Finding our way back to Community

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The Bridle Path in Central Park. 9:00 PM. Photo: JH.

Thursday, September 3, 2020.  Some beautiful late Summer days in New York with temps starting the day with rainfall burning off around 70 or just below, and rising up to the mid-80s (with some humidity), and then, possibly with some more rainfall, back to the high 60s.

Good News. I hear the school around the corner (Brearley) is going to open very soon. Will confirm when happens. Of specific interest right now is the restaurants. There have been reports that the Mayor and/or the Governor is thinking of holding off on letting restaurants open (inside) until (whatever reasons). Mr. de Blasio is reported to have said that restaurants are only for the rich anyway, (absurd) and I don’t know what Mr. Cuomo said, nor does it matter.

The only thing that matters is that we New Yorkers need our restaurants to share time and space with others – which we have been doing since Creation. Their opening is needed to bring back at least some of the millions of citizens who have been put out of work (and out of money). 

I read somewhere yesterday that the city will be providing outdoor heaters to go by the tables outside so that we non-politicians can still be warmed while still eating outside (in the cold). That’s a lot of outdoor heaters. Is that in the official budget or will we be taxed for them? If all of this seems like I’m making it up, that’s even what it seems like to me when I report it.

One thing is undeniable: Summer is over.  I’m not sure how we will remember the Summer of ’20, or even the entire year. It’s news to no one that this year was one of mass limitations. Beginning in March when the so-called “pandemic” was introduced, we have been withdrawing either by law, or by Common Sense, to “keep safe.” Back then many New Yorkers who could, did exit the city for “safer” places at their country houses.

Many of the “exiters” are still there and planning on remaining permanently. Social life has been altered into almost non-existence, save the close relationships that people continue out of the very real human need to be with each other. We are not lone animals like many of our four-legged friends and neighbors, although a lot of our experts are apparently unaware of that fact of human existence.

The Summer Season in the Hamptons, for example, has been one of isolation — as it’s been in the City — although with frequent and light exceptions. Although the restaurants are open (and inside). People seeing, lunching and/or dining in small numbers of four to eight, observing “social distancing” (six to ten feet per when they sort of do) or not, and occasionally in larger groups – still keeping a “social distance” (except when they don’t) and now masking.

Toni Ross and Sara Salaway, When, Wainscott.

As the months have passed towards the lifting of the “lockdown” the “rules” we’ve been observing have lightened — although not with everyone. “Society,” as we have known it, however, is dead. Ironically, personal wealth which is “Power” in the human realm, is greater than ever amongst the very few.

I recently read that the total wealth among six or eight well-known billionaires now totals a trillion dollars. Gee, isn’t that interesting? While the total personal wealth of millions and millions of us ordinary citizens can’t match the fortunate six or eight individuals.

John D. Rockefeller — the richest American. Ever.

The article reminded of the history of John D. Rockefeller (the first). More than a century ago, when he was seen as the richest man in the world, Mr. Rockefeller, then worth a billion (in that day’s dollar, like a trillion today) had a problem: a woman named Ida M. Tarbell.

Ms. Tarbell (then Miss Tarbell), born in 1857, was a reporter who hailed from Titusville, in northwestern Pennsylvania. Titusville, in the last half of the 19th century, was known as the “birthplace of the American oil industry.” The area, in its day, was known as the leading oil producing region in the world. Remember this was before the era of the automobile and everything oil. And Texas.

Ms. Tarbell’s father, Franklin Tarbell, was an early prospector and owner of an oil producing and refining property. At that time, a young man from a large upstate New York family, John D. Rockefeller, then living in Cleveland, Ohio, was at a very young age (20) working as a bookkeeper. He was always very good with numbers, having started keeping daily records of his spending since he first started working at age 7 (they were poor, like so many American families in those days).

As a young man in Cleveland, he got wind of the activity in Pennsylvania and foresaw the possibilities of “oil” in the marketplace (mainly then for kerosene, and, toward the end of the 19th century, gasoline).  It was also the dawn of the motor. Rockefeller created several partnerships and concentrated in acquiring the oil refiners such as Franklin Tarbell. In 1870, he and his partners, including a young man named Henry Flagler — who actually organized and named the company — created Standard Oil.

Whatever their techniques for acquiring the properties of other oil refiners, Franklin Tarbell had a disappointing, to say the least, experience with Rockefeller and partners. His daughter Ida grew up amidst her father’s problems and rank disappointments with Rockefeller’s way of doing business: “Hate, suspicion and fear …. engulfed the community” that young Ida lived in, and she never got over it. Nor did Mr. Rockefeller.

Madame Muckraker — Ida M. Tarbell. Courtesy: The Ida M. Tarbell Collection, Pelletier Library, Allegheny College, Meadville PA

Around the turn of the 20th century when Mr. Rockefeller was the richest man in the world and Ida Tarbell was by then a well-seasoned journalist in her early 40s, her experience in youth inspired her to write the story of her father’s nemesis,  John D. Rockefeller and how he acquired other people’s businesses. It should be noted that those early prospectors who sold out to Rockefeller often prospered — some even to immense wealth.

Ida Tarbell’s piece first appeared in McClure’s, a very popular magazine in its day. It was long and detailed. The 19-part series was eventually published as a book The History of Standard Oil Company in 1904. The expose known in those days as muckraking, was damning. It was also credited with inspiring many muckraking reports on industry in the pre-antitrust days of large businesses in America. And it focused mainly on the world’s richest man who was then in his early 60s, and retiring from business.

The History of the Standard Oil Company was hugely successful, as well as influential with the general public in the early 20th century. Its effect on the subject,  John D. Rockefeller — religious man that he was since childhood — was to paint him as the devil, and its effect was profound not only with the public opinion but also with the man himself.

However, he, who was a deeply religious Baptist, did not actually admit guilt, but did feel contrite. The result of his contrition was to make amends through what became profound and vast philanthropy. This came about, it has been reported, from advisers like Ivy Lee, an early public relations man who, it was reported, was paid $250,000 a year (many millions in today’s dollars) for his advice and work.

One of the first projects of contrition which Mr. Rockefeller financed was the Rockefeller University Hospital which is still located on York Avenue in the 60s. To this day, more than a century later, Rockefeller University Hospital is an important medical research organization. During the Depression of the 1930s, the hospital provided medical assistance and advice to working people and their families for FREE. The early Rockefeller philanthropies were all designed to help “the people” in need. The result of those tasks reversed and resurrected not only the public image of the world’s richest man, but inspired many others to participate in “helping one’s fellow man,” including his off-spring so that today, several members of the fifth generation of Rockefellers continue to be devoutly committed to the good works of his philanthropy in several fields.

Standard Oil Refinery #1, Cleveland, Ohio, 1889.

We are back there at the beginning in these strange and hard times confronting us. One of the most disturbing things about the “lockdown” for me is how “philanthropy” which is now sequestered like everything else, will be able to continue.  The need is greater than ever because of the economic, financial, and employment situations in our world and the fact that there are billions more of us than there were a century ago. Ironically we cannot be certain that our elected leaders have any real awareness of this fact.

The Social (with a capitol S) world today is no longer defined by the prominent hostess who found her self-expression and power in philanthropy. Many millions today are raised through devices such as “galas” — the publicity of which informs us of the possibilities of helping each other in this world. Over the past four decades, that seasonal activity has raised billions not only for research and care but as employment for many thousands of people.

The “rules” of the pandemic have made much of that informing impossible for the last six months. And it looks even more difficult (financially and otherwise) in the not distant future. However, this past summer, which is always quieter because of the season, has seen “galas” and fundraisers operating via the internet, including Publicolor, the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, The American Institute for Stuttering, the Hope For Depression Foundation, The Newport Art Museum, The Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Fund, to name just a few.

As we move into the new season, it is important that we find our way back to Community.

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