The Empire State Building: No. 2 in New York, 1 in Our Hearts

Posted May 4th, 2012 at 4:37 pm (UTC-4)
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Lord of all it surveys.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Lord of all it surveys. (Carol M. Highsmith)

The real-estate consortium that is organizing a public stock offering for the world-famous Empire State Building might consider this pitch line, slightly modified from the old slogan that worked splendidly for Avis Rent-a-Car:

We’re No. 2! — Again

No. 2 in height in New York City, that is, ever since workers at One World Trade Center crafted a steel skeleton that took it past 381 meters (1,250 feet) into the sky on the last day of April.  That single tower replaces the trade center’s Twin Towers that fell in the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

One World Trade Center as of January.  (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

One World Trade Center as of January. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

And its steel beams in the sky put One World Trade Center a tad higher than the tippy-top of the Empire State Building, which had resumed its standing as New York’s Tallest when the Twin Towers collapsed.

One World Trade won’t be stopping there.  Cranes will eventually raise it to a symbolic 1,776 feet (541 meters), allowing it to reclaim the title as tallest building in all of America.  The symbolism derives from the year 1776, when the United States declared its independence.

But this is about the old, not the new, champion: the 81-year-old dowager high-rise.  On the affection meter, not just in New York but also nationwide, the Empire State Building ranks No. 1 by far.

The Empire State Building from ground level.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

The Empire State Building from ground level. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Five years ago, the American Institute of Architects marked its 150th anniversary.  To celebrate, it invited Americans to choose their favorite building anywhere in the land — a steel tower, a beloved monument or memorial, a spectacular bridge, perhaps an iconic mansion.

The AIA announced the results on a Web site that showcased the top 150 structures in order of the esteem in which they are held.  I know about this because Carol photographed each one of them for the site.

The White House finished second.  The dramatic National Cathedral, also in Washington, placed third.  San Francisco’s photogenic Golden Gate Bridge came in fifth.

You can guess the winner:

From coast to coast and beyond, Americans picked the Empire State Building as their favorite structure in what architects call our “built environment.”

For once it wasn’t just New Yorkers — the ones who see nothing amiss in artist Saul Steinberg’s cover of the March 29, 1976 New Yorker magazine — who were bragging about their big building.  Steinberg’s cartoon is a map, of sorts — it shows New York City stretching four-fifths of the way across the country, with the Hudson River flowing roughly where the Rocky Mountains stand and only a bunch of buttes and a dot or two, marked “Nebraska” and such, from there to the Pacific Ocean.

Turns out, even people in Nebraska have a soft spot for the octogenarian New York skyscraper.

I was one of millions of American schoolchildren who’ve taken excursions or gone with family to New York City from the boonies.  Ohio, in my case.

I seem to remember this lovely painted-glass depiction of the Empire State tower in the lobby.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

I seem to remember this lovely painted-glass depiction of the Empire State tower in the lobby. (Carol M. Highsmith)

I’ve forgotten most details of the adventure except those involving the Empire State Building: gaping, slack-jawed in amazement, out the bus window from New Jersey at its domineering silhouette across the Hudson; standing beneath it; craning upward in wonder; riding what seemed like rocket-launched elevators to reach the observation deck nearly half a kilometer above Fifth Avenue.

And, of course, standing on top of the world, surveying what looked like Forever before me and “ants” far below.  Yellow Cab ants.  Bus ants. Tinier people ants.

For my VOA colleague Adam Phillips — a New Yorker who’s pleased to be working out of our New York Bureau — affection lingers for the brawny skyscraper.

He and his chums would ride up to the lookout platform, inside which he dimly recalls a packed “200-foot  lunch counter” — fond memories play tricks; 200 feet, or 70 meters, would be twice the length of a football field.  That would stick out the window and well beyond, I think.  Now that WOULD be some hamburger and Coke experience!

Ever the curious sort, Adam remembers peeking under the counter and beholding a “rainbow of colors” from the chewing gum that customers had stuck there.

This old rouge compact was one of the early souvenirs sold to tourists at the building.  (ljcybergal, Flickr Creative Commons)

This rouge compact was one of the early souvenirs sold to tourists at the building. (ljcybergal, Flickr Creative Commons)

He says he tossed a hat off the deck and soon lost sight of it as it looped to earth somewhere below.  With little regard for the consequences, he and his buddies may have sailed pennies into the wind — he ain’t sayin’, as New Yorkers would put it — wondering if it were true that they would land with such ferocity that they’d dig three meters into the earth.

I don’t recall ever seeing such ruts or the bodies of impaled passersby, so the danger of pennies from heaven was probably overrated.

“For New Yorkers, the Empire State Building has always had dramatic, masculine virtue,” Adam tells me.  “A swagger — quite the opposite of the delicate, crystal-champagne look of the Chrysler Building” a few blocks away.

Even more eloquently, Adam wrote for VOA about the Empire State Building on its 75th anniversary in 2006:

Human societies have always built great monuments to celebrate their values. The Egyptians had their pyramids. Medieval Europeans had their great cathedrals. For 20th century Americans, it was the skyscraper that best embodied the power and progress that defined their era.

The art-deco spire of the rival Chrysler Building.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

The art-deco spire of the rival Chrysler Building. (Carol M. Highsmith)

If it could talk, the Empire State Building would doubtlessly note that the Chrysler spire, its fierce old rival uptown, finished ninth on the AIA list of Americans’ favorite structures.  The previous skyscratching champion — the century-old Manhattan tower called the Woolworth Building — placed a paltry 44th.  Two other lofty New York landmarks placed even farther down the list.   Rockefeller Center was 56th; the well-known United Nations Building a distant 111th.

Even Chicago’s Sears Tower, now called Willis Tower — the nation’s tallest structure when the AIA survey was conducted — finished only 42nd in Americans’ regard.

Lumping these behemoths together brings to mind the frantic race for supremacy in the sky when they were created.  In 1913, F.W. Woolworth took some of the sizeable profits from his nationwide five-and-dime store chain and built the 241-meter (792-foot) Woolworth Building, which stood as the world’s tallest tower for more than a decade.

By 1932, a year after the Empire State Building rose, many skyscrapers, including the Chrysler ahead, had sprouted.  (Library of Congress)

By 1932, a year after the Empire State Building rose, many skyscrapers, including the Chrysler ahead, had sprouted. (Library of Congress)

Then, thanks to engineering breakthroughs and a robust economy in the 1920s, two skyscrapers shot past Woolworth.  The race into the sky was on, thanks to Chicago architect William Jenney, who proved that a steel skeleton could support a really tall building.  Previously, masonry walls had to be thick and stout to bear the weight of several floors above them.  Seven or eight stories was about the max.

First, a Bank of Manhattan building at 40 Wall Street beat Woolworth.  Then William Van Alen, the architect of auto industry pioneer Walter Chrysler’s sleek new building uptown, pulled a sneaky trick that enabled it to reach a jaw-dropping 320 meters (1,050 feet):

Just as 40 Wall Street was prepping for its “World’s Tallest Building Raises the Stars & Stripes to the New York Heaven” ribbon-cutting ceremony, Van Alen’s crews at the Chrysler site were secretly building an altitude-busting spire — inside the structure itself as it rose.

Then they lifted and mounted the 27-ton steel tip without saying a word to the press.  Four days after 40 Wall Street threw its celebratory bash, Walter Chrysler calmly pointed out that his creation had bested the bank building by 30 meters.

The gloating did not last, though, for another automobile mogul, former General Motors executive John J. Raskob, outdid him in a, well, New York minute.  On the site of the renowned but fading Waldorf-Astoria Hotel — which he promptly razed while the hotel reopened elsewhere — Raskob and his investors thrust the Empire State Building into the sky at a rate of two floors a week. Read the rest of this entry »

On California’s Royal Road, Traces of ‘New Spain’

Posted April 27th, 2012 at 7:04 pm (UTC-4)
1 comment

In the late 18th Century, Catholic missionaries moved north from the Spanish colony of Mexico into what is now the U.S. state of California.

They called it the Viceroyalty of Alta California — Upper California, since there already was a “California” in the vast Spanish colony of New Spain.  It was the long, skinny peninsula in northwestern Mexico that’s now called “Baja [Lower] California.”

An early map of the 21 Alta California missions.  (Wikipedia Commons)

An early map of the 21 Alta California missions. (Wikipedia Commons)

With the help of Spanish soldiers and settlers, the padres founded 21 missions, beginning in San Diego near what is now the Mexican border, and reaching northward to San Francisco and beyond.

They built their last one in 1823, by which time Mother Spain had soured on the idea of founding missions much beyond San Francisco.  Supporting the remote outposts with money and supplies from their base in Mexico was becoming prohibitively expensive.  Besides, Spain was out of the mission business because Mexico had won its independence and taken charge of Alta California two years earlier.

You may have heard about at least one of these missions — the one that many consider the jewel of them all, in the little town of San Juan Capistrano.  And history books and accounts of the mission’s significance or décor probably had nothing to do with it.

More likely, it came to your attention because of a bunch of birds.  I will soon explain — and perhaps even break into song about it on the podcast version of this post.

But… back to the missions.

The courtyard and some ruins at the Mission San Luis Rey de Francia.  (Wikipedia Commons)

The courtyard and some ruins at the Mission San Luis Rey de Francia. (Wikipedia Commons)

Spain had claimed Alta California since the 16th century, when conquistadors began their search for gold throughout the New World,  But Spaniards had never occupied it.  By the late 1700s, however, King Carlos III was worried about Russian fur traders who had already sailed down from Alaska and established a foothold in California, about French and British maneuverings in Canada to the north, and about American explorers moving westward.

So the king asked a Catholic order, the Franciscans, to set up missions throughout California around which Spanish settlements could take root and grow.

They would obediently do so, in the process establishing the last and northernmost colony in “New Spain.”

A 1922 sketch of Franciscan missionaries, in their simple cassocks, in California.  (Wikipedia Commons)

A 1922 sketch of Franciscan missionaries, in their simple cassocks, in California. (Wikipedia Commons)

Founded by Francis of Assisi in the early 13th Century, the Franciscan Friars, as they are called, led the Catholic Church’s missionary movement throughout the world.

An idealistic Franciscan priest named Junípero Serra established missions in Baja California, then in present-day California along a road that became known as El Camino Real – the Royal Road.  It was a crude and dusty mule trail, not very regal, but the friars gave it an elegant name to pay tribute to the Spanish royalty that financed their expeditions.

The Royal Road began as a three-meter-deep hole in the sand on the Pacific Ocean at the mouth of the San Diego River, where Father Serra and two other priests planted a large cross.  Nearby, at the site of what became the Mission San Diego de Alcala, they hung a bell from the limb of a tree.

The Royal Road still exists, after a fashion.  California’s historic Highway 101 roughly traces El Camino Real, and symbolic mission-bell signs mark the route.  The bells were more than symbolic in the actual missions: They called the flock to worship and meals, signaled the arrival of ships and visiting dignitaries, and pealed during funeral services and other rituals.

Like the Royal Road, the mission complexes that the Franciscan Friars established weren’t much to write home to Madrid about.

Mission Santa Barbara today.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Mission Santa Barbara today. (Carol M. Highsmith)

They consisted of a simple church, friars’ quarters, storehouses, and a covered arcade around a fountain in a central patio.  The structures were built of adobe, or earth and straw, and featured tile roofs, bell towers, and elaborate gates. This style, which became known as “mission” architecture, caught on throughout the U.S. Southwest in more modern times.  From West Texas to the Pacific Ocean, entire subdivisions of homes and apartment buildings evoke this mission style.

Around the mission grounds, the friars often planted fruit seeds that grew into bountiful orchards.  California’s first pepper tree still grows at one of the Franciscan missions: San Luis Rey de Fancia, near the town of Oceanside.

One of the missions sits right in the middle of bustling San Francisco.  Formally called Mission San Francisco de Asis and named locally for the lake next to which it was built, Mission Delores is the oldest building standing in the “City by the Bay.”  Of course, other candidates for that title may have been lost in the Great San Francisco Earthquake and fire of 1906.

In this 1920 drawing, Indian residents of the Franciscans' California missions are shown plowing a field.  (Wikipedia Commons)

In this 1920 drawing, Indian residents of the Franciscans' California missions are shown plowing a field. (Wikipedia Commons)

Dale Olmstead led tours of one of the Franciscan missions, in Santa Barbara, for 35 years.  I talked with him some years ago on a trip to California.  He told me that placid American Indians, whom the Franciscans had come to “civilize” and convert to Christianity, provided the sweat to build the missions and work the fields.

But the Indians did the learning also.  There was a lot to be learned about European technology, planting systems, animal husbandry systems, water works with which they were completely unacquainted.  Artificial dams, aqueducts, and so forth.

Most missions required only a six- to eight-man garrison of soldiers because, by and large, California Indian tribes peacefully welcomed the Spaniards and were receptive to the teachings of the Catholic Church.  The Indians lived in crude huts, including monjerios, or nunneries, set aside to house young women and isolate them from Indian men and Spanish guards alike.

The communally-oriented Franciscans organized shared prayer, conversation, and festivals with soldiers, settlers, and Indians alike.

Over time, however, white man’s diseases such as smallpox and gonorrhea — and including a killer measles epidemic in 1806 — wiped out almost all of California’s Native American population.

This colorful 1921 postcard depicts the Mission San Juan Capistrano. (Library of Congress)

This colorful 1921 postcard depicts the Mission San Juan Capistrano. (Library of Congress)

In 1776, the year of the American Declaration of Independence a continent away to the east, Father Serra and seven soldiers founded the seventh Franciscan mission in the San Juan Capistrano Valley, north of San Diego.  There, Indian labor built a large, cross-shaped stone church that former California governor Pete Wilson called “America’s Acropolis.”  Its tall tower was visible 16 km (10 miles) away.  The church was largely destroyed in an 1812 earthquake in which 40 worshippers were killed.

Among the five buildings still standing is a tiny chapel built in 1777 by Father Serra.  Now the oldest building still in use in California, the chapel houses a golden altar shipped from Spain.

Half a million visitors, including thousands and thousands of schoolchildren in groups, tour the mission and its grounds annually. In part, that’s because of a catchy 1939 song, made popular by big-band singer Ray Eberle and a quartet called The Ink Spots, about those birds that I mentioned earlier.  Its lyrics begin:

When the swallows come back to Capistrano,

That’s the day you promised to come back to me.

Interior of the Mission San Juan Capistrano chapel.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Interior of the Mission San Juan Capistrano chapel. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Legend has long held that each Saint Joseph’s Day, March 19th, cliff swallows that have migrated 9,700 exhausting kilometers from Goya, Argentina, reappear en masse in San Juan Capistrano.  When they arrive:

All the mission bells will ring

The chapel choir will sing.

And indeed they do on March 19th — or a weekend day closest to that date — when the town throws a fiesta and parade.  A whole lot of the birds do descend that day after their long flight from South America.  But not all of them.  Some show up early, and others, delayed by weather or headwinds, straggle in over several days in mid-March.

California missions prospered to varying degrees until the Mexican takeover in 1821, when they sent the Franciscan priests packing.  Seizing the mission property that had been held in trust for the Indian population, the Mexican governor sold it for profit at public auction — often to his relatives.

In the late 1840s, the United States took control of California following the Mexican-American War.  And 15 days before he was assassinated in 1865, Abraham Lincoln returned what was left of California’s missions to the Catholic Church.

Here’s an example of what I mean by “what was left”:

What had been 91,000 hectares at the Mission San Juan Capistrano estate when the Franciscans lived there is down to 4 hectares. The city of San Juan Capistrano surrounding the mission has become a bedroom community for San Diego and Los Angeles.

One of the roadside mission bells along the modern Royal Road.  (Ewen Denney, Wikipedia Commons)

One of the roadside mission bells along the modern Royal Road. (Ewen Denney, Wikipedia Commons)

Although still technically owned by the Church, that mission is operated today by a private, nonprofit organization. Catholic services are still conducted at San Juan Capistrano, but the church does not fund the mission, and the mission does not support the local parish.

Over the years, Mission San Juan Capistrano has been stabilizing its structures against earthquakes.  It raised more than $10 million to preserve and reinforce the remnants of the mission’s Great Stone Church.

The money has come in part from art exhibits, concerts under the stars, ethnic celebrations, and even a “Cowboy Christmas” held in the flower-filled courtyard.

But the biggest fundraiser of all to maintain the historic mission continues to be the fiesta each March when the swallows return to Capistrano.

 

 

Both the San Diego Padres baseball team and their wacky mascot in a friar's outfit were inspired by the Franciscans who founded missions nearby and throughout California.  (SD Dirk, Flickr Creative Commons)

Both the San Diego Padres baseball team and their wacky mascot in a friar's outfit were inspired by the Franciscans who founded missions nearby and throughout California. (SD Dirk, Flickr Creative Commons)

Heart of the Heartland

Posted April 20th, 2012 at 9:52 am (UTC-4)
5 comments

The United States is finally getting around to building a memorial to Ike: Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Kansas lad who became one of our greatest heroes and most popular presidents.

But there’s a problem.

It’s the Kansas part, even though Eisenhower said, in a 1945 speech in his hometown after leading Allied forces to victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, “The proudest thing that I can say today is that I’m from Abilene.”

According to the Eisenhower Memorial design, a statue of Ike as a Kansas country boy would appear somewhere in these trees.  (Eisenhower Memorial Commission)

According to the Eisenhower Memorial design, a statue of Ike as a Kansas country boy would appear somewhere in these trees. (Eisenhower Memorial Commission)

Some Eisenhower descendants and art critics complain that the design of the planned memorial, by modernist architect Frank Gehry, portrays Ike as a country bumpkin — a “barefoot boy from Kansas” — while relegating his distinguished military and presidential leadership to a row of background tapestries.

Poor Kansas.  People who are from there can’t stop talking about its subtle allures, but for most other people, it’s unremarkable flyover country — the middle of nowhere.

Kansas is smack in the middle of America, all right.  (Wikipedia Commons)

Kansas is smack in the middle of America, all right. (Wikipedia Commons)

It is, quite literally and precisely, the middle of America, leaving out far-off Alaska and Hawaii.  The exact center of the “Lower 48” states below Canada is located in a field of milo just outside the tiny town of Lebanon, Kansas.

Unfortunately, Lebanon, population 250, could be the test case for what some observers call “dying rural America.”  Many towns in rural Kansas — and neighboring farm states as well — have steadily lost population, and with it, their high schools, grade schools, car dealerships, and community halls where movies were once shown.

A few years ago, I visited little Delphos, Kansas, home to 469 people in 2000 but just 359 two years ago when the next decennial census was conducted.  A nursing home, the town’s largest business besides the grain co-operative, had closed for lack of residents, and a onetime farmer named Greg Berndt was running the only remaining grocery store.  It operated in a classic, century-old building with a tin ceiling, a screen door that squeaked, and a bell that jingled each time a customer walked in.

Only it wasn’t jingling much anymore.

“The older people keep dying off here,” Greg told me.  “When we opened the store, we had a lot of older residents, up in their 70s and 80s.  We’ve seen a lot of people pass away, and when you know all your customers, each one of them, it seems like there’s more passing away than new ones coming in.”

When the area school board closed Delphos’s only school, a middle school whose students were folded into a larger one 30 kilometers (19 miles) away at the county seat, the downward spiral accelerated.  A couple of years ago, Greg sold the store and went back to farming.

Having never been there, I can't say little Lafontaine, Kansas, is on its last legs.  But . . . (Kansas Poetry, Flickr Creative Commons)

Having never been there, I can't say little Lafontaine, Kansas, is on its last legs. But . . . (Kansas Poetry, Flickr Creative Commons)

“People die,” poet Joseph Stanley Pennell wrote about Kansas in 1935.

They are decently buried . . .

But towns die

and decompose scandalously

without decent burial

out here in God’s country.

Poor Kansas.

A “sea of grass,” is what the first Europeans to see it called the never-ending tallgrass prairie that, at the time in the 19th Century, stretched from Texas and Oklahoma all the way north through Kansas and three more states into Canada.  Many immigrants, and Americans from “back East,” looking for a bit of land and new start, either dug ruts into the prairie as their wagons, called “prairie schooners,” worked their way west to Oregon and California, or took the government’s offer of 65 free hectares (160 acres) right there on the Kansas plains, settled down, and built “soddies” — sod houses.

In his Kansas bicentennial history, published in 1976, Kenneth Davis writes about Lindsborg, Kansas, a little town settled by Swedes.  Back in Scandinavia, Lindsborg was famous, a promised land of — if not milk and honey and streets paved with gold — rich black soil ripe for planting.

Davis tells of a Kansas-bound Swede who, debarking in New York City, was overwhelmed by the hugeness and richness of the metropolis. “‘If this is New York,’ cried he in his native tongue,” Davis writes, “‘what must LINDSBORG look like?’”

There have been times when western Kansas DID look like a desert.  The circular depression is a "wallow" where buffalo rolled in the dust to coat their hides against stinging flies.  (W. D. Johnson, U.S. Geological Survey)

Many newcomers soon called Kansas not a sea but “The Great American Desert” after deciding that nothing but flowers and grasses would grow in its long, dry summers and blizzardy winters.

“In God We Trusted, in Kansas We Busted,” Kenneth Porter wrote of these pioneers in the 1946 book No Rain from These Clouds. “Gone back to live with the Wife’s Folks! — nothing remains of the hope what drew them forth save that ironic humor which sustains their yet unconquered comrades. . . .”

You can say this about Kansans, though.  They’re a sardonic lot in the midst of their struggles.

In his “Tales Tall and Short,” published in 1976 in the Kansas Arts Reader, author William E. Koch told the story of three friends: a Californian, a New Yorker, and a fellow from western Kansas, who all agreed that they were such friends that they should leave the world together.  They built a large crematorium and, apparently while still alive, consigned their bodies to the flames.

“Three days later,” wrote Koch, “the New Yorker was taken out, and he was burnt to a crisp.  The Californian was taken out next, and he was cooked very well done.”

The western Kansas farmer was the last one to be removed.  While he was being taken out, he remarked, “Another three days of this good hot weather, the wheat will be ready to cut.”

Poor Kansas.

Along with neighboring Oklahoma, it’s “Tornado Alley,” where real farmhouses and real people — not just the fictional girl Dorothy and her dog Toto in the book and movie The Wizard of Oz — are blown about violently each spring.

Ominous!  It's how the Kansas sky looks when twisters are about.  (Pe Tor, Flickr Creative Commons)

Ominous! It's how the Kansas sky looks when twisters are about. (Pe Tor, Flickr Creative Commons)

In 2004, Kansas poet May Williams Ward wrote of these unpredictable, deadly “twisters”:

The universe swayed and swirled.

The monstrous horn of a unicorn

Gored the world.

A good friend of Carol’s and mine, Connie Doebele, just returned to Washington from a trip to her native Kansas, where she managed to miss a fierce outbreak of these swirling storms.  She wrote me that the experience stirred many childhood memories:

In the spring, it was pretty usual to have bad weather a couple times a week, and normally in the late afternoon/evening when the air was unsettled.  We had a two-tier process at our farm for bad weather.  If it was just a bad storm, we could go to the cellar under our house, which had stone walls.  It was pretty small and usually only housed our freezer and canned goods.

Connie and her family used to run, and I mean run, down this path to her "cave," seen ahead.  (Connie J. Doebele)

The second tier of safety came when the storm started turning bad.  Then we would go to the “cave,” which was not a cave but a teepee-like cement structure on top of the ground and a cement bunker underground.  There was a little chimney hole in it so that air would be allowed down into the cave.

My father was the one who would make the decisions about our shelter in bad weather.  He would be out looking at the clouds and I would yell to him, “Should we go to the cellar Daddy?”  or if I thought it looked really bad, ask him about going straight to the cave.

I never saw a tornado as a kid.  That’s because I would be in one of those two places — and usually very scared.  I did however, see many wicked, wicked cloud formations.  It was art at its finest.  The colors of the clouds were always amazing: shades of green that I had never thought possible.

But the thing that rushed back to me this weekend with the most intensity was the smell.  There is a certain smell in the Midwest when a bad storm is kicking up.  It’s a damp, wet smell, void of all dust.  It’s a cold smell.  It’s also a very clean smell.  It’s a smell that is unsettling, because it always precedes and follows bad weather.  But for some reason this past weekend, the smell had a nostalgic effect on me.  It reminded me of my dad and the precautions he would take to make sure my mom and us kids were in the right kind of shelter for whatever was coming our way. Read the rest of this entry »

So You Want to be Famous!

Posted April 12th, 2012 at 5:19 pm (UTC-4)
6 comments

As I watch the world go by — a passing parade that includes a lot of otherwise rational Americans, I wonder why some people do the outlandish things they do.  Swallow squirming jungle bugs on reality-TV shows.  Sing or dance badly on stage until someone drags them off.  Jump off a bridge to within a meter of a canyon floor, saved from splattering death only by the tensile strength of an elastic cord.

 

Some 607 people wearing fake chicken beaks set a world record for animal noses at a single venue in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in March.  (AP Photo)

Some 607 people wearing fake chicken beaks set a world record for animal noses at a single venue in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in March. (AP Photo)

And then there are the wacky, wild, warped, perhaps wonderful folks — a lot of them from right here in America — who try to make a mark by setting a world record in the strangest of ways.  Balancing a ginormous number of peas on a spoon.  Or skipping rope, blindfolded, for hours on end.  That sort of thing.

There has to be just one universally recognized arbiter of record-setting zaniness, of course.  Otherwise, I could sharpen 273 pencils in a minute — left-handed — and declare it a world record, completely unaware that some lefty in Sri Lanka had just sharpened 275 that quickly a week ago.

The judging of such achievements has fallen to the Guinness organization, which was once an offshoot of the British brewing company but now belongs to a Canadian firm that also owns and runs the Ripley’s Believe it or Not “odditoriums.”  These mini-museums house kooky artifacts such as a seven-legged sheep and a portrait of the singer Beyonce made entirely of candy.

A serious and studious bunch.

An older, keepsake edition of the Guinness book.  (jma.work, Flickr Creative Commons)

An older, keepsake edition of the Guinness book. (jma.work, Flickr Creative Commons)

Guinness still publishes the best-selling Guinness Book of World Records, which some say holds its own world record as the book most frequently stolen from libraries.  Since a book can be only so fat and heavy, just a few of the thousands of records that Guinness recognizes make the book.  It keeps the rest in a database but promotes them every time a new one comes along or an old one is broken.

Once upon a time, you had to go to some sort of sporting venue to set a world record.  Or you could just be remarkable, such as the world’s oldest or shortest or heaviest human, or the person with the biggest nose.

But nowadays, you can set world records right in your back yard, on the street where you live, or down the block at a bar without breaking a sweat.  Lots of people do, in preposterous ways.

Not just Americans, for sure.  In the past year alone, Ukrainians set the standard for the largest mosaic made of donuts.  Japanese produced the longest skewer of meat.  South Koreans fired the world’s largest earthenware pot — after six tries in which their big pots broke.

At the Toronto Marathon in Canada last year, Mark Wilding broke the world record for the fastest time by someone dressed as a bottle.  Imagine!  Someone had already thought to establish the mark for this. Wilding’s time was 3 hours, 53 minutes, 26 seconds, in case this moves you to gather up cloth and start sewing.

This photo of Emma Dumitrescu, 17, in Bucharest, Romania, isn't large enough to see ALL of her world-record bridal-gown train.  (Vadim Ghirda/AP Photo)

This photo of Emma Dumitrescu, 17, in Bucharest, Romania, isn't large enough to see ALL of her world-record bridal-gown train. (Vadim Ghirda/AP Photo)

Then there’s the Chinese who set the world record for the longest anamorphic painting, at 60½ meters (almost 200 feet).  You know, one of those eerily three-dimensional creations that looks like what it depicts: an open manhole in the street, a busy market bazaar, or what you’d swear is a real train bearing down on you out of a tunnel on a wall.

But Americans take a back seat to no one when it comes to competition, so we dive headlong into the pursuit of weird records.

Just this spring, 450 women in Panama City, Florida, smashed the world standard — held by some lovely Australians — for the longest parade of bikini-clad bathing beauties.  “This is the most exciting day of my life!” beach-marcher Karly Quinn told a TV reporter afterward.   “Tears were coming out of my eyes, I’m so proud of the United States.”

Patriotism is sometimes scantily clad.

On February 28th, Lillian Hartley and Allen Marks of Indio, California, set a world record as the oldest couple to wed, when one combines their ages of 95 and 98 at the altar.

“I don’t like to flatter myself or anything, but I really feel it’s an inspiration to people, and to young people, to realize they can get old and be in love,” Lillian told the Desert Sun newspaper.

This is the certificate that world-record competitors are hoping to frame.  (Wikipedia Commons)

This is the certificate that world-record competitors are hoping to frame. (Wikipedia Commons)

In an entry called “How to Break a Guinness World Record,” the Web site WikiHow lists nine steps:

1. Think of something you’re good at (like wearing a bikini and walking along a beach?).

2. Check the world record, if there is one.

3. Ask yourself, “Can I beat this?”

4. Train for the big day.

5. If you think you’re ready, register your idea with Guinness.   More than 50,000 people a year contact the company to ask about setting a record.

6. If Guinness accepts the idea, it will send you a packet on how to proceed.

7. Make sure every preparation is complete.  You can’t just show up, climb the town water tower, and cook a vat of gumbo, for instance.

8. Once the day comes, do your best.

9. (Quoting the tips:) “If you’ve done it, well go ahead and do that victory dance! Flaunt it!”

And if you’ve paid to have an official Guinness “adjudicator” on hand to verify the record on the spot, he or she will present you with a handsome certificate and up to 100 T-shirts, hats, hand towels, or recycled “eco-bags,” as mementos of the achievement.

Master shishkebob-makers hold the world's longest at a Turkish Festival in Washington, D.C. last year.  (Texas.713.jpg)

Master shishkebob-makers hold the world's longest at a Turkish Festival in Washington, D.C. last year. (Texas.713.jpg)

Guinness says it recognizes records that it finds “provable, quantifiable, and breakable.”  It won’t approve any involving perfect school attendance, the blowing up of buildings, or anything that could harm spectators or animals.

My countrymen have achieved all of the following Guinness World Records (exactly why is a question I’ll discuss shortly):

• Marry 23 times (and counting).

• Grow fingernails 3 meters, 10 cm [10 feet, 2 inches] long.  That’s just on the record-holder’s LEFT hand.  The ones on her right hand are a mere 2 meters, 92 cm [9 feet, 7 inches] long.

• Have 47 cosmetic surgeries.

• Immerse one’s body in ice — on a New York City street corner, no less — for 1 hour, 12 minutes straight.

Either 2,443 people, or 2,443 hands — I'm not sure which — set a record for most handprints in a block of wet cement in Indianola, Iowa.  (bluebike1, Flickr Creative Commons)

Either 2,443 people, or 2,443 hands — I'm not sure which — set a record for most handprints in a block of wet cement in Indianola, Iowa. (bluebike1, Flickr Creative Commons)

• Sit in a bathtub with 87 rattlesnakes.  Pooh!  I was just ready to try that one.

In 2008, Guinness Book of World Records editor Craig Glenday told the Freakonomics Web site that what motivates those who try to set or break records “is different.  Some do it for their own private, spiritual enlightenment; others do it to chase their 15 minutes (or megabytes) of fame; others just like seeing their name in a book.  Almost every record holder will say they’re not doing what they do to beat the other guy — it’s all about beating themselves. It’s a very personal crusade . . . about not wanting to sit through life as a casual observer but to grab at every opportunity to try something new or push themselves to new limits.”

My colleague Chris Cruise, who wrote about Guinness quests for VOA’s Learning English unit, noted that the company considers a world record as “a way to understand your position in the world, a way to measure how you fit in. It believes knowing ‘the biggest, the smallest, the fastest, the most and the least’ helps us understand a world ‘overloaded with information.’”

Folks in Singapore set the record for the world's largest balloon sculpture in March. (chooyutshing, Flickr Creative Commons)

Folks in Singapore set the record for the world's largest balloon sculpture in March. (chooyutshing, Flickr Creative Commons)

Really?  Seems to me that bizarre world-record attempts add to that overload.  I keep wondering what really motivates someone to, say, create history’s longest strand of spaghetti.

Yes, it might be kind of fun for a group of pals to try to break a nonsense record on a lark.  And I can see why Luigi’s Pizzeria would consider it a publicity bonanza to gather a bunch of people and bake a giant pie with a world-record number of toppings.

But why, oh why, would somebody such as Larry Olmsted strain to break two world records: for playing the card game “poker” 72 straight hours, and for playing full rounds of golf in both Australia and California — 12,000 km (7,500 miles) apart — in a single day.

Simple, Olmsted told Cruise: “Everyone wants to be famous.  And, in a sense, while I don’t think you really become famous, from the record-setter’s perception, it’s a way to be immortalized.”

Immortalized!  Famous forever.  Balance on a 995-meter-long wire over a canyon, or pull a bus with a rope attached to your earlobe, and you can take a seat among immortals? Read the rest of this entry »

Fluffya

Posted April 6th, 2012 at 6:23 pm (UTC-4)
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Could it be that parochial Fluffya is changing?

Who would have thought that after more than three centuries of mostly minding its own business, the hard-working city of narrow streets, grimy factories, and quaint colonial buildings in the southeastern corner of Pennsylvania would be transformed into one of America’s most dynamic and appealing tourist destinations.

Fluffya?” you’re saying.  “I’ve never even heard of the place.”

Yes, almost certainly, you have.  You’ve spelled and pronounced it “Philadelphia.”  “Fluffya,” is how the locals say it — especially those in South Philly and Senda Siddy.  (That’s Fluffians’ twist on their term for downtown, their Center City.)

Philadelphia at nightfall.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Philadelphia at nightfall. (Carol M. Highsmith)

In deference to the historical significance of the place, I’ll mostly refer to the nation’s fifth-largest city as “Philadelphia” from now on.

But I wanted you to know that the wellspring of our democracy is both an intellectual university town and a blue-collar community where people consider long, thick cheesesteak sandwiches and Tastykake snack cakes delicacies, where they will stand for hours in snow or biting rain to watch “mummers” cavort on New Year’s Day, and where they root, fiercely and often quite rudely, for their Iggles.

Iggles: the Philadelphia Eagles American football team.  Rudely — drenching opposing teams in boos and curses and, from time to time, any of those teams’ fans who dare show up with beer.  Philadelphia has never lived down the day, 44 years ago, that Iggle fans booed, and threw snowballs at, Santa Claus.

This, in a place whose name, taken directly from the Greek, means “brotherly love.”

I should explain “mummers,” in the event you missed my posting a year ago January, after I returned, gushing with appreciation, from the Mummers Parade.

Mummers on parade.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Mummers on parade. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Mummers are masked and elaborately costumed frolickers who dance and sing, play the lowly kazoo — which sounds like one of those little noisemakers that kids blow at birthday parties — and choreograph amazingly intricate spectacles — right on the city’s main streets.

The comic brigades sashay before the crowd in incredibly lavish costumes, often lugging their own backdrops, while poking fun at politicians, issues in the news, and economic vagaries.  Last year, for instance, the Goodtimers Club presented a riff on an insect scare at the time, called “Bed Bugs on Broad Street.”

To illustrate how far from snootiness Philadelphia has fallen since the days when the country was founded there 236 years ago, the Mummers’ “wench division” — a madcap collection of hairy men in dresses, bonnets, accessory bags, bloomers, and excessive makeup — parades in spray-painted sneakers.  A far cry from “dem golden slippers” for which the mummers are famous.

The Liberty Bell cracked almost as soon as it arrived in town, in the 1750s, long before bells all over Philadelphia pealed to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

The Liberty Bell cracked almost as soon as it arrived in town, in the 1750s, long before bells all over Philadelphia pealed to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Anyone who visited the nation’s birthplace 25 years ago or so, perhaps to see Independence Hall — where the Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4, 1776 — and the famous, cracked Liberty Bell that hailed that dramatic event four days later when it was announced, would hardly recognize the town.  Invigorated by a sleek new skyline and revitalized waterfront, an exploding arts scene, and a profusion of renowned restaurants, clubs, and sporting events, Philadelphia has shed what had been almost an inferiority complex and blossomed into what some have called the “Paris of America.”

And why not?  Its tree-lined, flag-festooned Benjamin Franklin Parkway, connecting City Hall to the Philadelphia Museum of Art — with the Rodin Museum and one of seven copies of Auguste Rodin’s famous The Thinker statues midway — was designed by French landscape architect Jacques Greber with the Champs Elysées in mind.

What Paris does not have that Philly does, however, is a sizable, rundown, largely African-American ghetto as well.

Although the birthplace of the United States grew to become the nation’s greatest manufacturing center, Philadelphia was often overlooked in the roll call of important American cities.  Part of the reason was its proximity to New York, only 130 km (81 miles) away.  New York had a bigger harbor right on the ocean, and soaring skyscrapers, at a time when a gentleman’s agreement kept Philadelphia buildings lower than “Billy Penn’s hat” atop City Hall.  The “Big Apple” was also a media and public-relations juggernaut with a much stronger penchant for self-promotion.

That's Billy Penn (or rather his bronze likeness) atop ornate Philadlephia City Hall.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

That's Billy Penn (or rather his bronze likeness) atop ornate Philadlephia City Hall. (Carol M. Highsmith)

“Billy Penn,” if you’re wondering, is William Penn, the Quaker immigrant who founded both Pennsylvania and Philadelphia.  A bronze statue of him stands atop the City Hall tower.

Philadelphia was, in fact as well as name, “the Quaker City”: a historical curiosity whose introversion and dislike of ostentation traced to its modest Quaker roots.  No one should stand out, so Philadelphia did not try.  Then, as it grew bigger and bolder in the 20th Century, its reputation as a gruff blue-collar town held it back.  Word of the city’s incredible cultural diversity and educational resources — there are 17 four-year colleges inside its city limits — did not always spread beyond the adjacent Delaware River.

“We arrived in Philadelphia on Sunday,” veteran broadcast journalist Jack Smith once observed, “but it wasn’t open.”  Cranky stage and film comic W.C. Fields suggested as his epitaph, “On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia,” meaning that even a stay in the plebian city he had often made fun of in his vaudeville routines beat the alternative he’d be facing on his deathbed.

The Ryerrs Victorian mansion was built in Philadelphia's fancy Fox Chase neighborhood.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

The Ryerrs Victorian mansion was built in Philadelphia's fancy Fox Chase neighborhood. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Because many of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods had once been independent towns — with distinct industries, ethnic makeup, even accents and expressions — its politicians perfected ward politics and rarely cared what the outside world thought about the city’s affairs.  Many important political and business decisions were finalized over cigars and brandy at private clubs.  Writer John Gunther called city leaders “an oligarchy more compact and more entrenched than any in the United States.”

It was Philadelphia, for instance, that elected its gruff, bombastic police commissioner, Frank Rizzo, as mayor twice in the 1970s.  He told reporters, dignitaries — even church and ethnic leaders — what he thought of them, in clear, often profane, terms — and was proud of it.

A lot of Fluffians were proud of it, too.

No one seemed to hurry much there; projects such as a new city hall or performing-arts center would often take 20 or more years just to agree upon and get going, let alone build.  So the end product sometimes seemed old-fashioned the day it opened.

Swedes and Finns, then Dutch, among European newcomers to North America, first settled the area in the 1640s.  But the English soon booted them out.  On March 14, 1681, Britain’s King Charles granted most of what is today Pennsylvania to William Penn in payment of a large debt owed to Penn’s father by the Duke of York.

This poster from the 1876 world's fair celebrating America's centennial shows the city quite a few decades after Billy Penn lived there.  (Library of Congress)

This poster from the 1876 world's fair celebrating America's centennial shows the city quite a few decades after Billy Penn lived there. (Library of Congress)

Penn journeyed to “Pennsylvania” — Penn’s Woods — only twice, staying two years during his longest visit.  He actively advertised for colonists in England, Holland, and Germany, and he soon attracted a diverse mix of Quakers, Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Catholics.  Even Jews, who were shunned in many other colonies.  Although its harbor was far up the Delaware, Philadelphia prospered as an entrepôt for timber, furs, and farm products from the fertile Pennsylvania countryside.  And because Penn actively recruited shipbuilders, glassmakers, wheelwrights, and silversmiths, skilled crafts got a strong foothold in the city.

It wouldn’t be long before refineries, breweries, mills, and other heavy industries and their belching smokestacks followed.

Benjamin Franklin, a brilliant and eccentric inventor, publisher, scientist, diplomat and wit, moved to Philly from Boston in 1723 at age 17 to work as a journeyman printer. Franklin then dominated the scene for 60 years.  He was the city postmaster and founder of the college that became the Ivy League’s University of Pennsylvania.  In his bicentennial history of Pennsylvania, Thomas Cochran noted that Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack, which he edited under a pseudonym, reached a circulation of 10,000 and became, “next to the Bible, the most universally seen book in the colonies.”

This statue of Benjamin Franklin at the school he founded — the University of Pennsylvania, which, with 23,000 academics and workers, is Philadelphia's largest employer.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

This statue of Benjamin Franklin at the school he founded — the University of Pennsylvania, which, with 23,000 academics and workers, is Philadelphia's largest employer. (Carol M. Highsmith)

It was the droll Franklin who, when John Hancock urged unanimous adoption of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence in 1776, signaled his agreement to the assembled Continental Congress by saying, “We must indeed all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

It was not just a metaphor.  For more than a year, British soldiers with ample muskets and powder had taken active exception to the colonists’ notion of independence in battles throughout the Northeast.

At the moment that the nation’s founders scribbled their names on the Declaration, Philadelphia was the second-largest English-speaking city in the world (to London), and the leading city in Britain’s worldwide colonial empire.

Bet you didn’t know that; I didn’t.

Independence Hall, which was the Pennsylvania Colony's courthouse.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Independence Hall, which was the Pennsylvania Colony's courthouse. (Carol M. Highsmith)

The winning colonists returned to Philadelphia to draft the nation’s constitution in 1787, and two years later moved the capital from New York City to Philadelphia, just in time for newcomers to face a terrible yellow-fever epidemic that killed one-tenth of the population.  Philly remained the capital until 1800 when the virtually new city of Washington, D.C., opened to federal business.

New York overtook Philadelphia as the nation’s largest and most dominant city soon thereafter.  It benefitted from it deep-water port and location at the mouth of the Hudson River, down which goods from the heartland flowed after traversing the bustling Erie Canal.  Philadelphia responded by extending the Pennsylvania Railroad through the Allegheny Mountains, but New York countered with the westward extension of the New York Central.

Still, Philadelphia evolved industrially to become “The Workshop of the World.”  It eventually formed the nucleus of America’s textile, apparel, machining, furniture, boiler, and shipbuilding industries — the hub of the Industrial Revolution. Read the rest of this entry »

Remembering at the Korean War Memorial

Posted March 29th, 2012 at 6:00 pm (UTC-4)
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A moment at the Korean War Veterans Memorial.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

A moment at the Korean War Veterans Memorial. (Carol M. Highsmith)

More than 54,000 Americans died in the Korean War, or “conflict,” as it was referred to, from 1950 through 1953.  Or died of their injuries later.  Half a million South Koreans and other United Nations troops fell, and more than 1 million GIs and their allies brought home wounds and nightmares and other terrible souvenirs of war.

An estimated 2 million North Korean and Chinese soldiers perished in the conflict, too.

A montage of a distant war.  (U.S. Government)

A montage of a distant war. (U.S. Government)

It was the last foot soldier’s war, with a howling, swarming enemy attacking in force, bayonet to bayonet.  The last trenches.  The final foxholes.  The last black-and-white TV war.  Look now at the gritty battlefield photographs and see the soldiers’ eyes, blackened with grime, sunken from fatigue, glistening with tears.  But steeled with resolve.

The years have fogged memories of that time.  It’s often called “The Forgotten War,” and even when it raged it was out of mind for much of a nation weary of war and longing to get on to the good life.

It was a far-off dispute, a vexing hot spot in a Cold War, waged with diplomats’ words along with infantrymen’s guns.

Except for the widows and families, this was not the shared national crusade so recently won in the war we call The Big One – World War Two.  Antiwar vitriol had not yet found a voice, but neither had collective national gratitude for soldiers’ service.

Yellow ribbons were one war away.

General MacArthur, raising binoculars to his eyes, observes the shelling of Inchon from a U.S. battleship. (U.S. Army)

General MacArthur, raising binoculars to his eyes, observes the shelling of Inchon from a U.S. battleship. (U.S. Army)

To American schoolchildren today, Douglas MacArthur and Matthew Ridgeway and Mark Clark are just old, dead guys, if the names of these American generals in that war are known at all.  The veterans of bloody places such as “Porkchop Hill” and “Heartbreak Ridge” — and of a hundred other hot, then frozen, places in Korea, are gray or gone.

But those who fought there, believing they were carrying freedom’s standard against totalitarianism, are not forgotten.

A haunting Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., is a belated tribute to their heroic deeds and — more remarkably as such memorials go — to the service of support forces that made heroism possible.

The memorial is not an equestrian statue of one general or a roll call of the dead.  It is a solemn salute to the soldiers who warily trod forward through rice paddies and up fiercely contested hills.  And to mechanics, cooks, sailors, nurses, airmen, and thousands of other men and women in uniform who repelled a determined foe on a distant thumb of land at Japan’s door.

Faces on the memorial's Wall of Remembrance.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Faces on the memorial's Wall of Remembrance. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Few words, and no names, encumber this place.  Faces — thousands and thousands of faces — and 19 bigger-than-life, stainless steel figures in battle gear lead visitors out of a sylvan wood into the reality of battle and its terrible consequences.

But this is not a memorial that glorifies war.  It proclaims a broader message about the willingness to serve in a citizens’ army that lies at the heart of the American democracy.  An inscription on a wall puts it into four simple words:

FREEDOM IS NOT FREE

Thirty-three years after the American men and women of the Korean War came home, Congress at last recognized their sacrifice and service by authorizing the memorial.  Because of the welter of agencies involved in creating a memorial on Washington’s treasured National Mall, it took three times longer to approve, design, and build the Korean War Veterans Memorial than it did to fight the war.

The memorial from the air.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

The memorial from the air. (Carol M. Highsmith)

The finished memorial, placed in a wooded grove that had been a 19th-Century Army Corps of Engineers landfill, cost just over $14 million.  The bulk of it was raised from small donations by veterans, by the sale of a congressionally-authorized $1 coin, and by corporate contributions — notably, Korean firms operating in America.

It was soon decided that the memorial would honor, but not name, the Korean War dead.  It was not to be another eternal gravestone.  It would commemorate all who served, not just those who carried carbines.  It would reflect the contributions and sacrifices of the 22 other U.N. countries that fought alongside Americans.

Frank Gaylord of Barre, Vermont, a World War II combat veteran, was selected as the memorial’s sculptor.

His assignment: create a battle-ready combat patrol in which each figure was assigned a specific branch of service, rank, ethnicity, and military function.

Gaylord's troopers at dusk.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Gaylord's troopers at dusk. (Carol M. Highsmith)

The original concept called for 38 troopers, symbolizing the 38th Parallel — the Northern Hemisphere line of latitude used as the pre-Korean War boundary between North Korea and South Korea.  But that number proved too large for the space and put the soldiers too close together to accurately represent troops on patrol.  So it was cut in half.

The memorial’s second element, a polished granite wall, helped solve the problem: The 19 figures would be reflected in the wall to achieve the symbolic number.

After extended debate with the memorial’s architect, the Washington firm Cooper•Lecky, the sculptor and advisory board agreed to clad the troopers in wind-blown ponchos, which conjure up northern Korea’s nightmarish weather, blur specific insignias, and help downplay the soldiers’ military hardware.

It was also decided to make the troopers 2.1 meters (7 feet) tall, slightly larger than life but not menacing.

The troopers on patrol.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

The troopers on patrol. (Carol M. Highsmith)

The soldiers are shown advancing warily out of the woods, “chattering” among themselves by voice and gesture.  Gaylord worked in unpolished stainless steel in order to give the figures definition and a raw, virile quality reminiscent of the black-and-white photos of the conflict.

But how to honor support personnel?

Louis Nelson of New York City developed a mural etched into a granite wall that flanks the column of troopers.  Nelson has referred to his wall as “the nation’s mantelpiece,” reminiscent of families’ proud display of photographs of sons and daughters away at war.

On it, the faces of actual chaplains and mechanics and nurses and other military team members — taken from real photos — present a delicate, eerie image.

Because of the multiple messages already inherent in the design, Cooper•Lecky and the advisory board were reluctant to clutter the memorial with allegorical inscriptions.  Because of its prominent location on the National Mall, Kent Cooper had long been concerned that it give voice to the general theme of military service to country, as well as honoring those who served and fell in Korea.

When, in 1988, Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci marked the 35th anniversary of the cease-fire that ended the Korean War, he spoke of the willingness of America’s uniformed sons and daughters who took up arms to defend a distant nation.  His words were then adapted for the dedicatory statement that appears at the site:

OUR NATION HONORS

HER UNIFORMED SONS AND DAUGHTERS

WHO ANSWERED THEIR COUNTRY’S CALL

TO DEFEND A COUNTRY THEY DID NOT KNOW

AND A PEOPLE THEY HAD NEVER MET

A close look at a rough-hewn stainless-steel soldier.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

A close look at a rough-hewn stainless-steel soldier. (Carol M. Highsmith)

The inscription was inlaid into an eight-ton triangular stone beneath a great flagpole — turning the visitor’s eye back into the field of troopers and the wall of faces.

An even bolder, more profound, and simpler statement was chosen as a second focal point, where the mural wall penetrates the water of a circular reflecting pool, meant to symbolize a place for reflection on the dead, wounded, captured, and missing of the war.

Its FREEDOM IS NOT FREE saying was borrowed from the memorial’s own advisory board, which had seen it above the entrance to the American Legion headquarters building elsewhere in town.  No one there could tell them exactly where the message originated.

The unprecedented impact of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, directly across the Mall from this new memorial, prompted many vets to suggest a similar wall to honor the Korean War dead.   After heated debate, the suggestion was rejected as being duplicative and neglectful of others who served.

The solution is a National Park Service kiosk at the head of the walkway leading into the memorial, where interactive computer screens flash endless images of those who died in Korea, often in the prime of youth.  Visitors may punch up a known name and see the person’s service record and other background, as well as family snapshots and portraits where available.

The patrol, reflected among the images on the Remembrance Wall.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

The patrol, reflected among the images on the Remembrance Wall. (Carol M. Highsmith)

I found the most powerful experience at the Korean War Veterans Memorial to be the mingling of images in the polished granite wall — not just those of the steel troopers and the stone etchings, but of myself and others reflected back to us as we looked at them.

Speaking about the sculpture, architect William Lecky told me:

There’s no question that there was healthy conflict between what the client wanted, which was something very realistic and militarily accurate, and what the reviewing commissions — the artistic side, if you will — preferred, which was something more abstract.  The final solution was what we like to call “impressionistic styling,” which makes it clear what is being portrayed, but diminishes the sense of an actual collection of ground troops moving across the Mall.

One veteran who came for the memorial’s opening described his visit as “mystical — ghostly, almost.”  Another said he would be back during the first bitter-cold, snowy winter day.  “That,” he said, “was Korea.”

Another found himself staring at the faces.  “I know him,” he’d say, before moving on to another figure. “He didn’t come back.”

Like the visiting veteran, Carol went back to the memorial on a bitter winter day.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Like the visiting veteran, Carol went back to the memorial on a bitter winter day. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Whither the American Dream?

Posted March 23rd, 2012 at 6:16 pm (UTC-4)
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America is, or has been, one big Horatio Alger Story.

Horatio Alger, Jr. was a fair preacher and a smash author.  (Library of Congress)

Horatio Alger, Jr. was a fair preacher and a smash author. (Library of Congress)

If you’re under 85 years old, you may never have heard of Horatio.  He was a real person — an author, who is often confused with his characters: teenage boys, mostly, who overcome poverty and other obstacles to lead happy and productive lives.

Alger wrote more than 100 books with similar themes in the late 19th Century.  Generations of Americans, including my mother, simply referred to achievers as “Horatio Alger stories.”  Their characters were synonymous with “success stories”: the epitome of the American Dream.

Long after Horatio Alger, Jr. faded into obscurity, the idea that there’s an American Dream lived on.  It became the theme, or an optimistic undercurrent, of hundreds of American books and movies.  In his 1931 best-seller Epic of America, historian James Truslow Adams described it as a vision “of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.”

If women also had such dreams, people back then weren’t taking much note of them.

To this day in the United States, politicians looking to get elected, and car dealers and banks looking for business milk the “American Dream” theme for all it’s worth.

Alger's stories appeared in young people's magazines as well.  (Public domain)

Alger's stories appeared in young people's magazines as well. (Public domain)

But the idea of a valiant Horatio Alger striver overcoming all odds to achieve great wealth and honor is a myth.  Alger’s heroes did not get rich; they merely survived adversity and blended into the middle-class mainstream.

In today’s economically tenuous, and politically fractious, times, many writers — and other citizens, too — have come to believe the American Dream is unattainable fiction.

In fact, in a January essay in the Washington Post, Michael F. Ford identified five common assumptions about the American Dream that he says are myths.

If anyone should know, he should.  Ford is the founding director of a scholarly center that studies nothing but the American Dream, at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio.

It has even completed two national surveys of Americans’ attitudes about the “Dream,” with a third in the works.

So I had a long talk with him.

Michael Ford, speaking at the Clinon School of Public Service at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock.  (Xavier University)

Michael Ford, speaking at the Clinon School of Public Service at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock. (Xavier University)

Ford reminded me — and I could hear echoes of “give me your tired, your poor” from Emma Lazarus’s “New Colossus” sonnet etched on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty as he spoke — that the American Dream is at its heart an immigrant’s dream, of a better, freer life.

“You can trace it to the very first immigrant Americans who came here seeking opportunity, with a belief that the more effort they put into it, the greater the reward,” Ford says.

They were Horatio Alger stories before there was a Horatio Alger.

By trade, Michael Ford is not a politician exactly, but he spent 35 years in politics — as a top assistant to a Cincinnati mayor and an Ohio governor, as well as a campaign strategist for nine presidential campaigns and more than 100 congressional races.  And he’s the first to admit that politicos, no matter their place on the liberal-to-conservative continuum, “co-brand” the American Dream at every opportunity.

They wrap themselves in the flag, as the cliché goes, offering themselves as the agents who can bring the city or the state or the country — or the voter — to that better life.

Never mind that politicians, like all current U.S. institutions save for the military, score badly on the trustworthiness scale in the minds of Americans.

What fascinates Michael Ford — and me, as he mentions it — is that voters don’t necessarily believe a word of what even their own favorite candidate might be saying, or necessarily believe that the country is doing well.

The Center for the Study of the American Dream’s own survey finds that the American people strongly believe that the United States “is in rapid decline” as it loses economic power and influence to other rising nations.  But people still believe in the American Dream for themselves.

Ford likens it to a combat situation:

Whether or not its impact has diminished, people still talk about the American Dream.  (@MSG, Flickr Creative Commons)

Whether or not its impact has diminished, people still talk about the American Dream. (@MSG, Flickr Creative Commons)

“In battle, a soldier fights to survive, and for the guy next to him,” he says.

“It isn’t about some mythical achievement or bigger idea.  In the greater sense, it’s about ‘here we are, fighting for the American Dream,’ which in this case means, primarily, a better life for my family.

“If the government isn’t going to cooperate, if the politicians aren’t going to cooperate, if big business isn’t going to cooperate, it doesn’t matter.  We still dream, but we don’t rely on others to achieve it.”

How can you say the American Dream persists if people truly believe the country is in decline? I asked him.

“Again,” he replied, “you have to try to understand the difference between a national dream or aspiration and a personal dream.

The nature of the American dream is our character more than our ambition.  The character of striving.  The Dream does not conflate with the economy.  We say, “OK, things are bad, but I’m going to beat it.  I’m going to college or I’m going to start my business.  I’m moving forward!  Bring it on! Mr. Blandings will still build his dream house.  The fact that times are tough doesn’t mean we won’t keep fighting to get what we believe is better for our families.”

This place has it all: the house, the white-picket fence, even a flag.  (Mike Babiarz, Flickr Creative Commons)

This place has it all: the house, the white-picket fence, even a flag. (Mike Babiarz, Flickr Creative Commons)

“Mr. Blandings” is a reference to another of those overcoming-all-odds novels — later made into a movie — from a more upbeat time.

In the 1948 film, Cary Grant and Myrna Loy, as Jim and Muriel Blandings, are determined to trade their cramped New York apartment for a prototypical, American-Dreamish house in the suburbs.

The Blandings even had the requisite two kids.  I don’t know about the dog, and whether their dream house had the standard white-picket fence.

Michael Ford says the American Dream lives on in no small measure because it remains an immigrant’s dream. Read the rest of this entry »

Guiding Lights

Posted March 14th, 2012 at 3:10 pm (UTC-4)
11 comments

The Cape Neddick, or what locals call the "Nubble" Light, stands at the entrance to the York River in Maine.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

It has been said that lighthouses, casting a glow over the dark, mysterious sea, are to America what castles are to Europe — treasured landmarks — although there are lighthouses dating to Roman antiquity there, too.  In the Western Hemisphere, remains of crude lighthouses built by Central American Mayan people date to the 13th Century.

An artist's depiction of the Alexandria lighthouse. (Emad Victor SHENOUDA, German Wikipedia)

An artist's depiction of the Alexandria lighthouse. (Emad Victor SHENOUDA, German Wikipedia)

Alas, history’s most famous lighthouse, constructed by the Greeks on Pharos Island in the harbor of Alexandria, Egypt, in the Third Century B.C., is a goner.  One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and what is thought to have been mankind’s tallest structure for centuries, it was damaged over time by a series of earthquakes.  Finally, it toppled for good in 1480, shortly before Christopher Columbus set out on his voyage across the Atlantic.  An Egyptian sultan pulled some of the heavy stones from its rubble to build a fort on the island.

The Greeks soon applied the island name, “Pharos,” to lighthouses, which were a new concept at the time.  This then became the root of words referring to lighthouses in many romance languages.  “Faro” in Spanish, for instance, and “phare” in French.

Centuries later, satellite and radio signals have rendered lighthouses obsolete for shippers and sophisticated mariners.  But to captains of small boats, a lighthouse is still a valuable and welcoming sight in a storm, and a guide past treacherous rocks, reefs, and shoals, just as it was when hardy keepers maintained the lights.

Who “keeps” them now?  Stay tuned.

The keeper's quarters at the Rose Island Lighthouse off Newport, Rhode Island, which is now a museum and hostel.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

The keeper's quarters at the Rose Island Lighthouse off Newport, Rhode Island, which is now a museum and hostel. (Carol M. Highsmith)

There is good reason for the old lighthouse saying: There is no such thing as a fat keeper.

These men — and women who often inherited the job when their husbands drowned, died, ran away, or went mad (and many did) — had to haul oil for the lamp up the tower’s twisting stairs in huge cans.  Twice a night, often in raging storms, deep fog, and cold mists, they trudged up to the lantern room.

There were wicks to be trimmed and lit — hence lighthouse keepers’ “wickies” nickname — reflectors to be polished, soot to be cleared from lenses, and the fog signal to be maintained.

If you live near a port, you may know all about lighthouses, coastal fog, and foghorns.

As a child in Lakewood, Ohio, a couple of kilometers west of downtown Cleveland, I would lie in bed on foggy nights and listen to the distant foghorn’s low, slow OOOH-guh . . . OOOH-guh, over and over and over again.

You can see the foghors at the Split Rock Lighthouse in the town of Two Harbors, Minnesota.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

You can see the foghors at the Split Rock Lighthouse in the town of Two Harbors, Minnesota. (Carol M. Highsmith)

The fog seemed to transport that sound; other times, I rarely heard the foghorns’ mournful calls.

 

Cleveland’s lighthouses were nothing to write home about.  They were (and still are) little stumpy things — “bug” lights, I think they call them — out in Lake Erie at the end of stone breakwaters.  But those horns packed plenty of power.

 

Because lighthouses are also important daymarks — visible assurances of “land ho!” as lookouts high in ships’ masts used to cry out — the keeper had to keep them freshly painted in distinctive patterns, as you can see in Carol’s striking photos that accompany this posting.

 

This is the distinctive West Quoddy Light, off Maine, at the easternmost point of Europe that is closest to Europe.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

This is the distinctive West Quoddy Light, off Maine, at the easternmost point of Europe that is closest to Europe. (Carol M. Highsmith)

And there are a dozen more in a special slide show at the end.

 

When mariners foundered nearby, the lighthouse keeper felt duty-bound to rescue them.  Dozens of keepers died trying.

 

Wood fires illuminated early lighthouses.  Arrays of candles arranged in tiers, and coal in brazier pans, were also tried.  Then came whale- and fish-oil lamps, which produced a terrible stench.  Even worse was colza oil from rapeseed.

 

“Smelled like cooking cabbage,” Scott Stanton, a boatswain’s mate and one of the keepers at the U.S. Coast Guard’s last staffed station at Boston Light, once told me.

This was also the nation’s first lighthouse, erected by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1716.

An early 20th-Century postcard view of the Boston Light.  (Library of Congress)

An early 20th-Century postcard view of the Boston Light. (Library of Congress)

French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel revolutionized lighthouse optics in 1822 with a system that took advantage of the refractive properties of glass.

The Fresnel lens bent a single light source inside a beehive of glass prisms into powerful sheets visible up to 35 km (22 miles) away.

The old U.S. Light House Board, which originally maintained America’s lighthouses — and the better-known U.S. Light House Service that followed in 1910 — designed a different signaling pattern for each and every light.

The United States Light House Service logo.  (Wikipedia Commons)

The United States Light House Service logo. (Wikipedia Commons)

In 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt, concerned about wartime readiness, placed light stations under Coast Guard control.

The move spelled the end of the Light House Service and the staffing of most towers.  Instead, Coast Guardsmen would stop by from time to time to check the lights and the structures.

The reason the pros in the lighthouse field like to call them “light stations” is that they are not all classic towers, topped by rotating beacons.  Low, squat “screwpile” lights rise only a story or two high on iron pilings.  Bug lights sit on many piers besides Cleveland’s.  Some light stations are little more than a rotating lantern atop tall girders.

And lightships once moved about some harbors, guiding vessels safely to shore.  One, the “Chesapeake,” is now a floating educational classroom, part of Baltimore, Maryland’s, Maritime Museum.

The lightship "Chesapeake" in Baltimore's Inner Harbor.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Even the sturdiest of lighthouses could not survive all of the ravages of nature and man.  Some have succumbed to relentless erosion, crumbling into the sea or lake with a roar.  Ice floes took out others.  Before regional and state park services and local historical societies came to the rescue, the Coast Guard rapidly decommissioned lighthouses, leaving them to whatever fate might befall them.

Some collapsed from sheer neglect.  Others felt the wrath of pyromaniacs and vandals.  In some locations, these miscreants had to be resourceful, for many lights lie far offshore on rocky outcroppings surrounded by thrashing seas.

Only 600 or so U.S. light stations remain, out of the 1,462 that once illuminated the waters.

Among the preserved lighthouses, with their spiral staircases, lantern rooms, and former keepers’ quarters, are many that have morphed into bed-and-breakfast inns, state park attractions, and museums.

The staircase at Thirty Mile Point Lighthouse on Lake Ontario in New York State. (Carol M. Highsmith)

The staircase at Thirty Mile Point Lighthouse on Lake Ontario in New York State. (Carol M. Highsmith)

A Fresnel lens.  (Wikipedia Commons)

A Fresnel lens. (Wikipedia Commons)

During the heyday of the U.S. Light House Service, when light stations ringed America’s shorelines — including what some call our “North Coast” around the edges of the five Great Lakes — Fresnel lenses were brought to a depot on Staten Island, New York, where they were assembled for shipment around the country.

This sprawling facility lies next to the Staten Island Ferry terminal and offers a spectacular view of Manhattan.  Abandoned in the 1960s, it was chosen in 1999 as the site for a new national lighthouse museum.

It’s the perfect place for it when you consider the complex of warehouses on the site that were once stocked with spare lenses, oil cans, ladder parts and the like. Read the rest of this entry »

Good Livin’ in the Alabama Black Belt

Posted March 9th, 2012 at 8:22 pm (UTC-4)
4 comments

How’d a nice big piece of black-bottom pie taste right about now?

I’m talking crunchy ginger-snap crust, thin layer of dark chocolate, whipped rum-cream custard filling, shaved chocolate topping, and mounds of real whipped cream.

You can see all but the bottom of this black-bottom pie!  (Wikipedia Commons)

You can see all but the bottom of this black-bottom pie! (Wikipedia Commons)

It’s an Alabama Black Belt specialty, along with steam-fried okra, fresh catfish, banana pudding, and so many other succulent treats that there’s an actual culinary trail through the region.  You’re getting the idea already why I call it “good livin’” in that part of the state they call “The Heart of Dixie.”

Alabama’s Black Belt is a place just off the beaten path, a hurting place economically, whose amazing historical journey and natural splendor are just now coming into the national consciousness.  A place that for a century sustained the crop that made the area the nexus of the South’s Cotton Kingdom.

You should know, going in, that the name “Black Belt” does not derive from the area’s racial composition, though it is now majority African-American.

It traces to the region’s thin layer of rich, black topsoil, which actually stretches all the way west to Texas and north to Virginia.

Alabama's Black Belt is a wide one!  (Wikipedia Commons)

Alabama's Black Belt is a wide one! (Wikipedia Commons)

Alabama’s Black Belt reaches border to border across the state, from Mississippi to the Georgia line, as the adjacent graphic shows you in red.  (The pink counties, part of a larger “River Region,” are sometimes included as well.)  The people who live and work there are well aware that they move about in the place with “the richest soil and the poorest people” in the entire United States.  Their per-capita income figure of about $16,000 a year is as poor as it gets in America.  Six of the nation’s 100 poorest counties are smack in the middle of this region.

But it was not always so.  Once Alabama planters figured out that they could tap artesian water in the chalky depths below the loamy topsoil, they produced bountiful crops of what became “King Cotton” and grew rich in the years before the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s.  Or more accurately, African-American slaves sowed and picked and ginned the cotton on which their masters grew rich.  Black Belt river ports such as Cahaba and Selma, from which bales of cotton were sent downriver to Mobile and the sea, were among the wealthiest small towns in America.

Then a number of factors turned those riches into rags:

• Other states, including Texas and California, and nations such as Egypt, mechanized and produced vast, superior cotton crops after the defeat of the southern Confederacy in the Civil War.

• What the voracious insect called the boll weevil, which infested the cotton crop in the 1910s and ’20s, didn’t destroy in rural Alabama, the Great Depression of the 1930s mostly did.  Many of the African-American community’s “best and brightest” left the Black Belt during a Great Migration to the industrial North that peaked in the years immediately after World War II.

• Back home in this remote backwater of the Deep South, institutional segregation retarded progress and stifled the region’s schools.  Eventually, African Americans challenged the South’s rigid, paternalistic racial climate, staging protests, sit-ins, boycotts, and marches in Black Belt cities such as Montgomery and Selma, which became civil-rights landmarks.

The Edmund Pettus Bridge, a civil-rights landmark, carries the main east-west route, U.S. 80, across the Alabama River.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

The Edmund Pettus Bridge, a civil-rights landmark, carries the main east-west route, U.S. 80, across the Alabama River. (Carol M. Highsmith)

• And then the modern Interstate Highway System that transformed much of rural America into thriving tourism corridors largely bypassed Alabama’s Black Belt, reinforcing its sense of isolation.

But the people of the region tell me that all this did not leave the Black Belt with an inferiority complex.  Local pride runs deep, but fairly silent. Hard times left the region looking inward, at its own traditions and family orientation, hardly thinking there’d be much there to interest the outside world.

This is in contrast to other rural regions that turned quaintness into a tourist attraction, precisely because of their character and folkways.  I’m thinking of Southwest Louisiana’s French-speaking “Cajun County” and South Carolina’s coastal “Low Country.”

But in just the past five or six years, folks in the Black Belt have begun to realize  that there’s much to be admired about what Robert Gamble, the state historical commission’s senior architectural historian, calls the small-town “quirkiness” of Demopolis, Eutaw, Marion and other places that few outside Alabama have heard of.

Somebody in Washington, D.C., besides Carol and me has heard of them, however: The Black Belt has 26 little churches and 3 cemeteries on the National Register of Historic Places.

It isn't just New England that has covered bridges.  The picturesque Alamuchee Bellamy Covered Bridge is in Alabama's Black Belt. (RuralSWAlabama.org)

It isn't just New England that has covered bridges. The picturesque Alamuchee Bellamy Covered Bridge is in Alabama's Black Belt. (RuralSWAlabama.org)

Whereas much of Cajun culture has been turned into almost a caricature of exaggerated accents and mass-marketed spicy food, Black Belt Alabama’s welcoming warmth, down-home ways, yummy taste treats, and ever-so-much better dealings between the races make it an unpolished gem, ripe for discovery.

Gamble told me that it eventually dawned on the men and women there in middle Alabama that they were in a heap of trouble economically and educationally. But that they were in it together.  “We learned to deal with, and to like, each other as human beings,” he said.  “And to put all the past bitterness and horror behind us and get busy.”

Without the Interstates, King Cotton, much industry, or any other obvious economic engine, what could this obscure, largely isolated region do?

With a lot of guidance from a new (2005) Center for the Study of the Black Belt program at the University of West Alabama in Livingston, people from one side of the state to the other got together, not to talk — though Alabamians are world-class storytellers — but to work.  They stepped away, took a magnifying glass to their humble surroundings, and decided that despite the poverty and high unemployment around them, they not only liked what they saw, but that others might as well.

There's a neat logo ready when Washington gives the heritage area the go-ahead.  (Alabama Black Belt Historical Area)

There's a neat logo ready when Washington gives the heritage area the go-ahead. (Alabama Black Belt Historical Area)

They convinced Alabama’s congressional delegation to press Congress for a declaration of the Black Belt as a National Heritage Area, a designation that is working its way through the approval process.

Blacks and whites and others in the Black Belt had come to the same realization: that their region has some remarkable allures.  Among them:

A living laboratory of the Civil Rights Movement and African-American achievement. Two examples: People of all races now walk hand-in-hand across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, near what would be the midpoint “buckle” of the Black Belt. That’s where, in 1965, Alabama troopers and local police attacked peaceful voting-rights marchers on their way to the state capital in Montgomery.

And to the east in Macon County, former slave Booker T. Washington and botanist George Washington Carver turned a one-room school with no money into the world-renowned Tuskegee Institute, a college for African Americans, whom no one else wanted to educate, in the backwoods of what at the time was the rigidly segregated South.

Here's lovely Gaineswood.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Here's lovely Gaineswood. (Carol M. Highsmith)

A generous slice of “Gone With the Wind”-caliber antebellum architecture that marauding northern Yankee soldiers somehow spared during the great Civil War. Examples include Gaineswood, an unusual Greek Revival-style mansion in Marengo County, whose owner — cotton planter and amateur architect Nathan Bryan Whitfield — modified the floor plan and decorative details several times over 18 years.  If you want to see all three styles of Greek columns — Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian — on one sprawling home, Gaineswood’s your place.  There are a dozen more classic manor homes in the region, too.  And in Montgomery, the beautiful Alabama State Capitol — replete with columns as well — served as the first capitol of the Southern Confederacy in 1861. Read the rest of this entry »

Save the Gin (Not the Drink or Card Game!) Factory

Posted March 1st, 2012 at 6:53 pm (UTC-4)
12 comments

I’m not much of a drinker, but I must admit that my ears perked up when Carol asked me to join her on a trip to Prattville, Alabama, where the town of 36,000 was fighting to save its gin factory.  Not a gin mill — which is slang for a low-class tavern.  An enormous factory.

Different kind of gin, too.

I should have guessed it, given the location in the “Heart of Dixie,” as Alabama, in America’s Deep South, is often called, where cotton was king and is still an important row crop.  This spectacular, 160-year-old factory made cotton gins — short for cotton engines — the machines that processed the cotton crop.  It was built by a transplanted “Yankee” northerner who had planned the town, 21 kilometers (13 miles) north of the state capital of Montgomery, and lent it his name.

Prattville's historic pride and joy.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Prattville's historic pride and joy. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Daniel Pratt built Alabama’s first cotton gin, and, in the big factory building, more gins than anyone else in the world.  He turned little Prattville into an industrial bastion of mills, fabrication buildings, and the gin factory that, together, rivaled the colossal mill towns of New England.

A 19th-Century lithograph of the property.  (Library of Congress)

A 19th-Century lithograph of the property. (Library of Congress)

The brick, ivy-covered factory, a complex of five enormous buildings across Autauga Creek from downtown Prattville — ceased operations in January.   And the survival of that rare vestige of the Industrial Revolution — one of the most important in the South — has been touch-and-go.  The complex of factory buildings “is what makes Prattville Prattville,” Mayor Bill Gillespie Jr. told the Montgomery Advertiser newspaper.

It’s a town that has been growing fast — tripling in size in the past 30 years.

That’s because of its highly rated schools, long-time resident Ann Boutwell says, and because of what she calls its “progressive attitude.”  Even the town newspaper is called the Progress.

I caught this shot of downtown Prattville at dusk on a Sunday, almost as an afterthought after visiting the gin-factory site, which was just behind me as I photographed up Main Street.  (Ted Landphair)

I caught this shot of downtown Prattville at dusk on a Sunday, almost as an afterthought after visiting the gin-factory site, which was just behind me as I photographed up Main Street. (Ted Landphair)

Prattville has always had an affinity for fresh thinking, local realtor and town booster Louise Jennings told me: “A lot of folks who work at three military bases in Montgomery pass through here, and many of them retire here when their tours are done.”

Some of those military retirees are front and center in the town’s determined campaign to save the big gin factory — the symbol of its industriousness that sets it apart from sleepy Southern county seats where fragrant magnolia branches shade courthouse squares, old railroad depots, and statues of Confederate soldiers.

In the years before the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s, Daniel Pratt’s gins found their way onto thousands of cotton plantations in Alabama’s Black Belt — named for its fertile black soil, not its racial composition — as well as throughout the Southeast and in overseas cotton-growing countries such as Russia and Egypt.

This photo was taken in 1950, not 1850, but the backbreaking chore of picking cotton hadn't changed much, at least when humans did the job.  (Library of Congress)

This photo was taken in 1950, not 1850, but the backbreaking chore of picking cotton hadn't changed much, at least when humans did the job. (Library of Congress)

In the American South, the gins supplanted the work of African-American slaves who, by hand, laboriously pulled sticky, pea-sized seeds from the white fiber in cotton-plant pods, or “bolls.”  If they were lucky, they had a small basket of cleaned cotton fibers to show for their labors at the end of the day.

Through history, cumbersome “roller gins” attempted, not very successfully, to squeeze seeds out of the cotton. The modern cotton gin, invented by New Englander Eli Whitney in the late 18th Century, changed all that.  Whitney’s gins could rid enough bolls of seeds and twigs to produce a bale or so of cotton in a day.

But these hand-cranked gins — and later ones whose drive shafts were turned by mules walking in circles all the day long — did not lessen the planters’ appetite for slave labor.

Quite the contrary.  As cotton prices soared and bustling spinning mills up North clamored for more and more cotton, southern planters made small fortunes, and they intensified their search for slaves to grow and pick cotton.  By 1860, one in three Southerners was a slave.

Daniel Pratt owned a couple of slaves, but mostly he was an entrepreneur and inventor, a transplanted New Hampshireman who had proved his mettle making cotton gins in neighboring Georgia.  In 1832, he and his wife, Esther, set out for wild, practically uncharted Alabama to the west, which was just 13 years into statehood.  Fearing raids from the area’s fierce Creek Indians, his Georgia partner passed on the opportunity to join them.

On the banks of rushing Autauga Creek where falls produced ready power for a water wheel, and later a turbine, Pratt built what came to be called “the New England Village of the South” — a company town that rose around the gin factory.   Today the gorgeous cascade and looming factory form the backdrop for tourist and wedding-party photographs every nice day.

This is a 1907 postcard view of another mill town, but up north, in Lawrence, Massachusetts.  (Library of Congress)

This is a 1907 postcard view of another mill town, but up north, in Lawrence, Massachusetts. (Library of Congress)

“We like to say that Daniel Pratt was a southern Renaissance man,” says Ann Boutwell, the former teacher and guidance counselor who has been leading Prattville’s fight to save the historic factory. “In the 1850s, a national business journal recognized Prattville as the most highly industrialized village of its size in the United States.”

In agrarian Alabama, remember.

Boutwell’s appreciation of the town’s founder wilts beside the esteem for him expressed — in flowery gushes — in a 1904 biography and “Eulogies on His Life and Character,” edited by a “Mrs. S. F. H. Tarrant.”

She was an Alabamian and ardent Pratt admirer:

The resourceful Daniel Pratt.  (Alabama Department of Archives and History)

The resourceful Daniel Pratt. (Alabama Department of Archives and History)

From the Yankee lad, with his pack upon his back and his one shilling in the pocket of his coarse trousers, leaving his home where the blue mountains kiss the bluer skies, to wander through the brush and bramble of a new land; and rising, step by step, up the toilsome steep that self-made men do climb with bleeding feet, achieving fame and fortune — founding the greatest industry of a great State and living out a grand and noble life set to grand and noble purposes, and at last coming to the end of a career that must for a very long time serve as a glorious incentive to youth, and dying with a million people as his mourners — there is a pen-pathway in which no man will dare to walk hastily and leave footsteps that will last through a moment in history.

Even I have never written so long and effusive a sentence!  As for the shilling in Pratt’s pocket, it must have been a collector’s item from the nation’s colonial days. And if you have a clue what a “pen-pathway” is, please write and enlighten us!

Pratt went on to invest in coal and iron mines in what became a much bigger industrial center — Birmingham, whose iron mills would transform the city in the Appalachian foothills of northern Alabama into the “Pittsburgh of the South.”

But Pratt kept his grand home in Prattville until his death in 1873.  The gin factory passed through many hands but was still cranking out cotton gins as late as 2009, when the company moved heavy operations to India.

Although the owners kept a few hands at work inside the factory complex, the vigilant preservationists at the Autauga County Heritage Association were suddenly on high alert, having already been shocked by other events:

This was the Pratt homestead that met the wrecking ball.  (W.N. Manning, Library of Congress)

This was the Pratt homestead that met the wrecking ball. (W.N. Manning, Library of Congress)

• In the 1960s, when what was then called the Continental Gin Co. moved its headquarters back to town from Birmingham, Prattville reluctantly accepted the condition that Daniel Pratt’s fine house on the gin-factory grounds be demolished to make room for a modern office building in which to center the company’s worldwide operations.

• In 2002, two historic cotton mills, across the creek from the factory, burned to the ground when five teenagers set them ablaze as a lark.

• And more recently, townfolk learned that a salvage company had bought an old cotton mill in Lanett, Alabama, 150 km (93 miles) away, and was razing it for its handmade bricks and heart-pine beams and flooring. Read the rest of this entry »

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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