Thursday, November 27, 2008

New Bedford Revival as Model of Adaptive Reuse and Urban Revitalization?

A recent New York Times article featured the successes and challenges of historic preservation in Buffalo.  One of the issues raised there involved the at times uneasy relationship between preservationists and developers.  A briefer piece yesterday focused on the approach that New Bedford is taking.  The center of the whaling trade in the mid-19th century, New Bedford fell on hard times and in recent decades "started to become known mainly for blight and despair," epitomized by "The notorious 1983 rape at Big Dan’s tavern."

The city government hopes to capitalize on the improved current situation through intensified use of its historic resources, the centerpiece of which is a major downtown hotel to fill the void created when the last one disappeared half a century ago:
The LaFrance Hospitality Company, a family business in Westport, Mass., which owns eight hotels in New England, a restaurant and catering business, is planning a $10 million 106-room Marriott Fairfield Inn and Suites on a 1.6-acre parcel across the street from New Bedford’s fishing piers. Site preparation is under way, with a groundbreaking planned for early next year.

The five-story hotel will incorporate a historic granite structure, which used to be a whale oil refinery, a reminder of the days when New Bedford was the whaling capital of the world. Its facade will combine brick, granite and wood. The site is just outside the New Bedford Whaling National Historic Park, 13 city blocks of 18th- and 19th-century buildings where the likes of Herman Melville and Frederick Douglass once strolled.
Although the model is not directly applicable to Amherst for a variety of reasons, the examples are in some ways heartening and should cause us to take notice: A large chain hotel would not be consonant with Amherst's sensibilities or downtown zoning, but the fact that a major national firm such as Marriott can adapt itself to the constraints of a historic structure should remind us of what is possible.

Further highlights:
Since 2000, 32 buildings in the downtown have been restored, at a cost of more than $80 million; 14 other buildings are in a “preconstruction” stage, the city said. Most of these are historic structures that are being renovated into commercial or mixed-use space, often with the help of state and federal historic tax credits.

In addition, several developments are under way elsewhere in New Bedford, including a $35 million mill conversion into condominiums, and there are plans to build the $2 million Waterfront Community Center on the Acushnet River, which will be a recreation facility and event center.
New Bedford has embraced a belief that the arts can be used to rebuild its fortunes. In 2007, it authorized hiring a creative economy development officer to coordinate arts programming, financing and development.

The city’s landmark Zeiterion Theater draws an average of 4,500 people downtown on weekends. The city also holds an annual Arts Symposium and Open Studio Weekend, which attracts 300 to 500 visitors.
Amherst is undertaking some similar measures and could learn from the others.  New venues such as The Amherst Cinema Arts Center and adjoining structures--one of which, not coincidentally, houses the new Chamber of Commerce--epitomize the advantages of historic preservation through adaptive reuse, and more generally, of using culture and leisure activity to rejuvenate the downtown social atmosphere and economy.

Although Amherst is a destination in itself rather than a pass-through of the sort that New Bedford had become, our problem is not entirely dissimilar:  Thousands of visitors come to see Amherst each year, but because our accommodations are limited, many have to travel in their cars to and from the large motels along Route 9, expending fossil fuels, fueling traffic congestion--and leaving both the room rental fees and the taxes to neighboring Hadley.  Given that clean economic development, including cultural tourism, is among the priorities in Amherst's Master Plan, it stands to reason that a well-conceived and sustainable hospitality industry should likewise be among our prime topics of discussion.

(Elizabeth Abbott, "Old New England Whaling Center Will Soon Offer Visitors a Place to Stay," New York Times, 26 Nov. 2008)

Beautiful Buffalo: historic preservation--and lessons for us?

Perhaps you never thought of Buffalo as a beautiful city. More likely, you never thought much about Buffalo at all.  As I know from my own conversations, however, its residents are very proud of what they have, and a little bit sad and offended that others don't understand their pride.

The New York Times recently helped to correct that imbalance (Nov. 16) with an extensive and lavishly illustrated spread on the city's architectural treasures poised between destruction and preservation:  "Saving Buffalo's Untold Beauty:  The Home to Some of the Greatest American Architecture Tries to Balance the Past With the Future."  It also offers some valuable lessons for the rest of us, whether in rural or urban environments, east or west. As author Nicolai Ouroussoff puts it, the city is a microcosm of American urban and architectural development:  "Touring Buffalo’s monuments is about as close as you can get to experiencing firsthand the earliest struggles to define what an American architecture would look like." He notes that the early industrial structures fascinated European architectural innovators:
the city’s grain silos and steel mills had become architectural pilgrimage sites for European Modernists like Erich Mendelsohn and Bruno Taut, who saw them as the great cathedrals of Modernity. In their vast scale and technological efficiency, they reflected a triumphant America and sent a warning signal to Europe that it was fast becoming less relevant.
Still, he continues, it is the evolving picture of American architecture--from Richardson and Olmsted to Sullivan and Wright--that most fascinates the student nowadays.

The dilemma, he explains, is also a sign of hope: For many years, Buffalo seemed to epitomize the fate of the deindustrialized, economically and culturally declining urban space. Today, preservation offers a chance not only to save buildings, but also to revitalize both the economy--in part through cultural tourism--and the quality of urban life:

However, a positive result is far from guaranteed. In the first place, there is continued danger of destruction. Even as preservationists doggedly restore public structures and homes in blighted neighborhoods alike, massive federal projects threaten whole swaths of the city:
Preservationists raised an outcry this year when Mayor Brown unveiled his plan to demolish 5,000 houses over the next five years as part of an effort to clean up some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. The National Trust for Historic Preservation and the mayor’s office are now trying to hammer out a compromise.
In the second place, there is the threat of too much of a good thing, or the right thing the wrong way or in the wrong place:
how these projects will be forged into a cohesive vision for the city’s future is less certain. The best-intentioned preservationists, however determined, can accomplish only so much. Often developers co-opt the achievements of these trailblazing individuals and nonprofit groups by dolling up historic neighborhoods for private gain. The city’s rough edges are smoothed over to satisfy the hunger for more tourist dollars. Shiny new convention centers and generic boutiques follow. Yet schools, roads, bridges and electrical and power lines continue to crumble.
As Ouroussoff sees it, the city is a sort of preservation laboratory whose evolving results others would be wise to observe:
Buffalo is an ideal testing ground for rethinking that depressing model. Its architectural heritage embodies an America that thought boldly about the future, but believed deeply in the city as a democratic forum. What’s needed now is to revive that experimental tradition.


Now the city is reaching a crossroads. Just as local preservationists are completing restorations on some of the city’s most important landmarks, the federal government is considering a plan that could wipe out part of a historic neighborhood. Meanwhile Mayor Byron W. Brown is being pressed to revise a proposal that would have demolished hundreds of abandoned homes.
The outcome of these plans [the tension between local desires for preservation and federal determination to bulldoze the city into modernity; JW] will go far in determining the city’s prospects for economic recovery, but it could also offer a rare opportunity to re-examine the relationship between preserving the past and building a future.
The most important lines for me were in many ways those that spoke to the rather different condition of our own rather different town.
today its grass-roots preservation movement is driven not by Disney-inspired developers but by a vibrant coalition of part-time preservationists, amateur historians and third-generation residents who have made reclaiming the city’s history a deeply personal mission.

At a time when oil prices and oil dependence are forcing us to rethink the wisdom of suburban and exurban living, Buffalo could eventually offer a blueprint for repairing America’s other shrinking postindustrial cities.
What we see is a more egalitarian, diverse and socially tolerant vision of the city. It is both pro-density and pro-history. These residents have come to recognize through firsthand experience that social, economic and preservation issues are all deeply intertwined.
The Amherst Master Plan does provide such a cohesive vision and does embody these principles. It declares sustainability in all aspects of town government and life a priority implementation strategy and moreover advocates directing development primarily to village centers.  Preservation or adaptive reuse of historic buildings conserves resources and energy andfacilitates the kind of infill that allows us to preserve open space by increasing density in built-up areas without destroying their existing character.

How to achieve actual preservation can be more complicated. There are a number of lessons here.

One can only stand in awe of Buffalo's achievement in organizing a citizen coalition to raise 76 million dollars for the restoration of Richardson's neo-Romanesque State Asylum for the Insane.  Amherst has proven less ambitious and successful in its attempts to raise private funds for preservation purposes, though to be fair, that may be because we have not encountered the sort of single high-profile case capable of mobilizing all forces and resources. To date, we have managed to get by with a combination of Community Preservation Act funds and the occasional grant, but as these revenue streams shrink or no longer prove as reliable as they once were, we may find ourselves in situations in which private funds constitute the only recourse--and we may find ourselves unprepared and under-resourced.  We may have had a foretaste of this in the case of the Hills lots on Main Street this year.

The case of Buffalo also raises the sensitive issue of developers, often reviled as either destroyers or appropriators of historic structures and landscapes. Given the lack of legal protections--aside from our Demolition Delay Law--for historic resources, our Historical Commission and local preservationists often have no choice but to negotiate with developers or other property-owners (private or institutional). Such situations raise fears of extortion (and to be frank, I have voiced such concerns myself), but the obvious fact remains that property-owners are the people with property to develop or sell.  Since we cannot expect altruism in a social system based on property and profit, the best that we can usually hope for is to be able to persuade owners that preservation (including adaptive reuse) is to their practical and political advantage.  The same applies to institutional owners such as colleges and universities: the fact that they are "non-profits" does not mean that they do not have material interests.  The description of the city as a microcosm of architectural development also applies, as we have repeatedly affirmed on these pages, to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst campus. The University could affirm, preserve, and market its landscape and built environmental heritage, to the benefit of all. From the latest reports, it is at last learning to do so.

The key in all cases is building effective coalitions, and that entails being able to explain what preservationists do in a way that enables constituencies to see it as in both their interest and the common interest.  Some citizens wonder why, under Massachusetts General Law, a single chapter of a locale's Master Plan embraces both "natural and cultural resources."  To be sure, there are many specific differences, but I see the two realms as intimately connected:   Both the Conservation Commission and the Historical Commission are charged with protecting the resources of the town, and that means in large part protecting them from inappropriate development.

Some scholars and practitioners occasionally warn that our definition of historic preservation is becoming dangerously broad (and that warning is well taken), but the fact remains that preservation is good sustainable and environmentalist practice.  (As the new phrase goes, "the greenest building is. . . one that is already built.")  There is nothing wrong with selling it that way, given that the sales pitch is honest--as long as we remember that preservation is a good in itself, and not simply the means to another end.  The latter point is indeed the most difficult to explain.

Although our community clearly espouses the value of preserving the historic character of the town, many residents see concrete historic preservation measures--those that cost money--as something of a luxury. Even if they no do not dismiss them as the domain of the stereotypical "blue-haired ladies in tennis shoes," they do not see them as an urgent need.  In particular, advocates of open space, farming, and conservation often do not recognize in historic preservation a kindred task.  The growing need for affordable housing sometimes prompts advocates of that cause in turn to assume that theirs is the only or most worthy cause.

Until and unless we can find a way to understand how these various goods fit together and reinforce one another, it will be difficult to make real and coherent progress.  That is why, in arguing for an increase in the Community Preservation Act surcharge, I have argued that the Commonwealth's grouping of the three tasks under the same legislative authority was positively brilliant:  all three contribute to the quality of life.  Still, the power and cohesiveness of that vision will be for naught if, as is sadly too often the case, advocates of each cause view those of the other as opponents in a zero-sum game.

Finally--Someone Talks About the Beer Crisis! (with a comment on both science and history)

We were prescient. Over a month ago, we told people to stop worrying about gasoline and start talking about beer. And it worked! Well, sort of. Gas has gotten cheaper, but beer remains expensive. We took an NPR story about bartenders underfilling beer glasses as an opportunity to throw in a few tidbits about the history of beer drinking vessels and measures. That was about retail practices rather than wholesale production, and we can't really take any credit for the drop in gas prices. But we had noted to ourselves the rising curve of beer prices, so clearly we were onto something. Anyway . . .

We are delighted to see that our colleague, historian Amy Mittelman, whose book we mentioned there, is prominently featured in an interview in US News and World Report, in which she addresses precisely this issue:
Will Beer Be the Next Casualty of the Crisis?
The downturn could hurt high-end brewers
By Kimberly Palmer
Posted November 18, 2008
The beer industry is often described as immune to economic downturns. After all, when people get laid off, they want to nurse their sorrows with a cold one, right?

It turns out that, as the beer industry has gone increasingly upscale, the answer to that question is no longer simple. In recent years, beer sales have been relatively flat except in one category—craft beers, which are made by small, independent brewers. Amy Mittelman, author of Brewing Battles: A History of American Beer, says that the heyday for such high-end, specialty beers could soon be over as consumers look to cut costs. Mittelman spoke to U.S. News about the future—and history—of the American beer industry. (read the rest)
This story also provides a welcome opportunity to catch up on the beer story that was breaking last last month, just before the elections: Rice University students made headlines with their attempt to develop a genetically modified beer yeast that would produce the compound, resveratrol--the component in red wine that, according to some studies, accounts for the "French paradox," as a result of which some populations that consume relatively high amounts of both fats and alcohol, nonetheless display fewer long-term health problems than do others with nominally bad dietary habits.

The titles of the various articles were instructive.

In the early story we cited, Eureka! Science News rather (over)dramatically led with: "Better beer: College team creating anticancer brew" (16 Oct.). It's a bit strange: good news that comes with mention of a potentially fatal illness may be lacking something, or at least make the product sound more like a medicine than a recreational drug. And if the title raises extravagant hopes among headline-skimmers, the body of the article provides the sobering message that this is no panacea (and indeed, that the medical benefits remain unproven; more on that sort of thing below). Not sure that was the best authorial strategy.

Far more effective was the approach in scientificblogging (16 Oct.):
"Only One Thing Could Make Beer More Awesome - Preventing Cancer (Thanks Biobeer)"

Think you knew spent too much time pondering the wonders of beer in college? These Rice University students have you beat. They're using genetic engineering to create beer that contains resveratrol, a chemical in wine that's been shown to reduce cancer and heart disease in lab animals.
(read the rest)
This one took a positive and mundane fact, and added the potential good news as a surprise bonus (and using the slangy, "awesome," in a story about college students had the right feel, too). Good strategy.

MIT's Technology Review , which reproduced most of the content of the preceding entry, chose the more neutral and generically upbeat "Beer That's Good for You" (4 Nov.) and added a few details of its own:
Since headlines began trumpeting the antiaging effects of red wine a couple of years ago, the traditional toast to good health has become more meaningful. But students at Rice University, in Texas, think that beer drinkers shouldn't be left out. They're trying to engineer a yeast that produces the antiaging chemical found in red wine--resveratrol--and use it to brew "BioBeer" with a health boost.

"It's not going to prevent you from getting a beer gut from drinking too much beer, or from getting cirrhosis of the liver," says Taylor Stevenson, one of six undergraduates working on the project. "But people are already drinking beer, so why not make the activity a little healthier?"
(read the rest)
The title of this article, like that of the first, is of course slightly misleading, because beer, as such (consumed in moderation), is a healthful beverage, which, historically, solved many problems in the human diet, from provision of useful carbohydrates to the maintenance of a supply of safe potables when water was often bad; not for nothing was it called "liquid bread" in several world cultures. The point, however, is welcome.

Latecomer NPR (8 Nov.) came up with the sloppily confusing title, "Turning Beer Into Wine, One Gene At A Time" (which risks conjuring up disturbing visions of Joe Six-Pack [yes, the obligatory reference is present] and Jesus in white lab coats).

(Oh, and the results of the iGEM competition? Slovenia won the Grand Prize. Rice got the award for "Best Presentation, Runner up.")

And since the talk is of genetically engineering beer yeasts, it is worth noting that recent research from Stanford has also decoded the genome and history of these organisms. Some reports could not resist trumpeting as a revelation the news that lager and ale yeasts prove to be related: "Lager lovers convinced that their beer of choice stands alone should prepare to drink their words this Oktoberfest." But the real news beneath that report from the front of the warring beer factions is the insight into the way that artisanal practice in effect achieved the same results that one would now pursue scientifically--selecting for a combination of traditional traits associated with ale flavors, and new ones that permitted the colder fermentation required for longer-lasting lagers. "'These long-ago brewers were practicing genetics without even knowing it,' said geneticist Gavin Sherlock, PhD. 'They've given us a very interesting opportunity to look at a relatively young, rapidly changing species, as well as some very good beer.'" ("Heads up: Stanford DNA study reveals evolution of beer yeasts," Eureka! Science News, 10 Sept.)

The scientific and historical question: Will the Rice experiment do anything to change the popular resistance to genetically modified foods? To be sure, genetic modification, especially of crops in open nature, should be undertaken with all due caution (and humility). That said, the sad fact remains that most of the resistance to such scientific innovations is instinctive and based on presuppositons and fears rather than knowledge--one of the few instances in which many avowedly secular people display an almost religious superstition. One might begin with the fact that irradiated and genetically modified foods, which have yet to be proven to cause demonstrable harm to human health, are strictly regulated--whereas "health supplements"--which, thanks to an abominably foolish US law dating back to 1994, are allowed to make wild and unsupported claims for their supposed benefits--are not. (My favorite example, cited by the irrespressibly skeptical physicist Bob Park, was the company that marketed salt water under the name of "Vitamin O").

Just over a week ago came further confirmation that most of the supplements that supposedly educated but definitely prosperous citizens purchase with such zeal and abandon (take a trip to your local Whole Foods store--or "whole pay check," as they call it around here) have no value, except to separate a sucker from his or her money. Ginkgo biloba does not prevent dementia or Alzheimer's. It thus joins echinacea and probably St. John's Wort on the list of greatest failures. As Steven Novella points out, the quest is not entirely irrational, for herbal drugs "are, after all, just pharmaceuticals in unpurified plant form." The problem--aside from the fact that people insist on selling the herb rather than purifying the possible drug, and that, as he says with some irony, the marketing precedes the research, rather than vice-versa--is that when a clinical study fails to prove benefits, producers of the supplements simply refuse to accept it ("there is great promise"). Novella observes:
The only herbal remedy that has been abandoned by proponents and marketers because evidence showed it was unsafe is ephedra - and that was only after the FDA banned it as unsafe. Proponents have never, to my knowledge, abandoned a claim or a product due to negative scientific data.
That is the bottom line. No industry or profession can claim to be evidence-based if they never stop using or selling a treatment because scientific evidence shows it does not work. We will see what happens to the gingko market. I predict nothing will happen. The NPA already has their spin.
As a thought experiment, imagine how you would react to a pharmaceutical company dismissing negative evidence about one of their drugs in the same way.
And, to add insult to injury, other new studies confirmed the trend of earlier research, which showed that consumption of significant doses of supplements of even necessary vitamins and minerals not only did no good, but in fact potentially caused harm. As Tara Parker-Pope of the New York Times put it, "Everyone needs vitamins, which are critical for the body. But for most people, the micronutrients we get from foods usually are adequate to prevent vitamin deficiency, which is rare in the United States." Interestingly, this is pretty much what we learned in advanced science seminar back in high school (which is longer ago than I care to remember). Linus Pauling had suggested that Vitamin C was a cure for the common cold, but our chemistry teacher scoffed at the notion and suggested that the Nobel laureate had lost his edge: "Either you're getting adequate amounts from a normal diet, or your body can't absorb them properly--in which case supplements do no good." ("News Keeps Getting Worse for Vitamins: The best efforts of the scientific community to prove the health benefits of vitamins keep falling short," Well Blog, 20 Nov.)

And if you think that's depressing, watching the responses of readers who insist that they know why multiple, large-scale, carefully controlled clinical studies just "can't" be right and "must not" have taken factor x or y into account is a deeply disturbing excursion into the world of scientific illiteracy and self-delusion. (One expects this sort of denial from the capitalist supplements industry, which is incorrigible and has a material stake in the affair.) It is illuminating, though (and here's where we bring things back to history): if educated people have so little capacity to understand the physical world, which operates according to regular and demonstrable laws and rules of evidence, can it be any surprise that they encounter so much more difficulty in making sense of the social world of history, culture, and politics, with its immeasurably more varied and complicated causal factors and interactions? Next time, don't take chances: Call a historian.

Health benefits? I think I'll just stick with beer (lager), thank you.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Inevitable Thanksgiving Piece

If it's Thanksgiving, it's time for the inevitable pieces, usefully (?) reminding us of the distance that separates our ritual collective memory from the historical reality.

I say, "pieces," meaning mainly items in the print media or internet news and blogosphere, because television seems to have become ever more reticent. Not many years ago, the cable if not broadcast channels would show some conventional historical/biopics such as "Plymouth Adventure" (1952).  Not even that nowadays.  History Channel is running one program on the history of the holiday, which was not without merit: e.g., explaining something of the first Thanksgiving, pointing out that the holiday did not become a national one until the Civil War (including the role of Godey's Lady's Book editor Sarah Josepha Hale in relentlessly promoting the festival along with a New England-centric view of US history, until she at last won Lincoln's support) and an official federal one till 1941, tracing the evolution of the great family holiday in the twentieth century, and even acknowledging Native American protests at Plymouth. Admittedly, the website had a generous range of material.

Both of the pieces on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times argued, in different ways, but with likeminded political-didactic intent, that we could learn valuable lessons from a fuller knowledge of the past.

Andrew Beahrs, in "Where the Wild Things Were," cites both Mark Twain's writings and the records of the first Thanksgiving to make the point that game and other wild plant and animal foods, once an integral part of the celebration, have vanished and yielded to store-bought and even prepared foods:
Preserving or restoring the wild foods that remain begins with appreciating what they have to offer — extraordinary taste and smell, certainly, but also the joy of experiencing the marshes and mountains and lakes these plants and birds and animals rely upon. We have a great deal to learn from Twain’s instinctive premise: that losing a wild food means losing part of the landscape of our lives.
Kenneth C. Davis, in "A French Connection," uses a little-known fact of as the point of departure for a riff on our long history of intolerance and violence: French Huguenots came to Florida more than half a century before the Pilgrims set sail, and celebrated their own Thanksgiving--only to be slaughtered by the Spanish Catholics who founded St. Augustine.
The list goes on. Our history is littered with bleak tableaus that show what happens when righteous certitude is mixed with fearful ignorance. Which is why this Thanksgiving, as we express gratitude for America’s bounty and promise, we would do well to reflect on all our histories, including a forgotten French one that began on Florida’s shores so many years ago.
Having no such weighty message, I'll content myself with the delectare rather than prodesse, and a glance at the original menu:

The only eyewitness of the account comes from a letter by Edward Winslow to a friend in England in 1621:

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.
History Channel, citing Plimoth Plantation Food Historian Kathleen Curtin, lists what may have been and what was definitely not on the menu. In the former category are many of the usual foods, though most strikingly, also (cf. Beahrs) seafood (cod, eel, clams, lobster) and more wild fowl (in addition to the obligatory turkey, goose, and duck:  crane, swan, partridge, and eagles) and game (seal, in addition to the expected venison).  What was definitely not there:
Surprisingly, the following foods, all considered staples of the modern Thanksgiving meal, didn't appear on the pilgrims's [sic] first feast table:
Ham: There is no evidence that the colonists had butchered a pig by this time, though they had brought pigs with them from England.
Sweet Potatoes/Potatoes: These were not common.
Corn on the Cob: Corn was kept dried out at this time of year.
Cranberry Sauce: The colonists had cranberries but no sugar at this time.
Pumpkin Pie: It's not a recipe that exists at this point, though the pilgrims had recipes for stewed pumpkin.
Chicken/Eggs: We know that the colonists brought hens with them from England, but it's unknown how many they had left at this point or whether the hens were still laying.
Milk: No cows had been aboard the Mayflower, though it's possible that the colonists used goat milk to make cheese.
When it comes to information on the Pilgrims, I still always turn to The Times of Their Lives:  Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony (NY: Anchor Books, 2000), by the pioneering historians of material culture, James and Patricia Scott Deetz. They point out that the only original account suggests "a celebration bordering on the rowdy, with sounds of firearms being discharged accompanying talking and shouting, in two languages, and the consumption of quantities of food"--and contains not a word about "giving thanks":  "Such an image is entirely at odds with the manner in which Thanksgiving has been portrayed in pictorial form, a solemn group of people seated primly at long tables and partaking of the traditional turkey, among other foods" (5). The only demonstrably present meats--based on a later passage in Winslow's famous letter--were "ducks, geese, and venison" (7).

My favorite tidbit in the dietary domain involves the cranberry.  The interesting thing is not that cranberries were available and not eaten, but what contemporaries called them: "alkermes berries," which they knew from Europe:
The strange fact is that alkermes berries are actually bright-red pregnant female insects found in the Mediterranean, which were long thought to be a vegetable.  Their juice was used both as a dye and a cordial. (7)
Take a close look next time you pass that bowl of relish.

And the Deetzes also adds beverages, which Curtin strangely leaves out:  "the likelihood of beer in generous quantities seems quite high.  Beer was consumed by all seventeenth-century English people in quantities that today would seem excessive." In fact, a journal kept on the Mayflower indicates that the a thirst for malty libations even helped to determine the site of their historic settlement:  "We could not now take time for further search or consideration, our victuals being much spent, especially our beer . . . ."(8)

Guns and beer (a shot and a brew): what could be more American than that?

I'm thankful that the settlers in Plymouth weren't the drab bunch of prigs depicted in our schoolbooks.  History is usually more interesting than legend.


• Mass Moments on the First National Day of Mourning organized by Native Americans in 1970

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

11:00, 11.11.1918: Armistice/Veterans Day

Veterans Day (contrary to popular opinion, not expressed as either a singular or a plural possessive) is one of those American holidays that reflects our shifting appreciation for historical time and ritual: It commemorates the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, when the Armistice brought an end to the slaughter of the Great War. First celebrated as a US holiday on 12 November 1919, it became the familiar Armistice Day, celebrated on the 11th in 1926, and was transformed into Veterans Day in the aftermath of World War II, in 1954.

Like many other federal holidays, Veterans Day succumbed to the problematic "Monday Holiday Law" of 1968, which attempted to shift celebrations from their historic dates to neighboring Mondays, thus providing workers with a three-day weekend.  In the case of Veterans Day, the shift was notably bizarre, for as of 1971, when the new legislation went into effect, the celebration was relocated to the fourth Monday of October.  It would have made about as much sense to shift Independence Day to June, but the change was particularly ill-conceived, given the numerological significance of the original.  Forty-eight states accepted the new date, but in the course of the next four years, 25 peeled away, and eventually, a total of 46 celebrated the old date.  Federal legislation of 1978 finally and irrevocably returned the holiday to 11-11. (No doubt, the Vietnam experience had something to do with it.)

To mourn what we have lost in the realm of ritual as well as human life is not to cling to tradition, but to understand how it should be used.  When I was in elementary school (quite a while back, but not all that long ago), we still stood and observed a moment of silence at 11:11 on November 11.  There would be no point to that now, for the Great War was not the "war to end all wars" and is not a particular point of reference for the current generation.  Similarly, when I was a child or even a young adult, veterans' organizations still sold paper poppies, with their reference to the flowers of "Flanders Fields" in the Great War. At some point in recent decades, these emblems became purple forget-me-nots instead, which may have been a more meaningful message in more ways than one in the post-Vietnam era.  However, the shift of the date is a more serious matter.  

Even leaving aside the compelling and beautiful significance of the triple "eleven," a Monday holiday in effect defeats the purpose of this commemoration in particular.  The whole point of the holiday, like most ancient and traditional holidays, is to mark a break from ordinary times and routines: one thinks of the well-known pre-industrial rhythms of "feast and fast" versus our modern, smoothed-out time, made even flatter by the availability of almost every good and service "24-7." We are unwilling to give up our convenience and the routine of being bound by no routine.  

Anyone who wants to appreciate how the ritual disruption of routine can function as a call to civic memory need only consider the simple commemoration of Yom ha-Shoah, or Holocaust Memorial Day (there is a similar practice on th day on which the war dead are mourned), when a morning siren brings all vehicular and pedestrian traffic to a stop for a moment of silence:

Writing about November 11 in the New York Times, Alexander Watson reminds us of the varied cultural assumptions and experiences behind our practices of commemoration:
Cambridge, England

TODAY is the 90th anniversary of the armistice that ended the First World War, and it will be commemorated very differently on each side of the Atlantic and across the borders of Europe. It’s a reminder that not all “victors” experience wars in the same way, and that their citizens can have almost as much difficulty as those of the vanquished states in coping with the collective trauma of conflict.

For Americans, Veterans Day celebrates the survivors of all the nation’s 20th and 21st century wars. In France and Britain, by contrast, the mood is altogether more somber. In these countries, it is the dead who, since 1919, have been the focus of the ceremonies.

Why this difference?
(read the full article: Alexander Watson, "The Holiday to End All Wars," New York Times, 10 Nov. 2008)

Commemorations of the 90th anniversary of the end of the war in the UK, France, and Belgium:

Video of commemorations in the UK, France, and Belgium

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Landscape Restoration Begins in 1730 West Cemetery

The restoration of Amherst's 1730 West Cemetery, once among the ten most endangered historic resources of the Commonwealth, has been a priority of the Historical Commission for a decade. Our initial efforts have focused on securing the site through installation of new fencing and lighting, and preservation of the most endangered artifacts. The major phase of headstone restoration, described earlier on these pages, began this summer and should be completed by next spring.

What visitors most often come to see--and notice, whether for positive or negative reasons--are, of course the headstones. What they are less aware of is the physical context in which those stones are situated. One of our arguments for the importance of the Cemetery was that it contains some of the only virtually undisturbed Colonial-era topography in the center of town. Other portions of the Cemetery preserve traces of later historical periods, each distinctive in its own right--in a sense, a museum of evolving social values and landscape architecture.

The Commission, in accordance with the West Cemetery Preservation Plan of 1999, and now with the approval of Select Board and Department of Public Works, is therefore embarking upon further restoration efforts, involving landscape and plantings. We are pleased to have as additional collaborators the members of the University of Massachusetts Stockbridge School, and its fraternity, Alpha Tau Gamma (ATG), whose members and alumni undertake extensive community service work throughout the Commonwealth. Among their projects have been a garden in memory of alumnus Jim Crockett, who for many years hosted the popular "Victory Garden" show on WGBH Public Television, and arborist and horticultural work for the Amherst History Museum, highway beautification work near the University, and assistance in the Amherst 250th Anniversary bulb planting program.

Our initial efforts will focus on the restoration of the turf floor in the two oldest sections of the Cemetery:

• The 1730 Knoll. At the moment, the area is desolate in the sense of nondescript and neglected rather than in the sense of evoking strong emotions and contemplation. With the new planting scheme in place, the change in scenery would be immediately apparent to anyone entering through the Gaylord Gate, signaling that one was in a special place, separated from the time represented by the streetscape (especially if we can restore proper perimeter plantings, as also called for in the Plan). This would be one of the most striking ways to communicate our efforts to the Town in a way that contributes to the celebration of our 250th anniversary, the more so as the plantings would change with the seasons.

In Colonial days, the Knoll would have been not a neatly mowed lawn, but a meadow-like expanse of varied plants kept in check by grazing sheep. To recreate something of this atmosphere without the assistance of hungry herbivores, the Plan recommends planting of bulbs and sun-loving herbaceous plants, to be kept in check by an annual mowing. In addition to having the merit of historical accuracy, this approach will reduce both costs and the risk of damage to fragile stones from heavy equipment as well as lighten the environmental cost of maintenance.

Restoration of the Knoll began yesterday, as members of the Stockbridge School and ATG planted several hundred grape hyacinth bulbs (Muscari sp.) and a scattering of barrenwort (Epimedium), provided by Hadley Garden Center. In the spring, as these plants come to life, we plan to add herbs and wildflowers, if possible, with the collaboration of plant-propagation classes at the University.

• The African-American section: A flat and shady expanse of lawn to the south of the Knoll. Many graves here were unmarked or no longer have markers, and many of the surviving stones are in poor condition. Introduction of low shade-loving plants, along with creation of a path to limit and direct foot traffic would restore a more dignified and historically appropriate character, and, again, reduce cost of mowing and risk of damage from same. The Plan also proposes a bench or other seating, accompanied by an interpretive marker to explain the history and legacy of Amherst's Black residents--among whom are Civil War soldiers of the famed 54th Massachusetts Volunteers. We expect to establish a public-input process to gather suggestions for implementation of these directives.

Master Plan Turned Over to Planning Board

Scott Merzbach, "Plan for Amherst set, seeking OK," Daily Hampshire Gazette, 8 Nov. 2008:
AMHERST - The town's master plan, which will serve as a blueprint for the town's future, is ready to be turned over to the Planning Board for approval, board members learned Wednesday from James Wald, Comprehensive Planning Committee Chairman.

"We've been living with it a long time, and we think it's a good document," Wald said.

The document comes more than 10 years after the process was launched, and incorporates information gleaned from numerous public comment sessions and townwide surveys of households. Wald said the plan provides an overarching vision for the town with respect to open space, housing, recreation and services and facilities, among other categories.

"In a sense, the whole thing is about land use," Wald said.

(read the full article)

Change You Can Motherf***ing Believe In!

As noted, the recent local and national electoral struggles have been physically and emotionally exhausting.

What to do afterwards is a problem in more than one regard. One problem is the tendency of the mainstream media and quotidian thinkers--during, and above all, after the campaign--to praise "bipartisanship." To be sure, the country accepts the verdict of the electorate and to that extent unites behind the new president, and to be sure, a certain measure of inter-party cooperation is essential to getting business done. But to elevate "bipartisanship" and "crossing the aisle" to an abstract ideal--as both candidates to some extent did as supposed evidence of their "credentials"--is also in some way deeply perverse: Why bother at all to have even two parties? (not least, when the ideological difference between them is rather modest, at least as measured by the scale of historical and global alternatives).

It was dismaying to watch the presidential debates and see the reaction of the designated pool of proverbial "undecided" voters respond in live time: Whenever one candidate criticized another, the graph of approval dipped downward. This had nothing to do with the merits of the argument at hand, and rather, with the mere fact of criticism. There are few more damning indictments of our political culture.

Hard political debate was a fact of life for American and French Revolutionaries, and the debates in the British Parliament are notoriously more boisterous than anything that occurs in our Capitol. There is something to be said, if only for the sake of basic honesty, for recognizing that people disagree about political issues, that these issues are important, and that we should cultivate and honor rather than paper over those disagreements.

How, then, to acknowledge irreconcilable disagreement and yet move on?

Sigmund Freud acknowledged the problem when, in his Civilization and its Discontents, he cited the immortal and incorrigibly ironic Heinrich Heine on the problem of enemies, reconciliation, and revenge. As Freud explained, "A great imaginative writer may permit himself to give expression--jokingly at all events--to psychological truths that are severely proscribed." Heine explained:
Mine is a most peaceable disposition. My wishes are: a humble cottage with a thatched roof, but a good bed, good food, the freshest milk and butter, flowers before my window, and a few fine trees before my door; and if God wants to make my happiness complete, he will grant me the joy of seeing some six or seven of my enemies hanging from those threes. Before tbeir death, I shall, moved in my heart, forgive them all the wrong they did me in their lifetime. One must, it is true, forgive one's enemies--but not before they have been hanged.
Freud himself but a few years later drew up a "hate list" of his own enemies.

Now conservative commentators are gnashing their teeth at the announcement that Rahm Emmanuel, member of Congress, Democratic Party official, and former Clinton administration staffer, will become Chief of Staff in the Obama White House.
Given all the predictable and nauseating banalities about "cooperation" and "bipartisanship," it was therefore a refreshing change to see this humorous piece about Emmanuel and real "hardball" politics.

Play ball!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Hampshire College Students Celebrate Election

The elections are over, and oddly enough, almost all of us on campus, whether faculty, staff, or student, report a feeling of exhaustion and distraction lasting several days--not entirely unpleasant, and certainly not a hangover in the literal or figurative sense.

Echoing the practices of the 1960s and earlier, the students were literally dancing in the streets (or at any rate, the open spaces and thoroughfares of the campus). One of the most striking things was that the spontaneous student celebration unknowingly encompassed so many historical practices--from the banging on pots and pans (here, mere exuberance of the type that we all practiced as children, though historically often as not a sign of mockery or dissent, from the early modern charivari to the Latin American political demonstration), ringing of the graduation bell (echoing the French Revolutionary tocsin that summoned the people to arms, but here reminding me more of the martial and then celebratory tintinnabulation in Prokofiev's score of "Alexander Nevsky"). The streaking was a bizarre throwback to the 1970s. Most surprising of all was the spontaneous singing of the national anthem. When was the last time that happened here? (sad commentary on several things). I see that similar spontaneous displays of patriotism emerged elsewhere in the country (though some have pointedly asked why they did not appear earlier and other other circumstances). Can anything else be better evidence of a potentially transformative moment in our history and culture? As the late philosopher Richard Rorty reminded us almost a decade and a-half ago, it is--or should be--a simple and sadly obvious truth that the left cannot hope to bring about real change in America if it defines itself as anti-American. Too often, the left just thinks in abstractions and talks in slogans, and is then surprised when things turn out disappointingly. (As any number of overeducated, trendily pseudo-radical colleagues kept saying to me in 2000 and 2004: "But I don't know anyone who voted for George Bush." Response: Well, maybe you should leave the cocoon of the Happy Valley, get out into the real world, and talk to some real people. You might learn something--at least better tactics.) Part of the strategical and moral genius of reformers such as Martin Luther King lay in the decision to define the call for justice as the embodiment of Americanism. (In their different ways, Edward Blum and Shelby Steele warn us, however, not to allow the enthusiasm of the current moment to trump rational analysis and realistic hopes.)

I myself missed these festivities (one is grateful for YouTube) because I was occupied elsewhere, namely, hoisting a few pints (as George Mosse used to say, e.g. with regard to eating curried rats: "it's all part of being a cultural historian") at Rafters Sports Bar: not "Rafter's" (after all, the place doesn't belong to some guy named Rafter--as opposed, for example, to the locally celebrated Judie's), a bizarre construction that I would expect of a first-year student rather than a seasoned newspaper reporter, especially one who has long lived in this town and should know the names of local establishments. In any case, the reporter was there with us and would have seen the sign when he entered the establishment--and unlike the rest of us, he was not even drinking; so no excuses there (sorry, Scott; all in good fun).

Rafters was the place where supporters of both Aaron Hayden's campaign for Select Board and Barack Obama's presidential campaign watched election returns, so we were able to celebrate two major victories in one evening (ironically or otherwise, the local Democratic Party gathering for State Senator Stan Rosenberg and US Representative John Olver, at Hickory Ridge Country Club, petered out early, prodding some well-wishers to return to Rafters for final national election results). By the end of the evening, most guests had also left Rafters to watch the remainder of the coverage at home. I stayed on, along with Jim and Penny Pitts (of Delta Organic Farm), former Hampshire colleague Anne McNeal, and former Select Board member Eddy Goldberg, to watch the Obama victory speech and subsequent coverage.  Those present invariably described it as a moving occasion.

Amherst: Hayden Wins Select Board Race; Community Sharply Divided Over CPA, Ballot Measure Fails.

Ace reporters and tense politicos await returns

The Victory Speech

(a more detailed report on the implications of the CPA vote will follow)

7 November 1917: Bolshevik Revolution

"The Master Mind of Bolshevism:
A Russian Robespierre,"
Illustrated London News, 1919

The outbreak of the Bolshevik Revolution on 7 November 1917 (25 October in the Julian calendar, or Old Style--hence the term, "October Revolution" in Russian and Soviet usage) once seemed to many the dawn of a new age and the culmination of a string of western revolutions. Although the reform and then collapse of the Soviet system led to an opening of archives and minds on some fronts, it also triggered some defensiveness on the dogmatic left and a rather unpleasant triumphalism in many western circles, which have not furthered the goals of rigorous historical analysis. As Christopher Read (1998) noted:
the Russian revolution and its consequences remains a living topic, attitudes towards it being woven into the fabric of liberal capitalist self-justification and into socialist ideas of all varieties, not least the shrill polemics of radical groups which trace their lineage back to one form of Bolshevism or another. It has very much been a case of ‘tell me what you think of the Russian revolution and I’ll tell you who you are.’ Although Russia’s revolution is not as important as it was at the height of the cold war, the collapse of communism has only partially slackened the pace since Russia’s post-1991 ills are still being blamed primarily on communist mismanagement.
The near-simultaneous appearance of his book and that of Orlando Figes provided him with an opportunity to survey the similarities and differences in their work. Despite certain methodological similarities, they differ sharply in their assessment of revolutionary violence: Figes sees it as mere bloodlust, whereas Read finds that it was more rational and discriminating.
Finally, both of us would probably see ourselves as ‘post-revisionists’, as historians attempting to look at the revolution as ‘the past’, something which has gone, which has run its course, something which no longer has deadly importance for contemporary political stances. Although the significance of October will continue to be avidly discussed, it is less vital than it was at the height of the cold war. Only time will tell if these two books are seen as the last dinosaurs of an older style of writing about the revolution or the precursors of a new, more rounded and more dispassionate historiography.
A decade later, relatively little seems to have changed. Historiography has matured, but new subtleties and insights have barely penetrated the popular discourse.

The newspapers so far today seem to contain hardly a mention of the event. Of course, most of us have other, more recent political revolutions on our minds, and appropriately so.

The "October Revolution" page from includes various contemporary communist accounts. Trotsky's reflections on the "Lessons of October" remains worth reading as a source of both history and tactical analysis regardless of one's own political stance. Among other things, it is useful to be reminded of the Lenin passage that he quotes:
“Too often has it happened,” wrote Lenin in July 1917, “that, when history has taken a sharp turn, even progressive parties have for some time been unable to adapt themselves to the new situation and have repeated slogans which had formerly been correct but had now lost all meaning – lost it as ‘suddenly’ as the sharp turn in history was ‘sudden’.” [CW, (Moscow 1964), Vol.25, On Slogans (mid-July 1917), p.183]