The little things - Martha Randolph Carr

When an economy starts to fail, the first tell-tale signs are small, and might even be overlooked.

It's only in hindsight that it's possible to see how they all added up to a different quality of life. A few good examples of that are in my neighborhood in the South Bronx near Yankee Stadium.

Just before the world took a left turn last September, and Wall Street became an empty symbol, they were planting tea roses down the center of the Grand Concourse, the main thoroughfare in the South Bronx. They were even sending out a water truck occasionally to feed the roses and had someone picking up the Saturday night trash that would cling to the thorns all weekend. It was a sign of the optimism people had in the neighborhood that was gaining a nickname of "Sobro," like Soho.

But, things changed, and this time it felt like it was almost overnight. Budgets had to be adjusted and the tea roses were an easy one to start neglecting. They became a pitiful symbol of where we had been heading and where we stalled out.

No one really noticed, though, and everyone kept marching to work and then back home barely glancing at the withering bushes.

Now, it's a concrete step, which doesn't sound like much at first. But this is a step leading out of the exit from the D train at the McClellan stop. It's one small step in a long flight of steps, and it's come loose and tilted backwards and needs to be replaced. Rather than bring out the cement and a trowel, the city has opted to use the same effort and build a small wooden box around the entrance, closing it to the public.

All of the commuters, myself included, now have the option to walk out of a different exit two avenue blocks away and trudge past the closed entrance, twice a day. It's relevant in New York to mention that it's an avenue block, which translates as particularly long.

One small step closed the entire exit and it's still just a small inconvenience. And then, this weekend the city stopped running any local subway train from 125th on the west side of Harlem, which is on my route, all the way to 59th at Columbus Circle. The old standby trick of riding to 59th and catching a different line back, like the one or the two, wasn't working either. They were making fewer local stops.

Taxis were still available and a bus might make up the difference. They were all still small little changes that can seem inconsequential, because when working properly, they aren't even noticed in the daily grind.

But, things changed last year and hard choices keep coming up, and at first, it's stuff that seems easy to ignore, particularly if they're in outlying boroughs or rural communities. And before you know it, the tea roses seem naïve because there are bigger things to worry about, like a rise in crime and fewer working families in the area. A broken step can be pushed aside until a better day.

But every little thing affects the world, and if the details are neglected, they accumulate into problems that eventually take complicated studies and manpower to solve. There is another way.

Local governments all across the country could stop pushing aside the smaller problems and ask for our help. It's a different kind of idea, but we're in a very different kind of situation. A little novelty is going to be required. Give the local citizens a list of what needs to be fixed or repaired, and let us pitch in to keep our communities, at least, at the level where they are right now. I'd be willing to help with that step.

Martha's column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc., newspaper syndicate. E-mail her at: Martha@caglecartoons.com.