What’s in a (Hyphenated) Name?

Posted August 19th, 2010 at 9:34 am (UTC-4)
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Who am I?

That’s the kind of question one usually asks while in the midst of existential angst.

But every year, untroubled American women pose the question as well.

Women rather than men, because we men are born Theodore W. Landphair or John H. Jones and remain Landphairs and Joneses the rest of our lives. In that sense, at least, we know who we’ve been, who we are, and who we’re going to be.

Mr. Ochocinco was still Chad Johnson when this colorful photo was taken.  (Wikipedia Commons)

Mr. Ochocinco was still Chad Johnson when this colorful photo was taken. (Wikipedia Commons)

Unless, of course, we, like the American football player Chad Johnson, don’t like our names, determine to officially change them, and get a judge to sign off on it. Johnson, who wears No. 85 for the Cincinnati Bengals, is now, quite legally, Chad Ochocinco. Ocho cinco is Spanish for “eight five.” Mr. Ochocinco apparently didn’t know, or didn’t care, that “85” translates as ochenta y cinco. Maybe there wasn’t room on his jersey.

But back to the ladies.

For generations, it was traditional for an American woman who wed to take her husband’s last name. Upon marrying James Davis, Mary Robinson would — often giddily and gladly — become “Mary Davis,” or, just as proudly, “Mrs. James Davis.” Read the rest of this entry »

Roadies

Posted August 12th, 2010 at 1:08 pm (UTC-4)
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Carol and I will soon head out on one of our trademark coast-to-coast adventures, if you count our home in suburban Washington, D.C., 200 kilometers (124 miles) from the Atlantic Ocean, as one of the “coasts.”  The other end of the journey, in Port Angeles, Washington, just a short dash up the Strait of Juan de Fuca from the Pacific, will be as coastal as it gets.

This looks like our traveling bags, all right, except that these are better organized.  (Davesportfolio, Flickr Creative Commons)

This looks like our traveling bags, all right, except that these are better organized. (Davesportfolio, Flickr Creative Commons)

I’ll be working like a sled dog on this trip — which I’ll tell you more about in September — driving a borrowed blimp of a car and serving as Carol’s “grip” for all 13 her hefty bags of lights, cameras, tripods, and “healthful” things that she eats.  They include some kind of real milk — not beige-colored soy oil or extract of flax — that somehow stays fresh and unspoiled for weeks without refrigeration.  A case of that stuff hefts like a steamer trunk.

I’m a little bummed about this journey, even though I look forward to the open road — a misnomer, since there ARE no open roads until you get to western Minnesota.

No, I’m bummed because Jeff Deck, a Boston blogger, editor, and occasional cartoonist, beat me to a great idea that he got on one of his own trips about the land.

He even got a book out of it. Read the rest of this entry »

Virginia Byways and Pieways

Posted August 5th, 2010 at 1:34 pm (UTC-4)
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I told you a bit about Virginia last time but didn’t have the time or space to describe the full scope of what just might be our most historically significant state.  It was not only an incubator of American independence and the cradle of American presidents — eight of them — but also the scene of ferocious, climactic battles of our great civil war.

Virginia ranks 35th among the 50 states in size, which surprises what my mother used to call the “living daylights” out of me.  I guess I’ve squeezed among and around so many thousands of trucks while impatiently plying Interstate highways 66 and 81 to and through the Blue Ridge Mountains that Virginia seemed to go on forever.

The Appalachian Trail winds right through Virginia’s gorgeous Shenandoah National Park.  Along it, you’ll find both “day trippers” and thru hikers, mostly heading south from Maine to Georgia.  (Brendan Reals)

The Appalachian Trail winds right through Virginia’s gorgeous Shenandoah National Park. Along it, you’ll find both “day trippers” and thru hikers, mostly heading south from Maine to Georgia. (Brendan Reals)

Virginians themselves, with so many presidential homes and antebellum mansions, caverns and oystering coves, battlefields and “living museums,” wineries and microbreweries (my favorite), and the longest stretch of the Georgia-to-Maine Appalachian Trail footpath to enjoy any time they wish, never seem to be in much of a hurry.

They are a rather refined lot.  While their accent has hints of what Carol’s father, a Georgian, called “southreen,” it’s subtle, gentle, without a trace of a twang until you hit the hollows close to West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee.  Some Virginia men — mostly lawyers, of which there is an abundance — still wear white or seersucker suits and bow ties; and you’re quite likely to bump into slightly more rumpled professors, declaiming about Thomas Jefferson at one of the state’s 40 or so fine colleges and universities. Read the rest of this entry »

The Old Dominion

Posted July 30th, 2010 at 12:24 pm (UTC-4)
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After reading my post about suburbia a couple of times back, my colleague Penelope Poulou, who lives in Alexandria, Virginia, pointed out that even though Alexandria is considered part of suburban Washington, D.C., the city of 145,000 people is nothing like stereotypical modern suburbs.

Founded in 1749, 52 years before Washington even existed, Alexandria was a thriving river port.  But by the time planners of the nation’s new capital city had finished, Alexandria and part of neighboring Arlington had been excised from Virginia, renamed “Alexandria County,” and placed within the new, diamond-shaped federal “District of Columbia.”

Click on this map of the locations of Alexandria and Georgetown, and it changes to reveal the progression of the nation’s capital into the city we know today.  (epicAdam, Wikipedia Commons)

Click on this map of the locations of Alexandria and Georgetown, and it changes to reveal the progression of the nation’s capital into the city we know today. (epicAdam, Wikipedia Commons)

Also within the new, 100-square-mile (259 km2), diamond-shaped,  federal district — on what had been Maryland land across the Potomac River — lay Georgetown, another little port town that’s now a chi-chi Washington neighborhood; an area next to Georgetown called “Washington City,” earmarked for new federal buildings; and surrounding woods, brambles, and low hills in what was called “Washington County.”

All, including Alexandria, I repeat, within the new federal district that no longer belonged to any state.

As a teeming center of the southern slave trade, Alexandria chafed under federal control, even though the commissioners who ran the young capital city paid it little mind.  They were too busy trying to get the government functioning across the river.

This was an Alexandria slave pen and auction house, photographed in 1862 after the Union Army had crossed the Potomac to occupy the city.  (Library of Congress)

This was an Alexandria slave pen and auction house, photographed in 1862 after the Union Army had crossed the Potomac to occupy the city. (Library of Congress)

Eventually, in 1846, Congress washed its hands of Alexandria and Arlington and retroceded them to Virginia, only to see the state secede from the Union 17 years later to join a confederacy of disgruntled southern states.  Federal troops hurriedly crossed the Potomac and occupied what had once been Washington’s own Virginia neighborhoods in order to keep the Confederate army at arms’ length — pun intended — from the capital.

The point of this historical interlude is that Alexandria and many other old, close-in suburbs of America’s big cities have rich histories of their own that far predate suburban tract developments that, much later, would sprout from farm fields outside of town.

And here’s something that caught my eye: CNNMoney.com, an online business magazine, recently published its annual list of the nation’s 100 “Best Places to Live” among America’s small cities. 

There wasn’t much to Centreville, Virginia — it certainly wasn’t surburbia — in 1862, shortly before the second Battle of Bull Run (Second Manassas to the Confederates, who prevailed in that battle.  (Library of Congress)

There wasn’t much to Centreville, Virginia — it certainly wasn’t surburbia — in 1862, shortly before the second Battle of Bull Run (Second Manassas to the Confederates, who prevailed in that battle. (Library of Congress)

Alexandria finished 47th.  That’s reasonably impressive, although one other Virginia city finished ahead of it in 30th place.  It’s Centreville, in Fairfax County, west of Alexandria near the Manassas Civil War battlefield — called “Bull Run” by the Yankees of the North.   Centreville’s a typical, well-to-do, unincorporated suburban boomtown of luxury townhomes, single-family developments, and enormous shopping malls.

Among a very few attributes that CNNMoney.com credited to Centreville was this: “Washington, D.C., is anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour and a half away, depending on traffic.” 

It’s 40 minutes away, all right — in the middle of the night.  The grinding  rush-hour commute into town on Northern Virginia’s clogged roads is far closer to the hour-and-a-half drive.

You sure can’t see a Blue Ridge Mountain scene like this from congested Centreville today, but you can get there in less than an hour.  (Brendan Reals)

You sure can’t see a Blue Ridge Mountain scene like this from congested Centreville today, but you can get there in less than an hour. (Brendan Reals)

Asked about Centreville’s surprise showing on the “best places” list, some Facebook contributors praised its schools and waxed nostalgic about the days when they could putter out two-lane roads to picnic in the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains.  But others bemoaned the paving of a rural paradise.  “Just looks like a big strip mall with big box chains, tract developments, McMansions and fast food joints,” wrote Andrew Wilson.  “Have the people who created this list even been there?”

Two other small Virginia cities — Chesapeake (85th) and Suffolk (91st), both in the “Tidewater” area near the Chesapeake Bay — made it into CNNMoney’s Top 100 list as well.

All of which gets me thinking about the “Old Dominion.”  That term was given to Virginia by King Charles II of England in 1660 for the colony’s steadfast loyalty to the crown during the English Civil War.  He even added Virginia’s coat of arms to his shield, joining those of his other dominions: England, Ireland, and Scotland.

Allow me  to tell you more about Virginia’s history.  Next posting, we’ll cast an eye on other parts of “Old Virginny,” where, as we hear in an 1878 tune by James A. Bland that became the official state song, “the cotton and corn and taters grow.”

It was to that place, in the same song, written 13 years after southern slaves had been freed, that an “old darkey” sang that his “heart am long’d to go.”   Even though Bland, its songwriter, was an African-American minstrel, his fond recollections of laboring “so hard for Old Massa” didn’t sound so peachy more than a century later.  In 1997, the Virginia General Assembly declared that “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” would henceforth be the commonwealth’s state song emeritus.

The Latin motto meaning “Thus Always to Tyrants!” — the same words spoken by John Wilkes Booth after he fatally shot President Abraham Lincoln — appears on the Virginia flag, in which the goddess Virtus (Virtue) subdues a Tyrant.

The Latin motto meaning “Thus Always to Tyrants!” — the same words spoken by John Wilkes Booth after he fatally shot President Abraham Lincoln — appears on the Virginia flag, in which the goddess Virtus (Virtue) subdues a Tyrant.

If you’re curious about the term ”commonwealth, Virginia is one of four U.S. states that call themselves by that name.    Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania are the others.  The word has no particular legal meaning.  I suspect that leaders in these places thought it would give their states a bit of snob appeal.

Nowadays, Virginia is for Lovers, or so the commonwealth’s slogan goes.

History lovers, especially.  Its domain, which winds along the Atlantic Ocean and down the spine of the Appalachian Mountains, was named in the early 17th Century, when all of newly discovered North America that was not Spanish or French was called “Virginia” after Elizabeth, England’s “Virgin Queen.”

Not surprisingly, you’ll find this statue of Thomas Jefferson at his own national memorial in Washington.  But you’ll also find dozens of others around his home state of Virginia, including another splendid one at his namesake hotel in Richmond.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Not surprisingly, you’ll find this statue of Thomas Jefferson at his own national memorial in Washington. But you’ll also find dozens of others around his home state of Virginia, including another splendid one at his namesake hotel in Richmond. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Thomas Jefferson, destined to be the nation’s first secretary of state and third president, surveyed much of Virginia and set an “exact description of the limits and boundaries” in 1781.  But its borders were inexact out west.  On a map Virginia stretched far across the Appalachians and onward to the Ohio and Mississippi rivers on the extremities of the land known to whites.  On paper, the early commonwealth was one-third larger than the entire British motherland.

Jefferson’s name resounds to this day throughout ancestor-worshipping Virginia.  Veteran statehouse observers in its capital, Richmond, would be hard-pressed to recall the last important political speech that did not invoke Jefferson’s words.  And the proclamations of other legendary Virginians — including the first U.S. president, George Washington; the 28th, Woodrow Wilson; and five other presidents born in Virginia — also have as much currency as they did generations ago.

More than one Virginia visitor has gazed at a nearby thicket through the morning mist and imagined a Rebel column stirring as in Civil War times, or tarried on a great, white portico and thought of the inspiring oratory that sounded some of the first calls for American freedom.

This shows Virginia in geographical context.  Both West Virginia and Kentucky to the west were originally part of the commonwealth.  (NationalAtlasl.com).

This shows Virginia in geographical context. Both West Virginia and Kentucky to the west were originally part of the commonwealth. (NationalAtlasl.com).

But Virginia defies stereotyping as a stuffy time capsule.  In this single state — shaped a bit like a wood plane whose high “knob” reaches up to Washington, flat bottom runs along the North Carolina border, and thin, pointed prow jabs far into Appalachia — one can leave the glistening strand of Virginia Beach for indolent swamps, cotton and tobacco fields, apple orchards, plantation homes, reborn colonial villages, wayside taverns, giant clothing and tobacco factories, an array of amazing caverns, the remnants of epic battlefields, and parallel mountain spines that stretch almost 650 km (400 miles) from Maryland to Tennessee.

And there are plenty of Centreville-style suburban plats as well.

No single metropolis dominates.  Tourists enjoy the easygoing charms of Norfolk (deepwater ships), Roanoke (mountain music and art), Danville (old mills and warehouses), Lynchburg (abundant nearby battlefields), and Richmond, which for a time was also the capital city of the entire rebellious Confederacy.

Still, it is the old, more than anything new, that makes Virginia unequalled in the land.  This, after all, is the place that thought of itself as old even in the Civil War of the 1860s, when Confederate General George Pickett shouted to his troops, “Up, men, and to your posts!  Don’t forget today that you are from Old Virginia” before leading the last, desperate charge up Cemetery Ridge at the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania.

Matoaka, whose childhood nickname was “Pocahantas” (Little Woman), was an Indian chief’s daughter.  She helped the white settlers of Jamestown, Virginia, and married one of them.  Her statue can be found at the Colonial National Historical Park in Yorktown.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Matoaka, whose childhood nickname was “Pocahantas” (Little Woman), was an Indian chief’s daughter. She helped the white settlers of Jamestown, Virginia, and married one of them. Her statue can be found at the Colonial National Historical Park in Yorktown. (Carol M. Highsmith)

How old?  Colonization began soon after the dawn of the 17th century, on May 13, 1607, when three vessels commissioned by the Virginia Company of London landed at Jamestown and began the first permanent settlement in the New World.  An earlier colonization attempt at Roanoke Island, in what was then Virginia and is now North Carolina, was such a failure that no trace of it or its inhabitants has been found.  According to legend, Pocahontas, daughter of the Indian chief Powhatan, would save Captain John Smith from a violent death at Jamestown.

Smith not only prospered; he even wrote a Historie of Virginia that became a prized book on the shelves of Virginia’s gentry.  Think of it!  Europeans had barely landed before they were writing histories of the place!  Virginia was for History Lovers even then.

By 1618 the colony had achieved enough stability to convene a House of Burgesses, the first democratically elected legislative body in the New World.  As settlement spread, three levels of Virginia society emerged: planters — chiefly of tobacco — who held most of the legislative seats; middle-class “yeomen”; and non-free laborers, including white indentured servants and ever-increasing numbers of black slaves.

Virginians called the planters “cavaliers.”  There aren’t many of them left, but the term remains the nickname of the sports teams at the state university in Charlottesville.

The Sir Christopher Wren Building, constructed in 1700, at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, is the second-oldest academic structure still in use in America.  It is named for the famous English architect who, some say, drew the plans for the building.  (Library of Congress)

The Sir Christopher Wren Building, constructed in 1700, at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, is the second-oldest academic structure still in use in America. It is named for the famous English architect who, some say, drew the plans for the building. (Library of Congress)

Plantation farming spread westward to the “middle colony” around Williamsburg, and beyond to “frontier land” in the densely forested mountains.  By 1693, Virginia Colony was prosperous enough to establish a college, William & Mary — named for England’s new monarchs — in Williamsburg, which would soon become the colonial capital.

Tobacco dominated Virginia’s economy.  By 1730, more than 9 million kilos (20 million pounds) of Virginia tobacco were shipped to England annually.  Slaves, who had been 9 percent of Virginia’s inhabitants in 1700, would comprise 40 percent of a larger population 50 years later.

Future revolutionaries, including George Washington, cut their teeth in battle in the western mountains — “western” being a relative term, since the “West” then lay just over the eastern Appalachians — during the French and Indian War.  In 1767, two years after the Treaty of Paris ended that conflict, frontier lawyer Patrick Henry rose in the House of Burgesses to denounce the British Stamp Act, which taxed the colonies without their approval.  “If this be treason,” he thundered, “make the most of it.”

Revolution was in the air.  Virginian Richard Bland — a white patrician who most likely was not an ancestor of the black “Old Virginny” songwriter — produced a pamphlet, An Inquiry into the Rights of the British Colonies, that declared the colonies to be “no part of the British Empire” but independent entities loyal to the crown.  Declaring his sympathy with colonists in Massachusetts who had dumped British tea into Boston harbor, Patrick Henry, again, told a meeting of colonists in Richmond:

Gentlemen may cry “Peace! Peace!” but there is no peace.  The war is actually begun! . . . Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?  Forbid it, Almighty God!  I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!

After the revolution began in 1775, most of the fighting involving Virginians occurred in the West — today’s Midwest.  But the climactic American victory took place on Virginia soil in 1781 at Yorktown, where the British, to the beat of an apt old tune, “The World Turned Upside Down,” marched in defeat to their ships and an ignominious sail home.

Matters would turn complex for the new commonwealth — and nation — as slavery took root.  Within a year of the Revolutionary War peace treaty, Virginia ceded the vast territory northwest of its mountains for future national expansion.  In 1792, Kentucky — directly to the west, where slavery was only a here-and-there institution — broke away to become the nation’s 15th state.  And when civil war visited Virginia 70 years later, its mountainous, non-slaveholding counties would leave, too, to form West Virginia.

The Manassas Battlefield National Park commemorates two epic U.S. Civil War battles west of Washington, including the first big battle of the war.  Union soldiers named the conflicts after Bull Run, a little stream that flows nearby.  Confederate forces won both battles but did not advance on Washington.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

The Manassas Battlefield National Park commemorates two epic U.S. Civil War battles west of Washington, including the first big battle of the war. Union soldiers named the conflicts after Bull Run, a little stream that flows nearby. Confederate forces won both battles but did not advance on Washington. (Carol M. Highsmith)

As the Confederate state nearest to Washington during the American Civil War, Virginia became the locus of bloody fighting, beginning with an embarrassing Union defeat at Manassas, continuing through fearsome campaigns in woodsy places such as “The “Wilderness,” and ending with rebel commander Robert E. Lee’s dignified surrender to Union general Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865.

Devastated by war, the Old Dominion’s cities grew slowly, and a majority of Virginians remained on upland farms and former plantations.

Under President Jefferson, the United States almost doubled in size with the purchase from France, for $154 million, of the Louisiana Territory in 1803.  Jefferson then dispatched two other Virginians, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, to explore the vast Northwest.  Two administrations later, President James Monroe, also a Virginian, enunciated principles that became the “Monroe Doctrine,” announcing U.S. “protection” of the entire Western Hemisphere from European colonization.

Virginians still speak proudly of “FFVs,” a term that everyone from Wachapreague on the Eastern Shore to Winchester at the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley understands.  An FFV is a “First Family of Virginia,” a title loosely accorded to old-line families who trace their lineage to early English settlement.

Christ Church in Alexandria was the home church of President George Washington and, years later, Robert E. Lee, the commander of southern forces in the U.S. Civil War.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Christ Church in Alexandria was the home church of President George Washington and, years later, Robert E. Lee, the commander of southern forces in the U.S. Civil War. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Many FFVs live in Old Town Alexandria, which surely sets it apart from the upstart suburbs.  A staging area for British troops fighting the French in the 1750s and then that prosperous little port, Alexandria would be quickly taken out of action in the Civil War as Union troops poured out of Washington and over the Potomac River to occupy the town.

It’s a good thing I’m not a Virginian, or I’d go on and on and on in this historical vein.  If you were Virginians, you’d expect it!

Killer Oaks, Seat Hogs, and More

Posted July 23rd, 2010 at 2:16 pm (UTC-4)
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As I, cough, cough, mentioned last time, I, hack, live in the leafy Washington suburb of Takoma Park, Maryland.

Our little town calls itself “Azalea City,” which you’d believe if you stopped by in springtime.  And year ’round, gasp, we live beneath a canopy of big, beautiful trees, including, snort, thousands and thousands of killer white oaks and chestnut oaks, some dating to President Arthur’s administration of the 1880s.

OK, “killer oaks” is a stretch.  They do drop acorns with bombardier accuracy, but only occasionally do their venerable trunks and branches fall on our houses and cars and citizens.

But they’re a menace nonetheless, at just the wrong times.

In the days when most folks took the streetcar, rode bicycles, or even walked into town, they came just to sit under those trees and breathe in the fresh air in our relatively high ground above the odoriferous big city.  Nowadays, people mostly drive in or take the bus.  When it’s hot — and we’ve had 40 days of Farenheit 90°+ (32° Celsius) readings with high humidity just since April — air-quality levels have been dreadful.

And if scientists at Texas A&M University are right, those oak trees, of all things, are contributing to all the hacking and wheezing on Code Orange and Code Red air-quality days.

Now you and I have always praised our trees for their environmental contributions.  Good trees!!  After all, as About.com’s Steve Nix points out, a mature tree produces as much oxygen in a season as 10 people inhale in a year.  Good oxygen, too, right?

But apparently that’s not all that oak trees pump into the air.

If oak trees contribute negatively to global climate change, watch out for this one!  Of course, this photo, made into a postcard, was taken in 1901 in Pass Christian, Mississippi.  So it may have gone to that great lumber pile in the sky. (Library of Congress)

If oak trees contribute negatively to global climate change, watch out for this one! Of course, this photo, made into a postcard, was taken in 1901 in Pass Christian, Mississippi. So it may have gone to that great lumber pile in the sky. (Library of Congress)

According to Texas A&M atmospheric chemist Renyi Zhang and chemistry department head Simon North, just when things get smoggiest and steamiest, oaks emit a toxic hydrocarbon that stunts their own growth and contributes to global climate change.  That’s the current, politically correct alternative to the dicier “global warming.”

The National Science Foundation has given professors Zhang and North a $300,000 grant to study the release into the atmosphere of the hydrocarbon compound isoprene — C5H8 for you chem. majors — on the smoggiest days of the year.

Release, I point out again, not by smelly cars, stinky smokestack industries, or primping people applying hair spray, but by mighty oaks.

Neither man nor beast — nor tree — would be too happy in this smoggy setting.  (Dominic, Flickr Creative Commons)

Neither man nor beast — nor tree — would be too happy in this smoggy setting. (Dominic, Flickr Creative Commons)

According to Professor Zhang, trees release isoprene when they “respire.”  Breathe, in other words.  Like us, a big-old oak really huffs and puffs, though inconspicuously, on hot, humid days when pollution fouls the air.

Here’s what’s going on.  Pay attention, class:

The oak gives off isoprene, which then, after a number of chemical reactions, increases the amount of ozone in the air.

That, too, sounds like a good thing.  Normally, ozone drifts up — way up — to form a thick layer, high in the atmosphere, that blocks harmful ultraviolet radiation.

But as Professor Zhang explains, isoprene-generated ozone at tree level traps infrared radiation shimmering off the hot earth and makes things even more miserable.

It’s, ta-da, the “Greenhouse effect” in miniature: raising temperatures that, when widespread enough, lead to global, uh, climate change.

To quote Zhang exactly — without understanding most of it — “Although near-ground ozone has some beneficial effects, providing excited oxygen atoms needed to free OH radicals that help to bind other chemicals like sulfur and cleanse them from the atmosphere, excess ozone proves harmful to the health of humans and plants.”

You can see here why ozone created by living, breathing trees, might not reach the high atmosphere on high-pollution days, but might actually create a low-lying smog barrier.  (madiko83, Flickr Creative Commons)

You can see here why ozone created by living, breathing trees, might not reach the high atmosphere on high-pollution days, but might actually create a low-lying smog barrier. (madiko83, Flickr Creative Commons)

In short, too much ozone at ground level can slowly kill trees.  And fewer trees mean more CO2 in the air, trapping still more heat and further raising the planet’s temperature.

Zhang and North will study the extent of isoprene contamination in a perfect location.  Not my backyard, but in Houston, not too far down the traffic-snarled highway from their campus in College Station, Texas.  Houston is rife with smoggy freeways and live oak trees.

Not alive oak.  Live oak.  It’s a variety of oak.

The chemists hope to find ways to abate the trees’ onslaught of isoprene as at least a small contribution toward easing air pollution.  For you chemistry buffs again, they’ll test using chemical ionization and laser-induced fluorescence.

These are just two sides of a single Houston freeway, one of many that wind through and around the big, often hot, city.  But wait!  Are those fellow-polluting oak trees?  (Carol M. Highsmith)

These are just two sides of a single Houston freeway, one of many that wind through and around the big, often hot, city. But wait! Are those fellow-polluting oak trees? (Carol M. Highsmith)

“If we can fully understand the critical steps in the [isoprene-to-ozone] reaction,” Renyi Zhang says, “maybe we can determine where best to intervene in the process to keep both our oak trees and ourselves healthier.”

Where best?  I’m sure our mayor would be thrilled if Zhang and North kicked the isoprene out of Takoma Park.

Oinking on the Rails

Washington is at war, and I’m not talking about Iraq or Afghanistan.

It’s a battle between civilization and seat hogs.

Our Metro subway cars are already running at or beyond capacity at rush hour, with a forecast of “unmanageable” levels of “saturation” on the system by 2020.  Metro recently added a new set of rail cars, but they’re long on overhead straps for standees, and short on seats.

So places to rest our weary bottoms are at a premium, which makes the behavior of seat hogs all the more infuriating.

The crowd on the left is about to board a Washington subway.  Poor souls.  Some of them are actually hoping they’ll find seats unoccupied by people, purses, and other riders’ feet.  (laffy4k, Flickr Creative Commons)

The crowd on the left is about to board a Washington subway. Poor souls. Some of them are actually hoping they’ll find seats unoccupied by people, purses, and other riders’ feet. (laffy4k, Flickr Creative Commons)

These are the folks who blithely lay a purse, briefcase, newspaper, umbrella, bagged lunch, or unknown but worrisome object on the unoccupied half of their seats.  Some of them deliberately slide a skosh past the middle of the seat, leaving space that only a stick figure could occupy.  Or stretch out across the entire seat, propping their feet against the armrest.   And when the car is lightly occupied, a whole lot of people claim the aisle half of the seat in obvious hopes of discouraging those who might covet the vacant window location.

All the while, seat hogs nonchalantly bury their heads in a book, doze or pretend to, or glare menacingly — daring you to claim the empty spot.

“There’s a self-centeredness about it,” Metro rider Brooke Timmons told the Washington Post. Ya think?

Most other riders are too timid to do anything.  Confronting seat hogs would be stressful enough; sitting next to one whom you’d irritated could be excruciating.

Not for me.  I walk right up to the oafs or oafesses and point to the empty seat.  I’ve even tapped snoozers on the shoulder before pointing.

This rider gets a gold star.  How easy it would have been for him to sprawl across not just two, but three, seats.  (NYCgal, Flickr Creative Commons)

This rider gets a gold star. How easy it would have been for him to sprawl across not just two, but three, seats. (NYCgal, Flickr Creative Commons)

They usually harumph, roll their eyes as if I were the thoughtless one, and grudgingly remove the obstacle or slide over.  I imagine them saying to themselves, “Oh, well, I got away with it for the first half of the trip.”

I then spend the balance of the ride smiling smugly next to them.

My friends say provoking a seat hog could get me killed.  Maybe, but they’d build a monument to me.

Besides, I’ve seen others do braver things, such as wiggling their hindquarters into the slivers of seat space left unguarded by piggy riders.  And they’ve lived to tell about it.

So far.

It’s a wonder the fellow on the right found a spot on this long seat.  Probably he was there first.  (specialKRB, Flickr Creative Commons)

It’s a wonder the fellow on the right found a spot on this long seat. Probably he was there first. (specialKRB, Flickr Creative Commons)

In New York City, where one of the world’s most famous subways lurches underground, authorities have threatened to cite selfish seat hogs for disorderly conduct and fine them $50.  Judging by the lack of enforcement of no-eating-no-drinking ordinances there and in Washington, I doubt this has closed New York’s budget deficit.

One Manhattan businessman took his point-and-shoot camera and snapped, then posted on Facebook, a photo of a woman who had stretched out her legs to block the unoccupied half of her seat.  The photo drew such tumultuous congratulations that the fellow started a whole new Web site, seathog.com, to which angry riders from all over North America now post photos of what the Post calls “territorially insensitive riders.”  Several shots on the site show human hogs clogging not just their entire seats, but also a seat or two next to them with bags and packages and wet umbrellas.

A seat-hot vigilante?  If we can’t shame ’em, maybe we can scare ’em into being less selfish.  (craigmorsel, Flickr Creative Commons)

A seat-hot vigilante? If we can’t shame ’em, maybe we can scare ’em into being less selfish. (craigmorsel, Flickr Creative Commons)

So many photos have flooded the site that it now has categories, including, “Defiling Seats,” “Legroom/Armroom Hogs,” “Outrageous Behavior,” and “Smelly or Filthy SeatHogs.”

I find social scientists’ and seat vigilantes’ explanations for such selfish behavior quite interesting.  “I suppose people don’t want to give up their private space,” one transportation consultant told the Post.

Private space?  I think he’s referring to Americans’ well-known distaste for close encounters with strangers, but what’s private about a subway car?

“Seat hoggers and people being rude in public has kind of reached a boiling point, with the economy bad,” seathog.com’s creator told the newspaper.

I don’t get the connection.  Is everything still “the economy, stupid.”  Because many of us are struggling, are we not going to put up with seat boars and sows any more?

My next crusade will target newspaper trashers, who think the floor — and seat, in this case — of the Metro is a public dump.  This is a mild example.  You should see the train floor at the end of a day’s run.  (markbrennan, Flickr Creative Commons)

My next crusade will target newspaper trashers, who think the floor — and seat, in this case — of the Metro is a public dump. This is a mild example. You should see the train floor at the end of a day’s run. (markbrennan, Flickr Creative Commons)

Once we win the Great Seat Hog War and I’m retired and looking for something to get me out of the house, I’m going to launch a campaign against other displays of — what was that term again? — insensitive ridership on the Metro.  Specifically, the cavalier discarding of newspapers onto the floor or stuffing them next to seats, and calling it “recycling.”

I’ll launch that campaign, that is, if I survive my stare-downs with seat hogs.

Attention All Cars

I’ve figured out that there really is a way someone can rob banks and get away with it.

For a while, anyway.

He or she just needs a cool nickname, ending in “Bandit.”

Every day, I read that authorities are searching for a “Grandma Bandit,” a “Geezer Bandit,” a “Tom Thumb Bandit,” “a Billy Goat Bandit,” or other brazen and imaginatively titled robber.

This fellow, known as the “Double Dip Bandit,” was captured, as you see.  He got that name after a string of holdups in which he often went back to the same bank twice.  (Federal Bureau of Investigation)

This fellow, known as the “Double Dip Bandit,” was captured, as you see. He got that name after a string of holdups in which he often went back to the same bank twice. (Federal Bureau of Investigation)

The latest in our area is the notorious “Bouquet Bandit,” who hands over a lovely flower arrangement in which the teller discovers a note demanding cash.  In El Paso, Texas, they’re looking for the “Cargo Shorts Bandit.”  Across the state in Houston, eyes are peeled for the “Point Blank Bandit.”  In and around Ferndale, Michigan, you’ll want to steer clear of the “Bad Breath Bandit” for at least a couple of reasons.

In Los Angeles, the Bank Robbery — and, apparently, Bandit Nickname — Capital of America, all-points-bulletins have been issued for so many robbers with catchy names that it’s necessary to list them alphabetically: the Bad Rug Bandit, the Bedtime Bandit, the Chimney Sweep Bandit, the Dishonest Abe Bandit, the Ex-President Bandit, the Frat Dude Bandit, the Leap Frog Bandits, the Paparazzi Bandit, the Restroom Bandit, the Rorschach Bandit, the Snap Crackle and Pop Bandit, the Starlet Bandits, the Twenty Questions Bandit, the 24-Carat Bandit, and the Upper Lip Bandit.

In big cities like Chicago, the F.B.I. has launched Web sites such as this one to continually update its search for bank robbers.  (Federal Bureau of Investigation)

In big cities like Chicago, the F.B.I. has launched Web sites such as this one to continually update its search for bank robbers. (Federal Bureau of Investigation)

The F.B.I. must have hired hack detective novelists to dream up these names.  What crackling stories they’d write to describe criminals such as L.A.’s “Cyclops Bandit” or the dude whom Denver, Colorado, police dub the “Formerly Known as the Perennial Bandit Bandit.”

By the time his victims yelled out, “Help! Police!  It’s the Formerly Known as the Perennial Bandit Bandit!” his getaway car would be peeling rubber.

Thankfully, someone has already been described as the “Midlife Crisis Bandit.”  That would have been my nickname had I taken up a life of crime.

WILD WORDS

(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Harumph. A huff or grunt or snort of disdain or disagreement.

Nonchalant. Casual, with utter lack of concern.

Odoriferous. Smelly.  The root word is “odor.”

Primp. To preen or groom oneself with meticulous care and frequent glances at a mirror.

Skosh. A tiny amount; a smidgen.

Sub-bore-bia?

Posted July 20th, 2010 at 10:24 am (UTC-4)
5 comments

Are you into birdhouses?  Barbed Wire?  The flamboyant singer Liberace?  Little flip-open Pez candy dispensers?  How about art made from toast?  Somewhere in America, there’s a museum devoted to it.

And another unusual, but grander and eminently justifiable, museum is in the works.  Hundreds of American galleries are devoted to our great cities and the rolling farmland, dusty plains, and mountain landscapes from which they sprang.  But the folks in Johnson County, Kansas, are thinking hard about creating a museum about what’s in between.

They want to turn their pleasant, if rather conventional, county museum into the world’s first shrine to suburbia.  Or more precisely, into a national museum and think tank about suburban life.

It’s about time.  The 2000 U.S. Census revealed that one-half of us — probably an even greater percentage now, 10 years later — live not in town or out in the country, but in the suburbs.

Johnson County, just across the Missouri River from Kansas City, Missouri, envelops about 20 small Kansas cities, including a Kansas City of its own.   Towns such as Overland Park and Mission Hills began as bedroom communities of downtown “K.C.” but have since grown into important “nodes” with community-college campuses, art museums, big shopping malls, and corporate office parks.

The “good life” depicted in the Johnson County Museum’s exhibit on suburbia, certainly included a nice car like this 1955 Chevy Bel-Air, and a convenient shopping center. (Johnson County Museum)

The “good life” depicted in the Johnson County Museum’s exhibit on suburbia, certainly included a nice car like this 1955 Chevy Bel-Air, and a convenient shopping center. (Johnson County Museum)

Johnson County started its museum, in the town of Shawnee, 43 years ago.  For years, it has featured an extensive “Seeking the Good Life” exhibit that tells the story of suburban living, Kansas-style.  But a recent, disastrous flood wrecked the museum’s basement and ruined a number of documents.  That made a move imperative, and it gave momentum to an idea that had been percolating:

Why not think big and establish a place of national scope where visitors and scholars could explore everything suburban?  A National Museum of Suburban Life, if you will.

Of course clusters of houses, schools, parks and places of worship just outside city limits are not just an American phenomenon.  Paris and London and other places abroad beat us to it.  But Americans really took to the idea.

On a film clip made for General Motors’ exhibit at the World’s Fair of 1939 in New York City, the announcer intones, “And now we see a great river city of 1960.  The rights of way have been so routed as to displace outmoded business sections and undesirable slum areas whenever possible.”

This is the infamous “405,” the San Diego Freeway between Los Angeles and San Diego. The suburbs between those cities are connected, all right, but getting through them is rarely speedy. (Atwater Village Newbie, Flickr Creative Commons)

This is the infamous “405,” the San Diego Freeway between Los Angeles and San Diego. The suburbs between those cities are connected, all right, but getting through them is rarely speedy. (Atwater Village Newbie, Flickr Creative Commons)

To 1960 and well beyond, the outskirts of American cities bulged farther and farther into the countyside, to the point that, today, “suburban sprawl” from one city runs smack into the sprawl from another.  The result is unbroken “strip cities” of housing developments, freeways, and shopping malls.  Los Angeles to San Diego in Southern California, for instance, is one big “SoCal,” devoid of cows.

One of the most notable, and maligned, suburban models is the mind-numbing procession of nearly identical homes in places like Levittown, built over five years ending in 1951 by Abraham Levitt and Sons Co. on New York’s Long Island.  The family then promptly put up two more Levittowns, in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Levittown gave rise to a new kind of housing industry.  Instead of dispatching a few artisans to create custom-built homes for individual buyers, contractors purchased large swaths of land, hired gangs of construction workers, brought in bulldozers, and threw up sprawling subdivisions.

The Levitts used the same assembly-line methods that had cranked out an airplane or tank every few minutes during World War II.  Their developments, spreading as far as the eye can see, helped satisfy a pent-up demand for homes by millions of veterans.  Many of them and their wives and young children had been doubling up with in-laws or living in chicken coops, garages — even the unfinished fuselages of bomber planes — while starting married life.

This is either Levittown, Pennsylvania, or a rat maze. (Wikipedia Commons)

This is either Levittown, Pennsylvania, or a rat maze. (Wikipedia Commons)

These young families were eager to take advantage of benefits under the federal government’s G. I. Bill that allowed vets to buy a home — with mortgage payments cheaper than rents and no money required at sale.  In 1946, a two-bedroom Levittown house with modern kitchen appliances — a huge selling point to Americans who had just endured wartime rationing — sold for $6,500.

As Public Broadcasting System essayist Ben Wattenberg pointed out in a 2000 TV documentary about the changes wrought by suburbia, only two in five Americans owned homes in 1940.  By 1960, three in five did.

And that’s understandable.  “Hey,” exclaimed Wattenberg, “have you ever heard anyone say, ‘A man’s apartment is his castle?’”

What could be finer than a quiet spot in your own backyard?  Here, historic interpreter Tracy Quillen, enjoys the patio outside the Johnson County Museum’s 1954 “all-electric” home.  (Johnson County Museum)

What could be finer than a quiet spot in your own backyard? Here, historic interpreter Tracy Quillen, enjoys the patio outside the Johnson County Museum’s 1954 “all-electric” home. (Johnson County Museum)

“Happy homeowners” didn’t mind a bit of carpentry and yard work.  Speaking in 1948 at the height of the nation’s “Red scare,” Abraham Levitt’s son William remarked, “No one who owns his own house and lot can be a Communist.  He has too much to do.”

“Planned communities” were not just the brainchild of shrewd entrepreneurs.  During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Roosevelt Administration talked of creating 3,000 idyllic “green” towns in which former slum dwellers and displaced farmers could find happiness.

This is one of Greenbelt, Maryland’s, mass-produced, steel-frame homes being erected in 1938. (Library of Congress)

This is one of Greenbelt, Maryland’s, mass-produced, steel-frame homes being erected in 1938. (Library of Congress)

Turned out, only three such towns — Greenbelt, Maryland;  Greenhills, Ohio; and Greendale, Wisconsin — were ever built.  But other “dream” communities sprang up on their own — not that the dream usually applied to blacks, Hispanics, and Jews.  Residents lucky enough to afford lovely, single-family homes often set up rigid zoning rules, restrictive “covenants,” and secretly “redlined” neighborhoods in which banks would not lend to minorities and the poor.

And those who “got theirs” in uniform-looking neighborhoods typically fought hard to keep out other developments, odd-looking modifications to homes, or nonconformist landscaping designs.  The NIMBY concept — “Not in my Back Yard” — was born.

Well-lawned suburbs “might become the Colonial Williamsburg of the twenty-second century,” wrote Margaret Marsh, now a Rutgers University historian and dean, in 1988.  Colonial Williamsburg is the historic district in the town that was Virginia’s colonial capital three centuries ago.  “After all,” Marsh continued, “in our own century, the suburbanite has become the American archetype, much as the farming villager was in the colonial period.”

It’s hard to imagine, though, that 18th Century yeoman farmers bore the brunt of as much scorn from urban sophisticates as suburbanites do today, when it’s fashionable to mock suburbia as a wasteland of boring homogeneity and mindless conformity.

John Keats must have REALLY hated what he saw springing up in the suburbs, for he eviscerated suburban life in this 1956 novel. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishers)

John Keats must have REALLY hated what he saw springing up in the suburbs, for he eviscerated suburban life in this 1956 novel. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishers)

Older Americans remember John Keats — a Washington, D.C., newspaperman, not the English poet — and his scathing condemnation of suburbia.  In his 1956 book, The Crack in the Picture Window, Keats, who called his fictional suburbanites “the Drone Family,” wrote that housing developments popping up like mushrooms after a spring rain were “conceived in error, nurtured by greed, and . . . spreading like gangrene.”

There was no end in sight.  “Washington’s planners exult whenever a contractor vomits up five thousand new houses on a rural tract that might better have remained in hay,” Keats wrote, “for they see in this little besides thousands of new sales of labor, goods and services.”

Tract developments “actually drive mad myriads of housewives shut up in them,” Keats continued, while Mary Drone’s young husband “hadn’t the vaguest clue that everyday monotony was crushing Mary’s spirit.”

This is a house in Daly City, California, which one observer called a “surreal suburb” of homes covering every hillside outside San Francisco. Nancy Reynolds has said that her mother, Malvina, got the idea for her “Little Boxes” song while driving through Daly City. (Telstar Logistics, Flickr Creative Commons)

This is a house in Daly City, California, which one observer called a “surreal suburb” of homes covering every hillside outside San Francisco. Nancy Reynolds has said that her mother, Malvina, got the idea for her “Little Boxes” song while driving through Daly City. (Telstar Logistics, Flickr Creative Commons)

Who of a certain age can forget folksinger Pete Seeger’s jibes in 1963, when he sang Malvina Reynolds’s mincing ditty:

Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky-tacky.

Little boxes, little boxes, little boxes all the same.

The song implied that not just the houses, but also the people of suburbia, were dull, materialistic, utterly predictable.  To this day, columnists, bloggers, and letter writers depict the suburbs as dreary, unimaginative outposts, filled with:

• “Cookie-cutter” homes with wide driveways and two-car garages.

• White picket fences to keep the dog in and visitors out.

• Exclusive — meaning exclusionist — “country clubs.”

• Cramped carpools and one-person, road rage-inducing, commutes to work.

• “Soccer moms” driving Junior and six friends to games, then harranging coaches and referees to give their darling “a break.”

• Parks full of mothers and nannies pushing twins in double-seat baby strollers.

Kitschy lawn ornaments are all ready for purchase by suburbanites needing just the right touch for their yards. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Kitschy lawn ornaments are all ready for purchase by suburbanites needing just the right touch for their yards. (Carol M. Highsmith)

• Cutsie garden gnome sculptures, clattering central-air conditioning units, deafening leaf blowers and riding lawnmowers, wasteful sprinkler systems, and boxes of chemical weapons to vanquish invading crabgrass.

• Wading pools and plastic pool toys, folding lawn chairs, kiddie-height basketball hoops, boulder-sized garbage cans, and space-age barbecue grills.

Garish Christmas-light displays outside the house and tacky aluminum Christmas trees within.

• Shopping malls the size of medieval cities, filled with pottery, stylish apparel, bathroom-accessory, greeting-card, beauty-product, book, ice-cream, electronics, baby-clothes, jewelry, shoe, greeting-card, sporting-goods, nutrition, “intimate apparel,” mattress, fine-candy, luggage-and-leather, cosmetics, maternity-clothes, perfume, and camera stores; a movie-theater complex; a beauty salon; at least one pizzeria and one Chinese restaurant; and kiosks offering sunglasses, vitamin drinks, soft pretzels, hair braiding, eyebrow waxing, cellphones, and beauty scrubs.

And surrounding the malls: parking lots the size of Vermont.

Oh, the critics are just warming up.  Let’s not forget . . .

• Chit-chatty “cook-outs” and block parties, pitchers of bloody marys, and “pot-luck” suppers to which everyone brings a fattening “dish.”

• Steepled mainline Protestant churches — Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, Baptist, or Episcopalian.  Catholic churches here and there, too, and an occasional Jewish synagogue, although those would be considered exotic.

Do you want a handy image of suburban sprawl? These are just some of Chicago’s suburbs, photographed from an airplane that was departing O’Hare Airport at night. (San Diego Shooter, Flickr Creative Commons)

Do you want a handy image of suburban sprawl? These are just some of Chicago’s suburbs, photographed from an airplane that was departing O’Hare Airport at night. (San Diego Shooter, Flickr Creative Commons)

• All-too-precious street names, to wit, the musically inspired streets in the Tanglewood section of Silver Spring, Maryland, outside Washington, D.C., — Schubert Drive, Gershwin Lane, Conductor Way, Beethoven Boulevard, Cornet Court, Strauss Terrace, Brahms Avenue, and more.

Throw in some shirtsleeve sociology, and suburban stereotypes grow darker.  There’s the image of lonely, alcoholic housewives hiding bottles of booze behind the ketchup.  And, thanks to steamy novels and movies such as “Swingers,” of rampant marital infidelity.

Of modern-day colonialism, too, in which brown people stop by to maintain white people’s lawns and gardens.

It should be noted, however, that as soon as they could afford to, many minority Americans also fled urban decay and crime for safer, more comfortable suburban neighborhoods.  When African Americans weren’t welcomed in “lily-white” suburbs, they created agreeable suburban communities of their own, including Country Club Hills outside Chicago; Washington Heights next to Charlotte, North Carolina; Rolling Oaks near Miami in Florida; and Lithonia, abutting Atlanta, Georgia.

Millions of people of all races and ethnicities still seek suburban tranquility, despite all the sterotypes of vapid suburbia.  They offer no apologies for preferring spacious homes to scrunched apartments, good schools to bad ones, reliable police and fire protection to spotty response times, and — a biggie — relative peace and quiet to city chaos.

Appearing on the PBS suburbia special, Rutgers University history professor William O’Neill barked that naysaying about suburbia “is probably the stupidest vein of social criticism ever developed.”  The same people who were labeled as “cowering conformists” for congregating in suburbia in the 1950s had been exalted as “the Greatest Generation” of war heroes the previous decade, he pointed out.

Quoting George Lundberg, author of one of the first detailed studies of U.S. suburban life, Margaret Marsh wrote that by the 1950s the suburb, “while still connected to the city, housed people of different ‘psychologies.’”  And by the ’50s, Marsh continues, “suburbs and cities had become antagonists in the eyes of many observers.”

Competitors, for sure, in the scramble for federal and state money and for political advantage.  Increasingly, the suburbs won the fights, raking in the lion’s share of school and road funding and tipping the scales toward one political party or the other in presidential and statewide elections.

Nattily attired players prepare for a brisk game of croquet in the crisp, clean air outside the sanitarium in the “streetcar suburb” of Takoma Park, Maryland. (Library of Congress)

Nattily attired players prepare for a brisk game of croquet in the crisp, clean air outside the sanitarium in the “streetcar suburb” of Takoma Park, Maryland. (Library of Congress)

Some burbs, including my own — Takoma Park, Maryland, hugging the border of Washington, D.C. — began as “streetcar suburbs,” luring city residents out of the miasmal downtown heat to places where they could literally get a breath of fresh air.  B. F. Gilbert, who developed Takoma Park in 1883, set out to create a “sylvan suburb of the National Capitol” — surely he meant the whole capital city, not just the capitol building.  The neighborhood was just 100 meters or so higher than downtown Washington, but that and the sparkling waters of Sligo Creek were enough to attract day-trippers and homebuyers and to discourage malaria-breeding mosquitoes.

Residents of these suburbs, in turn, took the streetcar downtown to shop at huge central markets.

Rail commuters from the suburbs may have been ordinary folks, but many of the terminals in which they arrived for work downtown were veritable transportation cathedrals. This is New York’s famous Grand Central Station, to which commuters arrived on 67 tracks. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Rail commuters from the suburbs may have been ordinary folks, but many of the terminals in which they arrived for work downtown were veritable transportation cathedrals. This is New York’s famous Grand Central Station, to which commuters arrived on 67 tracks. (Carol M. Highsmith)

As Harvard University historian and photographer John Stilgoe once noted, the “typical commuter” from farther away, “happy in his suburban enclave, strode through the great urban terminals” after his comfortable ride into town, “convinced that his way of life represented the apogee of civilization.”  Stilgoe was talking about commuter-rail habitués, not the poor souls in automobiles, inching along smog-choked highways into and out of town each workday.

The fact is that many commuters and transit routes don’t even head “into town” any more.  They go from suburb to suburb, where many of the good jobs are.  And traffic engineers are identifying more and more “reverse commuters” who prefer to live in town for the vibrancy of it all, but commute to the suburbs to those same good jobs.

Beyond it all are America’s “exurbs” or “technoburbs.”  Rows of research-and-development complexes along the Interstate Highway 270 “biotech” corridor between Washington, D.C., and Frederick, Maryland, for instance, are matched outside city after city across the land.

J. C. Nichols’s “Country Club District” extended from his new automobile-friendly shopping center in Kansas City, Missouri, across the river into Kansas City, Kansas. (Kansas City Public Library)

J. C. Nichols’s “Country Club District” extended from his new automobile-friendly shopping center in Kansas City, Missouri, across the river into Kansas City, Kansas. (Kansas City Public Library)

So if the modest Johnson County Museum in the American heartland succeeds in morphing into a National Museum of Suburban Life, it will have a complex story to tell, starting with its own environs.  Johnson County was the home of J. C. Nichols, who built not only the nation’s first shopping center designed to be visited by automobile, but also the largest planned residential community in the nation.

From to blue-collar suburbs such as the one where I grew up, next to grimy Cleveland, Ohio; to affluent “Main Line” towns along the Pennsylvania Railroad corridor outside Philadelphia; to the “wealth belt” of even ritzier communities in Connecticut and New Jersey outside New York City; to neighborhoods such as “Peak’s Suburban Addition” in Dallas, Texas, that are now old enough to have achieved “historic district” status; to Los Angeles’s “72 suburbs in search of a city,” suburbia is more than what Kansas City Star columnist Bill Vaughan called the place “where the developer bulldozes out the trees, then names the streets after them.”

But it’s that, too.

WILD WORDS

(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Bloody mary. An alcoholic drink made with vodka, tomato or vegetable juice, and pepper sauce — often garnished with a stick of celery or a slice of lemon or lime.

Think tank. An association of scholars, researchers, and, often, political advocates.

To wit. Namely, as in, “There are seven ancient wonders of the world, to wit: the Pyramids, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon . . .” and so on.

Vapid. Dull, bland, empty, colorless.

Island Hopping

Posted July 12th, 2010 at 1:43 pm (UTC-4)
2 comments

A couple of years ago, Carol and I enjoyed a pleasant visit to the Hawaiian Islands, which form America’s 50th and most remote state about a third of the way across the immense Pacific Ocean.  As we waited at the Honolulu airport prior to flying home, we got to talking with another outbound American.

She is a judge, and she, too, was heading home.

We would fly east.  She, west.  Yet we would both touch down in the United States.

Sounds like a geographic riddle — a near impossibility.  Unless the judge was planning to soar across the rest of the Pacific, o’er all of Asia and Europe and the Atlantic Ocean to boot, how could she possibly fly westward from America’s westernmost state and land on U.S. soil?

What many people don’t know, and others forget, is that there’s a bit, or bits, of the United States west of Hawai’i, way out in the endless Pacific.

Specks, but American territory nonetheless.

This is a pretty good map of the various Pacific islands. Click on it to enlarge it from time to time to locate the places I’ll mention. (U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services)

The judge’s home is in Guam, a U.S. island territory that’s a whole lot closer to the Philippines and Japan than to California.

“Out there,” too, in the great expanse of ocean are other U.S. possessions such as American Samoa, a hop, skip, and a jump from Australia and New Zealand; and the Northern Mariana Islands, just above Guam.

When I say “out there,” I’m thinking especially of Howland Island, a U.S. “minor outlying island,” as it’s known.  Howland, which is shaped like a kidney bean, lies 3,100 kilometers (1,700 nautical miles) southwest of Hawai’i.  It is uninhabited, except by brown boobies and other sea birds that congregate in the wildlife refuge there.  Once every couple of years, someone from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sails in to check on them.

But Howland is a famous place, specifically because it was once the needle in a Pacific Ocean haystack.

Amelia Earhart strides confidently past her Electra “Flying Laboratory,” supplied and equipped by Purdue University. Most of the interior was packed with extra fuel tanks rather than test tubes and dials, however.

Amelia Earhart strides confidently past her Electra “Flying Laboratory,” supplied and equipped by Purdue University. Most of the interior was packed with extra fuel tanks rather than test tubes and dials, however.

On June 1, 1937, daring aviatrix Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, took off from Miami, Florida, in a specially-rebuilt Lockheed Model 10E Electra “Flying Laboratory,” heading eastward over the Caribbean Sea on what they hoped would be the longest, round-the-world flight on record.

By July 1, the plane, having already flown eastward over the Atlantic, Africa, and South Asia — and heavily loaded with fuel and instruments — reached Lae in Papua New Guinea.  The next day, Earhart and Noonan set off on the most perilous part of the journey, eastward into the Pacific void.  Destination: Howland, a pile of coral sand where the U.S. Coast Guard had built an airstrip and unlit “day beacon” and had stationed the cutter Itasca nearby to guide in Earhart for her refueling stopover.

There was also a tiny settlement called “Itascatown,” named for the ship, on the island.  It was envisioned as the first of a “string of famous air bases” connecting Australia with California.

The sky was dotted with puffy clouds as the aviators approached.  That spelled trouble, for the clouds cast thousands of dark, blob-like shadows on the water.  Somewhere among them lay little, low, flat Howland Island.

The Itasca received a strong voice signal as the Electra approached, but Earhart and Noonan were apparently unable to hear and respond to the ship’s return calls.  “We must be on you, but cannot see you — gas is running low,” the fliers said in the second-to-last transmission to be heard.  The last gave the fliers’ position as they reckoned it — 8 kilometers off course for Howland.

This is what’s left of the “Earhart Light,” an unlighted “day beacon,” similar to a buoy.  It was set up to help guide Amelia Earhart and her navigator in to Howland Island.  The light was shelled by the Japanese during World War II.

This is what’s left of the “Earhart Light,” an unlighted “day beacon,” similar to a buoy. It was set up to help guide Amelia Earhart and her navigator in to Howland Island. The light was shelled by the Japanese during World War II. (Joann94024, Wikipedia Commons)

Not another word or crackle of static was heard again, and the search for the plane and what would now be Earhart and Noonan’s remains continues to this day.

No “famous air base” was ever built on Howland Island, and Itascatown was abandoned to the boobies in 1942.

Howland Island had been claimed by the United States in 1857 under terms of what may be my favorite piece of congressional legislation.  It was the “Guano Islands Act.”  The measure — still in effect! — allows U.S. citizens to take possession of uninhabited, otherwise unclaimed islands that are covered with guano, or thick layers of bird droppings.  In the mid-1800s, guano was highly prized as fertilizer and an ingredient in saltpeter, a chemical compound that serves as a propellant in gunpowder.  Guano what? harvesters? — actually, I think they’re called “miners” — waded in with their shovels on least five islands that are still U.S. possessions.   By 1880, they had scraped down to bedrock and were gone.

A Hawaiian bird beholds the guano left behind by sea birds.  The build-up of bird poop was quite deeper on other, unpopulated Pacific islands.

A Hawaiian bird beholds the guano left behind by sea birds. The build-up of bird poop was quite deeper on other, unpopulated Pacific islands. (NOAA)

Some of the other U.S. Pacific “specks” are familiar for a different reason.  Historic battles raged there, or nearby at sea.

Off Midway Atoll, north of Hawai’i, control of the Pacific turned in 1942, just six months after Japan’s devastating sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, with the overwhelming defeat of the Japanese Navy by American forces at the Battle of Midway.  Rather than eliminating America’s remaining carrier forces and occupying Midway as he had planned, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto lost four of his six fleet carriers, hundreds of sailors and pilots, and Japan’s stranglehold on the sea and air.  Thereafter, Japan could not stop American forces as they methodically bore down, island by island, on the Japanese mainland.

On June 4, 1942, during the “Battle of Midway,” the USS aircraft carrier “Yorktown” was blasted by Japanese aerial torpedoes.  Listing badly, she was abandoned but stayed afloat until a Japanese sub sent her to the bottom with two more torpedo strikes.

On June 4, 1942, during the “Battle of Midway,” the USS aircraft carrier “Yorktown” was blasted by Japanese aerial torpedoes. Listing badly, she was abandoned but stayed afloat until a Japanese sub sent her to the bottom with two more torpedo strikes. (Library of Congress)

As the name suggests, Midway’s three volcanic islets lie halfway between North America and Asia.  They also sit halfway around the world from Longitude 0° in Greenwich, England.  Over the first half of the 20th Century, Midway Atoll was the base of significant operations by the Commercial Pacific Cable Company, which laid the long, long, long undersea telegraph cable between the United States and Asia.  And Midway was one of the exotic stops on the Pan Am Clipper luxury “flying ship” seaplane route during aviation’s “golden age” in the 1930s.

Like Howland, Midway, is now a wildlife refuge — home, in its case, to thousands of albatrosses, known throughout the Pacific as “gooney birds.”  The name is said to come from an early definition of “goon,” meaning one who is stupid.  The big sea birds were disrespected because of their awkward, flopping, but ultimately successful attempts to take off and land.   The birds have the atoll mostly to themselves, though the Fish and Wildlife Service coordinates human visits.

Two “gooney birds” engage in an albatross dances.  The gooneys look goofy during this ritual. (Wikipedia Commons)

Two “gooney birds” engage in an albatross dances. The gooneys look goofy during this ritual. (Wikipedia Commons)

One other Midway tidbit:  The atoll is awash with an inordinate amount of trash.  That’s not because someone strews plastic bottles and tabs everywhere — there’s no “someone” to strew — but because the islets are smack in the middle of a huge circular current  called the North Pacific Gyre,” also known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  This vortex sucks in litter from Hawaiian Island waters and elsewhere and dumps it unceremoniously onto the beaches of Midway.

Here’s one of the promotional posters for Pan Am’s “China Clipper” service across the Pacific.  These trips were luxurious, pampering, and mighty expensive.  Each ticket cost more than the average American’s yearly salary. (Library of Congress)

Here’s one of the promotional posters for Pan Am’s “China Clipper” service across the Pacific. These trips were luxurious, pampering, and mighty expensive. Each ticket cost more than the average American’s yearly salary. (Library of Congress)

An epic World War II air and sea battle also raged at another current U.S. Pacific possession: Wake Island — actually another atoll of three low, barren islets about two-thirds of the way from Honolulu to Guam.  Named for the captain of a British schooner that happened by in 1796, the atoll was annexed as “empty territory” by the United States three years later.  The first human settlement was another Pan American World Airways village, established in 1935.  It was called “PAA-ville,” to which every morsel of food and drop of potable water had to be flown in.

As distant war drums began to sound in Imperial Japan in 1941, the U.S. Navy hastily constructed a military base and runway on Wake Island.   And at virtually the same moment on December 7th — technically the 8th since Wake is on the eastern side of the International Date Line — that Japanese planes were descending upon the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawai’i, Japanese bombers were raining shells on Wake Island.  Eventually the garrison was overrun and captured, then recaptured by the Americans in 1945 after two years of unrelenting attacks.  During that virtual siege, starving Japanese soldiers caught and devoured the last of the island’s native, flightless sea birds called “rail birds.”

General Douglas MacArthur listens as President Truman reads a greeting as the two meet for the first time on Wake Island in October 1950.  The headstrong general erroneously predicted that China would not enter the Korean conflict and that the war would be over by Christmas. (Library of Congress)

General Douglas MacArthur listens as President Truman reads a greeting as the two meet for the first time on Wake Island in October 1950. The headstrong general erroneously predicted that China would not enter the Korean conflict and that the war would be over by Christmas. (Library of Congress)

It was to Wake Island in 1950 that President Harry Truman flew to meet with General Douglas MacArthur, commander of United Nations forces in the Korean War.  The meeting, but ultimately not the relationship, went well.  When “Red” China entered the conflict, MacArthur would loudly recommend carrying the war across the Chinese border, for which Truman fired him.

Remnants of Wake Island’s airstrip remain, but only sea birds land there.

There are other minor, uninhabited U.S. Pacific islands as well, with names such as Baker, Jarvis, Johnston, and Palmyra.   Most are treeless, bereft of fresh water, and, to my reading, unremarkable save for their colorful guano-gathering legacy.

I want to “visit” Guam, the land of our airport acquaintance, the judge.  But first a look at the two other U.S. Pacific possessions where more than gooney birds live.

The only “Samoas” that many Americans know are yummy, chocolate- and coconut-covered Girl Scout cookies sold by the millions each year.  This, though, is the coastline of American Samoa — a long way from Richmond, Virginia, where the cookies are baked. (NOAA)

The only “Samoas” that many Americans know are yummy, chocolate- and coconut-covered Girl Scout cookies sold by the millions each year. This, though, is the coastline of American Samoa — a long way from Richmond, Virginia, where the cookies are baked. (NOAA)

The first is American Samoa, the southernmost place where one can step on U.S. soil.  It’s the only piece of the United States of America south of the equator.

American Samoa’s six small islands lie 5,600 km (about 3,500 miles) east of northern Australia.  They are among the 1,000 or so islands — including those that form the independent nation of Samoa next door — that are loosely referred to as “Polynesia,” and whose people share a language, culture, and many religious beliefs.  About 500 A.D., amazing (and fit) Polynesian navigators in outrigger canoes paddled from these islands to places as far away as Hawai’i, 3,700 km (2,300 miles) across the open ocean.

This are small outrigger canoes, coming ashore in Hawai’I in 1922.  The protruding, wooden pontoons, for lack of a better word, help keep the canoes upright in heavy seas. (Library of Congress)

This are small outrigger canoes, coming ashore in Hawai’I in 1922. The protruding, wooden pontoons, for lack of a better word, help keep the canoes upright in heavy seas. (Library of Congress)

Why did they leave their gorgeous homelands?  How did they survive the incredible voyages?  What did they think they would find?  The smaller Atlantic must also have seemed a daunting abyss to Christopher Columbus 2,000 years later, but at least he had a compass, and his ships had sails.  But I digress.

Typhoon-prone American Samoa has a beautiful capital city, Pago Pago, which Samoan speakers pronounce “Pango Pango,” surrounded by stunning, sheer cliffs.  It’s a city of tuna canneries, tourist hotels, active volcanoes, and about 12,000 people. More than 90 per cent of the 65,000 American Samoans are ethnic Pacific Islanders; just 1 percent are white.

This remote island territory where cricket and rugby are the dominant sports has somehow managed to become “the Dominican Republic of the National Football League.” Just as “the Dominican” has produced many future Major League baseball stars, American Samoa has sent a surprising a number of football players to the professional NFL. They include superstar defensive player Junior Seau and 27 other current players.  One of them, quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo, is following his father, uncle, and several cousins into the NFL.

Gadao was a legendary Chamorran chief in ancient Guam.  This bronze statue, in which Gadao’s canoe has been split in half during a battle with another chief, stands in the village of Inarajan. (Wikipedia Commons)

Gadao was a legendary Chamorran chief in ancient Guam. This bronze statue, in which Gadao’s canoe has been split in half during a battle with another chief, stands in the village of Inarajan. (Wikipedia Commons)

The Northern Marianas and Guam — part of one archipelago in the North Pacific — are the other populated U.S. Pacific territories.  Like American Samoa, they have a single representative in Washington — a nonvoting delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The indigenous people of the Marianas, including Guam, are Chamorros, a people thought to have reached the islands from present-day Malaysia about 2000 B.C.  Chamorro society had three distinct classes, including the coastal-dwelling matua upper class that controlled the best fishing grounds.  Because the archipelago was colonized by Spain for more than 300 years beginning in the late 1500s, many current Chamorro words derive from Spanish.  But modern Mariana culture is an assimilation of Chamorro, Spanish, American, Filipino, and Pacific Islanders.

Guam and the smaller Marianas were stopping places for Spanish galleons connecting Mexico and the Philippines.  But diseases, more than conquests, nearly wiped out the Chamorro population.

The United States acquired Guam by just showing up during the Spanish-American War in 1898.  A U.S. Fleet entered Apra harbor and set off a hail of cannonballs.  Having no idea there was a war on, the Spanish garrison took it as a courtesy salute and sent out emissaries to welcome their guests.  Told the hard truth, the governor and 54 Spanish infantrymen meekly surrendered and were hustled off to the Philippines as prisoners of war.  A lone, Spanish-born merchant was left in charge because he had somehow acquired American citizenship during a stay in Chicago.

Today Guam functions much like a state, with a governor, legislature, and local judiciary, including the acquaintance we met in Hawai’i.

She is white, raised in Boston, half a world away.  But almost half of the island is ethnic Chamorro, a fourth Filipino, a tenth Polynesian and other Pacific Islanders, and only 7 per cent white.  Whatever percentage remains is a colorful melánge of ethnicities.

A lot of Guamanians have relatives spread across at least half of the world, from Southeast Asia to South Carolina.  The island itself is, as the Tribune newspaper in Salt Lake City, Utah, put it, a “[military] recruiter’s paradise,” where the enlistment rate is higher than anywhere else in America.  The military and many Guamanians attribute this to extreme patriotism.  Others also cite the high levels of poverty in the island’s packed towns and back country.

According to longtime Guam resident Leo Babauta, who blogs as Zen Habits,” “We are very family oriented, but . . . in a very extended family way [including] a very extensive system of godparents and godbrothers and sisters.

“More than just being Spanish, though, we are native islanders. We have a long tradition of being connected to the sea, of being connected to the land, of being very tribal in many ways.

“And so we are none of these things completely — American, Spanish, islander — but all of them at once. We are a changing community, from the more traditional elders to the more modern youngsters, with their Nintendo DS and MySpace and texting cell phones and Wiis and XBoxes.”

These are “latte stones” in the Guamanian village of Hagatna.  The stone pillars supported thatched roofs erected by ancient Chamorrans throughout the Marianas.  Their rounded capstones prevented rats from reaching the roofs. (Wikipedia Commons)

These are “latte stones” in the Guamanian village of Hagatna. The stone pillars supported thatched roofs erected by ancient Chamorrans throughout the Marianas. Their rounded capstones prevented rats from reaching the roofs. (Wikipedia Commons)

While the 15 islands of the Northern Marianas share the Chamorro heritage, their history diverges at the point at which the United States acquired Guam with the collapse of the Spanish empire.  Spain then sold the northern islands of the archipelago to Germany, which lost them to the Japanese, their enemy in World War I.  To work the sugar cane fields, Japan flooded the Marianas with immigrants from throughout its empire.

Within hours of the Japanese attack on the U.S. base at Pearl Harbor far to the east in 1941, Japanese forces from the Northern Marianas attacked and seized Guam.  Some of their administrators who would cruelly deal with Guamanians were fellow Chamorros from the north.  The bitter feelings that resulted help explain Guam’s refusal to consider reunification with the rest of the Marianas when the idea was proposed.

The Northern Marianas were wrenched from Japanese control following prolonged and bloody fighting on the island of Saipan in 1944.  Thereafter, forgoing full independence, the Northern Marianas agreed to a commonwealth status in union with the United States.

Here’s a final Northern Marianas oddity:  The ratio of women to men there — 1.3 to 1 — is the highest in the world.  It’s not because the islanders are producing an abundance of girl babies.  It’s the result of the influx of 15,000 or so Chinese migrant workers who, each year, flooded the country to work in garment factories during the 1990s.

I don’t quite know how to neatly wrap up a tale as sweeping as the Pacific Islands.  So I’m guano just stop.

WILD WORDS

Gyre. A spiral or circular shape formed by concentric circles.  It especially refers to a circular ocean current.

Outrigger. A beam or spar extending out from a hull to help stabilize a boat or canoe.

Boroughing In

Posted June 30th, 2010 at 2:32 pm (UTC-4)
7 comments

Last time was the easy part. I’d been wanting to write about New York City, and I focused on the core of the Big Apple — Manhattan Island, whose power, glamour, and jaw-dropping scale form our image of the city as a whole.

But there are four other boroughs, or administrative divisions, including one that was once every bit as powerful and prestigious as Manhattan. And except for following the New York Yankees baseball team in the Bronx or the New York Mets in Queens — or reliving the glory days of the Brooklyn Dodgers team that split for Los Angeles in 1958 — most Americans don’t give them much thought.

I’d wager that 7 out of 10 of us couldn’t even name the fifth borough, not mentioned above. Nor could they tell us much about it, even though close to half a million people live there. That puts this mystery borough ahead of entire big cities such as Cleveland, Ohio; Kansas City, Missouri; and Miami, Florida, in population.

One hint: To a visitor it seems as if as many seagulls as people live in this place. More later.

In 1898, when Manhattan Island seemed full to capacity before cities knew how to grow up as well as outward, New York City planners simply annexed their neighbors and created five boroughs, instantly doubling the population and tripling the city’s size.

Not everyone submitted meekly. Brooklyn, a proud, independent city of 850,000 people, had been connected to Manhattan, but only via the world’s longest suspension bridge — its bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge — and residents were starkly divided over the referendum to create a Greater New York. Its business leaders favored the idea on the myopic assumption that Brooklyn, with its bustling shipyards, would dominate the giant new city.

After all, at that point Brooklyn was the nation’s fourth-largest city, behind only Philadelphia, Chicago, and the leaner New York. Even Emma Lazarus’s fabled poem, “The Colossus” — “Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” — chiseled on a tablet at the Statue of Liberty, speaks of “twin cities,” of which Brooklyn was one.

But to Brooklyn’s dismay, it was Manhattan where money and power would concentrate. Brooklyn receded into a mostly residential, and resentful, satellite of “The City.”

Queens’s westernmost villages, just past Brooklyn on Long Island, were already Manhattan’s vegetable garden. Foreseeing improved roads and city services, they agreed to annexation.

But the villages in the middle of the island declined the invitation to unite with the big brute of a city.  In 1899 they formed their own county, Nassau, and went their own way.  Ritzy Suffolk County, even farther east on the island, never had to deal with all this citifying.

North of Manhattan on the mainland, much of the Bronx had already been gobbled up by New York City.  When the remainder was asked whether it, too, wanted to join in the fun of building a super city, its residents said no. 

But the whole of the Bronx was annexed anyway.  Not sure how that got done.

The folks on Staten Island — aha! the mystery fifth borough is revealed — succumbed quietly to annexation.

Let’s take New York City’s four add-on boroughs one by one:

Brooklyn is a far different place from congested Manhattan, for sure. But not an inferior one by any means. In a New Yorker magazine essay in July 1996, Kennedy Fraser wrote, “Roses smell sweeter in Brooklyn [and] even the birds sound innocent, like youths from the old neighborhood singing a cappella.” Brooklyn is New York’s most nostalgic borough, reminiscing to this day about “dem Bums.” They were the aforementioned Dodgers — named for the nimble “trolley dodger” baseball fans who wove their way past Flatbush streetcars to the stadium, Ebbets Field.

Flatbush is one of many colorfully titled Brooklyn neighborhoods. Gravesend, Bath Beach, and DUMBO — an acronym for “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass” — are others. How’d you like to live in DUMBO?

Like the other boroughs, Breuckelen was chartered in 1646 as a place for the Dutch to build country manor homes and vegetable farms. Ferry service to Manhattan was spotty until Robert Fulton demonstrated his new steamboat in 1807. Brooklyn’s own city center grew on high ground, surrounded by stately brownstone row houses and apartment buildings.

Brooklyn was inundated by immigrants, beginning with Irish and Germans in the 1830s. It was poor Irish — already speaking English with a brogue and trying to cope with American idioms mixed with remnants of Dutch — who first developed the much-mocked “Brooklyn accent.” Hollywood characters like the “Bowery Boys” shamelessly exaggerated it: “Youse meet me at Toity-toid and Toid Av’nue.”

So fiercely did Brooklyn trumpet its self-sufficiency, even after it lost its independence, that other New Yorkers grumbled about the bristling “Brooklyn attitude.” For decades, its docks and marine terminals were more than a match for Manhattan’s. The historic U.S. Civil War ironclad warship Monitor had been built and launched there in 1862. And if not a landmark, Floyd Bennett Field, the modest airfield that juts out into Jamaica Bay, should be on any trivia-lover’s tour. It was there in 1938 that Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan took off on a westward flight for California and ended up, 28 days later, in Ireland.

Brooklyn has its own spectacular, 213-hectare (526-acre) green space, Prospect Park, designed by the same men who created Manhattan’s treasured Central Park. Revered as the “City of Churches,” Brooklyn offers a full day’s tour of impressive houses of worship.

The Brooklyn Academy of Music is the oldest continuously active performing-arts center in the nation.

The Brooklyn Botanic Garden has an unusual, if not unique, Garden of Fragrance especially for the visually impaired. And an abandoned subway station in Brooklyn was chosen as the city’s transit museum.

I’ve spent many days in Brooklyn — vicariously — at Coney Island. Along with Atlantic City in New Jersey, Coney Island (actually a peninsula) provided the setting for hundreds of idyllic picture postcards in the early 20th Century, when family fun at the shore was considered exotic.

People wrote “Wish you were here” to their loved ones and friends from the Luna Park amusement rides, Surf Avenue game arcade, and Dreamland Tower and lagoon at Coney Island.

And despite the common tale that the Statue of Liberty was the first sight beheld by New York-bound immigrants to the New World, it was actually a huge elephant. Not a real one or a big model. The Elephant Hotel (and brothel) at Coney Island was built in the shape of a pachyderm.

The Bronx got its unusual name from the area’s first settler, Danish immigrant Jonas Bronck, or more particularly, the Broncks’ family farm. With the building of King’s Bridge over the Harlem River around 1700, the Bronx became New York’s mainland connection. Farm-fresh Bronx produce soon found its way onto Manhattan Island, as did fresh water, piped in from clear springs. Until the 20th Century, the Bronx remained a land of farms, manor homes, and modest factories — including a giant snuff mill.

The Bronx was one of the first parts of New York to succumb to rampant subdivision and apartment construction that would lead to an oversaturation of low-income housing. The sad cycle of decay and abandonment followed, and wealthy landowners sold off their Bronx estates in favor of places in the “real” country, farther from the city in Westchester County.

Years later in the 1970s, when the people who took their place themselves moved farther out, to Westchester or the New Jersey suburbs, whole Bronx neighborhoods were left to the predations of vandals and drug dealers. Even the Bronx’s big courthouse was moved to safer ground, as was the original borough hall. New York University moved out of its Bronx campus entirely.

But the mighty New York Yankees’ baseball team — the “Bronx Bombers” — remained and triumphed. They have played in the “world” championship series 40 times since 1927, winning 27 titles, including last season’s.

Borrowing Jerome Kern’s song lyrics from “New York, New York” that “the Bronx is up and the Battery’s down,” the Bronx is “up” again, and not just geographically. Much of the blight is gone, and new city and private colleges have created a steady employment base. The Grand Concourse, a string of 1930s Art Deco residential buildings, has been renovated. And two New York cultural fixtures — the Bronx Zoo and the New York Botanical Garden — are thriving.

In Queens, the largest and most residential borough with more than 175,000 single-family homes, neighborhood pride has lingered through decades of rapid urbanization. Places like Flushing, Floral Park, and Long Island City have clung to their separate identities.

Flushing, by the way, did not get its name from some Duke of Flushing or a primitive commode. It’s a rough English translation of the Dutch word for “flowing waters,” presumably from a pretty Long Island stream.

One of the most fascinating Queens neighborhoods is Steinway — once a company town built by German immigrant Wilhelm Steinweg, who Americanized his name after his brilliance at building pianos was affirmed. Some of Steinway’s row houses are still in use, and the company continues to craft pianos at a factory in another part of Queens.

Many Queens neighborhoods are 20th-Century creations, their modest homes built to satisfy the demands of returning veterans of world wars I and II. Even after the last farmers departed for Nassau and Suffolk counties, farther out Long Island, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation retained a 19-hectare (47-acre) vegetable farm. Its barnyard and fields are open to visitors, including amazed inner-city schoolchildren.

Queens’s population explosion was stoked by two worlds’ fairs held in Corona Park in Flushing Meadows in 1939-40 and 1964-65. The first was organized around the Trylon, a huge conical column, and the Perisphere, a giant globe. The star attractions in 1939, though, were the first public demonstrations of television in the fair’s “World of Tomorrow.”

The centerpiece of the ’64 fair was the “Unisphere,” a 43-meter-high structure that represented “Peace Through Understanding.” It still stands, as does a wave-shaped pavilion that today houses the New York Hall of Science, a hands-on science and technology museum.

A truly remarkable remnant of the 1964-65 fair is the Panorama of the City of New York, the world’s largest architectural model, which fills a spacious room at the Queens Museum of Art. It depicts — now ponder this for a moment — 895,000 individual miniature structures at the scale of one inch to one hundred feet (about 2.5 centimeters to 30 meters). Not just familiar bridges and skyscrapers, but also smaller office and apartment buildings and even houses in their exact locations in all five boroughs.


Not really Queens tourist attractions, but receiving plenty of visitors each year, are New York City’s two airports — John F. Kennedy International and the much older La Guardia. I’m not counting the mammoth, newer Newark International Airport over in “Jersey.” LaGuardia dates to 1939. “JFK,” which opened gradually to minimal air traffic in the 1940s, is noted for its futuristic terminals, including the Trans World Airlines hub, designed by Eero Saarinen, the Finnish-American who also designed the towering Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri; and “Black Rock,” the headquarters building of CBS TV and radio in downtown Manhattan.

Nowhere in New York City has the impact of a new tunnel, bridge, or expressway been as dramatic as in Staten Island. Through most of its history, hilly Staten Island, a mere 22 kilometers long and 13 kilometers wide, had been almost an afterthought. It was 37 years after the Dutch settled New Netherland — before they got a foothold on Staaten Eylandt in 1661 following repeated bloody battles with indigenous Lenape Indians.

The English who soon supplanted them called the place “Richmond” after a duke of the time. The name was changed back to Staten Island in 1976 because, or so the story goes, Borough President Bob Connon got tired of hearing the other borough presidents ask him, “How are things down South” — a not-especially-clever reference to Richmond, Virginia.

Well into the 20th Century, Staten Island residents were islanders in temperament as well as fact, savoring their serenity at night and on weekends after ferry rides to and from work in Manhattn. They may have been tied to New York City officially and financially, but the only bridge led to New Jersey. There was plenty of open space around Staten Island’s 62 separate villages and seashore communities. Life was pleasant, safe, relatively undisturbed.

Then, in 1964, the city completed the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, named for an Italian explorer who first sailed into New York Bay in 1524. The bridge connected the island to Brooklyn on Long Island, changing Staten Island forever. In the classic pattern of moving out and up, tens of thousands of Brooklynites (and others) moved in, seeking a piece of tranquilty. Over the next 20 years, the island’s population doubled, and resort-like Staten Island was soon awash in strip shopping malls and fast-food restaurants. Its winding roads were overwhelmed by traffic.

Remember those seagulls that I mentioned way up top? They became a Staten Island institution beginning in 1948, when the city first dumped its household refuse into a landfill in the island’s Fresh Kills wetlands. Its promise, and everyone’s expectation, was that the dumping would be short-term and the garbage pile limited in size. But 50 years later, the scows were still docking, the trucks were still rumbling, and the stench was still rising. The garbage mound grew taller than the Statue of Liberty and could be seen from space with the naked eye.

But the city has begun converting the big dump into a public park and wildlife sanctuary, Freshkills Park — destined to be three times the size of Central Park.

In every New York City borough, change has brought stresses and challenges. South Asian, Vietnamese, African-American, and Russian neighborhoods have sprung up where Greeks, Italians, European and Syrian Jews, and Anglo-Saxons once carved out enclaves. “We’re a social laboratory,” one Bronx resident told American Way magazine. Old-time New Yorkers worry still about immigrants taking away jobs, eating away at the tax base, abusing welfare. But by now they’re pretty much used to strange foods from multiple cultures, and sidewalks that are a babel of confusion.

For all the complaining, the brashness, the cynicism and gruffness, hard-driving, self-absorbed New York eventually accepted them all.

WILD WORDS
(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!) 

Babel. A gathering or scene of noise or confusion. The name comes from the biblical Tower of Babel, which was built with the idea of reaching heaven. God foiled this plan by garbling the builders’ language so that they could not understand each other.

Myopic. Nearsighted, and often shortsighted, too. One who has a myopic view of things focuses only on what’s in front of him and does not consider the bigger picture.

Pachyderm.
Not just an elephant, but one of several kinds of large, hoofed animals that include rhinoceroses and hippopotami.

Scow. A flat-bottomed boat or barge used to haul garbage or bulk freight.

Snuff. A kind of smokeless tobacco made from ground tobacco leaves. It is “snuffed,” or snorted, through the nose.

Vicarious. Indirect or second-hand. One can enjoy an exciting sports event vicariously on television or through a friend’s description, for instance, rather than in person.

The Ginormous Apple

Posted June 21st, 2010 at 7:10 pm (UTC-4)
6 comments

As the rocker Alice Cooper once put it, I’ve been “Big Apple dreamin’.” For me and anyone else who’s beguiled by New York City’s grandeur and charms, only a few months — a couple of years at most — can pass before the itch to visit again needs scratching.

You, too, may have put big, brash New York on your list of dream destinations. So I thought I’d tell you about the place in two blogs: Today, Manhattan, the little island that you’d think would sink from the sheer weight of its skyscrapers. Next time, the city’s four other boroughs, or administrative divisions, where 78 percent of its 8.3 million people live.

New York City wanted badly to be the capital of the new United States, and it was just that for five years beginning in January 1785. Four years later, George Washington took his oath of office as the nation’s new president on the balcony of the old city hall that had been reworked to house the federal government. But when Congress decided to create the entirely new city of Washington, D.C., as the nation’s capital in 1790, then moved operations to Philadelphia while Washington was made ready, Manhattan Island set about becoming the capital of the world instead.

In order to rival London and Paris and other great cities, New York eventually gobbled up Brooklyn, all of Staten Island, much of Queens County on Long Island, and a foothold on the mainland in a place called “the Bronx.” The annexation was completed in 1898 as part of a “Greater New York” initiative in which citizens of those pastoral boroughs were assured that they’d getter better streets, city services, and clout in the state capital of Albany by helping to form the nation’s first mega-city.

What instantly became the planet’s second-largest city (behind London) of 3.4 million people soon took on the world in manufacturing, finance, communications, and the arts. The other boroughs kicked in shipyards, factories, and the like. But most folks elsewhere, and some New Yorkers themselves, came to think of little Manhattan Island, just 20 kilometers long and 4 kilometers across at its widest point, as New York City.

No one can say with certainty where the name “Manhattan” came from. The branch of Algonquin Indians from whom the Dutch West India Company bought the forested island in 1626 for 60 guilders’ worth of baubles — about $1,000 at today’s value — had a word for “island of the hills” that sounded to the Dutch like “Manhattan.”

Or perhaps the name stuck after an unknown Englishman sailed up the Hudson River in 1607 and left behind a map that labeled the island “Manhattan.” He may have met those same Indians.

Almost a century after Giovanni da Verrazano, an Italian sailing in French employ, discovered but did not explore New York Bay , Henry Hudson, an Englishman in the service of Dutch merchants, started off from Amsterdam to find a shortcut to the Orient in 1609. His ship, the Half Moon, sailed around the top of Norway and into the Arctic Ocean. But conditions proved so miserable that Hudson reversed course and headed west instead.

Six months out, he was zipping along America’s east coast when he came upon the bay leading to what is now the Hudson River. Proceeding up it, he met and traded with various Indian tribes. When he reached home in Holland, his patrons were intrigued. Perhaps there were riches and a niche for the Dutch in this land to the south of French Canada and north of English Virginia. One thing led to another, as one says while skipping over a lot of history, and a new mercantile consortium called the Dutch West India Company was founding and colonizing “New Netherland,” beginning with the settlement of New Amsterdam on the southern tip of this intriguing New World island.

By 1630, New Amsterdam was a prosperous, cosmopolitan town — too cosmopolitan to suit New Netherland’s new governor, Peter Stuyvesant, who was aghast to find its 1,000 or so residents speaking 18 languages. He expelled many of the non-Dutch speakers and made life miserable for the rest. But he came to regret it when English colonel Richard Nicholls, alerted to the plight of English settlers, showed up in 1644 and demanded that Stuyvesant surrender the entire New Netherland colony, which, on maps at least, had spread to all of what is now parts of four states.

Since most of the Dutch were farmers, not fighters, the peg-legged Stuyvesant could only sputter and acquiesce without firing a shot. Nicholls immediately raised the Union Jack and changed the colony’s name to “New York,” after the Duke of York, who had sent him.

The Dutch influence would linger, however, notably when novelist Washington Irving’s fictitious narrator, Diedrich Knickerbocker, detailed a history of the colony. “Knickerbocker,” originally a derisive term for the first Dutch settlers — mocking their baggy knicker pants — came to mean any New Yorker.

Come to think of it, the players on the New York Knickerbockers basketball team wear longish, puffy pants to this day.

Irving also borrowed the term “Gotham” from an obscure Dutch story and applied it to teeming Manhattan in a series of sarcastic essays. A couple of centuries later, Gotham would be home to two of history’s most daring comic-book heroes: Batman and Superman.

Little did Colonel Nicholls know what a strategic place the English had acquired on Manhattan Island. Only later, when exploration moved inland, did they realize that both the burgeoning nation’s heartland and Europe could be reached more easily from there than from any other New World port.

With trade came banks, insurance companies, investment houses, wharves, factories and — eventually — skyscrapers that became the symbol of braggadocious American capitalism.

And all this commerce required a lot of people. Millions of them. And they needed places to live. In two years alone — 1847, when a terrible potato famine struck Ireland; and 1848, when revolutions resounded across Europe — the call for laborers was answered with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of immigrants. By the time Frédéric Bartholdi’s 225-ton Statue of Liberty rose to welcome other “huddled masses” in New York Harbor in 1866, Lower Manhattan was a crowded industrial and tenement district. And an even greater surge of humanity would soon follow as millions of Italians and Russian Jews debarked at the Ellis Island immigration station. New York was not the Big Apple then but what I liken to a Big Onion, with distinct societal layers and simmering ethnic tension.

Beginning in 1811, city commissioners laid out the mostly empty Upper Manhattan in a logical grid of long north-south avenues and orderly east-west cross streets. As a result, to this day people who can hardly find their way around middlin’ cities elsewhere navigate teeming New York with ease. Multi-unit “walk-up” buildings rose along these arteries. Their apartments were eagerly rented by young couples, large immigrant families, and single “bohemians” such as Calvert Vaux, who, along with Frederick Law Olmsted, had just laid out Central Park.

Fancier-schmancier apartment buildings soon followed on Fifth Avenue, the city’s most fashionable boulevard, where promenading in the “Easter Parade” was a highlight of the social calendar. Buildings like the 1884 Dakota on 72nd Street were veritable palaces with great iron gates, grand courtyards, hydraulic elevators, and staffs of managers and servants. The Dakota — destined for infamy decades later as the home of Beatle John Lennon when he was shot and killed by a deranged fan — took its name from the very remoteness of its setting on what at the time seemed like the eastern equivalent of the vast Great Plains.

When the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in 1886, its torch, reaching 46 meters (151 feet) into the sky, was taller than any structure on Manhattan, save for the 83-meter-high western tower of the new Brooklyn Bridge. But a year later, the face of the island changed forever when architect Bradford Gilbert erected the city’s first steel-skeleton skyscraper, the 13-story Tower Building on Broadway, on a plot that was barely six meters wide.

Within 20 years, no church steeples, no factory buildings, and almost no tenement apartments could be seen in a panoramic view of the city shot from Brooklyn. They were all obscured by soaring office buildings.

As Manhattan became, in writer Robert Alden’s words, “the cockpit of commercial interchange,” one after another corporate tower became the world’s tallest structure. Eventually the city housing commission had to pass “setback laws” that forced developers to move their skyscrapers back from the street in order to preserve a modicum of light, air circulation, and human scale.

Who among the Americans who rode a bus or train through a tunnel under the Hudson River into Manhattan for the first time and alighted to behold these canyons of steel will ever forget craning their necks till they hurt, looking upward in awe.

I was one of the first-time gawkers at the great Empire State and Woolworth buildings after the bus that brought us from Ohio on our senior-class trip unloaded one day in 1960.

A triumph of Manhattan architecture and prestige, completed in 1953, was the world’s diplomatic headquarters, the United Nations. John D. Rockefeller [7]personally donated $8.5 million to acquire the site, which replaced six blocks of slaughterhouses along the East River.

Nine years later the city modified its setback law to permit extra floors high above the skyline, provided the owners would add “public plazas” at street level. This, and the growing fascination with glass as a façade element, led to still more cloud-tickling buildings, many of them undistinguished vertical boxes of glass and steel.

In the early 1970s, the skyline was pierced by the latest “world’s tallest” structure, the Port of New York Authority’s twin, 110-story World Trade Center Towers. Their 929,000 square meters (10 million square feet) of office space were seven times that of the Empire State Building.

The 1972 book, The Mid-Atlantic States of America, quotes Anthony Lewis, then the London bureau chief of the New York Times, as remarking when he first beheld the World Trade Center, “It was a sight that cried out: money! power! technology!” The Twin Towers so symbolized capitalism that, as Americans will long remember, they twice became the target of international terrorism: A truck-bomb exploded in a basement garage in 1993, killing 6 people and injuring more than 1,000. And in a double murder-suicide mission, Islamic terrorists piloted hijacked passenger jets straight into the towers on the morning of September 11, 2001.

Much of the world watched the Twin Towers crumple into a pyre of steel, glass, and concrete in which 2,752 workers, rescuers, and bystanders perished. You may or may not know that a 550-meter (1,776-foot)-tall memorial, Freedom Tower, is beginning to rise where the Twin Towers stood.

Well before our new century, Manhattan had reached the crest of the nation’s economic mountain, and its cultural pinnacle as well. Stage actors can be favorably reviewed and well paid, but they are not stars until they make it on Broadway’s “Great White Way” in the only city with the population, refined tastes, and money to support more than 30 Broadway theaters, Off-Broadway testing grounds, and Off-Off-Broadway amateur (often experimental) houses.

Even New York’s subway is often copied. The subway’s ingenious system of local and “skip-stop” express trains, running past the same stations on parallel tracks, has been emulated in many cities. The packed, lurching trains carried waves of ethnic succession up the island and into other boroughs. Hell’s Kitchen, long a West Side Irish settlement, for instance, is now primarily Hispanic; and “Little Italy” keeps shrinking as Chinatown expands.

Harlem, up toward the top of the island, was settled by Dutch farmers and took its name from the industrial city of Haarlem in Holland. But Harlem, New York, eventually became the intellectual, cultural, and symbolic capital of Black America.

Manhattanites take pride — and respites — in the 341-hectare (843-acre) Central Park, one of the most important landscaped green spaces ever created. During the 1850s, the city had gradually bought up a tract of swampland that one report called a “pestilential spot where rank vegetation and miasmic odors taint every breath of air.” Over a 20-year period, architect Vaux and landscape architect Olmsted transformed the enormous bog into a playland of lawns, gardens, rock outcroppings, skating rinks, castles — even a zoo.

Along the “Museum Mile” on Fifth Avenue, the city boasts a profusion of Upper East Side cultural institutions anchored by “the Met” — the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Western Hemisphere’s largest art museum. The building is owned and maintained by the city, but its artwork is paid for by endowments, membership fees, and admission revenue.

Even the grand New York Public Library, the 1911 flagship of a system of 82 branches, has become a tourist attraction. People come not just to peruse its 125 million books, but also to gape at its architecture, artwork, and main reading room, which is as long as a football field.

Above all — just ask a New Yorker — Manhattan is a collection of eclectic neighborhoods. You may have heard of Greenwich Village, long a bohemian enclave and the cradle of folk music; SoHo and the TriBeCa triangle, where grungy tenements have been turned into cozy loft apartments and art galleries; apartment clusters that ooze wealth on the Upper East Side; and Times Square, which is actually triangular. Sometimes called “the Crossroads of the World,” it’s home to pulsating billboards and the famous flagpole down which a 91-kilo (200-pound) lighted ball slides just before midnight each December 31st as throngs below count down the seconds to a new year.

Except for a few sanctums of relaxation like Central Park or the coffeehouses where you might bump into our VOA New York Bureau buddy Adam Phillips, Manhattan is an urban dervish in perpetual motion, always on some sort of deadline. New Yorkers do not exaggerate when they say Manhattan never sleeps, as anyone who has peered out a hotel window there at three in the morning can attest.

I’ll vouch for it; more than once, honking taxicabs kept me awake in a tiny Manhattan hotel room whose beds were, I swear, as hard and narrow as ironing boards.

New Yorkers don’t even notice the din. They walk faster, talk faster and — in order to survive in the toughest town in the land — often think faster than everyone else. There’s never a lack of something to do or see on this island of 1.5 million residents, a million more workers, and a half-million weekly visitors. Manhattan, purchased for those 60 guilders’ worth of trinkets four centuries ago, is today a world capital of finance, culture, diplomacy, communications, and sheer excitement, if you’re up to it.

WILD WORDS
(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Acquiesce. To give in, concede to another’s point of view.

Braggadocious. Describing the behavior of one who boasts or shows off to excess.

Ginormous. A modern, made-up word melding “giant” and “enormous” into something really, really big.

Miasmic. More properly “miasmal,” a description of a noxious atmosphere, say near a foul-smelling bog or open sewer.

Modicum. A moderate or token amount, as in “a modicum of truth.”

Sanctum. A sanctuary or place of quiet privacy.

Ch-ch-change

Posted June 14th, 2010 at 5:33 pm (UTC-4)
2 comments


While daring dashes into the unknown can be exhilarating, humans by and large prefer comfortable routines. Especially as we age, sharp course alterations threaten, scare, even debilitate us.

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things,” wrote Niccolo Machiavelli 500 years or so ago. The Florentine diplomat was, himself, a provocateur and change agent who approved of using any and all means, including cunning and deceit, to shake things up and get one’s way.

And dealing with change hasn’t gotten any easier.

“We would rather be ruined than changed,” wrote the Anglo-American poet W.H. Auden.

“If you want to make enemies, try to change something,” rued U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who couldn’t get his own country’s Senate to approve his League of Nations idea.

Leo Tolstoy, the Soviet author of War and Peace, understood. “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself,” he noted.

Far from the world stage, entrenched in ordinary jobs and lifestyles, most of us particularly resent and resist change when someone else thought of it and is forcing us to go along.

For millions of Americans who have lost their jobs in the current economic downturn — or have had to learn strange new skills to keep them — change has rattled their world, assaulted their peace of mind, depressed and angered them.

My own profession has been tormented by change.

You may recall my blogs about the once-smug, now-agonized newspaper industry, whose readers and advertisers have fled to newer, more portable media in such numbers that a lot of trusted old papers have simply given up, stopped the presses, and shut their doors.

Traditional broadcasters have fared only slightly better. There are so many options available on cable, over the airways, even out of the sky via satellite that broadcasting stations and networks are struggling for audience share and revenues. They’re not goners yet, but they’re looking awfully gaunt.

As Jill K. Willis wrote two years ago in South Carolina Business magazine, the old idea of “appointment journalism” — in which you could count on your audience to pick up your newspaper and read it each morning, turn on your radio station on the way to and from work each rush hour, and catch your TV newscast each evening — is not just dying. Willis says it’s dead.

“People are receiving news all day via the Internet, radio, i-Pods, cell phones, and other mobile devices,” Willis wrote. “So now, seasoned journalists in newsrooms all over the world are scrambling to adapt to high-tech information dissemination.”

For this old paperboy, newspaperman and radio news manager, this is painful. I’m the king of appointment journalism, beginning with that stoop to pick up the newspaper on the lawn each morning.

But unlike the dread of today’s newspapermen and women, my own comfort level, and that of most of my Voice of America colleagues, hadn’t been dangerously rattled. After all, VOA funding — and our jobs — don’t directly depend on snaring high audience ratings or scooping up advertiser dollars. While many of us have stuck our toes into the Web world because it’s fun — witness this blog (are you having fun yet?) — we remain snugly rooted in traditional newsgathering, writing and rewriting, and broadcast programming.

We were, that is, until 15 of us were whisked off to Jill Willis’s stomping grounds in South Carolina’s capital, Columbia — and not just for the mustard-based barbecue.

We already knew that change is in the wind. Rumored for three years, a “re-org” — a reorganization of our central news and information division — is finally at hand, perhaps while you’re reading this blog.

In South Carolina, we learned that this will require “convergence,” an updated way of thinking and plying our craft that, at first, sounded kind of ominous.

For sure, it will mean change — in thinking, newsgathering, job descriptions, perhaps even the seating chart. And change brings angst as well as opportunity.

You may wonder what our “re-org” has to do with you. How will our nips and tucks and flourishes better serve your needs?

That’s just it. We’re not entirely sure that we have been serving them as fully as possible while you change your information habits with breakneck speed.

You are reading and writing blogs, browsing for information on all sorts of devices, and sticking around only briefly once you find it. Forget about “brand loyalty.” If we can’t give you what you want when you want it, and tell you really interesting stories when you’re there, you’re history.

Enter “convergence.”

As I began to explain, 15 of us managers and working stiffs — hard-news and feature types, young and (shall I say) “seasoned” — spent a week at Newsplex at the University of South Carolina.

Newsplex was founded eight years ago by two international news organizations whose owners realized, even then, that you were deserting traditional media for new “delivery platforms” such as the Web and mobile phones that better met your needs.

To reach you, they needed to bring together — converge — all sorts of human and technical resources and “skill sets.”

For our part in the here and now, this suggests something that that our executive editor calls “story-based” journalism.

That doesn’t sound so radical. Journalists have covered stories since Daniel Defoe tramped all over England in the 17th Century, gathering material for his pamphlets. (The author of Robinson Crusoe, about a shipwrecked sailor, he was a pretty good fiction writer, too.)

But focusing on stories across several media that click with you, pique your interest, leave you wanting more — not just in our accounts of breaking news but also in VOA analyses, blogs, videos, slide shows, and audio essays — is rather revolutionary in a newsroom that reveres tradition and has a long one.

The VOA News “re-org” is almost certain to include a whole new kind of editing position. Randy Covington, our Newsplex training impresario, calls it “story conductor.”

I can picture the baton flashing and long hair flying.

As things stand, an array of editors weighs in on the newsgathering and storytelling processes. We have, as my mother might have put it, more editors than we can shake a stick at: assignment editors, duty editors, copy editors, managing editors, Web editors. Once stories are planned, they figuratively bounce along conveyor belts, where their assembly is directed, words burnished and paragraphs tightened, defective parts pulled out and replaced, ribbons such as headlines and lovely images put on them, and the final product inspected and sent off on a journey around the world.

In the convergence model, the “conductor” and the reporter (I’ve got dibs on one of the bassoonists’ chairs) will carry the story from concept to coverage to creation. Together, we will — to use another of our executive editor’s terms — own the story. Devise it. Care about it. Give it life and special meaning. Prepare and deliver it using several of the “orchestra’s” written, visual and audio instruments.

The product will be, we hope, full and robust and memorable.

You’ll still see VOA reporters, microphones, and cameras at big, breaking news events, world hot spots, and places where U.S. policy is determined and debated. And people like me will still be poking about in interesting places across America.

But our story conductors (I still see the swirling hair) will also be guiding unique VOA stories that you can access in many places. I can’t get used to calling them “platforms.”

VOA’s reporters, videographers, producers, bloggers (ahem!), Web writers, graphic designers, and other journalists will all be challenged to deliver stories so compelling that you’ll want to check in with us again and again and again.

It rattles me a bit to say this, but the truth is that while our “conductors” and we make beautiful stories together, we’ll have a younger audience in mind.

Don’t fret if a gray hair or two has popped into your head; we won’t suddenly turn cool and cryptic and frivilous. But we want your kids and even your grandchildren as young as teenagers to check us out, and to participate in our information products through comments, social media, polls and the like.


It’s a cliché but true: younger information consumers are our future. To be relevant, we need to get with it, and with you.

Even before the 15 of us who “converged” in Columbia fiddled with newsroom diagrams and flow charts, we identified likely obstacles to change. It wasn’t hard. You’d hear the same grumbling in the face of change everywhere:

“What if my position is threatened or, gulp, eliminated?”

“It took me years to get comfortable. I don’t want to work much harder. And I certainly don’t want to fool with all that fancy technology.”

“This re-org will never work. Prima donnas won’t stand for it, and deadbeats will drag it down.”

“New media? Story conductors? That’s not journalism. What about our reputation?”


I should point out that at least half of the “Columbia 15” — many more than 7½ people, actually, especially the youngest among us — immediately and eagerly embraced the concept of a story-based, audience-friendly news operation.

They’re already working across many media, seizing every bit of training, and bringing technology to bear at every turn.

And not a one of us thought VOA’s standards, stellar reputation, or commitment to fairness and accuracy would suffer from a tune-up. As Aristotle once said, “Change is in all things sweet.”

I’m no pioneer in these matters. I’m settled, happy. I avoid most change when I can.

Aristotle doesn’t resonate with me as much as Benjamin Franklin does. The great diplomat, scientist, printer, and satirist nailed it, I think, in the nascent days of our republic.

“When you’re finished changing,” he wrote, “you’re finished.”

WILD WORDS

(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Deadbeat. Technically the term refers to those who don’t pay their debts. But more broadly, it refers to lazy sorts — loafers and slackers who have an aversion to hard work.

Gaunt. Emaciated, bony-looking, often with sunken eyes.

Nascent. Beginning or emerging, as in the “nascent days of the empire.”

Ted Landphair

About

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.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith

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