if we step on some toes (a slumlord or two) or wind up in front of a judge for whatever charge—then so be it. What we have at present is municipal paralysis.  A paralysis interpreted by slumlords and riffraff tenants as a carte blanche to screw us.

Joe, Norm, Brian, Archie, Andrea:  You are all good and smart people.  In the aggregate, you are arguably the finest village board we’ve had in years.  Stop wringing your hands about attracting jobs and business and start paying attention to the social contract.  When you do—presto!—the jobs and business and lots of other good stuff will happen.  I’ve seen this miracle happen in community after community.  We.  Can.  Do.  This.
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