Events

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Gaza: The Bigoted Stuff Will Hit the Fan



I'm sure that almost no one in the Middle East or elsewhere actually relishes the prospect of renewed and intensified fighting in Gaza. (Well, I'll qualify that:  the Hamas leadership evidently looks forward to killing or martyrdom or both.)

There are many historical perspectives on the conflict, but scarcely less important than the conflict itself is the way that it will be treated in the media and integrated into future historical consciousness.  Given the nature of asymmetrical warfare, and the relatively low level of military and historical understanding on the part of press and public alike, as well as the high stakes that numerous parties have in the outcome (sometimes multiple ones on the part of the same actors, depending on whether we are dealing with public comments or private sentiments), we should particularly be on the lookout for careless or wantonly distorted historical analogies, and for language inflation.

Among the high-yield epithets that we can expect to see launched against Israel (for this tendency most clearly manifests itself in one direction):  anything having to do with Nazis (individual entries sure to rank high: Warsaw Ghetto, genocide, concentration camp, holocaust [with big or small "h"]), massacre, extermination, disproportionate/disproportionality. In addition, expect a barrage of standard-issue, low-grade but serviceable platitudes, such as "cycle of violence."

Already, the Nasty Nazi Analogies are cropping up, and we'll talk about them in due course. For the moment, let's scroll back, though.

At the UN Security Council this past spring, as widely reported (here, by Al Jazeera, quite objectively), "Ibrahim Dabbashi, Libya's deputy UN ambassador, ended a long speech about the plight of the Palestinians by comparing the situation in Gaza to the concentration camps set up by Nazi Germany to exterminate Jews."  The representatives of the US, Britain, Belgium, Costa Rica, and France--led by the latter--walked out, and the South African ambassador, who was chairing, closed the meeting, saying "members 'could not agree' on the statement."

Will the press and the public now have the civil courage to--figuratively speaking--"walk out" when they hear similar abuse of language, history, and basic decency? That is:  refuse to let such abuse go unchallenged, or at least not willingly become complicit in it?

The erosion of language and the erosion of moral principle go hand in hand.  Those on all sides of the conflict owe it to themselves and everyone else--their opponents, the public, and the casualties--to choose their words carefully.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

December 25: the other birthday (science vs. superstition?)

We have periodically referred to the irony--or simple fact, if you prefer--that events that become famous or infamous tend to eclipse all other anniversaries associated with that date (who today associates September 11 with the Battle of Plattsburgh in 1814, a naval encounter that ensured that the young United States would survive the encounter with its old Colonial foe:  Without the first 9-11, no second 9-11.)

The inimitable physicist Bob Park seeks to restore some breadth to our historical reflections on December 25 in the current issue of his weekly "What's New":
4. THE TWENTY-FIFTH OF DECEMBER: IMPORTANT BIRTHDAY.
Yesterday marked the birthday of two important figures in history: Jesus
of Nazareth and Isaac Newton. Should WN compare their impact?
It's characteristically succinct and naughty, but we have to acknowledge that the idea was not originally his. As evolutionary biologist Olivia Judson explains in her blog:
Some years ago, the evolutionist and atheist Richard Dawkins pointed out to me that Sir Isaac Newton, the founder of modern physics and mathematics, and arguably the greatest scientist of all time, was born on Christmas Day, and that therefore Newton’s Birthday could be an alternative, if somewhat nerdy, excuse for a winter holiday.
The discrepancy between the Julian calendar under which he was born and the Gregorian one that we use (in which his birthday would fall on January 4) then provides her with an opportunity to riff on the relation between calendars and astronomy, which eventually takes her to Newton's key ideas. She closes with the suggestion that we could celebrate "The Ten Days of Newton" just as well as the "Twelve Days of Christmas," and even composes some new verses for the old tune:
On the tenth day of Newton,
My true love gave to me,
Ten drops of genius,
Nine silver co-oins,
Eight circling planets,
Seven shades of li-ight,
Six counterfeiters,
Cal-Cu-Lus!
Four telescopes,
Three Laws of Motion,
Two awful feuds,
And the discovery of gravity!
I know exactly what Park and Dawkins had in mind, and I am sympathetic to the endeavor, though it becomes more complex if one pursues the comparison a bit further:

To be sure, Jesus worked in an entirely speculative and spiritual realm. The most energetic attempts to turn him into some sort of social revolutionary notwithstanding, he was an apocalyptic prophet, whose beliefs, if properly understood, would shock if not totally alienate most members of liberal mainstream churches today--just as the doctrines of the fundamentalists would appear totally alien to him.

Newton, by contrast, by identifying physical principles on which the world works, discovered an underlying reality that had existed since before the origins of the earth and continues to do so long after his death. (And we can add to this his other accomplishments, including calculus, with due respect for Leibniz.) That's what Parks and Dawkins mean, no doubt: that Newton discovered realities, and that our modern world to a large degree rests on our understanding of that reality as mediated through Newton's achievement and that of his successors.  No argument there, and more attention is due him.

However:

1) It is a real toss of the coin as to whether the average westerner understands more of Christianity or classical physics. (I'd bet s/he gets failing grades in both.) That in no wise diminishes the greatness of Newton's accomplishment--and it might even strengthen the argument for the new holiday--but it does prompt some sobering thoughts. 

The reality of physics remains firm, but cultural illiteracy takes many forms. 

One of the most alarming aspects of modern society is the widespread skepticism regarding science.  Cultivated liberal elites who look down upon creationists as knuckle-dragging yokels don't come off much better themselves when they claim, drawing upon our heightened awareness of the subjectivity of all intellectual endeavor (a little knowledge is a dangerous thing) that science is a "fiction" or "social construct" or "just another narrative."  

I have to say that I cringe when I hear my colleagues in the social sciences utter inanities of this sort with all the cretinous smugness of the devout. It's not only (at times boastful) ignorance, but also simple emotional and ideological resistance to facts that threaten comfortable worldviews.

One of the things that impressed me about our current College President when he came here for his job interview was his response to a question from a scientist precisely about how to confront this antiscientific mentality. His very simple answer: If you don't believe in science, on what grounds could you possibly refute the ideas of a creationist??

2) Newton's idea of science was in many ways very different from our own.  To be sure, Newton became an idol of the Enlightenment. One need but cite Pope:
Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night,
God said let Newton be and all was light.
or Voltaire:
When one considers that Newton, Locke, Clarke, and Leibniz would have been persecuted in France, imprisoned at Rome, and burned at Lisbon, what are we to think of human reason? One would swear it was a native of England in the present age at least. In the time of Queen Mary there was a violent persecution on account of the proper way of pronouncing Greek, in which the persecutors were, as usual, in the wrong. They who put Galileo before the Inquisition were still more so; and every inquisitor ought to blush, from the bottom of his soul, at the sight of the sphere of Copernicus. Nevertheless, had Newton been born in Portugal, and had a Dominican friar happened to discover a heresy in his inverted ratio of the squares of the distances of the planets, Sir Isaac Newton had certainly walked in procession in his sanbenito at some auto-da-fé.
3) That said, although Newton's interest in astrology has now been called into question, he was, as Judson points out, a deeply (though rather heterodox) religious man who spent (or wasted, depending on how charitable one wants to be) a great deal of his time experimenting with alchemy and trying to calculate the exact dimensions of the Temple of Solomon, which, he believed, contained some clue as to the harmony of the universe.

4) If Bob were able to sit down and have a conversation with Isaac, it might well turn out--according to the historical record, at least--that Newton would be a believer in what we nowadays call "intelligent design"--that is, acceptance of evolution, but evolution directed or at least set in motion by some higher--supernatural--power.  Then again, since evolution did not exist as a concept in Newton's day, that would require quite some adjustment in his worldview.  And for that matter, if he could assimilate that new theory, than why not (hypothetically, at least) the rest of Darwin's doctrine, which--although Darwin, no less than Newton, began by believing that he was doing and discovering God's work--does not require a god at all?

5) Okay, Bob: I see where you were heading!  Science--unlike religion--begins with hypotheses and revises them in the light of new evidence.  Got it!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry . . . Whatever . . . Again!

Although the modern reader could be forgiven for interpreting this image as some sort of cutesy multiculturalism in this age of Chrismukkah, the reality is rather different--though there is a connection.

As an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Berlin from 2005 explained, the concept goes back over a century to a time when increasingly assimilated German Jews appropriated Christmas celebrations in their own secular manner. (The original term was Weihnukkah, of which Chrismukkah is just an anglicization.)

In recent decades, the term has become respectable--half-serious and half-humorous--and taken on a life of its own.


This image of the menorah evolving into the Christmas tree comes from a postcard sold by the Museum, and whose original intent was critical rather than celebratory. The caption reads:
"Darwinian: Zionist caricature on assimilation, from the periodical, 'Schlemiel' (1904)"
That these issues still arouse strong sentiments can be seen from this rather less subtle blog entry by Jeremy Cardash and its responses at the Jerusalem Post.

In any event, greetings of the season on whichever holiday(s) you happen to be celebrating.

Monday, December 15, 2008

A Serious Take on Fauxtography

One of the scandals of the 2006 Lebanon War--ranking higher than Israeli mismanagement of the political-military calculus though lower than the brutal cynicism of the Hizbullah clerico-fascists--was the failure of the press to distinguish between true and patently false information.

Bad coverage resulting from a combination of gullibility and cowardice was nothing new, for it is amply documented in the case of the Lebanese Civil War of the 1970s as well as the Second Intifada. (Exhibit A in the latter case was the myth of a massacre at Jenin: Despite conspiratorial theories and wildly inflated talk of "massacres" and mass executions of anywhere between 500 and 3000 innocent victims, even Palestinian and international sources later concluded that the combined local military and civilian death toll was under 60.)

Among the novel and worrisome features of the latest Lebanon War was the blatant faking of photographic evidence--in some cases, by members of the press themselves--rather than simply the uncritical acceptance of false evidence from other parties attempting to deceive the press, whether by staging scenes or providing doctored images and untruthful accounts. (My Boston University history colleague Richard Landes, for example, has made a name for himself in this domain through his unrelenting pursuit of what he has concluded was the staging of the death of the Palestinian boy Mohammed al Durah in Gaza during the Second Intifida. The topic remains sensitive and controversial.)

I recall following the unfolding of this unexpected conflict via the internet during business travels in Europe. Somehow (I honestly forget how, at this point), I turned to the sites of several conservative blogs (not an information source that I customarily used) and was struck by their insistence that coverage of the fighting was tainted by more than what they habitually claimed was the bias of the mainstream media.

One of those sites was Little Green Footballs (LGF), run by software innovator, jazz musician, and political commentator Charles Johnson--who had hardly endeared himself to liberals by igniting what he liked to call "Rathergate" (for those of you too young to remember, even if you can appreciate the clumsy but established use of the suffix, "-gate," to denote a scandal: Dan Rather was a major figure in the reporting of the Watergate criminal conspiracy that toppled President Nixon): i.e. demonstrating that documents presented by then-News Anchor Rather on CBS--purporting to show that George W. Bush had shirked his military duties during the Vietnam War--were patently faked.

In the case of the Lebanon War, LGF began by showing that purported scenes of mass destruction in Beirut were in fact doctored photos in which someone had crudely used the PhotoShop "clone" tool to multiply plumes of smoke. Further revelations from that site and others followed.

In a recent article, as LGF proudly announces--Hey Mom, I'm Peer Reviewed"--Nikki Usher, writing in First Monday, highlighted the role of the blog in changing the discourse and drew some new conclusions about the nature of the blogosphere in general:
BLOGOSPHERE | Sat, Dec 13, 2008 at 8:24:46 pm PST

It might be the first peer-reviewed study that begins with the words, “OK, now things are getting weird.”

Reviewing Fauxtography: A blog-driven challenge to mass media power without the promises of networked publicity.

Abstract

During the Israel–Hezbollah War of 2006, bloggers caught Reuters publishing doctored images from Lebanon. Known by bloggers as Fauxtography, the scandal provides an important site to analyze the ability of blogs to challenge mainstream media. One blog in particular was almost single–handedly responsible for unearthing and for publicizing the scandal — Little Green Footballs. This paper uses the scandal as a case study to assess how Little Green Footballs was able to mount a challenge to mainstream media. Despite theorizing to the contrary about the collective promise of networked publics, Fauxtography reveals that one of the biggest challenges of late to mainstream media came from the activities of a single blogger.
(Note: Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris touched on some of these issues and others in a New York Times blog report. "Photography as a Weapon" back in August. One of the immediate inspirations then was the obvious fakery of photographs purporting to show Iranian missile tests, exposed--once again--by LGF.)

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Urban blight or adaptive reuse: which model will come out of Detroit?

On the Op-Ed page of today's Times, Detroit journalist Bill McGraw offers a picture of the past as future in "When the Cars Go Away":
This week, as Washington has tried to decide whether to rescue the automobile industry, Americans have wondered what it looks like when a giant automobile company goes under. The answer can be found in Detroit.
His point--with the old Packard company as Exhibit A--is that the failure of the big automakers would be a social disaster.  No doubt. Inefficient cars produced by inefficient companies will nonetheless still have to go away, though what will follow is very much within human control and need not correspond to the vision that he sketches.

The essay, however, is in some ways most interesting for its impassioned description of the huge formerly state-of-the art plant, which is decaying for a variety of reasons and whose ownership is a matter of legal dispute:  
So the property is virtually abandoned, and much of it has been empty for years. Almost all the windows in the four- and five-story buildings — thousands of them — are broken. The bricks and masonry are crumbling, and two large enclosed bridges that soar over streets are falling apart. Part of one of the large passageways recently collapsed onto Bellevue Avenue, and still sits there, blocking the street.

Some floors have caved in because metal scrappers have cut out the I-beams. Vast rooms are filled with trash, from old shoes to unwanted pleasure boats.

Nature has reasserted itself: Trees grow on the roof and moss has spread inside. Chalky stalactites hang from ceilings, apparently the result of rain coursing through the walls.

Water from broken pipes collects into small lakes, freezes during the Michigan winters, then breaks up in spring and runs out of the plant onto neighboring streets. The plant is home to wild dogs, feral cats, homeless people. Arson is a regular event.

In its day, when Detroit was the Silicon Valley of the early 20th century, the Packard complex was a center for innovation. In 1905, the architect Albert Kahn designed Building No. 10 with reinforced steel concrete, creating an airy, spacious workspace. Such construction revolutionized the building of factories around the world.
Like McGraw, one wonders what might have been.  Adaptive reuse of factories to revitalize urban areas and provide new jobs should be part of any major economic and technological transition, and a plan from the start, not an afterthought--or, perish the thought--as here, something that no one thought of until it was too late.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Salman Hameed on Islam and Creationism

I was delighted to hear from my friend and colleague Salman Hameed (whose blog we also follow on this site), that an interview with him on Islam, creationism, and science, was about to appear in New Scientist.

I was equally pleased (and more surprised) to see that Charles Johnson's Little Green Footballs (LGF) gave prominent play to the story.

The influential and at times idiosyncratic conservative blog, which is the bane of many on the left (for example, it broke the "Rathergate" scandal back in 2004, supported the Iraq war, and harshly attacks Islam itself as well as Islamic fundamentalism), is also known for its resolute defense of science against pseudo-science and superstition. In particular, it has aggressively denounced creationism, intelligent design, and other manifestations of religion masquerading as--or attempting to emasculate--science.  (Admittedly, LGF has expressed skepticism regarding the human causes of climate change, but that is a debate that can take place on the plane of science.)

Naturally, this has puzzled many liberals, who evidently imagine political conservatives and religious fundamentalists as cut from the same cloth.  (Most preposterously, someone suggested that the rising prominence of science stories on LGF was some cunning attempt to secure the election for John McCain by tricking the mainstream electorate into voting Republican.)

Should LGF's stance really so hard to understand?  Humans are complex creatures, capable of holding many ideas in their heads simltaneously:  some of which are complementary, some of which are mutually contradictory, some of which simply exist separately side by side.  Determining which of those three possibilities applies in any given case is not necessarily simple.  The point of having evolved a large and powerful brain is to use it. 

Given that more Americans believe in miracles, the Devil, and a literal hell than believe in evolution, I, for one, am happy to see conservatives standing up for science rather than telling our kids (in the 21st century?? WTF) that dinosaurs survived into the Middle Ages, when they were known as dragons.  Rather than complaining, let's be thankful for what we agree on and save our energies for arguing over matters of fundamental disagreement.


Sunday, December 7, 2008

Reproductive Rights: American Social History in the Making--and Retelling--in the Pioneer Valley

Many citizens are familiar in general terms with the controversial Supreme Court "Griswold decision" (Griswold v. Connecticut) of 1965, which legalized contraception for married couples but made it illegal to display or advertise contraceptive products.  Few of us, however, realize that an important step in challenging that bizarre ruling took place right here in the Pioneer Valley:
It was a mob scene. On April 11, 1968, some 200 college students and Valley residents joined reproductive-rights activist Bill Baird in a demonstration outside the Zayre's department store in Hadley on the site of present-day TJ Maxx store.
. . . .
That day, Baird had walked into Zayre's and legally purchased a can of contraceptive foam and a copy of Modern Bride magazine, which carried an ad for the product. Outside, in front of the store, he showed the foam and the magazine to the crowd, challenging local police to enforce the law, including arresting the attorney general for the sales tax collected on the product.
Among those present was Smith theater professor Leonard Berkman.  Now, Len and his wife, our University of Massachusetts colleague in US and women's history, Joyce Berkman, have collaborated on a major new work that recalls and interprets Baird's campaign, set to open next week at UMass:
Baird's lifelong crusade, nearly lost in the annals of reproductive rights for women, will take center stage next week at UMass. The docudrama "Menace to Society," named for the moniker given to Baird by his opponents, is the work of a multidisciplinary team drawn from the UMass departments of history, legal studies, women's studies, English and theater.
. . . .
Last year, when UMass Dean Joel Martin put out a call for proposals for a "Visioning Grant" for a multidisciplinary project, the last tumbler fell. Berkman was awarded the grant and set about assembling a team.

The 10-member research group included investigators from the history, legal studies and women's studies departments. Lori Sandhusen took an oral history from Baird, while others researched the law, women's history, the struggle for reproductive rights, the responses of the Catholic Church and organizations such as the ACLU, Planned Parenthood and the National Organization for Women.
. . . .
"The most surprising thing about the story itself is that so many groups of people who you would think would be [Baird[']s] natural allies - Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, the women's movement - totally rejected him," said Kimberly Fuller, a Ph.D student in the history department and the project's historian. "People saw him as being too radical."
We cannot fail to note that my own institution, which has been a leader in promoting education about reproductive rights, played an indirect role in the creation of this work:
Three years ago, Berkman heard Baird speak at Hampshire College. "It was spellbinding," she said. "After his lecture a bee got in my bonnet about recognizing the important role he played in women's reproductive rights."
(full article, including performance schedule:  Bonnie Wells, "Choice:  UMass breathes life into the history of a local man's lifelong crusade for women's reproductive rights," Amherst Bulletin, 5 Dec. 2008).

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Real Jeffery Amherst


Amherst prepares to celebrate its 250th anniversary next year, but this year also marks two other two hundred fiftieths:  the birth of Noah Webster, who lived for a decade in Amherst, during which time he helped to found Amherst College; and the arrival in the American colonies of Sir Jeffery Amherst, after whom the town takes its name.

Our Amherst colleague Kevin Sweeney, a specialist in early American history--including Native American history and material culture--who is also teaching military history this year, offers a portrait of Jeffery Amherst in the current issue of Amherst Magazine.  In fact, it is a portrait of a portrait, for he takes the striking and enigmatic painting of Jeffery Amherst by Joshua Reynolds (Mead Art Museum, Amherst) as the point of departure for a series of reflections on a turbulent career.

As Sweeney observes, 
Jeffery Amherst played a prominent role in deciding the imperial struggle to control North America, yet today, many residents of the town and most alumni of the college know little about what he actually did. What is popularly known arises from the debate over his role in the spread of smallpox among Native Americans during 1763 (a controversy that Amherst magazine examined in 1989). But that event came at the sorry end of a meteoric career.
He proceeds to evaluate Amherst as man and commander, noting that his legendary caution was a strength as well a weakness, for it enabled him to master the mundane but crucial art of logistics, which both won battles and prepared the way for the victories of his fellow commanders. Indeed, Sweeney says, contrary to popular opinion, it was the adaptation of traditional European military discipline that both enabled the British to win the French and Indian War and provided the model that the rebellious Americans later used against their former British countrymen and rulers.

Sweeney concludes:
Reynolds captures Amherst’s genius triumphing over the sublime powers of nature. The artist paints Amherst as a proto-Romantic hero. But in reality, Amherst operated as a very model of a modern, managerial commander, employing meticulous planning, lavish resources, overwhelming manpower and superior firepower to force his foes to surrender unconditionally. It’s an approach to waging war that bears a certain resemblance to a much later American approach that produced victories in the Civil War and in World War II, and it was Jeffery Amherst, his subordinates and his “American Army” of British regulars who first unleashed this way of war in North America.
The article includes a video interview with Sweeney.

Merry . . . whatever!

Two snapshots of the syncretic holiday season in Amherst.


When I drove through town earlier this evening, I passed our annual holiday fête on the Common, organized by the Chamber of Commerce and the Town: the "Merry Maple Celebration of Lights" (and this year, multicolored, rather than plain white, to boot).

It epitomizes the easy-to-digest but at times uneasy blending of the sacred and secular that most public institutions affect at this time of year:  No Christmas tree, but Santa on a fire truck.  No Christmas celebration, as such, but lots of carols.  (Incidentally, my UMass history colleague Dan Gordon will be blogging on the theme of religious displays on public property later this month for The Public Humanist.) 

One of the ironies:  As I was stopped at the intersection, the Amherst Regional Middle School Chorus and UMass Minuteman Marching Band were playing "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing"--one of the most popular modern Christmas songs, composed by the Lutheran Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. His grandfather was Moses Mendelssohn, the great Enlightenment scholar, who pioneered the modernization of Judaism.  Only two of his six children remained within the Jewish faith; the rest, like many of their German compatriots, followed the path of assimilation and conversion to Christianity.

I was heading through town on my way to the University of Massachusetts to attend the Third Annual Friendship dinner of the Rumi Club, on the theme, "Building Bridges of Dialogue, Bringing Cultures Together."  Following a lavish Turkish meal, several speakers, including local residents and a representative of the Turkish Cultural Center of Western Massachusetts, discussed their experience of interfaith cooperation between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. The keynote speaker was Ismail Acar, Visiting Assistant Professor in the Islamic Legal Studies Program at Harvard Law School, who talked about the preconditions for true cross-cultural dialogue.

In a sense, it's comparing apples and oranges, because the "lighting of the Merry Maple" is a full-blown community event that attempts to please all by blurring all differences in the spirit of the homogenized "holiday season," whereas the dinner of the Rumi Club was a more intimate affair that sought common ground in part through acknowledging the legitimacy of difference. I found the latter much more satisfying (and not just because of the imam bayildi).

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

"Building Consensus": Architecture and Preservation at UMass Make Headlines

The current issue of UMass Magazine features a very important trio of articles highlighting the debates over architecture and historic preservation on campus:

• "Building Consensus," journalist Eric Goldscheider's lead piece, reviews the controversy and the stakes:
Past and future had a bit of a scuffle on campus last spring. As crews prepared to dismantle the College Barn to make way for a new Recreation Center across from the Mullins Center, a fledgling preservation group stopped the proverbial wrecking ball mid-swing.
Led by professor emeritus of wildlife biology Joseph Larson ’56, ’58G Preserve UMass, or PUMA, has more than 100 members, including alumni and active and retired faculty and staff. In the face of the barn’s demise, they convinced Preservation Massachusetts, a statewide organization with a kindred mission, to place the campus as a whole on a list of the 10 most endangered historical resources in the Commonwealth. (full article)
• In "Joining Together," Professor of Classics Emeritus Vincent Cleary tells the story of the old Student Union and chronicles its central role in the life of the campus, from the Eisenhower era, through protests over the Vietnam War and the Rodney King verdict. (full article)

• In "Preserving the Future," our colleague Professor of Architecture and History Max Page (and a former member and Vice Chair of the Historical Commission) explains why the modernist style of many of the campus buildings should be treasured rather than scorned:
What I wish to suggest is that the architecture of this campus, far from being impersonal, cold, drab architecture that some see today was in fact a heroic statement of the value of a public university. As the college became a university in the second half of the 20th Century with aspirations to turn Massachusetts citizens into national leaders, it chose not to mimic the colleges nearby—brick Amherst College, Gothic Mount Holyoke, Victorian Smith. No, campus leaders decided that this national public research university would stake its claim as something modern through its architecture. This university would be elite but not elitist, it would be open and accessible, and it would pursue research in the public interest. There was to be nothing quaint or precious about this new university. It would unshakably place itself as herald of the future. (full article)
The pdf version contains all the articles, along with graphics (photographs and timeline) in full color.

Monday, December 1, 2008

New York Historic Preservation Crises: buildings endangered by strong wills vs. weak laws. Why not fight back?

In contrast to the relatively encouraging preservation news contained in the New York Times stories on Buffalo and New Bedford, the more recent piece on the metropolis itself is depressing in the extreme:  a story of cynicism, evasion of the law, and exploitation of weaknesses in the law for the sake of philistine pursuit of naked profit  (Robin Pogrebin, "Preservationists See Bulldozers Charging Through a Loophole," 29 Nov. 2008).

It is a long and lugubrious tale, for which reason I allow you to read it for yourselves.  The essence of the story, though, is that developers seeking to demolish old buildings or revamp them beyond recognition will use any trick in the book, from casuistry to bribery, to attain their ends.

Most disturbing is the attempt to circumvent the spirit of the law by ostensibly legal means:  Owners or developers rush to demolish a building before it can acquire landmark status. And if a building has been so designated, they typically "strip" it, removing the features that make it most historically noteworthy.  When the case comes before the authorities:  voilà, no more historical character to preserve--and demolition is allowed to proceed.  

It is a shameful practice, and one can only hope that the countervailing practice of public shaming of the wrongdoers--as in the case of the aforementioned article--will increase in response to the offense.  At first sight, it is not the most powerful weapon, but when wielded both aggressively and wisely, it can achieve significant results.  Especially in the glorious age of the internet and cell phones, it is relatively easy to mobilize opinion against miscreants.  In the 19th century, Heinrich Heine declared that the press was the modern equivalent of the fortress.  Today, we may say:  the pillory is dead, long live the blog! Social networking can summon a crowd as fast as the tocsin.

In the case of Amherst, our Demolition Delay Law (Article 13) explicitly cites historic and aesthetic criteria:
Finding that the economic, cultural and aesthetic standing of the Town of Amherst can best be maintained and enhanced by due regard for the historical and architectural heritage of the Town and by striving to discourage the destruction of such cultural assets, it is hereby declared as a matter of public policy that the protection, enhancement, perpetuation and use of structures of historical and architectural significance, located within the Town of Amherst, is a public necessity, and is required in the interest of the prosperity, civic pride and general welfare of the people.
Its provision for the imposition of delays furnishes limited and temporary protection intended to facilitate negotiation and compromise, but it also has some more potent "sticks" with which to chastise the irresponsible.  The key points are:  (1) No one can demolish a building without filing the proper request, a document that, in the case of buildings older than 50 years, must in principle pass under the review of the Historical Commission, and (2) Any owner who knowingly destroys or structurally sabotages a building without obtaining the proper permit faces a fine of $ 300 per day--the operative clause being, "until the demolished building is rebuilt or re-created as directed by the Historical Commission, or unless otherwise agreed to by the Commission."  In the case of someone forced to recreate a vanished and irreplaceable building, that could add up. For better or worse, that aspect of the law has not really been put to the test.

As the eighteenth-century British architect and preservationist Nicholas Hawksmoor put it, "Whatever is goode in its kinde ought to be preserv'd in respect for antiquity, as well as our present advantage, for destruction can be profitable to none but such as live by it."