October 14, 2010

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Fall Fest is a glass better than half full

We spend a lot of our time wringing our hands over what doesn’t work.

This isn’t without due cause, of course. There’s a lot that we should be concerned about. In the last few months, we’ve reported projected cash shortfalls for some of Chestnut Hill’s most significant institutions. A few weeks ago, the Chestnut Hill Community Association raised alarms over its ability to pay bills. Cash shortages have recently sent the Chestnut Hill Business Association and the Parking Foundation into talks to merge with the Chestnut Hill Business Improvement District.

We’ve also discussed other things in these pages recently: dwindling Avenue foot traffic and the closure of retailers – from Borders Books to Limeburner Opticians. Presently, the CHCA and CHBA are discussing a Web strategy to enhance the community’s online profile. Those talks stem from concern about getting in front of outside competition and to find a new way to reach people in the community.

We don’t, though, spend as much time talking about those things that work really well in Chestnut Hill: the festivals. The Fall for the Arts festival was conceived some 15 years ago by the CHBA as a way to bring people to Chestnut Hill for a grand arts and crafts bazaar, entertainment and to showcase the Avenue to those attracted to the event. On all accounts it’s a miraculous success.

Anyone who was at the event last Sunday, Oct. 9, saw that things were pretty much the same as always: an enormous crowd of people from all over the region, hundreds of vendors dealing and painting under tents up and down both sides of the Avenue. There were bands, train rides for kids, rock climbing and lots of good food. The crowds were so thick, it was tough to move more than two blocks an hour.

Of course, the festival got an assist from some of the best October weather in memory. But there is something about the festivals — in addition to Fall for the Arts, the spring Home and Garden Festival is just as successful, and the Book Festival is a promising newcomer – that speak to a real asset of Chestnut Hill. The neighborhood might be in flux, with key vacancies in long need of being filled, but the Avenue and the festivals are still a draw that is remarkable and among the biggest I’ve ever seen.

The success of the festivals is certainly due to the hard work of the CHBA staff – Kate O’Neill, Peggy Miller, Peggy Hendrie and Fran O’Donnell. It’s a herculean effort that takes a ton of planning to be sure that vendors and visitors get everything they need. That it all runs so smoothly (to the casual observer, anyway) is a testament to how well the staff has this effort down.

But maybe, Chestnut Hill has more going for it than we sometimes remember when we’re hard at work, figuring out how to improve its smaller parts – its retail mix and online presence or the efficiency of its institutions and the volunteer spirit of its population.

Chestnut Hill still has something that can attract thousands of people to the Avenue on a warm fall day. Not every locale can boast the same. It’s a nice thing to enjoy, even if only for a day.

Pete Mazzaccaro


What’s really behind the anger?

These are frightening and sad times.

Unbelievably, 25% of Americans think Barack Obama is a Muslim. 27% (including 41% of Republicans) think he is “probably” or “definitely” foreign-born. They are encouraged in this by shock jocks like Glenn Beck. His “Restoring Honor” rally – though couched in religious terms, showcasing Martin Luther King’s niece, and containing limited inclusive rhetoric (not for gays!) – attracted a virtually all-white crowd. Its very name implied that our current leaders are dishonorable (note that no such rally occurred in 2008). Sadly, many Americans understand neither the beauty of what our Founders created nor how fragile it is, more easily imperiled from within than from without.

Nativist, anti-immigrant fervor is rising, and not just in Arizona. I witnessed a Tea Party rally in Washington and was amazed at the crude conflation of legal and illegal immigrants, asserting that “no immigrants” deserve rights. Never mind that Tea Partyers themselves are descendants of immigrants, some of whom snuck in, though most arrived when there were few restrictions and therefore no need to enter stealthily.

Then there is the controversy in New York over a Muslim cultural center, whose Board includes Christians and Jews as well as Muslims and which in fact cannot be seen from Ground Zero. Nor is it the only Muslim facility being opposed. In New York there’s a “convenient” (even if inaccurate) excuse – location. What about in Murfreesboro, Tennessee?

What links these frightening issues – lies about Obama, opposition to immigration, and the Ground Zero controversy – are the real motivations behind them: fear, prejudice, and political expediency.

FEAR, while usually rooted in reality, is controlled by emotions that lead to irrational thinking and misguided, dangerous actions. Fear starts with “truth,” such as: for several decades we have lived through turbulent change, including the current economic downturn; some immigrants get jobs that a native-born American might otherwise hold; and almost 3000 innocents died at the World Trade Center. Then emotions lead to irrationality. So we have citizens and “leaders” who seemingly believe that unemployment will go down if we throw out immigrants; terrorism will end if we don’t build mosques; punishing bankers will grow the middle class; reversing health care will save money long-term; and ignoring environmental degradation will not affect us. Demagoguery makes people feel good; it fixes nothing. Demagogues and their close allies may gain money and power, but no one else benefits. 

PREJUDICE is the result of faulty  thinking in stereotypes, such as: “Because this person who committed an evil act belongs to Group X, everyone in that group is evil.” “They’re not like me, so they’re a threat.” Prejudice is related to fear, because “the other” is often someone seen as a rival whom we fear will take something from us. (It often includes an element of self-doubt.) Yes, Muslims who believed that Islam called upon them to kill even innocents were responsible for 9/11. But that does not mean that every Muslim is a suicidal maniac. Do we blame every Christian for the Crusades, which killed Jews and Muslims in the name of Christianity? Do we think that all Jews are murderers because some West Bank settlers attack Palestinians in the name of God? America still suffers from the prejudice of its European immigrants against Native Americans (“primitives”), blacks (deemed 3/5 of a person each by the Constitution), and other groups that were “different.” The false claims about Barack Obama prove without a doubt what is really going on: rank, disgraceful, un-American prejudice and racism.

POLITICAL EXPEDIENCY is rife, playing on people’s fears and worst impulses. It includes charges that those with whom one disagrees or who look different are un-American. Some who had no problem running up deficits to pay for wars and tax breaks frighten the middle class with warnings that deficits are dooming us. Rhetoric has gone beyond exaggeration to outright lies (remember death panels?), with frightening effectiveness. Such rhetoric by elected and would-be officials is repulsive, reason enough not to vote for them or any of their colleagues who remain silent in the face of such behavior.

Neither fear nor prejudice nor political expediency is reason to demonize others. America’s honor will be restored when it lives up to its finest values. It is exceedingly frightening and ironically sad to think that the end result of 9/11, the election of a black president, and the other challenges we face would be an intolerant America that violates the very ideals upon which it was founded.

Rabbi George Stern is the Executive Director of Neighborhood Interfaith Movement (NIM), a coalition of 60 Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Unitarian congregations and faith institutions dedicated to “engaging staff, volunteers, and people of all ages … in service and social justice advocacy.” NIM’s offices are at 7047 Germantown Avenue; its Community Resource Center is next door.




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