Thursday, November 04, 2004

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (11/04/04)


Isn't it time that we looked at the awkward conglomeration of overlapping communities that is Westchester County? Shouldn't we streamline this unwieldy, balkanized monstrosity and its multiple layers of taxation and duplicated cheek-by-jowl departments? The county is made up of 19 towns, each administered by a supervisor, 6 cities and 20 villages, each administered by a mayor, plus dozens of hamlets of varying sizes. Another category, designated as a "town/village," comprises villages that have the same boundaries with towns under New York State law--Mount Kisco, Scarsdale and Harrison. The latter became a town/village in 1977 when the hamlet of Purchase sought to secede from the town of Harrison. To prevent this, the town made itself a town/village. (Hamlets can secede from towns--but not from villages.) Harrison has both a supervisor and a mayor, although the same person holds both titles. Mount Kisco and Scarsdale each get along with only a mayor.

Nomenclature can be downright confusing. There's an Ossining town and an Ossining village, and a Mamaroneck town and a Mamaroneck village. Two villages, Briarcliff Manor and Mamaroneck, each lie in two towns. Briarcliff Manor is split between the towns of Ossining and Mount Pleasant; Mamaroneck is in the towns of Rye and Mamaroneck.

Westchester County's area is 450.5 square miles, 72% of which is in towns, 16% in villages and 12% in cities. Bedford and Yorktown are the largest towns, each at 39.5 square miles; Ossining (3.0 sq.mi.), the smallest. Among towns, Greenburgh has the most population and Pound Ridge the least. Westchester's six cities are Mount Vernon, New Rochelle, Peekskill, Rye, White Plains and Yonkers--the largest city in area, as well as the most populous. Peekskill is the smallest city in area. Rye has the smallest population. In descending order of area in northwestern Westchester are Briarcliff Manor, 6.0 sq.mi.; Croton-on-Hudson, 4.9 sq.mi.; the city of Peekskill, 4.6 sq.mi.; Ossining village, 3.2 sq.mi.; Buchanan, the smallest, only 1.5 sq.mi. Their populations are: Ossining village, 24,229; Peekskill, 23,436; Briarcliff Manor, 7,906; Croton-on-Hudson, 7,801; Buchanan, 2,224.

The most densely populated town in Westchester is Eastchester; Pound Ridge is the least densely populated. Mount Vernon is the most densely populated city; Rye is the least densely populated. Tuckahoe and Port Chester are the most densely populated villages. The least densely populated village is Briarcliff Manor. Population density is a function of lot size and the number of multiple dwellings. Overall, Westchester's population density is 2,087 persons per square mile.

In northwestern Westchester, the most densely populated place in terms of persons per square mile is the village of Ossining (7,572), making it even more densely populated than the city of Peekskill (5,095). Other village population densities are: Croton-on-Hudson (1,592); Buchanan (1,482); Briarcliff Manor (1,318). Town densities are: Ossining (1,651) and Cortlandt (848).

It's the law. Did you know that two countries--Australia and Belgium--require citizens to vote in elections? Those who don't show up at polling places may be fined or even jailed.

A Parallel History? Reading Thucydides' History of the Pelopponesian War in the Rex Warner translation, one is struck by the eerie parallel between the Athenian expedition against Sicily and our invasion of Iraq. The Pelopponesian War was fought between Athens and Sparta from 431 to 404 B.C., with a minimally honored truce in the middle period. Greece is a collection of city-states, often warring with one another. The Mediterranean is virtually a Greek lake, with Hellenic colonies in Sicily, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, and across North Africa to the very shores of the Atlantic. The Greek colony at Segesta on the island of Sicily is in danger of being attacked by the city of Syracuse, the richest and most powerful city on the island.

Tempted by the great wealth that awaits in Sicily, the Athenians call an assembly and vote to mount an expedition, appointing as commanders Nicias, Alcibiades and Lamachus. Nicias does not wish to be chosen, convinced that Sparta is still the main enemy. His advice is: "In going to Sicily, you are leaving many enemies behind you, and you apparently want to make new ones there and have them also on your hands. Even if we did conquer the Sicilians, there are so many of them and they are so far off that it would be difficult to govern them. It is senseless to go against people who, even if conquered could not be controlled, while failure would leave us much worse off than we were before we made the attempt."

Nicias continues, "The next best thing is to make a demonstration of our power and then after a short time, go away again. We all know that what is admired is what is farthest off and least liable to have its reputation put to the test. The right thing is that we should spend our new gains at home and on ourselves instead of on these exiles who are begging for assistance and whose interest it is to tell lies and make us believe them, who have nothing to contribute themselves except speeches, who leave all danger to others and, if they are successful, will not be properly grateful, while if they fail in any way they will involve their friends in their own ruin."

Countering Nicias, hot-headed Alcibiades points out that the reason Athens had supported Segesta was to make the colony "a thorn in the flesh of our enemies in Sicily, and so prevent them from coming here to attack us." He argues for a preemptive war, saying, "One does not only defend oneself against a superior power when one is attacked; one takes measures in advance to prevent the attack materializing. And it is not possible for us to calculate, like housekeepers, exactly how much empire we want to have."

Nicias responds by pointing out the immensity of the undertaking and the large number of ships and men that would be required--to no avail. "The Athenians, however, far from losing their appetite for the voyage because of the difficulties in preparing for it, became more enthusiastic about it than ever," Thucydides writes. "The result of this excessive enthusiasm of the majority was that the few who actually were opposed to the expedition were afraid of being thought unpatriotic if they voted against it."

The assembly opts for war and gathers an invasion fleet of 134 triremes, huge warships with three tiers of oars on each side, and merchant ships loaded with corn for the troops, which consists of more than five thousand heavily armed soldiers called hoplites, 480 archers and 700 slingers, unerringly accurate in casting stones. As it turns out the invasion force is not large enough for the task. Thucydides writes that the Athenians "were for the most part ignorant of the size of the island and of the number of its inhabitants both Hellenic and native, and they did not realize that they were taking on a war of almost the same magnitude as their war against the Peloponnesians." Two years later, the Athenian fleet and expeditionary army are defeated by Syracuse in a decisive battle. Nicias, the reluctant general, and the captured remnants of the Athenian force are put to work in stone quarries. Thucydides writes, "Their losses were total; army, navy, everything was destroyed, and, out of many, only few returned."


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