I envy the poets and lyricists who write good-byes succinctly and memorably. Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow. Happy Trails to You. Thanks for the Memories, and the like.
Four years and 268 postings ago, I dove into the blogosphere by introducing myself and my Americana running buddy, my wife Carol M. Highsmith, whose photos have richly decorated this space. In fact, I’ve picked some of my favorites of hers to accompany these good-bye words.
This may be my favorite Hghsmith image of all, because it captures not only a nostalgic glimpse at gentler times gone by but also reflects our increasingly race-blind society in the 21st Century. (Carol M. Highsmith)
I am retiring — not to be confused with shy and retiring — on Nov. 8, after 26½ years of federal service. Twenty-six and one-half! At my age, one acts more and more like a 4-year-old, counting every quarter of every calendar year.
What a journey it has been at Carol’s side, dipping into every U.S. state and every big city, most middlin’-sized places, and what seems like a thousand family farms and vast parks and small towns.
This all started with my unrequited love of geography as a child. I was raised a curious “only child” on the fringes of Cleveland, Ohio, by a mother who did not drive. Except for one train trip to California, the farthest I got until high school was the east side of town.
As I hope you agree if you’ve followed this space for a while, I’ve made up for what I missed.
The taste of blogging has been a sweet one, and I intend to continue in the professional afterlife. I expect to be on the road eight months a year, driving, gripping (in the Hollywood sense, lugging cases and camera equipment) and blogging about America from the road as Carol caps off her career photographing early-21st-Century America. As I have told you from time to time, this is her gift to future generations as she continues to donate her life’s work, copyright-free, to the Library of Congress — the world’s greatest collection of human thought and creativity.
There’s no place in America that we like more than New Orleans, and not just at Mardi Gras. It’s a place that knows how to relax and have fun. Carol and I do the latter, but not always the former, pretty well. (Carol M. Highsmith)
We will be traveling under the auspices of the new, nonprofit This is America! Foundation, which is also sending videographer Connie Doebele across America for the same purpose. Beginning with the pack-up of our SUV in a week or so, I’ll be blogging on the This is America! site.
Here at the Voice of America, many others and I strongly believe that a sacred part of our mission is to tell the world the truth about our nation and our people. The commendable, the troubling, even the unflattering. That’s why I’ve taken pains to describe some rough-hewn, hard-luck places on our byways and back roads that Carol calls “Disappearing America,” as well as our glory destinations. And why I’ve invited discussions about some sensitive issues — our country’s hurried and harried children, most recently.
We are a sprawling land, diverse geographically and ethnically. A complicated place, young as civilizations go. So I’ve mixed in a lot of history in order to put the American experience into context.
I hope you’ll remember folks like Ann and John Boutwell, who saved an Alabama cotton gin factory in the nick of time; Robert Henry, who preserved an old plank road in Upstate New York; and Earl Shelton, an original “Okie” who fled Dust Bowl Oklahoma for the “streets paved with gold” in California during the Great Depression. And a hundred other Americans whom I’ve brought to your attention.
Carol is not one of those fancy-schmancy photographers. She’s a mighty good one, but her mission has been to document, not pretty up, our times. This is the Alabama cotton-gin factory that was saved. (Carol M. Highsmith)
Perhaps they and Carol and I have whetted your interest in experiencing our Land of the Free for yourself.
Don’t think for a moment, though, that Carol can’t make beautiful music, in a photographic sense, with images. This was taken with her infrared camera. (Carol M. Highsmith)
Blogging has been enjoyable and bemusing. It’s a rewarding blend of traditional objective, and more personal subjective, observation. My goal, borrowed from storytellers who have inspired me, has been to be interesting above all else. Not ranting or bloviating. Interesting.
I threw in “bloviating” as a tease for my final set of “Wild Words.” I hope they have helped you navigate through my flights of rhetorical fancy.
This view of “Amish Country” is also a quiet side of America that we both love. Whenever possible, we take small roads to get where we’re going, if only because we can easily pull off the road when we see something remarkable. (Carol M. Highsmith)
I’ve treasured the interplay with many of you. And with my two longstanding “second pairs of eyes” — my editors and friends Rob Sivak and Faith Lapidus.
Rob now runs VOA’s science desk, and his deep understanding of science, agriculture, and some alleys of technical esoterica has saved my bacon on more than one occasion. “Saved my bacon” — another Wild Expression to be explained below.
Faith is expert at whipping my occasional syntactical stumbles into clear and digestible form. She’s pounces on phrases that work ever so much better when they’re moved to more comfortable locations. Agreeably and supportively, Faith and Rob have made many a passable line tasty — just one of the reasons I will miss them terribly.
This sign has loomed over Scranton, New York, for a century. So many local icons like it have gone the way of the dodo. Only images such as Carol’s preserve them in our minds and hearts. (Carol M. Highsmith)
I mentioned that blogging can be bemusing. I still haven’t got used to the steady stream of nonsensical, off-topic comments, sent in supposed response to my meanderings. As I’ve pointed out once or twice, most of these are mass-produced in hopes that some gullible blogger will publish them. Somehow this lends the sender credibility, often for some commercial purpose.
So I won’t miss comments as . . .
Hello! in my opinion I’m sure poker is the most entertaining activity of all the card games.
. . . when I hadn’t even written about poker!
Those annoyances aside, I have treasured Carol’s and my treks on the old National Highway that runs from the Maryland mountains to the flatlands of Ohio; along sections of the Appalachian Trail footpath; in places called the “Little Apple” and “Surf City” and the “Flickertail State”; here and there and everywhere in America’s wealthiest state (Connecticut) and poorest (Mississippi); and to such magical locales as the real town that inspired snowy “Bedford Falls” in the classic Christmas movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.
We’ll be heading to this place — San Francisco, which Carol caught beautifully at dusk — as one of our first stops in our “new life” on the road. (Carol M. Highsmith)
Half a century ago, there was a black-and-white TV show that concluded with a narrator’s declaration: “There are 8 million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.”
Truth be told, there are 311,591,917 stories in the United States of America at the latest reckoning. These blog postings have told 269 of them.
I hope to find many more out on the American road with Carol and 311,591,915 of our closest friends.
Washington will still be our home, and this seems like a fitting way to end this last VOA blog entry. The fireworks represent our excitement about a new life’s chapter. (Carol M. Highsmith)
At first blush, we think of museums as illustrious storehouses of art and artifacts such as the Smithsonian Institution’s complex of 19 scientific, historical and art museums on Washington’s National Mall.
Here’s one of the nation’s newest museums: the J. Paul Getty art museum, designed by architect Richard Meier, in Los Angeles. (Carol M. Highsmith)
But in ever-increasing numbers, curious “cultural tourists” are also poking their heads into much more modest and personal houses of treasures.
Houses, literally. “House museums,” as they’re called, range from fabulous mansions and plantation homes where people can glimpse vestiges of the lifestyles of the rich and famous to humbler, locally significant, sometimes eccentric abodes.
Every decent-sized town has one or two. They’re rarely jammed with visitors, and most don’t bring in much revenue, if any at all. Foundations and historical societies and local governments must step in to keep the places open. Many morph into bed-and-breakfast inns whose proprietors eagerly assume the role of doting docent.
Carol and I have spent hundreds of pleasant hours examining such places, and I’d like to tell you about some of them. As you see, I’m already making lavish use of Carol’s photographs for this virtual tour.
Here are six vastly different examples of notable U.S. house museums:
The George Read II House, New Castle, Delaware
The Read House, spooky by design. (Carol M. Highsmith)
I start here solely because Halloween is nigh, and Carol took the neat photograph (above) of this house’s basement taproom, once the scene of raucous theme parties. To bring in alcoholic beverages for one of them during the Great Depression before Prohibition ended, a seaplane landed out front on the Delaware River.
The High Federal-style 1804 Read House, on the strand in the state’s manicured colonial capital, was the home of the scion of George Read, a Delaware statesman and signer of the Declaration of Independence. Adorned with gardens and a vista of the wharf where William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, first set foot in the New World, the house has the look of a prim, look-but-don’t-touch place.
The parlor in funereal guise. (Carol M. Highsmith)
Au contraire. It was a veritable fun house, from its rathskeller to its parlor, where every so often the staff would stage a not-terribly-reverent funeral of a departed resident, complete with coffin, mourning jewelry, death mask, and music.
George II himself, though, was a miserly, grumpy, self-important sort who often ran for Congress, losing every time. Yet no one could deny that his house, which humbled nearby taverns and brothels with its gilded fanlights, balustrade with Grecian urns, and elaborate bas-reliefs on its parlor mantels, was a stunner. Read, though, foundered in business and died bankrupt in 1836.
The fun came later, under the watch of other owners. Lydia and Philip Laird, both in-laws of the state’s fabled Du Pont family, for instance, commissioned a fancy history of New Castle that was printed on the dining room wallpaper, and they turned the basement larder into a private speakeasy that hosted ribald drinking bashes during Prohibition.
The Lairds helped Delaware rediscover the town where Penn’s Quakers, Peter Stuyvesant and the Dutch, and a colony of Swedes had once lived. The Read House was, and remains, its centerpiece.
Seelye Mansion, Abilene, Kansas
Abilene’s finest abode. (Carol M. Highsmith)
The place they call Kansas’s Tara — after the plantation home in the sweeping Civil War saga Gone With the Wind — was built with the considerable profits of a salesman of bogus health tonics, better known as snake-oil.
The house displays a number of Seelye’s “snake oil” potions, guaranteed to cure what ails you, no matter what it is. (Carol M. Highsmith)
Just before and after 1900, Alfred B. Seelye’s medicine wagons fanned out into 14 states, where his salesmen, whom he called “drummers,” touted his “Wasa-Tusa” cure-all potion and “Ner-vene” nerve medicine. All were concocted in a factory next to his Abilene home.
Seelye’s Georgian-style manor boasted 11 bedrooms, 18 closets, a Tiffany fireplace in the grand hall, and light fixtures personally chosen by pioneer inventor Thomas Edison at the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904.
The patent-medicine business and the family fortune dwindled in the 19-teens and ’20s with the advent of food and drug regulations, income taxes, and exposés about phony nostrums. The grand house became tattered, but Seelye’s daughters Marion and Helen, who had inherited it, rebuffed many offers to buy it. They relented in 1982 when Terry Tietjens, who owned a resort in northeast Kansas, agreed not only to purchase the place but also to adopt Marion and Helen, then in their mid-80s, and assure them they could stay in the home for life.
Despite a damaging fire, Tietjens went through with the deal, fixing up the place, and — in a change that the Seelye sisters came to enjoy — opening this Tara in a Cow Town to tours.
Roseland Cottage and Ice House, Woodstock, Connecticut
Just a part of lovely Roseland Cottage. (Carol M. Highsmith)
What’s wrong with this picture?
In 1846, Henry Chandler Bowen, a dry-goods merchant; publisher; proper Congregationalist; pillar of Brooklyn, New York, society; a founder of the Republican Party; and an amateur horticulturist with a passion for roses — remember the roses — builds a glorious, Gothic Revival-style summer house in his hometown — Woodstock, in Connecticut’s northeast “Quiet Corner.”
Prosperous Woodstock is full of impressive Federal-style homes, uniformly painted white.
A parlor at the so-called “cottage,” photographed for the Historic American Buildings Survey. Some cottage! (Library of Congress)
Borrowing from the showy bushes in his formal gardens, Bowen paints his “Roseland Cottage” — as wealthy people liked to call their getaway places, no matter how grand — shocking pink, not just once but 13 times in the 50 years he summered there.
Around Independence Day each July, Bowen threw the party of all 19th-century parties. He presented respectable Woodstock with calling cards for an afternoon of lemonade, Strauss waltzes, fireworks, and a whirl of croquet. Four sitting U.S. presidents made the scene. One year, after Ulysses S. Grant celebrated a strike on the bowling alley inside Bowen’s barn by lighting his customary cigar, the host, betraying his Puritan stock, informed the president that smoking and drinking were not permitted at Roseland.
The old general stamped his stogie out — but took a room in town that night.
Eventually the ornate house, the barn, the rose gardens, and an 1870s ice house came into the hands of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, which stabilized, restored, and painted the structures.
Longwood, in Natchez, Mississippi
A parlor at the so-called “cottage,” photographed for the Historic American Buildings Survey. Some cottage! (Library of Congress)
Longwood is the “Unfinished Symphony” of historic restoration. This stunning antebellum home — the largest octagonal house still standing in America — has not been brought back to the splendor that cotton baron Haller Nutt had in mind when he put northern craftsmen and plantation slaves to work building it, beginning in 1860.
And so long as the Pilgrimage Garden Club of Natchez owns it, it never will be completed.
Many studies have concluded that the idyllic American childhood — wherever it existed in middle- and upper-class homes, or in our literature and imagination — is a thing of the past.
The kind of carefree childhood in which kids mostly minded their manners and their parents, read books without being assigned to, and whiled away their many free hours playing stickball in the street, fishing down at the creek, and fretting about not much at all except whom to ask to the senior prom.
Young Ted. I don’t look stressed here, do I? I wasn’t.
My own childhood was a bit like that. I assembled and played with model trains, pretended I was a baseball star while chasing a ball thrown against the back steps, and spent many an hour lying in fields, sucking on a ragweed stem and thinking about clouds and girls and the Cleveland Browns football team.
Childhood involved lots of dreams and skinned knees, not nervous breakdowns.
Then something changed in America. Something sucked the fun out of childhood.
In 1981, Tufts University psychologist David Elkind published a book that got Americans talking and worrying. The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast was a scathing indictment of American parenting. It described a condition in which moms and dads overscheduled their children and prodded them unceasingly to achieve in academics and sports.
The result was soon labeled the “hurried child syndrome.” And the nation hadn’t seen anything yet.
Things can pile up quickly for, and on, kids today. (qwrrty, Flickr Creative Commons)
Millions of stressed-out children are now medicated. Six million, according to a study done for the Frontline public affairs documentary series on U.S. public television. Medicated not on cough drops, but on antidepressants.
The rates of child suicide and homicide have tripled since Elkind wrote The Hurried Child. Teen pregnancy rates are the highest of any Western society. Obesity is pervasive among American kids. In part, experts say, because they are spending so much time hunkered in front of computers that do much of their thinking for them.
In one of the telltale examples of what some call “kids growing older younger,” there’s hard evidence that little children, rushed to become sophisticated and even sexy, are abandoning toys at younger and younger ages.
John Taylor, a founder of Arcadia Investments in Portland, Oregon, follows the toy industry. He told me he calls it “age compression.”
It used to be that the toy industry had products which were of interest to children all the way up until they were about 12 years old. Now many segments of the toy business start to lose customers somewhere around age 6. And each year on average has about 4 million kids in it. So you’ve lost an audience that’s potentially as large as 15 million kids, who now have moved on to video games or moved on to music, or, in the case of girls, moved on to makeup and clothes.
The Bratz “Genie Magic” doll. (puuikibeach, Flickr Creative Commons)
A telling example: Mattel, maker of the classic line of “Barbie dolls” produces even better-selling “Bratz” dolls that look like sexy music-video starlets. Bratz — which sounds like “brats,” in case you didn’t notice — are a line of dolls with skinny bodies, lush lips, lots of makeup, and sleek clothes that soon outpaced sales of Barbie worldwide. It wasn’t long before the American Psychological Association was condemning the dolls for sexualizing childhood.
Maria Weiskott, a “ghost blogger” — the blogging equivalent of a ghostwriter — is a former editor of Playthings magazine, which has followed the toy industry for more than a century. She once pointed out the obvious to me — that firms are promoting sophisticated electronic games to younger and younger children.
For instance, a product called the “Growing Smart Learning Laptop” computer that teaches shapes and numbers and colors to techno-savvy preschoolers.
Yes, “kids are learning more,” Weiskott points out. But . . .
Kids and computers. Sometimes a creative mix. Sometimes not. (whiteafrican, Flickr Creative Commons)
They’re being pushed at an earlier age by their own parents. They are very impressionable as to industry icons — the ‘boy bands’ and the young women that they aspire to be like. They’re very influenced by the entertainment industry. And the market has adapted to this new, mature child.
To which most parents of young American children whom I know would reply, “No kidding.”
So a great deal inside and outside the home is conspiring to demand that children grow up early.
But at what cost? Many educators argue it’s at the expense of unstructured family and play time when curiosity and imagination flourish. Without such moments, what becomes of childhood innocence and the notion that kids should be kids, and that there’s virtue in “doing nothing.”
Isn’t it in unstructured moments that imagination is born?
A decade or so ago, Joi Lasnick, a Florida stay-at-home mother of a 7-year-old, started a Web site called MyParent.com, devoted to helping other parents cope with the go-go, competitive rat race that was building in the country.
“Kids are so stressed,” she told me.
They just need to grow up at their own rate. Not every child can go-go-go, do-do-do, achieve-achieve-achieve all the time. They’ll be discouraged if they see, “Oh, this kid is able to do that, but I can’t. I’m a failure.” That’s how even little kids get depressed.
Just this year, Gail Gross, a nationally recognized author and lecturer on juvenile behavior and development, wrote that “in an era of technological and media advances, children are often portrayed as ‘little adults.’”
And with it come the tensions and ailments of adulthood.
Kids sometimes talk about the fun they’re having. But it is unstructured fun that allows their minds to wander, and wonder? (ijustwanttobeperceivedthewayiam, Flickr Creative Commons)
Consequently, psychiatric units are filled with a new breed of troubled youngster. Pediatricians are finding more children with stress-related diseases such as ulcers by the age of 7, as well as sleep disorders and bedwetting. Suicide and depression . . . have found their way into the child’s community. And children have anxiety-promoted memory lapses and an exaggerated fear of failure.
So it’s not much fun to be a “super kid” — a miniature adult.
What’s the value in stressing kids, in deliberately placing them in one competitive situation after another? Not just on the soccer field or skating rink, but also in beauty pageants, tryouts for photo shoots and TV commercials, and “advanced” and “honors” academic programs that, once a child makes it in, only magnify the pressure to achieve.
Achieve for whom? Themselves or someone they’re trying to please?
David Boers, a former schoolteacher and high-school principal who’s an education professor at Marian College in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, says American adults rush children to somehow gratify their own yearning for success. The hurried-child syndrome — or should we call it the “pressured-child syndrome”? — so concerned Boers that he developed an entire course on the subject.
“Pee-wee” football begins at age 7. (jdanvers, Flickr Creative Commons)
“We live in a very, very competitive society,” he says, stating what has become obvious.
Winners count, and the losers don’t. And so when adults start looking at their kids as sort of badges of merit, then what the kids accomplish serves the parents’ needs. We are pushing kids to achieve things in school that they are simply not ready to achieve — two or three hours of homework a night to score astronomically on standardized tests that are made up by adults who want to clearly show the world that they are succeeding.
Boers is one who believes many Americans have become dependent on their children for their own sense of worth because they have unfulfilled needs themselves.
You go to any town across America, and you will see examples of adults pressuring kids to excel in sports. And what that comes down to in a lot of communities is that those kids who have some physical development early get all the attention, and the rest who need time to develop get left behind. Read the rest of this entry »
It’s a good thing that U.S. warships are inanimate objects and don’t have feelings. When their seagoing days are done, the end for most of them is not pretty.
The U.S.S. Iowa in action. Talk about heavy-duty earplugs or noise-cancelling headsets on the sailors serving there! (U.S. Navy)
Now it’s true that a few are sold to friendly foreign governments and are still sailing the deep blue seas.
And 48 U.S. Navy ships that have historical or sentimental significance are enjoying cushy retirements as museum pieces, permanently anchored in various harbors, all spit-shined for the tourist trade.
For instance, the retired battleship U.S.S. Iowa, launched in 1942 and called “The World’s Greatest Naval Ship” because of its roaring guns, heavy armor, speed, modern technology, and longevity, just opened to tours in its new and permanent berth in San Pedro, California, in July.
In fact, a lot of people in the midwestern state of Iowa wanted to see the ship parked somewhere much closer to its namesake home, but getting a battleship to a landlocked place with more cornfields than bodies of water proved impractical.
Water levels in the neighboring Mississippi River have been so low at times that even shallow-draft barges and steamboats have had to wait for rain or snow runoffs to navigate the Big Muddy.
The U.S.S. Constitution at sea just this year, on its way to Maryland for the big War of 1812 Bicentennial celebration. (Hunter Squires, Wikipedia Commons)
A lot of people make it a point to visit the U.S.S. Constitution, the world’s oldest warship still afloat, docked in the Charlestown Navy Yard at Boston Harbor. The hardwood hull of “Old Ironsides,” as that three-masted frigate is known, famously repelled many a cannon ball fired by the British frigate Guerriere during the War of 1812, and it even sailed down to Baltimore in Maryland to help commemorate the bicentennial of that war a couple of months ago.
So, amazingly, the Constitution is not retired at all. It’s still part of the U.S. Navy’s active fleet, though I doubt we’d send her out against enemy destroyers any time soon. (Are there potential enemies of the United States that have destroyers anymore?)
But back to those vessels that are in, or past, their sunset years.
From the moment some dignitary christens a new vessel by smashing a bottle of champagne over its bow, the Navy has a pretty good idea what its probable service life will be. It knows the likely wear and tear of the sea and of the men — and of late, women — cooped up aboard. It can guestimate when its weapons systems will be obsolete. And it can calculate, roughly, how many missions the engines and propellers and guidance gear will endure.
The guided-missile frigate U.S.S. Boone’s decommissioning ceremony earlier this year. (U.S. Navy)
So to the great sadness of their crews — the men and women who have lived aboard, and in many cases grown to love, these expendable old tubs — most of them bow out rather ungracefully, after a properly somber “decommissioning” ceremony: the U.S. flag is lowered, there are salutes all around, a few fond words are spoken, and sometimes an inadvertent tear is shed by old hands who served aboard the vessel.
Some of these ships are then stripped down, drained of fuel, towed a distance out to sea, and used for target practice, like ducks at a carnival. Blasted to bits, they ultimately sink into the briny deep, into Davy Jones’s locker, into King Neptune’s garden, into the jaws of the hungry dog. Or some such metaphorical depth.
Other ships, sunk more rapidly with a single series of charges, slide to the ocean floor, where, as metallic reefs full of holes, they become happy habitats for fish and anemone and the like.
Some aging ships that haven’t quite outlived their usefulness join ghost fleets. They’re “mothballed,” as the saying goes, in the backwaters of three or four naval bases on the nation’s coasts. There they remain in ready reserve should an epic conflict break out, though “ready” is a relative term. It would take 30 days at a minimum to refit and rearm a ship that’s been whiling away the time in a back bay.
There are 100 or so U.S. Navy vessels currently in such a backup role, which reminds me of the time, a few years back, when Carol and I happened upon one of the most impressive arrays of out-of-service U.S. warships at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. She was photographing some general harbor scenes when we beheld what seemed like a never-ending line of faded-gray ships — the seagoing equivalent of “rust buckets” you might say — in a place where the Navy had been building ships since the Revolutionary War of the 1770s.
Carol’s photo of the mothballed fleet at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. (Carol M. Highsmith)
Left behind when the Philly yard closed as part of the military’s “base realignment” in 1995 were several mothballed ships in what the Navy calls a “reserve basin” — sealed, lightly air-conditioned, and electrically charged to deter rusting — in case they’re needed to fight a new, large-scale war. Two mothballed ships in Philadelphia, including the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy, are giant aircraft carriers. Several cities have expressed interest in the Kennedy as a museum, and what an enormous and unprecedented one it would be! Imagine being the curator of a floating attraction that’s 321 meters long.
The Navy relinquishes ownership and day-to-day control of vessels approved for a curatorial afterlife, but not the right of periodic, unannounced inspections. It doesn’t want a ship whose crew had served the nation proudly to be turned into an overcommercialized theme park or tacky amusement venue.
And there’s one more fate for discontinued naval ships, one that’s even more gruesome — again assigning human characteristics to dumb steel boats — than subjecting them to target practice.
Some mothballed ships end up in nautical junkyards, to be ripped apart for components and scrap metal. As I mentioned in a posting last year, a fellow at Philadelphia’s naval yard told me that if I shave with a Gillette razor, I might well be scraping my stubble with a sliver of metal salvaged from a Navy vessel that the company purchased. Recycling on a grand scale!
Reduction to rubble is to be the fate of the historic cruiser Long Beach, which in July was sold at auction to Tacoma Metals, a surplus and scrap outfit, for something in excess of $885,000. That’s the going price for 3.3 million kilograms of steel, aluminum, and copper that might be salvaged.
The U.S.S. Long Beach at sea. (U.S. Navy)
The U.S.S. Long Beach was America’s first nuclear-powered surface warship, launched in 1961. Note again: nuclear warship, which imposes its own constraints when the time comes to scuttle it.
Three years into its service, this sleek vessel, fitted with gleaming teak decks in the manner of classic tall sailing ships, circumnavigated the globe without refueling, in just over five months.
(I’ve always wanted to use “circumnavigated” in a sentence. Is anything but the earth ever circumnavigated? There, I used it again.)
Afterward, upon its arrival at Norfolk Naval Base, the Long Beach was greeted by, among others, the Secretary of the Navy, various members of Congress, and even two beauty pageant winners, Miss Virginia and Miss Norfolk.
The Long Beach’s memorable insignia. Check out the ship’s slogan thereon. (U.S. Navy)
Although the U.S.S. Long Beach was built in Quincy, Massachusetts, at Bethlehem Steel drydocks many years after the last world war, it saw combat in the Gulf of Tonkin in the Vietnam War, where its missiles shot down North Vietnamese fighters that were flying more than 110 kilometers away — the first time in history that surface-to-air missiles had downed enemy aircraft.
In 1968, the Long Beach shot down still more North Vietnamese jets as part of an operation that resulted in the rescue of 17 U.S. air-crew members. In its dotage, the Long Beach maneuvered with the 7th Fleet in the Western Pacific, at one time, in 1980, picking up 114 stranded “boat people” seeking to flee North Vietnam.
The ship was decommissioned in 1995 and has been living out its years at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Washington state.
The Long Beach in its death throes. (U.S. Navy)
When it was clear that the cruiser’s useful service had ended, the Navy began a process that it reserves for its liquidated nuclear vessels. It’s not enough to remove all its radioactive components. The Navy itself reduces what’s left to unrecognizable mounds of scrap — a job ordinarily left to the salvage company that is the successful bidder.
That’s because even the layout — the very floor plan — of our nuclear surface ships and subs is top secret, so the Navy chews up and mashes together the components, rendering them them unrecognizable.
The Long Beach’s sailors had long ago said their goodbyes. It’s a good thing, for, as you can see in the photo to the right, the ship wasn’t much to look at once its steel hull was removed, even before it was broken into chunks.
So those are the places that U.S. warships go to die or — as the old soldier, General Douglas MacArthur, put it in his farewell address — go to just fade away.
A more fitting final photo of the U.S.S. Long Beach. (Thoraf Doring, U.S. Navy)
It’s hard to pinpoint Washington, D.C.’s, No. 1 tourist attraction. But somewhere near the top of the list has to be the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, which is always jammed with tourists and even has a huge annex, open to the public, out in the boonies near Dulles International Airport.
If you walk into the main museum on the National Mall, your eye can’t miss one exhibit in particular, even among the various rockets and giant airplanes and space-faring craft that pack the huge hall. Tiny compared with its surroundings — it’s the very first successful heavier-than-air, engine-powered flying machine.
The Wrights’ Flyer on display at the Air and Space Museum. (Smithsonian Institution)
That “aeroplane” is Wilbur and Orville Wright’s “Flyer,” as they called it, which first stayed aloft above the sand dunes of North Carolina’s Outer Banks one chilly December day in 1903.
That much you may already know.
You may know, too, that that little craft was built and put into the air by the Brothers Wright of Dayton, Ohio.
(When’s the last time anyone named a son Orville or Wilbur? But I’ll bet there were thousands of them in the years immediately following that historic flight.)
Who were these guys?
Wright the Younger. (Wikipedia Commons)
Which one flew the Flyer?
Which was older?
Which one had the curled, wax moustache in the photo to the left, and which shaven one, below and to the right, looked like a stiff shoe clerk?
How did these two, previously seen tinkering with the bicycles they were making in their shop back in Dayton, end up among North Carolina’s Atlantic dunes that frosty December day?
And what became of them after their unprecedented “heavier-than-air” powered flight that lasted all of 12 seconds?
Wright the Older. (Wikipedia Commons)
Wilbur Wright, the older, clean-shaven brother, had had his jaw shattered and all his front teeth knocked out playing ice hockey. For the pain and to prevent an infection, he ingested a derivative of strychnine, which (not surprisingly) did not agree with him, kept him in a foul humor, and turned him into a sort of recluse.
His mustachioed brother, Orville, by contrast, was a jolly extrovert and risk-taker.
But these sons of a Protestant bishop and his wife were both adept bicycle mechanics and makers of small motors. And they shared a fascination with birds, which they had watched endlessly as kids, probably from their backyard or the wraparound porch of their parents’ Victorian home in Dayton.
They later said, though, that their fascination with flying had begun when their father gave them a crude toy “helicopter” one day in 1878, when Wilbur was 11 and Orville was 7. (I put the word in quotes because there was no such thing as a real helicopter in 1878.)
Later, they followed with rapt attention articles in the Dayton newspaper about the flights of German Otto Lilienthal, the world’s foremost glider pilot. When Lilienthal was killed in a flying accident in 1896 — his last words were, “Sacrifices must be made” — they determined not just to take up Lilienthal’s work but to go him one better and put a motorized machine into the air.
The brothers in their bike shop. (Library of Congress)
The motor part wasn’t the problem. They had installed plenty of them onto bicycles, creating motor-cycles, and were confident that they could build a sufficiently powerful one to keep a heavier-than-air contraption aloft.
The trick would be controlling it.
Gliders were fickle things, susceptible to up- and downdrafts and crosswinds that would send them who-knows where. Into the earth quite suddenly, some of the time.
If you’ve ever flown a kite, you know the wind’s impact on gossamer wings.
So the first thing the brothers did was build a glider that could be controlled by twisting its wings, tilting its tail, and, while piloting the thing, by leaning this way or that.
The Wrights’ first glider, shown tethered in 1900. (Library of Congress)
Their first glider had a forward elevator to direct it up or down, a rear rudder to guide it left or right, and — this was the revolutionary touch — wings that could be tilted to enable the flyer to bank one way or the other, the way a modern airplane does when it’s finished its circling and is finally swooping down for landing.
All this was well and good, but a long-lasting flying machine couldn’t rely on the wind alone to get from place to place. It needed power, and that was a challenge. Automobile or, who knows? washing-machine engines, added to the weight of the pilot and the rest of the plane, would be too heavy to get the machine aloft.
And if anybody had thought to put a propeller in the front of a glider, they hadn’t heard of it. In case you weren’t sure (I wasn’t), the propeller’s function is to grab the air and sort of pull the airplane forward.
Because of their shop work in Dayton, the Wright brothers knew very well how to solve the motor problem: they’d use their lighter motor-cycle engine. As for the propellers, they built a pair out of wooden laminate and mounted them on the rear of their flyer. And because fabricating and servicing bicycles was almost exclusively a warm-weather occupation, they had the winters free to fly their glider and then their heavier-than-air machine.
They chose an ever-breezy barrier island, the finger of sand off North Carolina’s Atlantic Ocean coastline near the hamlet of Kitty Hawk.
Flight historian George Morris wrote that they arrived in 1900 and slept in a tent.
The Wright brother’s camp. Looks forlorn. And cold, if you can imagine an icy winter wind. (Library of Congress)
If you have ever spent the winter in a tent, you would do what they did. The next year they built a house. They built a house out in the open plains between the big hills, the Kill Devil Hills. They flew gliders.
They flew, they crashed; they flew, they crashed.
They crashed so many times that they quit. They packed up and went back home to Dayton.
But just for a while.
Back home they came up with one more gadget: a long, low, wooden box, at the end of which they mounted a fan.
The fan drove air through that box.
This was not part of the aircraft.
The brothers’ homemade wind tunnel. (Library of Congress)
It was a crude wind tunnel.
What a brilliant concept, Morris wrote.
For the first time, you did not have to build a full-sized glider, find yourself on a hill, climb in the glider, and throw your body off [the hill]. That was hard on test pilots. For the first time, now you could take a few pennies and this little wooden box; a few pennies to build a tiny metal wing, mount that wing on test equipment, drive air through the box and test for lift, drag, and angle of attack.
No one had ever lived through more than three or four test flights of heavier-than-air machines. The Wright brothers tested more than 200 model planes in their wind box, as safely as they might have simply written about it. Without risking life or limb, they could see what would fly and what would not.
Then they built their full-size bi-wing machine, and it flew, on December 17th, 1903.
They had to carry their Flyer over to the barrier island by boat; there were no bridges, no highways, and no trucks to haul it. The only “runway” was an open, sandy field, sprinkled with low weeds.
One of history’s most significant photographs, of Orville in the air during the first flight, and Wilbur running behind. (Library of Congress)
But there, the brothers’ Flyer flew, with Orville guiding its controls while lying flat on his stomach, facing forward. It traveled just 37 meters. In just 12 seconds. And at just 11 kilometers per hour. But it flew, and five people, including Wilbur on the ground, witnessed it.
And then the brothers took turns flying their aero-machine, again and again, until it stayed aloft for 59 seconds and covered 260 meters. You may wonder why they didn’t dipsy-doodle longer, up and around and back again, if only to show off a little. They couldn’t, because — guidance improvements or not — the Flyer was quite unstable, and things kept failing or breaking.
But they had flown, and word got out, not through hearsay but because the proud Wrights had sent a telegram to the Dayton newspaper, exulting. Ironically, the paper didn’t print the story, saying the Wrights had stayed in the air too short a time to qualify as true pioneers. But the telegraph operator in North Carolina alerted friends of his in the newspaper business, and word soon got out to the whole world.
The rest, as the tired saying goes — quite accurately in this case — is history. If you’re unclear what that history is, drop by the closest airport.
Orville, left, and Wilbur at an aviation tournament on Long Island in 1910. (Library of Congress)
In their remaining years, the Wright brothers spent much of their time claiming patents, contesting others’, and then selling theirs to corporations. In one deal, they received a 10-percent royalty on every airplane that a company sold. While they backed off most flying themselves except for publicity shots, they did train others and hired exhibition pilots to show off their machines and collect prize money.
The Wright brothers’ company even transported the world’s first-known commercial cargo by air in 1910 by delivering two bolts of silk dressmaking material to Columbus, Ohio, from Dayton.
Wilbur Wright, the strychnine-poisoned brother, did indeed live a short life. He died nine years after the pioneering flight, at age 45.
As my former VOA colleague Ken Reed once wrote, “His father’s tribute to him could just as well have included Orville [who lived to 76]. ‘A short life [longer in Orville’s case], full of consequences. Seeing the right clearly, pursing it steadily, he lived and died.’”
At Orville’s death in 1948, the executors of his estate signed a contract to sell the original Flyer to the Smithsonian Institution for $1.
The agreement stipulated that the Smithsonian could never display any aircraft carrying a claim that it had flown any earlier than the Wright Brothers’ machine.
This is the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s Orville Wright headquarters building in Washington. A companion building, named for Wilbur Wright, is next door. (cliff1066TM, Flickr Creative Commons)
When the Flyer was hung for display, the descriptive label below read, in part:
The world’s first power-drive heavier-than-air machine in which man made free, controlled, and sustained flight.
I don’t know whether the same placard is in place below the Flyer today. But it would be easy enough to find out.
The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum sits across the street, diagonally, from VOA.
I know, an ode is a lyric poem, something short and sometimes sung. I’m no poet, I don’t do “short” well, and you don’t want me to sing.
But this story is an encomium to majestic train terminals between which America’s passenger trains once traveled each day by the hundreds.
I should point out that there’s a very real distinction between “train people,” as I call them, and those who appreciate magnificent train terminals — as Carol and I found out the hard way many years ago. I’ll explain at the end of this story.
You don’t have to be New York or Chicago to have had an elegant train station, as this old postcard view of the Louisville & Nashville Raildroad terminal in Evansville, Indiana illustrates. (Library of Congress)
Nobody writes lonesome songs like the railroad ballads “Orange Blossom Special” and “The City of New Orleans” about train terminals. But there should be a Grand Central Station love song, or the like. A city’s, and even a small town’s, train station was usually a lasting landmark, a popular gathering place, and sometimes even an architectural jewel. Given our urge to tear old, decrepit things down, many of these rail terminals are, surprisingly, still around, all fixed up and looking as good as ever.
Washington’s terminal, for example. It’s one of many “union” stations across the land. The name refers, not to the American Union but to the consolidation, or uniting, of separate companies’ train operations across a city.
Railroads were king across America in 1903, when no less than President Theodore Roosevelt signed an act to provide for just such a station in the nation’s capital. A transportation palace, no less — a masterpiece of the “City Beautiful” urban-renewal movement that had swept the nation following the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago.
Washington Union Station, shown in another postcard view in 1906, as it was readying to open. (Library of Congress)
In fact, it was the impresario of that world’s fair, architect Daniel Burnham, who designed the neoclassical terminal a stone’s throw from the U.S. Capitol. The effect was properly pompous: Constantinian arches, delicate molding and sun-streaked gilt leafing, coffered ceilings, magnificent skylights, and towering statues by Louis Saint-Gaudens, inside and out.
Burnham’s train concourse, spacious enough to hold the Washington Monument laid flat, immediately became the world’s largest hall. Thirty-three platforms and 100 kilometers of track spread out behind it.
In the century that followed, remarkable stories unfolded there. Here’s just one:
Thursday, January 15, 1953, had dawned cloudy and unseasonably mild as the Pennsylvania Railroad’s crack Federal Express gobbled its last taste of speed. Churning 18 minutes late on the overnight “owl run” from Boston, its GG-1 electric engine No. 4876 and 16 silver coaches pounded onto the switching tracks outside Union Station. Many of its 400 or so coach and sleeping-car passengers were coming to town to see General Dwight Eisenhower’s inauguration as president five days hence.
At the Ninth Street overpass, engineer Henry Brower coaxed the brake, but the train only hiccupped and did not slow down. He rammed the brake to “Full Emergency” for what should have been a squealing panic stop, but the Federal never responded. So Brower sounded the trainman’s desperate, staccato “Runaway!!” call on his whistle.
Four city blocks from the terminal, the train barreled into the 1° decline toward the station as a signalman in C Tower nearby grabbed the direct line to the stationmaster’s office and shouted the alarm.
The Federal Express in, not at, Union Station. (National Park Service)
Frantic warning cries were still clearing the concourse as the engine hit the track’s rigid end bumper head-on, reared like an enraged mustang, burst with a shower of sparks and dust through the station’s rear wall, and then crashed through the floor, carrying two lead coaches with it into the basement.
People later spoke of a miracle there, for dozens of baggage and mail workers would have been posted directly below the exploding crater created by the tumbling engine. Instead, they were on a coffee break. No one died, and only 43 people required hospitalization.
If you get to talking about Union Station with an old-time Washingtonian today, he or she will most likely mention that event, perhaps adding, correctly, that had that concourse floor not collapsed, the Federal Express almost certainly would have busted ahead into the waiting room, out the front door, and onto Massachusetts Avenue or beyond.
By that year, 1953, Americans had taken to the air and the highway and had begun deserting the nation’s passenger trains in droves. Over the next two decades, Union Station became a veritable mausoleum, grimy and soaked by water leaking from its ceiling.
What to do with the sad and sagging old structure?
Seers in Congress and elsewhere were looking ahead to the nation’s Bicentennial of 1976. They foresaw a gigantic pilgrimage to Washington, looking for a big birthday party. Where better to hold it than in a grandiose visitor center? And where better to create that locale than in the giant train terminal, all dolled up for the occasion?
“The Pit.” Visitors sat on the carpeted risers to the right and watched video presentations. (Carol M. Highsmith)
What materialized, though, was what Washingtonians cruelly dubbed “the Pit” — an enormous hole gouged in the station’s beautiful terrazzo floor. It led to a lounge in which tourists could watch a $1.5-million audio-visual show about the very things they could see for themselves if they looked out the front door. Around the Pit in the Main Hall, a cocoa-colored rug was soon pocked by cigarette-burns — $20,000’ worth of damage at one inaugural ball alone.
Anyone arriving and wishing to actually take one of the few trains that were still running was shunted to a walkway of wooden planks, leading to a narrow concrete path behind the station and ticket counters in a building the size of a gardener’s shed.
The short of the story is that the National Visitor Center was an embarrassing disgrace. The Pit closed in 1978, and with rainwater still dripping on what few strangers wandered in, the whole place shut down three years later. The public would not set foot inside Union Station for nearly eight more years.
When they did, they beheld a renaissance in which the sodden, abandoned transportation shrine had been transformed into a gleaming multi-purpose showcase of theaters, cafes, and train portals. Rail passenger service had come alive in the interim, at least in the crowded Northeast, and so had Union Station.
The West Hall in the reopened Union Station, beneath some of Louis Saint-Gaudens’s Centurion statues. (Carol M. Highsmith)
At the grand reopening in 1988, Project Manager Don Cooper waxed philosophic. “Our hope is that, 80 years from now when people go to restore this building again,” he said, they’ll be able to come back to the work we did, go through our research and records and patterns that we used to re-create 1907, and have a solid base from which to again perpetuate the inspiration of Daniel Burnham.”
But it wasn’t 80 years before this happened. This very month, just 24 years after Burnham’s creation reopened, Amtrak, the nation’s passenger railroad — which counted 30.1 million departures and arrivals at Union Station in FY 2011 — announced that it and several partners would be remaking the terminal yet again as a “world-class transportation hub.”
The estimated $7-billion project will result in, among other things, new passenger concourses — including one for ultra-high-speed trains — and a high-rise building, called “Burnham Place,” above it all.
From all this, I hope you get the idea that, far from being torn up and torn down and carted off to landfills, great terminals that formed the nodes of the nation’s passenger-rail system are coming to life — albeit, often, with museums, shopping plazas, and performance venues as their star attractions.
I’ll introduce some of them using photographs, occasionally preferring to show you a historic image rather than a modern one.
Refurbished Grand Central Terminal (Carol M. Highsmith)
One American train terminal, at the prestigious intersection of Park Avenue and 42nd Street in New York City, is so iconic that a cliché has grown out of it. When people bump into someone in a crowd, they sometimes remark, “Whattaya think this is, Grand Central Station?” The world’s largest train station as measured by number of boarding platforms (44), Grand Central is the city’s principal commuter terminal. Across town, Penn Station, beneath the Madison Square Garden sports arena, serves intercity passengers.
Grand Central Station in a 1910 postcard view. (Library of Congress)
The first Grand Central was built at the behest of “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt, owner of the sprawling New York Central Railroad, in 1871. Over half a century, until the forces of suburbanization sucked away its passenger lifeblood, it became the gateway to mighty Manhattan.
But Grand Central was destined for the wrecker’s ball, in favor of yet another office building, until the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993 upheld New York City’s landmarks law that saved it. Not only that, the terminal underwent a wholesale renovation to what its developers called “its 1903 splendor.”
The renovation must have worked: According to Travel + Leisure magazine, Grand Central is now the world’s sixth-leading tourist site, attracting more than 21 million visitors annually — presumably not including the train commuters.
Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal, named for one of the railroads that served it, in 1937. (Library of Congress)
I want to mention one more station that handles commuter rather than long-distance trains.
Ochs Bros.’ butcher counter at Reading Terminal Market. (Carol M. Highsmith)
It’s Reading Terminal in Philadelphia, into which regional trains from all directions once deposited passengers each day.
To Philadelphians and visitors such as Carol and me, the destination was even more famous as the location of the Reading Terminal Market, a giant indoor festival of delicacies, where one could gorge on Philly cheese steaks, fresh Jersey tomatoes, and soft “Pennsylvania Dutch” pretzels.
With ridership declining, the last train served Reading Terminal in 1984.
But a few years later, the building was transformed into a giant convention center, with a few remnants of its train décor remaining.
An early view of Chicago Union Station. (Library of Congress)
Chicago Union Station is a classic example of a “double-stub” terminal, meaning that trains approached the station from two directions, but most did not continue through, underneath the terminal.
“Night” and her owl. (orionpozo, Flickr Creative Commons)
Built for five different railroads in 1925, the station featured a Great Hall that covers a city block and includes two admired statues of human figures: one, holding a rooster, depicts day, and the other, grasping an owl, night.
This Union Station enjoyed a $32-million facelift in the early 1990s that included the removal of black paint that had covered the terminal’s skylights as a precaution against potential air raids during World War II; this seems extreme in hindsight, considering Chicago’s distance from Berlin (7,000 kilometers) and Tokyo (7,600 km).
Kansas City’s Union Terminal today. (Carol M. Highsmith)
When the Beaux Arts Kansas City Union Station, designed by City Beautiful proponent Jarvis Hunt, opened in 1914, it was the nation’s third-largest train terminal. It included 10 levels and 900 rooms — among them a Grand Hall illuminated by three chandeliers weighing 1,600 kilograms apiece.
K.C.’s station’s decline is a familiar story. In 1985, Amtrak transferred service on the few remaining passenger trains to a smaller downtown building. Various redevelopment plans for the grand terminal stalled or fell flat, but a regional sales-tax increase made a restoration, completed in 1999, possible. A reimagined science museum, called Science City, appeared in the terminal, along with a planetarium, railroad exhibits, and even an Irish museum. Read the rest of this entry »
I’ve been to a lot of places across America that have changed character over the years. Austin, Texas, for instance, was once a drowsy state capital, worked by politicians and bureaucrats and lobbyists — and people wanting to talk to the politicians, bureaucrats, and lobbyists. Now it’s a trendy hot spot for art, start-up businesses, and music. Dullsville became “The Live Music Capital of the World.”
But that’s nothing compared to what happened to a little speck of a place up in Iowa.
Seeing this sign, one would think the Postville is another humdrum Midwest town. John Mott was a Protestant leader and onetime president of the national Y.M.C.A. (pCka, Flickr Creative Commons)
Forty kilometers west of the Mississippi River lies a farm town so seemingly nondescript that it doesn’t have a shopping mall or a fast-food restaurant. Not even a traffic light.
Postville, Iowa, population 2,000, epitomized dull a few years ago until, overnight, it morphed into one of America’s most astonishing communities — a veritable United Nations on the prairie.
Then something else happened that turned it on its ear all over again.
For 150 years, Postville was what is sometimes called “white bread country” — polite, conservative, slow to change, and nearly 100-percent Caucasian and Christian. For descendants of its mainly German and Norwegian settlers, meeting a person from another county — let alone another culture — was considered exotic.
When one of Postville’s two meatpacking houses shut down in the 1980s, the town’s population was 1,400 and falling fast. People worried that the lone school would have to merge with one from another town.
Imagine the reaction when a couple of ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jews, wearing long, dark coats called “rekels,” wide-brimmed hats, and sidelocks, showed up in town to look over the abandoned plant. They came from teeming Brooklyn, New York, a place almost 2,000 times the size of Postville.
That’s right: that’s a Jewish menorah, prominently displayed atop the reopened meat-processing plant. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
And to the amazement of the farmers-in-suspenders crowd, these strange-looking men BOUGHT the plant, reopened it . . . and turned it kosher!
Not only that, 150 Hasidic Jews moved to town with them.
Among them, 40 or so rabbis, trained to supervise the strict kosher inspection and slaughtering process.
University of Iowa journalism professor Stephen Bloom later wrote a book about the sudden influx of Hasidic Jews. It’s called Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America.
“It was a totally different world for the Postville locals,” Bloom told me in a classic understatement.
“It was almost as though someone had come in from outer space.”
Bloom is Jewish, but he won few friends among the Brooklyn transplants, for he wrote that the Jews snubbed efforts to fold them into the community.
He calls Postville’s culture shock a “civil war.”
The Hassidim did not come to go to ice-cream socials. No way. They came for one strong, American reason, and there’s nothing wrong with it: to make money.
Downtown Postville looks like Anytown U.S.A., until you look more closely. (AP Photo/Nigel Duara)
Sharon Drahn, the editor of Postville’s weekly Herald newspaper, told me residents were insulted at first that the newcomers kept to themselves. For her and most everyone else in town, the only thing they knew about the Jewish religion came from books or the movie “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
“‘What’s with these people?’” the townfolk wondered at first, she said. “‘We’re clean!’ Change came to our town big-time, and maybe not the way we envisioned it.”
That was six years ago, when I visited Postville. Sholom Rubashkin, one of the sons of the kosher plant’s new owner, told me then that Jewish families, mostly transplanted from New York, had fallen in love with their safe, clean, and comfortable surroundings. Yes, their kids go to separate yeshivas, or private religious schools. And no, they don’t eat pizza with their new neighbors.
Tamales were tasty new fare in town, but not to most of the Jewish newcomers. (Nicole Salow, Flickr Creative Commons)
But it wasn’t because they felt Postvillians were hayseeds. It was because of kosher dietary laws, which, observant Jews believe, God handed to Moses at Mount Sinai. What the locals were doing and eating was perfectly fine, he said. But the ultra-Orthodox newcomers couldn’t partake in it.
As if the arrival of talkative strangers from a bustling New York City borough was not mind-altering enough for Postville residents — some of whom had never met a Jew or black or heard a foreign language outside Spanish class in school — the packing plant soon hired hundreds of Hispanics; ethnic Bosnians, Russians, and Ukrainians; and others.
As Stephen Bloom told me, “You don’t need to know English” for slaughterhouse jobs. “All you need is a strong back and a strong stomach. The wages are low. The work is hard. And Iowans don’t want to do that work.”
Before long the Agriprocessors plant, which the locals called simply “the Agri,” was the largest producer of kosher meats in the entire nation. And the little town in the middle of nowhere could count 30 ethnicities among its growing population. Ukrainian, Hebrew, and Spanish words and music even joined English on the airwaves of Postville’s tiny radio station.
And Jewish menorahs, Eastern Orthodox crosses, and Feliz Navidad signs popped up on lawns during the December holidays, all over town. It was a bizarre sight in the middle of heartland farm country, I assure you.
Kids from many cultures were soon sprinkled among the students in every Postville classroom. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
To hear Councilman Bob Schroeder tell it back in 2006, the newcomers saved the town from what he called a “slow death.” It had “reinvigorated us, and there’s life here,” he said. “It’s wonderful. I now have many friends from all over the world [and a Mexican wife], and they’re very good people.”
One of the Jews who moved to Postville — but from Los Angeles, not Brooklyn — was Aaron Goldsmith. He opened a custom bed shop and became — as far as anyone could remember — the first Jew ever to serve on the town council. And he was widely seen as a uniter of the disparate cultures.
“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness mean something,” he told me, “and even when it comes to a clash of cultures, people will find their common grounds. We all want a secure community. We want good education for our children. We want job opportunities. We would like to live in a decent home. And we’d like to know that our neighbor is looking out for us if we’re down. And that’s what happened in Postville.”
Even the insular Hasidic newcomers joined in the annual Taste of Postville festival, in which ethnic foods, dance, music — even comedy — turned Greene Street into an international bazaar. And while the locals couldn’t get a McDonald’s hamburger, they could buy Russian rye bread, Mexican tamales, and kosher meats any day of the year.
That was then, when Councilman Schroeder called Postville “a butterfly, emerging from its cocoon. A beautiful thing.”
It’s not exactly Postville today, even though the town still boasts that it’s the “Hometown to the World.” You see, its miracle-in-the-cornfields story took a quick and nasty turn in 2008, two years after the Agriprocessors operation got rolling.
One morning, two sinister-looking helicopters appeared over Postville, and a long line of big, black cars and white buses sped down Greene Street toward the Agri plant. In an almost breathtaking account of that morning, Maggie Jones noted in the New York Times Magazine that the mayor and the four-man Postville police department had no idea what was going on.
The vehicles and their occupants — agents of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement Bureau, or “I.C.E.” — swooped down on the plant. “Workers shouted, “La migra, la migra” (immigration police), dropped their butcher and boning knives and fled from their jobs at the cutting and grinding machines,” Jones writes.
When the I.C.E. raid was over, about 400 of the plant’s 900 workers — mostly Guatemalans suspected of entering and working in the country illegally — had been seized, loaded into the buses, and driven to a makeshift processing center in Waterloo, 120 kilometers away.
There weren’t many Russians or Ukrainians or Bosnians to seize; most of them had left town for easier work and better pay elsewhere.
This deportee, photographed in San Juan Calderas, and others had to start a new life back in their native Guatemala. (longislandwins, Flickr Creative Commons)
Some of the detainees then went to prison for several months and were eventually deported. Other Agriprocessors workers and their families slipped out of Postville in the dead of that very night.
Writes Jones, “Within weeks, roughly 1,000 Mexican and Guatamalan residents — about a third of the town — vanished.”
Imagine waking up in your hometown and finding one-third of your neighbors gone:
I’m sure what happened to Postville would happen to your community as well: small businesses would lose their clientele and close, tax revenues would plummet, schools would lose students and funding, banks and civic pride would suffer, and your success story would become a nightmare.
But it wasn’t just low-wage illegals and local shopkeepers who were touched by this “long arm of the law.”
Sholom Rubashkin, who had become Agri’s chief executive, was arrested, charged with paying for fake identity documents, and, later, with defrauding banks of millions of dollars.
Ruboshkin listens to testimony in his fraud trial. (AP Photo/Andrea Melendez)
He was subsequently convicted of fraud and sentenced to 27 years in prison. And other Agri managers went to prison as well.
There were earnest but unsuccessful efforts to keep the slaughterhouse going — Kyrgyz, Micronesians, and American Indian workers were recruited, but most quit — and operations nearly ground to a halt.
“With few workers to slaughter the animals, hundreds of turkeys, stuck in cages on tractor-trailers outside the plant, began dying,” Maggie Jones writes. “The smell of decay seeped into the neighborhood.”
Then, in 2009, Canadian businessman Hershey Friedman — a Hasidic Jew like the Rubashkins — bought Agriprocessors in bankruptcy court and reopened it under the name AgriStar, once again using a workforce of immigrants, primarily. Somalis this time, who moved to Postville from larger cities in Minnesota and elsewhere. Read the rest of this entry »
America’s most famous traveler — besides Carol and me, I say with a wink — was actually a Frenchman: Alexis de Tocqueville. He rode all over the young United States in the 1830s and produced a remarkable study of the American people.
A page from Alexis De Tocqueville’s working manuscript. (Wikipedia Commons)
What amazed this young political thinker more than anything else was the influence of religious, fraternal, and civic organizations — and secret societies — on the American democracy.
De Tocqueville observed that they made our communities stronger, more interesting, and, to use a word that’s popular these many decades later, more engaged.
Eons ago when I was news director at the ABC radio affiliate in Washington, D.C., I joined the Rotary Club. It was, and is, one of the “service clubs” that bring business professionals together for fellowship, a bracing talk by some bigwig (or mediumwig) over lunch, and worthwhile community-service projects.
The Rotary Club in Chicago, Illinois, was the world’s first service club. It was formed by an attorney, Paul Harris, who wanted to foster the kind of community spirit he had experienced as a boy in small Midwest towns.
The “Rotary” name was taken from his club’s habit of rotating meetings among the offices of its members.
As you can see, a number of service clubs joined in promoting the town of Beatrice — pronounced be-AT-triss, by the way — Nebraska. (blmurch, Flickr Creative Commons)
Rotary International’s slogan is “Service Above Self.” Kiwanis’s is “Serving the Children of the World.” The Lions Club’s motto is even simpler: “We Serve.” And the Optimist Club calls itself the “Friend of Youth.”
Along with community service, these and similar groups are “networking” vehicles for civic and business leaders, including up-and-comers, as I was at the time. (Whether I up-and-came is debatable.) For a long, long time, their members were almost exclusively men, who spent a lot of their club time schmoozing and “pressing the flesh.”
These days, women execs are almost as likely to be the ones shaking your hand.
Fraternal organizations such as the Elks and Moose and Eagles, the Odd Fellows and the Shriners — an offshoot of the Freemasonry movement — the Catholic Knights of Columbus and the Jewish B’Nai Brith have served much the same purpose even longer. The activities of some of these groups on occasion include a bit of boozing as well as schmoozing. And years ago more than today, some meetings were spiced with mysterious rituals and costumes, passwords and secret grips.
There’s even a “United Order of True Sisters,” the oldest of them all, still at work. It was founded in 1846. Gone, though, are the “Ancient Order of Zuzumites,” an “Order of Mules,” and something called “The Improved Order of Heptasophs,” whose main service appears to have been selling life insurance to its members.
Shriners in tiny cars pass in review in The Dalles, Oregon. (mavis, Flickr Creative Commons)
My first father-in-law, Bob, was a Shriner and a gifted clarinetist — the best in Dayton, Ohio, everybody said. I believed it, listening to him wail on his “horn,” as he called it. It was one of his few professed joys to march in Shriners’ parades, wearing his fez and sash and ribbons and blowing that horn toward the sky ahead of other Shriners who were weaving about the parade route in kiddie-sized convertibles.
This sounds frivolous until you learn that these marchers raise money that goes to Shriner Hospitals for terribly sick and wounded kids, whose families don’t pay a cent for their treatment.
Just as a twinkle and a few smiles appeared when Bob played that horn and passed the donation can for sick children, I smiled more than usual at Rotary Club meetings, greeting other members and sharing business “war stories,” listening to speakers from many walks of life, and visiting nursing-home patients on the club’s behalf.
In these settings I became a hail fellow well met, and many friendships resulted from those warm moments away from the office.
Unfortunately, though, these days, many service and fraternal organizations have something besides fellowship and good works in common:
They’re hurting — badly — for members.
Last year, for instance, W. E. Russell reported that membership in the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce — a civic association for young leaders — had dropped from 140,000 in 1993 when he was the Jaycees’ president, to fewer than 50,000. That’s a 64-percent decline in 17 years.
This year, the Rotary Club shared by Winnetka and Northfield, Minnesota, promoted this food drive to help local hungry kids. (learningexecutive, Flickr Creative Commons)
According to a Chicago Tribune story in 2009, Rotary International’s U.S. membership fell from a peak of more than 445,000 in 1996 to 376,000 just 11 years later, in 2007. The Indianapolis Star reported in 2008 that “Lions and Kiwanis clubs, Shriners and other service organizations are pondering their futures as membership dwindles and average ages grow older.”
And last year, Richard Fletcher, executive secretary of the Masonic Service Association of North America, reported that there were an estimated 1.5 million Masons in the United States — a precipitous descent from more than 4 million members half a century earlier.
As the Janesville, Wisconsin, Jaycees chapter came close to disbanding in 2009 because of an ebb in membership, its secretary/treasurer, Cindy Miser, noted, “Years ago, when you were in a certain business, you almost had to belong to a service club, but it’s not that way anymore.’’ One fellow who read this in the Janesville newspaper commented, “If the decline in [service organization] enrollment continues, the Optimists will soon become the Pessimists.”
“Desperate for members, Jaycees hold recruitment drive,” a headline in the Inside Business journal in Virginia’s “Tidewater” area that includes Norfolk and Virginia Beach put it in a 2010 story.
Not looking for members. Not hoping to get some. Desperate for them. The membership of the club, in operation for 90 years, was down to 20.
A good chicken dinner is a drawing card for this Kiwanis Club. (Svadilfari, Flickr Creative Commons)
The Jaycees are hanging on in Norfolk, though, and are up to about 30 members, thanks to the hard work of a couple of stalwarts. But one of them, Julie Landversicht, told me that they’d soon be losing several members because of the organization’s age limit of 40. Otherwise, “We get people [nonmembers] who’ll volunteer to help out at our events [including a festival at a children’s hospital], but they won’t commit to joining,” Julie says.
Quite a few chapters of civic organizations have lost the fight and are defunct. Or they’re reduced to old folks sitting around, reminiscing about the good-old days. In a lot of towns that Carol and I have visited, the only reason you’d know an old grocery store or pet shop was once the Odd Fellows hall or Moose lodge is the faded symbol you can still barely make out above the door.
The reasons for the falloff in civic-club participation are many, varied — and troubling for society.
• Pressures on young executives’ time. Many report that in today’s dog-eat-dog economic environment, it’s hard for what one observer called “the anxious [and shrinking] middle class” to justify heading off for a chatty Kiwanis Club lunch once a week, let alone taking the time to recruit other members. And much as busy execs find it worthwhile, volunteering at hospitals, soup kitchens, kids’ camps, and the like is even more time-gobbling and discretionary.
Discretionary, meaning “I won’t be doing much of that any longer.”
• Money pressures, even though the cost of membership in service organizations is nominal. A lot of belt-tightening businesses no longer pick up that cost, let alone executives’ lunch or bar tabs.
George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) and his family saved the Savings and Loan in no small measure because the community knew him well. Managers of big banks’ branches rarely are in place long enough to develop such trust. (Wikipedia Commons)
• Businesses aren’t as “local.” More and more banks, real-estate firms, insurance companies and such have become branches of far-flung chains. Entrenched hometown operations such as fictional hero George Bailey’s “Bailey Building and Loan” association in the 1946 classic Christmas movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” are rare.
“Community spirit” doesn’t simmer quite as vigorously in executives who are cycling in for a short time, then shuffling out of town.
• Fewer young executives work where they live. As small towns struggle, their “best and brightest” often must commute to jobs in larger cities. It’s hard for them to get involved in their towns’ service-club lunches and projects, even if they’d like to.
• Service clubs get “stuck in their ways.” As one disgruntled member commented, “The ‘old’ members don’t want anything to change, and the ‘new’ members get rebuffed at every suggestion they make. So they leave and tell their friends, and soon, guess what . . . no more new members come to try their luck!!!!”
• There are newer, easier, and cheaper ways to “network.” As Inside Business reporter Bill Cresenzo wrote in 2010, “[P]eople are living their lives online now more than ever, sometimes at the expense of real-life activities.” And it’s often easier to connect with others on the Sabbath following religious services, over a friendly poker game, or on the golf course than to get involved in a service club. If it’s a choice between them, service-club time bites the dust before one gives up a weekly golf game with business clients and prospects.
Unfortunately for service clubs, people can get involved in civic causes without having to spend time at meetings, fundraising events, and visits to the underprivileged. (lorangii, Flickr Creative Commons)
• And Americans’ fondness for “joining” has narrowed. Membership in service clubs — not to mention unions and neighborhood-improvement organizations — is down, but there have been big gains on the rolls of “interest groups” such as the Sierra Club, the National Rifle Association, and the American Association of Retired Persons. These organizations demand relatively little of their members’ time.
Volunteering appears to be up, but it’s primarily among retired people who have the hours for it. A retired friend of mine, for instance, drives an animal-rescue van, umpires youth baseball (for a pittance), and serves as a “starter” at a public golf course.
Americans today are also deeply involved in “self-improvement” and “self-help” groups. And in political and charitable “causes” — usually from afar through clicks on our mouse pads or donations via the computer screen. As Mark Chaves, a sociology professor at the University of Arizona, has written, “Generally speaking, the increases [in self-help and advocacy involvement] do not promote face-to-face connections among people.”
So how did we get where we are?
Individual interests are trumping group civic involvement in many American towns and cities. (Sean MacEntee, Flickr Creative Commons)
In 1985, the book Habits of the Heart explored the consequences of what, 10 years later, critic John C. Purdy, would call “individualism and the crisis of civic membership.”
This had been a nation built on the resolve, guts and hard work of “rugged individuals,” University of California sociologist Robert Bellah and four collaborators pointed out in Habits of the Heart. But the rough places were tamed, dusty towns grew into teeming cities, and opportunities for individuals to stand out in a crowd diminished.
So Americans developed “social identities” through “civic membership.” We began to cooperate for mutual benefit and along the way discovered that we enjoyed spending time with other committed, interesting people.
Until lately, that is, when our lives got really busy and financially frightening, and we began to withdraw into ourselves and our families, almost as a defense mechanism.
Bowling alone is a powerful metaphor for the direction of American society. (chad_k, Flickr Creative Commons)
This change was well underway by 1995, when Robert D. Putnam, a Harvard government professor, published “Bowling Alone,” an essay in the obscure Journal of Democracy. Its full title was “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital,” and it struck such a nerve that Putnam turned it into a book that became a surprise best-seller.
He wrote that even relaxed bowling leagues had lost their social value. People still bowled, but fewer of them had the time or inclination to form teams. Busier, less communal, more into themselves and their families, they preferred to bowl alone.
Putnam blamed this distancing from one another on the societal villain of the time — that siren, television — and on a weakening of “civil discourse” and “civic engagement.” The result of disengagement from civic activities, he wrote, was a virtual collapse of American “associational life.”
Combine this with a declining trust in government and politicians; the loud drumbeat for individual rights, individual expression, and individual recognition; and the pressures of time and “making it” financially, and something had to give.
That “something” is often the monthly meeting of the Native Daughters of the Golden West or the Royal Templars of Temperance, the weekly Rotary Club luncheon, or the Saturday-night bowling league.
So here’s a footnote to Alexis de Tocqueville’s report:
By and large, we are no longer a nation of joiners.
An early, derisive view of the Masonic movement in Boston. (Library of Congress)
If you made it this far and are still curious, you may be wondering what in the world the “Improved Order of Heptasophs” could have been about.
The group was organized in 1878 in Baltimore, Maryland, for the purpose of “uniting fraternally all white men of sound bodily health, good moral character, socially acceptable, engaged in an honorable profession, business, employment or occupation, between 18 and 50 years of age.”
The Heptasophs lasted until 1917, when they merged with something called the “Fraternal Aid Union.”
“Hepta” is Greek for “seven.” “Soph” comes from the Greek “sophos,” for “wisdom.” According to a Freemasonry Museum Web site, the name referred to “Seven Wise Men.”
The founders, perhaps?
As for the Ancient Order of Zuzumites, your guess is as good as mine.
Writing about Ellis Island last time, I mentioned that the U.S. Supreme Court ended years of controversy over exactly where the old immigration station — now a museum — officially sits. New York Harbor, of course. In New Jersey waters, not New York’s, it turns out.
This is most people’s image of New York. It’s accurate — up to a point. (Carol M. Highsmith)
Which got me thinking about another, nearby saga of geography, litigation, and diplomacy. It involves the sprawling, densely populated city of New York, which even many Americans often confuse with its smallest section: the 5900 hectares of skyscrapers, honking taxicabs, clattering subways, and Wall Street trading frenzy on tiny Manhattan Island.
New York is so much more: five separate jurisdictions — including some that were dragged screaming into an unhappy confederation — that became a colossus of roads, bridges, homes, apartment buildings, and humanity. Together as New York City, they anticipated the America of today: big, braggadocios, multicultural, materialistic.
Long before it was positioned as the nation’s vibrant, boastful “Big Apple,” New York was known as the Big Onion, a grittier, more piquant realm of many layers. You can unpeel these overlays on historical walking tours of the city that take you past Harlem churches that were once synagogues; the nation’s largest Chinese Catholic church that was once a Lutheran house of worship; and whole neighborhoods that were German, Italian, East European-Jewish, and then Chinese in turn.
A painting, hanging in the lobby of the Alexander Hamilton Custom House in Lower Manhattan, of the bustling New Amsterdam harbor. (Carol M. Highsmith)
Like the nation, New York opened its arms to immigrants, then fretted that the new arrivals were ruining the culture. In the 1600s, Peter Stuyvesant, the grumpy, peg-legged governor of the Dutch West India Company’s New Netherland colony — which included most of what is now New York State, New Jersey, and parts of Delaware and Connecticut — complained constantly to his superiors in Holland about the riffraff he was asked to rule. Even then, the 1,000 or so colonists in his capital, New Amsterdam on Manhattan Island, spoke 18 different languages.
From the beginning, New Netherland was a business venture, not some haven from Old World religious persecution. And commerce, not ideology, has called the tune there since. Poking around the coastline of North America on behalf of the Dutch in 1609, English explorer Henry Hudson marveled at the wide, protected bays and harbors surrounding what would later be called Manhattan Island, and at the surprisingly deep water of both the river that soon would be named for him and the little strait that would be misnamed the East “River.”
This gives you the lay of the land in sprawling New York City. (New York Tourist Commission)
When Brooklyn, Staten Island and two additional jurisdictions that New Yorkers call “boroughs” were brought within New York City’s borders almost three centuries later, 1,046 kilometers (650 miles) of generally ice-free oceanfront land were available for development and commerce.
It had become clear that the Hudson River, combined with the ambitious Erie Canal being built far upriver, would be the entrée to the natural resources of the Great Lakes and beyond.
New York was ideally suited to dominate trade with the American heartland and with Europe, and it proceeded to do with gusto.
And with moxie.
In the 1890s, when Manhattan Island seemed full to capacity, before cities knew how to grow upward as well as outward, its planners simply annexed or coaxed in their neighbors as boroughs — or administrative subdivisions — instantly doubling the population and tripling the city’s size.
New York, then confined to Manhattan Island and a little of the Bronx, to the left. Brooklyn is front and center in this 1855 painting by Theodore Muller. (Library of Congress)
Even Brooklyn, a proud, independent city of 850,000 people that had been connected to Manhattan via the world’s longest suspension bridge — its bridge, the Brooklyn bridge — since 1883. Its residents were mostly opposed to the referendum to create a Greater New York. But Brooklyn’s business leaders favored the idea on the naive assumption that they and their bustling shipyards — not arrogant Manhattan — would dominate the new megalopolis.
Lightly settled Staten Island and the westernmost villages in Queens, whose farmland was already Manhattan’s vegetable garden just past Brooklyn out on Long Island, liked the idea because they foresaw improved roads and city services. Queens’s even more rural eastern towns, however, wanted no part of joining an urban mega-city and instead formed their own county, Nassau.
The remaining share of Long Island, stretching far to the east, was never part of the discussion. Now called Suffolk County, it includes hamlets called the “Hamptons” that became summer beach colonies of some of America’s wealthiest, and some say snootiest, families.
The Bronx’s Old Mill, which produced snuff, photographed about 1900. (Library of Congress)
Most of the Bronx, to the north of Manhattan — the only piece of the grand, new New York that actually sits on the U.S. mainland — already had been annexed, so becoming a borough of the world’s second-largest city (behind London at the time) was taken in stride.
The men who schemed to create Greater New York, notably planner Andrew Haswell Green, wanted the city to grow, for sure. But even more, they wanted the heavily Democratic city to control both sides of the bridges that connected it with the rest of the mostly Republican state. And they wanted total dominion over the important harbors and wharves.
Green had once ridden to the northern tip of Manhattan, gazed out upon the Bronx across the Harlem River, and daydreamed of bringing “these magnificent distances” under city control. Not incidentally, he pointed out as he drew a circle roughly 25 km (16 miles) out from New York City Hall, expansion would reel in the riches of wealthy landowners who had established country estates to avoid paying city taxes.
When the 829-km² (320-square-mile) city of 3.4 million people was finally realized in 1898, it instantly surpassed 40 entire states in population. Ever after, Andrew Green would be called “The Father of New York” by admirers and the devil incarnate by detractors, one whom shot and killed him in 1903.
The skinny Tower Building is the central portion, with the archway at street level. It’s long gone from the streetscape. (nyc-architecture.com)
To Brooklyn’s dismay, Manhattan remained the core of the Big Onion.
In 1883, when the Brooklyn Bridge opened across the East River, its western tower was the tallest structure on Manhattan Island. Four years later on Broadway, architect Bradford Gilbert erected the 13-story Tower Building on a plot barely 6 meters wide.
If Gilbert could do it, so could others, and by the turn of the century the skyline of Manhattan was changed from a low-slung mishmash of ships’ masts, church steeples, row-house roofs, and squat factories into a panorama of towers reaching high into the sky.
And I don’t need to mention that this was but a modest overture to the parade of true skyscrapers to come in the 1930s.
You probably know about the Empire State Building and Manhattan’s fine museums and its vast Central Park. So let me, instead, bring the other boroughs into view.
Brooklyn — Breuckelen in Dutch — was created as a place for New Amsterdam’s elite to build manor homes and truck farms.
Ferry service to it was spotty, though, even after the English took over, until Robert Fulton demonstrated his new steamboat in 1807.
Carol photographed Brooklyn’s skyline about 1990. (Carol M. Highsmith)
Brooklyn’s city center grew in the hills across from Manhattan, and enclaves of stately brownstone buildings arose thereabouts. Brooklyn was inundated by immigrants, first the Irish and Germans in the 1830s. It was poor Irish — already speaking English with a brogue and trying to cope with American idioms and remnants of Dutch — who first developed the famous “Brooklyn accent.” Comedians and Hollywood characters such as the Bowery Boys greatly exaggerated it: “Youse meet me at Toity-toid and Toid Av’nue.”
So fiercely did Brooklyn trumpet its self-sufficiency that even after it lost its independence, other New Yorkers talked about the bristling “Brooklyn attitude,” and billboards could be found in the early 1900s welcoming visitors to “America’s Fourth-Largest City.” For decades, Brooklyn’s docks and marine terminals, where the famous Union ironclad warship Monitor that battled the Confederates’ own ironclad Virginia in the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s had been built and launched, were more than a match for Manhattan’s.
Brooklyn has its own spectacular 213-hectare (526-acre) greensward, Prospect Park, designed by the same men who created Central Park. Long revered as the “City of Churches,” the borough offers a full day’s tour of impressive houses of worship.
Brooklynites will tell you their festivals are less contrived and commercial than those in Manhattan, and that the delicatessens along Flatbush Avenue are as delightfully idiosyncratic as ever. Best chopped liver-and-egg sandwich I’ve ever eaten, I can tell you.
Abandoned and burned-out high-rise apartments in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood have been replaced by pleasant one- and two-family houses.
A massive crowd at Coney Island on a hot day was depicted on this postcard, produced about 1910. (Library of Congress)
Even Brooklyn’s seaside resort, Coney Island, bordered by housing projects and once thought hopelessly tacky, is bright, bouncy, and fun again.
This is NOT the newest Ferris wheel at Coney Island, but it’s of a much more recent vintage than the postcard view above! (Carol M. Highsmith)
Last year, the first roller-coaster to be built at Coney Island in 80 years opened near the boardwalk.
The Bronx got its unusual name from the area’s first settler, Danish immigrant Jonas Bronck. His family had clout, and everyone down in New Netherland referred to “The Broncks’ farm.” Until the 20th Century, the Bronx remained a land of pastures, country homes, and modest factories, including a snuff mill.
The Bronx was one of the first parts of New York to succumb to rampant subdivision and apartment construction that would eventually lead to an oversaturation of low-income housing and to waves of devastation and abandonment that would scar the borough for decades.
The cycle began in the mid-1900s as wealthy Bronx landowners sold off their manors in favor of places in the “real” countryside, out in Westchester County.
A greatly spruced-up Grand Concourse today. It’s no longer grand, but it’s a whole lot more inviting than it was just a few years ago. (Jim.henderson, Wikipedia Commons)
With the empty buildings, rising crime, and falling population came a withdrawal of services by a city that, by the 1970s, was teetering on bankruptcy. The Bronx’s “Grand Concourse,” a boulevard of apartment buildings constructed during the “City Beautiful” Movement of the early 20th Century, deteriorated in the wake of “white flight” to the suburbs by the lion’s share of its residents and the influx of poor people displaced by slum clearance in Manhattan to the south.
About the only ray of sunshine was the unifying force of the hometown New York Yankees, the proud “Bronx Bombers.” But even they endured woeful seasons from 1981 through 1995 before baseball’s most storied team would challenge for a championship again.
Compared with its bleak days, though, “the Bronx is up,” not just geographically as in the “New York, New York” song from the musical “On the Town,” in which Manhattan’s Bowery neighborhood is “down.” Much of the blight is gone, replaced by promising developments of one- and two-family units, as well as city and private colleges and topflight medical centers. And two of New York’s finest cultural fixtures, the Bronx Zoo and the New York Botanical Garden, are thriving.
The animal-themed “Rainey Gates” at the Bronx Zoo, designed by noted sculptor Paul Manship. Paul J. Rainey was big-game hunter, but he was also a philanthropist who left millions of dollars to create nature preserves. His wife paid for the gates in his memory. (Carol M. Highsmith)
Admirers of Queens, the largest and most residential borough, with more than 170,000 single-family homes, cite the evidence of neighborhood identity that has lingered through decades of rapid urbanization. Flushing, Floral Park, Long Island City, and dozens of other Queens communities have retained their individuality.
In the give and take over immigration policy in this country, it is sometimes correctly pointed out that we are all immigrants to this land. Or descendants of one. Even American Indians trace their lineage to peoples who crossed a land bridge from Asia.
The “golden door” was actually a long staircase, two rows of which, as I explain in a bit, led to a land of opportunity. The other could lead to disappointment and despair. (Carol M. Highsmith)
And at least one-third — some say 40 percent — of us are descended from someone who arrived here through a single portal: an infamous flight of stairs at a place called Ellis Island, up the Hudson River in New York Harbor.
For more than 12 million newcomers, it was their “golden door” to a new life in America.
At first, when what became a sort of polyglot city of strangers from many lands opened in 1892, the influx was a nearly unceasing flood of humanity.
Then, in 1924, almost in an instant, restrictive immigration quotas squeezed the stampede into a trickle.
Ellis was converted into a Coast Guard station and wartime detention center before being abandoned and its structures left to molder.
The Statue of Liberty is an ever-present symbol in the distance, beyond Ellis Island’s original administration building, right, and hospital. (Carol M. Highsmith)
But in the 1980s, a $315 million restoration project — the most ambitious in U.S. history — refurbished Ellis’s Main Building processing center as well as nearby the Statue of Liberty — that beacon of freedom that many of the immigrants first saw from the low decks and portholes of the steamships that brought them to this new land.
Nowadays more than 6 million visitors a year ferry from lower Manhattan or New Jersey to Liberty Island to see the statue, and about 2 million go on to Ellis Island.
In 1882, worried about the spread of dreaded diseases such as typhoid fever, the Federal Government took over the immigration process from the states. It set up stations in New Orleans, Louisiana, up the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico; at Angel Island in California’s San Francisco Bay; and in a creaky old fort called Castle Garden at Battery Park on the southern tip of New York’s Manhattan Island.
But Castle Garden’s administrators were unprepared for what was to come. Ships, packed with refugees from European wars and others seeking religious freedom, descended upon them.
So the Immigration Bureau commissioned a new processing center on a 1.6-hectare (four-acre) speck of land off Lower Manhattan once called Oyster Island and then Gibbet Island because a number of pirates were hanged there. A gibbet is a gallows.
For nine years in the late 18th Century, the sandy, scraggly island was owned by a colonial New Yorker, Samuel Ellis, a Welshman about whom not much is known. His heirs had little interest in the place when Ellis died in 1794, and they sold it to the young federal government, which admired its strategic location. The government built a fort there, and for the better part of a century, the public generally ignored the little lump in the harbor.
This was Ellis’s first grand, but alas not fireproof, immigration station. (Library of Congress)
In 1892, to replace the older and overcrowded immigration gateway at Battery Park, engineers used subway rubble and ships’ ballast to connect Ellis to two adjacent islets, quadrupling the size of the island.
They built a sizable new processing station — only to see it and tons of immigration records dating to the 1850s burn a crisp one night five years later, in 1897.
To replace it, they outdid themselves, constructing the 33 ornate, red-brick and white-limestone structures that are in place today.
Ellis Island’s magnificent new main building, with four soaring cupola towers, opened on December 17, 1900.
And this was its replacement, now a memorable immigration museum. (Carol M. Highsmith)
More than a century later, it and two other buildings that sat empty and decaying after immigration processing ceased, have been restored. But hospitals, quarantine buildings, and detention centers on the former unnamed islands Two and Three are decrepit today, their hallways heaped with fallen plaster.
This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.
Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.