30 November 2009

Post Office Nightmares?

Two recent letters to the editor of the Courier News - one written by fellow Board of Education member Wolf Schneider - serve to remind us of the sorry state of affairs at the Hillsborough Post Office.

This is a topic I have tackled previously. In October of 2007 I detailed the fact that of all the area Post Offices, Hillsborough has the shortest hours. Six weeks later, I wrote about the appalling lack of urgency exhibited by the postal workers at the counter. With long lines snaking around inside the building, the employees move like they are underwater, or perhaps taking a space walk.

A year later, the Hillsborough Postmaster seemed to signal his surrender by writing a letter to the editor urging residents to stay home - buy stamps by mail, use the USPS website.

We have had our own "Hillsborough" Post Office for less than a decade. You would think that it would be able to survive more than eight or nine holiday seasons before devolving into the complete mess that exists today.

Maybe we need someone like chef Gordon Ramsay to come in and completely overhaul the place, like he does on his "Kitchen Nightmares" show.

On second thought, after witnessing the abominable service, he'd probably just yell, "Shut it down! Shut it down!"

15 November 2009

Anna Case is Made, Part 1

When the curtain rose at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on the evening of November 15, 1909, it is a fair bet that many in the audience were not there to see Carl Burrian in the title role of Tannhauser or superstar diva Johanna Gadski as Elizabeth, but rather to see Anna Case, the blacksmith's daughter from the little village of South Branch, New Jersey, in the first of her 154 appearances with the Metropolitan Opera.

30 May 1909 St. Louis Post Dispatch

Anna Lucretia Case first realized she could sing while a member of the choir at the South Branch Reformed Church. Self-taught on violin, organ, and piano, the young girl took many jobs to supplement her family's income. She cleaned her neighbors' homes, sold soap door-to-door, picked up fares in a gig at the Flagtown train stations, and gave piano lessons to the children in the evenings - driving that same gig over the pitch-black country roads, a revolver in her lap. All the while dreaming of becoming a professional singer.

Plainfield First Presbyterian Church, circa 1906

A loan of $75 from the wife of the South Branch Grocer enabled the budding soprano to take voice lessons from Somerville teacher Catherine Opdyke. A $12-a-month job as organist and choir director at the Neshanic Reformed Church - as well as a revenue-generating concert there - allowed her to pay back the grocer's wife and begin taking lessons with former Swedish grand opera soprano Mme. Augusta Ohrstrom-Renard. 

Mme. Augusta Ohrstrom-Renard, circa 1883

Realizing the incredible raw talent possessed by Anna Case, the former diva took no fee for lessons, encouraging the 18-year-old to be ambitious and make her way by auditioning for the soprano part in the quartet of the Plainfield First Presbyterian Church. She was turned down in 1906 but auditioned again a year later and was enthusiastically accepted.

12 March 1907 Plainfield Daily Press

This first truly professional job as a singer paid only $24 a month - just barely enough for room and board at 225 East Fifth Street. Anna Case later described how she kept to her room on most days saying, "you don't feel so hungry when you are just lying still." She also gave concerts - often alongside other pupils of Mme. Ohrstrom-Renard such as Somerville native Jessamine Burd - and supplemented her income by giving voice lessons.

24 December 1907, Plainfield Daily Press

It was during the first of what would eventually become many concerts at the famous Ocean Grove Auditorium that Anna Case met former New Jersey Governor Edward Stokes. So enchanted was he with her singing, that he promised to use his connections to get her an engagement at Philadelphia's Bellevue-Stratford Hotel.

Although she would later protest that she was never "discovered" - that it had been her own hard work all along that led to her success - Anna's big break was upon her. With a borrowed dress and playing her own accompaniment on piano, she sang weekdays from four to six p.m. Although the engagement that fall lasted less than two weeks, it coincided with the New York Metropolitan Opera's season which began in November and found the company in Philadelphia each Tuesday.

12 May 1909, New York Herald

The Metropolitan's managing director Andreas Dippel - staying at the hotel - heard the 21-year-old soprano one Tuesday afternoon and nearly engaged her on the spot. Upon his return to New York, he arranged for Anna Case to come into the city and audition for him. This time, opera star Geraldine Farrar played piano while she sang. 

Circa 1909

In her own words. "I really didn't appreciate all it meant until I told my singing teacher. She said, 'You are made.' I said, 'I am not so sure, you really can't tell from a beginning.' She replied, 'This beginning is the end; it is all up to you from now on.'"

No sooner had the ink dried on Anna's first contract than the publicity machine was out in full force. Stories about Anna's humble beginnings began appearing in local newspapers across the country six months before she had sung a note. We will take a look at those in Part 2.

10 November 2009

Revaluation Opportunity Missed

If you're a property owner in Hillsborough, you've probably already received a letter from the township and Appraisal Systems, Inc. notifying you of the 2010 revaluation. A brochure answering many typical questions accompanied the letter.

One curious aspect of the revaluation plan, as noted in the first sentence of the letter, is that it will apply only to "taxable real estate". That's interesting since there is one large piece of "non-taxable" commercial real estate in Hillsborough - the VIP Industrial Park located at the old South Somerville Depot on Route 206, north of Docherty Park.

The VIP Park is not taxable because, although the leaseholder - who signed a 35 year lease in 2004 - is running a commercial warehouse and transload operation on the site, the land is owned by the federal government.

In 2005, the township committee came to an agreement with the leaseholder whereby Hillsborough would not go to court to try to collect taxes on the property if the VIP Industrial Park entered into a PILOT (Payment In Lieu Of Taxes) Program. The agreement calls for Hillsborough to receive a payment of $300,000 per year for the duration of the lease, which can go up or down based on the square footage of the property currently being utilized for commercial purposes, but can not fall below $200,000.

To tell you the truth, I have never been fully satisfied as to how the $300,000 payment was determined. For one thing, it is supposed to represent the total amount of property tax that would be paid if the property was on the tax rolls. But if that is the case, shouldn't the school system be receiving 65% each year? And what about the county's nearly 20%? In the current scenario, the municipal government receives the entire amount.

Now, it may be that $300,000 is a fair and accurate figure - or even an amount that trends in favor of Hillsborough - but I was kind of looking forward to the 2010 revaluation to find out for sure. With the notice this week that the revaluation will only include taxable real estate, an opportunity to discover the true "income producing potential" of the depot is being missed.

09 November 2009

Mayor "Corky"

I was saddened to hear of the passing of former Hillsborough Township mayor John Guerrera. Saddened for his family and friends who have lost their loved one, and saddened for the residents of Somerset County who have lost one of their most dedicated public servants.

I am also saddened for myself because of the fact that I never had the opportunity to meet and speak with this fascinating man - a man who served in the Navy in World War II, practically started the Hillsborough Democratic Organization, served three terms on the township committee with three stints as mayor, ran for a state senate seat in 1981 (giving Dems their best showing that decade), and served on the Somerset County Tax Board.

I am certain I could have learned a lot from a man who accomplished all of this and still had time to be an avid golfer, run his own business, and have a Twitter account!

Take a look at the handsome young man in the bottom left corner of the 1943 Somerville High School Yearbook.

02 November 2009

Daggett's Dead Letter Office

About a month ago I wrote here:

It seems incredible that a candidate with no established organization could get enough monetary contributions to qualify for matching funds if all of that money came with the purest of intentions.

Now, with the admission by the New Jersey State Democratic Committee that they are behind the robocalls asking registered Republicans to vote for Chris Daggett, we see clearly who is behind the Independent candidate’s campaign. A vote for Daggett IS a vote for Corzine – the Corzine camp admits it!

And so, at the risk of repeating myself, I urge voters who wish to send a real message to Trenton to vote for the candidate who will deliver that message – Chris Christie. Pulling the lever for Daggett sends your message straight to the Dead Letter Office.