Where Sime and Gen Meet, Creativity Happens
|Anne Phyllis Pinzow
is a script writer who makes her main living as a newspaper reporter and
editor. PHOTO: The house being discussed at this zoning board meeting,
photograph by Anne Phyllis Pinzow
Read this article carefully before reading the homework assignment.
More than 200 Town residents crowded into village hall, jeering, cheering and calling the attorney of the appellants a liar. Dozens of witnesses lined up to speak and the chief of police stationed himself in front of a group of five men in culturally dictated clothing, quietly sitting away from the crowd.
After all the seven other cases had been heard, including two which were originally scheduled for after this item, the Town Zoning Board of Appeals listened to the testimony for and against granting variances to allow an existing temporary lodging for religious visitors of the ill across the road from Good Samaritan Hospital.
Literally meaning, "to visit the sick," Bikur Cholim a non-profit organization provides healthcare related services for the ill. They have rented the single family home at 5 Hillcrest Road for the purpose of housing family members and friends of patients deeply observant in the Jewish faith who have been confined to the hospital or who are waiting emergency diagnosis. These people for religious reasons may not travel from sundown on Fridays to an hour past sundown on Saturdays and High Holy Days.
However, according to John Lowniewski, code enforcer for the Town, this is an illegal use of the property because it is zoned for single-family use and there have been several instances when more than the allowed 14 people have been housed there at a time.
The way the house is used places it in the legal pigeonhole of a transient hotel or motel, however, contrary to the stereotype, no money is accepted and only those of deep faith are allowed to stay overnight.
Yet, village residents who for years have been fighting developers over zoning issues and rampant overcrowding, did not want, what is called a "Shabbos House" in their back yard.
The tenor of residents' emotions was strongly felt by Lowniewski; he said because, "I've gotten emails and letters that I'm really nervous about." These contained rumors of the alleged uses of the house. He said some of the letters indicated that many would "rally and make a three-ring circus out of this."
This caused him to take the unprecedented move of asking those who were gathered to testify against granting the variances to come early for a meeting to discuss the hearing.
More than 40 people jammed into a room over the hearing auditorium as Lowniewski told them that he would report to the board the violations and that in his opinion the variances for "maintenance and the use of a conversion" not be granted. He made assurances that the case against granting the variances was strong and answered questions from those gathered on hearing procedure and the history of the case.
However, he told the group that he's seen these cases go either way but "the only potential derailment I see tonight, is you guys if you lose site of the fact that all of those tickets and overcrowding is written on that building, not those people. I don't personally care who goes in that building."
He told them "there cannot be any signs of discrimination and I won't be a part of that. Quite frankly if they put these guys next to my house, I'd ask one thing, give me a fence because of property maintenance and that's the only problem I have."
It wasn't the only problem that residents had as some hissed, and booed as Bikur Cholim's attorney, Paul Savad, presented their case.
He said the house was built in 2004 after the property was granted a variance because of the small size of the lot. The house was then purchased by Fellowship House, which treats people with addictions, and is now leased to Bikur Cholim for $10 a year.
He presented letters submitted in support of the variance by Sister Fran Gorish of Good Samaritan Hospital, Christopher St. Lawrence, supervisor of the town of Ramapo, and New York State Assemblyman Ryan Karben.
"Bikur Cholim has been operating in this village since 1983," Savad said. For 10 years it was at 1 Campbell Avenue but was asked to leave because the house was in a professional office zone. Then Good Samaritan Hospital took the facility in for another 10 years. However, now the hospital is short of space and Bikur Cholim was encouraged to find another space.
Savad said the organization operates the same type of facility near
Nyack Hospital and has never had a problem, as well as at the Westchester
Medical Facility in Valhalla.
He explained that when a member of the religious Jewish community must
come to the emergency room on a Friday afternoon, the stress and anxiety
caused by the time factor, of being unable to travel after sundown, could
negatively affect their condition, he said.
"I would hate to see someone stay at home for fear that they would be violating their religious beliefs and suffer a heart attack and possibly die because they felt strongly about their religious beliefs and were not afforded the opportunity to have a place to stay."
Planning Board attorney, Robert Magrino asked Savad if the house was a matter of convenience and was told that because of religious prohibitions, these people would have to walk back to Monsey, Spring Valley or New Square if they could not stay at the Shabbos House.
During much of the questioning of Lipke by the planning board members, the residents in the auditorium jeered or cheered to the extent they had to be called to order.
Lowniewski then gave his findings that the house was not being used as a single-family house. And if 14 people were staying there then enough parking would have to be provided, which isn't available.
As to allowing for 14 people to stay at the house at any one time, Lowniewski said that the village doesn't have jurisdiction to listen to that appeal, as it's a state statute.
While the three-second floor bedrooms are being used as such, said
Lowniewski, the garage and dining room are also used as bedrooms. It is
legal but not typical to a one-family home.
Lowniewski said the application is before the zoning board of appeals because of violations for property maintenance, overcrowding, use, fire safety and bedroom sizes.
A civil compromise of $2,500 was assessed and paid which regarded all the property maintenance issues, he said.
Also, neither Fellowship House or Bikur Cholim ever intended to use the structure as a single-family house nor did they seek variances for the altered use before establishing the Shabbos House and they did not cease the illegal use once they were cited.
When Lowniewski said, "You don't have much option but to say no to the application," the room erupted in cheers and applause.
Residents then came up to testify, mainly reiterating Lowniewski however some added other reasons, and each met with applause and cheers.
Janice Nesuegy said "should an outbreak of the avian flu epidemic arrive this ensuing winter it would seem that the health concerns should be addressed with that many people in a small area it does not take very long to imagine what the results would be," and warning of the spread of disease.
She went on to claim that the traffic from the house was a danger to the children in the area walking to the library across the road from the hospital.
Fred Sauberman said that any reasonable man who believes he is having a heart attack should be able to consider which hospital has facilities for visitors and choose the most appropriate one.
On a different tact, Jack Meehan, village trustee said that he had
called Joseph Cassidy, the Director of Operations at Good Samaritan
Hospital. "I asked about the possibility of a Shabbos House being built on
the campus and he said that was something we could discuss."
Cathy and James Mills, owners of the house next door to the Shabbos House were sworn in next and stated that on two or three occasions they've called the police seeing cars pulling into the driveway at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m.
(Interviewed later, the Town police chief Osborne said he has no knowledge of any criminal activity reported at the house or heard anything negative from the officers.)
James Mills said he was worried because his wife and children were in their home by themselves.
Maura Byrnes, one of the last to testify said she had researched Bikur Cholim and found it to be a "noble, noble cause, to take care of people when they're sick." However she said she's shocked at the strict adherence to religious law but the disregard of civil law.
After closing the public portion the Zoning Board of Appeals was quick to unanimously deny the application, again, to loud cheers and applause.
Interviewed after the hearing Savid said the decision might be appealed in federal court if possible. However when asked about the general attitude displayed by the residents he said he was not surprised and had experienced it before. He said that the members of the board were respectful, polite and listened but that "they don't recognize that this is a one family house. The use is minimal and I think things have been exaggerated. The violations of record speak for themselves."
Magrino said that even with all of the violations and community resistance, New York and federal law requires that when dealing with a religious organization a different level of scrutiny is used.
"The law recognizes that government can't have regulations that overly burden the exercise of religion. It's a balancing that the board does and if it gets to that point the court must decide."
This was a difficult article to write, though it may not seem so when you read it -- especially if you're not a resident of the community in question.
The lesson here is focused on the ROLE OF THE REPORTER -- which is not the same as the role of the fictional narrative writer.
Anne here comments on the degree of her personal involvement in the issues, always the case where a reporter is covering the community where they live. But even when covering a story of national scope for TV news, reporters face this same problem. Issues arise which have unique personal meaning for the reporter -- yet the people being served by the News, readers and viewers, have little interest in the reporter's problems and great interest in what this issue means for them and their lives.
"This was, without a doubt, one of, if not the most difficult and challenging articles I've ever had to write. It pretty much tore me apart. I had to walk on a knife's edge between my faith, my honesty, my own deeply held prejudices and beliefs and my professionalism. In the end, I felt like I was nearly, merely transcribing the events, catching each and every emotion, releasing it with a burst of narrative diarrhea and then quickly cutting it out.
"However difficult writing this article was, what was even more difficult was witnessing the story.
"There I sat, a Jewish American woman,(or is it an American Jewish woman?) listening to and experiencing what seemed to me akin to what it must have been like at times in early 1930s Germany. Yes, I was afraid. Oh, I knew that I was physically safe. What I feared was what I felt was a glimpse into the past and possibly what could be the future.
"I had to keep reminding myself that this is the United States and that many of the residents who were so antagonistic, so much a part of what seemed like a mob, were also Jewish, as were members of the Zoning Board of Appeals.
"Let me make one thing clear, the law is the law and it is more than obvious that the users of the house spoken of in the article abused that law in many ways. However, they were not spreading disease nor were they in any way a danger to children walking by. Most of all, they were breaking civil, not criminal laws and if anything were putting themselves in more danger by their abuse than anyone else.
"The mere fact that the chief of police felt that his presence was needed and that he sat with the members of the Jewish sect spoke volumes to me of what the officials feared.
"As a Jew, I was both angry that people of my faith had misled the public so much but I was also angry, as an American, that people of my country were so insensitive and held such animosity towards what they clearly did not understand.
"What disgusted me was that neither side seemed to even want to understand the other. Both sides, one with their insular cultural attitudes and the other with their competitive need to win and beat the other, were at fault for this situation.
"I also felt the need for isolation to protect my observance. I also felt the need for the law to win and to preserve what I own. I honestly don't know where justice went, if it was there or not. I don't think so.
"There, right there, in that doubt of what is right and what is wrong, at that point in time and space, in that Norman Rockwellesk auditorium, when one man actually said "If a reasonable man thinks he is having a heart attack, he should consider which hospital can best deal with his visitors," is where wars really start, where fear and hatred dance gleefully taking on the guise of comedy, stealing over minds, then hearts and finally souls and feelings leading to genocide take root.
"Well, there I went again with narative diarrhea."
And so we put several questions to APP:
What is the most valuable experience you had that went into your ability to pull off this article?
What training kept you from bursting out screaming at that meeting?
Where did the ability to mix and blend this article come from?
What would you suggest as a homework exercise to achieve this ability to observe, mix and blend?
"I can't actually pin this on one experience at all but on my personal beliefs that I, as a reporter, witness and nothing more.
"I remember a the Robert Heinlein book Stranger in a Strange Land in which he spoke about professional witnesses.
"When I began reporting, I remembered hearing stories about how the ones who were most respected were the ones who played it straight and did not embellish.
"I wanted to be like them and the idea of the totally objective witness came into my mind.
"Then I remember a writing class I had where I had to write a totally objective description of an object and found that to be truly and completely objective left the reader with no idea of what I was talking about. It turned out hysterically funny "An objective description of a soup can," Campbell's Tomato as I recall. Oh, it did get an A++++ in my one and only creative writing class, and did I mention that was at Columbia University?
"All these together are the "experience. "
"As to the training, again, it was the idea of the witness.
"One other bit of training I had (and oh boy yes did I want to jump up and scream at all of them) was something of a comparison.
"My predecessor at this assignment was known and despised for consistantly putting her own views into her articles and for jumping up and screaming at the people at the meeting.
"I'm better received.
"However, I think that it's the training of a professional journalist that counts. I'm a witness, nothing more. I don't add, I don't subtract and as far as possible I don't participate in the event.
"My opinion is of no importance what so ever.
"Yes, all of that is impossible. I mean I know enough of philosophy and psychology to know that my mere presence anywhere and anytime changes what exists from what it would be without me there.
"And of course, my opinion does get into my artilces. But my opinion is this: both sides get a fair shake.
"Oh, one other thing is essential. I try to put myself in the other person's shoes, see the situation from different perspectives. Believe it or not, photography helps.
Again, the ability to mix and blend this article came from an understanding of formula journalism and what must go where.
Next, an understanding of story development, and that's from basic fiction writing, and visual writing, screen writing.
And in that blending is also how I kept myself out of the story, not jumping up and screaming.
"If I'm writing a news article, it's real, it's happening. If I'm writing a fiction piece, it's not real, it's not happening.
"While listening for quotes for my article I'm apart from it all and composing, (a fiction technique), but recording, (a news technique.).
"In fiction, you search yourself for your story and take bits and pieces. In news, you search the outer world for those bits and pieces.
"Okay, here's the thing, I went to a Zoning Board of Appeals meeting. Most people don't even know what that is unless they want to do something extraordinary to their residential or business property and their lawyer handles it for them.
"But I've been to a lot of these and they are BORING.
"The lawyers drone on and the witnesses against either have nothing better to do than to complain about everything just for the sake of complaining, or they are really nasty.
"However, looking at this, and I was there only on a tip and because I knew what Bikur Cholim is, I saw what I saw.
"I don't know if someone else would have seen this at all in the same way. Well, maybe they would in their own unique way.
"But that's the blend. And I don't think I can explain it any better.
"HOMEWORK: Emulate James Bond standing before a firing squad.
"Death is zeroing in on him and his mind is not on saving himself, but on the mission, looking for the angles, how can he use what is happening right now to achieve his goal of saving the world.
"Or, if that's too dramatic, then during the next fight you have with a family member, sit there totally motionless and do not respond, do not answer, do not react.
"As you're doing that, remember that the fight is not about you, it's about them, because you're not fighting. Then write up the fight event as if it were a news story. Then write up the fight event as if it were a scene in a novel. Repeat that exercise as often as necessary until you can see the two pieces in high contrast to one another.
"If you can do that, and I have managed to pull it off a few times, you're on the way to understanding how to write objectively.
"When you can do the "James Bond" role then you will be successful at objective news coverage. "
Read the other lessons by Anne Phyllis Pinzow. Especially her Rules for good reporting.
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