Sunday, October 31, 2010

Strange Doings on Halloween: no good deed goes unpunished

Well, I thought I was doing a good deed when I tweeted the announcement of the position of Acting Director of the Jones Library.

Imagine my surprise when, only a short while later, I saw that it had shown up in the Twitter newspaper, the WesternMA Daily (that, I had expected)—but listed under "Crime" (!). That I most certainly did not expect.

I am wondering what automated procedure could conceivably have come up with that decision, especially given that there is a "Business" rubric.  Or perhaps it was just the Halloween spirits working their mischief? And the sun is not yet set on this fateful day. Who knows what else awaits us?

Update: 6:00 p.m.

Well, now we know what one of those things is. There are now 9 "Milky War" bars and wrappers inside the dog, just waiting to come out.  Trick or Treat!

(and the evening is still young)

Update 2 November:

Worked fine this week. Because it was a retweet rather than an original?  Or was it just those mischievous spirits, after all?

The Scariest Thing I Can Imagine for Massachusetts at Halloween? Passage of the Three Ballot Measures

It's Halloween weekend.  On October 30, 1938, thousands of well-intentioned Americans, misinterpreting a radio play based on H. G. Wells's War of the Worlds as an actual news broadcast, allegedly panicked and concluded that Martians were invading Earth.

We are more sophisticated in dealing with information now, so it would be a shame if fear drove Massachusetts voters, confronting very real rather than imaginary social and fiscal threats, to support three statewide ballot measures that would have a disastrous effect on stability and social justice in our communities. Questions Number One and Three would reduce specific taxes. Number Two, though complex in its wording, boils down to an attempt to dismantle the legal requirement that cities and towns provide affordable housing.  The Amherst Select Board officially endorses "No" votes on Questions 1 and 3 because they would have a direct and decisive impact on the town's budgets and services.

* * *

Every time an election rolls around, the Select Board considers whether to take a position on the various ballot initiatives. We (I say this in full awareness that this is the first time I myself have taken part) approach this task with great seriousness because we realize that town residents hold diverse opinions, and that decent people can have honest differences over both policy and principle.  When the five of us speak as a body, then, it is not in order to advocate for our personal views, and instead, to convey our best shared judgment of what is in the overall or long-term interest of the town.

Few issues are more sensitive and divisive than taxes.   We see and feel their bite.  For philosophical and practical reasons alike, recent Select Boards have been very cautious about supporting any form of increased taxation. The Select Board (shortly before I was elected) endorsed last year's relatively modest local property tax override only after an extended period of enforcing new fiscal responsibility:  cutting budgets to the bone, implementing responsible long-range planning based on a community-input process.

Several times since the election this spring, Select Board members have taken part in regional gatherings devoted to planning and the relation between state and local government:  State Senator Rosenberg's annual municipal conference in Northampton in March, the statewide leadership conference for select boards in Sturbridge in June, and so forth. Each time, we heard the dire warning: don't think that, because the national economy is slowly improving, we can look forward to a rosy future. On the contrary.  Fiscal Year (FY) 11 is tough, but FY 12 may actually be worse.  Not only is state revenue uncertain at best: we also won't have the cushion of federal stimulus money. The Governor and the experts thus see improvement in FY 13 at the earliest.  And even then, as my Select Board colleague Alisa Brewer continues to remind us, we cannot become complacent:  many things that have been cut never can and never will come back, even with the return of better times and higher revenues.

When I took part in the candidates' forum at the time of my election to the Select Board, I was asked a question about tax overrides. The issue next Tuesday is maintaining existing taxes rather than adding new ones, but the principle is the same. What I said last March was that we need to take into account not just the effect on the residents' tax burden, as such, but also the total direct and indirect cost, as it affects our daily lives.  Cuts in essential services that yield tax savings may appear attractive at the time, but we nonetheless pay for what is lost:  eventually, privately—and inequitably. For example, I grew up in a college town with excellent public services and public works maintenance; trash pickup included even yard waste and tree branches.  Times have changed.  When I moved to Amherst, I learned that waste collection here had been privatized.  I now pay $ 390 per year just for collection of recycling and one can of garbage per week.  Most residents would scream at the prospect of a tax override that restored only one service at such an annual cost.  Last spring's override, which ensured continuation of numerous essential services, cost the average homeowner half that amount ($ 192).

I grudgingly pay that waste disposal bill because I have to and it gives me access to a necessary service now available only in the private sector.  By contrast, if Questions 1 and 3 pass, and we have to slash our budget even more deeply, I cannot, as a private citizen, hire a policeman or a teacher, see to it that our pothole-filled roads are maintained, or otherwise compensate for the resultant harm to the public good.

It is hard to be put in the position of defending regressive indirect taxes—a sales tax that has risen from 5 to 6.25 percent, and the recent application of that sales tax to alcohol (already subject to excise tax)—but irresponsible state and federal policies (dating back to the Reagan era and reinforced under the two Bush regimes), combined with dismal economic conditions, have confronted our towns with a Hobson's choice. Proposition 2 1/2 makes it extremely difficult to raise even the regressive property tax (an antiquated one based on land as the prime source of wealth, in any case), and there is no political will or civil courage to shift the focus of taxation to a more progressive graduated state income tax (seemingly more visible and painful, but ultimately more fair and sustainable).

As a result, we have become dependent on the most backward taxes just in order to maintain essential services. It's that bad.  This, of course, is exactly the box in which the cynical Reaganites and latter-day apostles of the anti-tax gospel sought to put us.

Cutting even these admittedly regressive sales and alcohol taxes at a time of fiscal crisis would therefore devastate our towns, and eliminating the best measure that we have to support affordable housing—responsible for 80 percent of the new units over the past decade—is equally unacceptable; indeed, that would add insult to injury. Again:  Yes, it's really that bad. Read the Select Board's statement below.

A skeptical commentator on tax issues writes:
Prediction: Question 1 is likely to be defeated by a wide margin, leaving Massachusetts' sales tax on alcoholic beverages in place.

What I'm wondering is if the pro-tax folks win, will they contribute to Massachusetts' treasury by toasting their victory with taxable beverages?
Well yes, I will—in fact, in all three cases, I hope.  It's a win-win situation:   No sacrifice is too great for the good of the Commonwealth.  Look for me in one of our fine establishments serving local or microbrews. (And in any case, we wouldn't want to become sanctimonious and humorless.)

And that reminds me: As chance would have it, Jim Koch, the visionary founder of the Boston Beer Company—best known to most of us as the producer of Samuel Adams beerwas in the Valley on Friday to promote his program of microloans "to support low- and moderate-income small business owners in the food and beverage industry." To date, he noted with surprise, no one from western Massachusetts had applied.

I'm sure we on the Select Board will take some heat for our stance, but let's remind ourselves again:  we all agree that fiscal affairs are a mess and the financial situation of many families and individuals, precarious.  The ballot measures represent one legitimate attempt to address that problem.  We simply and sincerely believe that it is the wrong one. That's a legitimate view, too.

Cut to Denver, Colorado, in the heartland of America, where a referendum wants the city to take the lead in welcoming aliens from other planets.   The opposition is being led by—of all people—the head of the Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society (got that?).
Ballot Initiative 300 would require the city to set up an Extraterrestrial Affairs Commission, stocked with Ph.D. scientists, to "ensure the health, safety and cultural awareness of Denver residents" when it comes to future contact "with extraterrestrial intelligent beings or their vehicles."...
Initiative 300 made it to Tuesday's ballot on the strength of roughly 4,000 voter signatures. It starts from the premise that intelligent aliens have been visiting Earth for decades, but the federal government has conspired to keep that quiet.
"We need to get this out of the realm of the Tooth Fairy and into the realm of diplomatic protocol," says Ricky Butterfass, who works on the campaign. (read the rest)
And people say Amherst is detached from reality.

Seriously, folks: Voting "yes" on Questions 1, 2, and 3 is a bit like overindulging in those taxable alcoholic beverages. It seems a good thing to do at the time.  It induces pleasurable feelings, perhaps even a heady sensation of power.  But the price will be a terrible hangover.

Vote "no." Any other outcome is just too scary to contemplate.

Smashed (not Smashing) pumpkins (h.t: .jrk & UChicago)
* * *

The starting place for informed voting is the website of the Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth

2010 Statewide Ballot Questions (contains the text and an objective summary of the content of each measure)

• 2010 Ballot Questions (contains very brief summaries of the measures, followed by more detailed statements by proponents and opponents):

Question 1
Question 2
Question 3

Below, the official position of the Select Board, as well as other editorial commentary

Select Board statement
Amherst Select Board states its case against Questions 1 and 3
Published on October 29, 2010

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following essay was submitted by Select Board members Stephanie, O'Keeffe, Diana Stein, Alisa Brewer, Aaron Hayden and Jim Wald.

Taxes. So easy to hate! Why would anyone want to give their hard-earned money to "the government" instead of keeping it for themselves? It's no wonder people are tempted by ballot questions 1 and 3.

Question 1 would eliminate the recently enacted sales tax on alcohol, and Question 3 would reduce the sales tax from its current 6.25 percent to 3 percent. While being able to save a few tax pennies per dollar spent has a certain appeal, the real issue is: How do those savings compare to what would be lost if the state doesn't receive that tax revenue?

Budget projections for next year already show the state to be facing about a $2 billion deficit, due to the end of federal stimulus money and the slow economic recovery. Rolling the sales tax back to 3 percent would mean the loss of an additional $2.5 billion to the state coffers. If Question 3 passes, the state will face approximately a $4.5 billion gap. (read the rest)
My former colleague on the Comprehensive Planning Committee, Jim Oldham, a regular op-ed contributor to the Bulletin, representing the progressive voice, last week published his cogent statement opposing all three measures:
We are experiencing a period of extreme political negativity: Legitimate voter anger and frustration at the failure of government to address the needs and concerns of ordinary people is being hijacked by radical conservatives who scapegoat minorities and offer plans that destroy what is good about government rather than fix what is wrong.

Here in Massachusetts this misdirected populist uprising is reflected in three statewide ballot questions to be decided in the Nov. 2 election. The most positive thing one can do is vote no, no and no. (read the rest)
Finally, this week, the editors of the Bulletin themselves came out with a strong negative recommendation:
Editorial: Ballot questions rate a big 'no'
Published on October 29, 2010

Massachusetts voters will consider three statewide questions Tuesday. If approved, Question 1 would scrap the sales tax on alcoholic beverages; Question 2 would repeal 40B, the state's affordable housing law; and Question 3 would reduce the state's sales tax from 6.25 percent to 3 percent. The right answer to all three questions, we believe, is "No."

Certainly, in tight economic times, the prospect of lowering taxes, as Questions 1 and 2 propose to do, is appealing. However, in both cases, we believe approving these measures would cost taxpayers considerably more in the long run. (read the rest)
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Saturday, October 30, 2010

30 October 1938: Orson Welles's "War of the Worlds" Broadcast

On this day in 1938, enfant terrible Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre on the Air made their now-infamous broadcast of an adaptation of H. G. Wells's War of the Worlds.  As is well known, the program presented the story in the form of an emergency news report, leading some listeners (especially those who tuned in late) to conclude that the Earth was actually under invasion by Martians.

Scholars generally agree that many of the popularly accepted stories of mass panic are urban legends or at least exaggerations, demanding critical scrutiny and hard proof.  Still, there was something to them, and it was always entertaining to speculate and investigate.

According to the radio broadcast, the Martian landing took place at Grover's Mill, NJ—now Princeton Junction—which, at the time of the sixtieth anniversary, in 1998, erected a monument to the event.  I recall that, when I used to shop at a wonderful old bookstore in nearby Cranbury, NJ (coincidentally, from the standpoint of historic preservation, "the best preserved 19th century village in Middlesex County"), residents would point to the water tower and tell me that this was one of the "aliens" that frightened residents had shot at on that fateful night.  True?   That depends on the question that one asks. According to more credible reports, it was a different water tower altogether. And, as noted, many such reports were simply spurious. But from the standpoint of the cultural historian, the interesting thing is not just what happened, but what people think happened, and why. To that extent, the myth or legend itself acquires the status of historical subject.

The script and audio (e.g. 1, 2) of the broadcast are now available online.  Happy Halloween!
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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Hawthorne Farmhouse: Opening Up to the Public Process, Buttoning Up Against the Elements and Unwanted Visitors

As recently noted, the Historical Commission imposed a demolition delay on the circa 1790-1830 house on the Hawthorne farm (235 East Pleasant St.), which the Town of Amherst acquired for purposes of recreation and affordable housing.  Now that this review process is complete, the Town is about to undertake the long-awaited public input process, to determine specific preferences and possibilities for the use of the property.

The first step will be an opportunity for the public to tour the land and buildings with Town staff, at 9:00 a.m. on Saturday, 6 November.  Traffic on East Pleasant St. is heavy and parking limited, so participants are instructed to assemble in the nearby Wildwood School parking lot.

Because it will take quite some time to develop a detailed plan for the property, the Town's first concern is to secure the structure against vandalism or other inappropriate activity.

A broken window represents the problem.

broken pane on the ground floor, to right of entrance porch
 Plywood sheets leaning against the barn represent the solution.

plywood sheets at the ready near the circa 1890 barn
I myself have a scheduling conflict and will be unable to take part in the walk-through, but I've already seen the property on a Historical Commission site visit preparatory to the demolition delay hearing.  I would, however, be very interested to learn of the reactions of any residents who do take part.

The next major step in the input process will be a public forum at Town Hall: Thursday, December 9, Town Hall, First Floor Meeting Room, 7:00 p.m.

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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Well, where are you? Celebrating Noah Webster's Birthday and Searching for Remains of His Property

Noah Webster (rear)

October 16 marks the birthday of Noah Webster (left, background; 1758-1843).  The big celebrations were in 2008, on the 250th anniversary of that occasion, and it's worth reminding ourselves now, as we did then, that he has strong connections to Amherst as well as the Hartford and New Haven regions.

Webster's residency in Amherst from 1812 to 1822 is best and justly associated with his lexicographical and pedagogical legacy. He worked here on the famous 1828 dictionary (one manuscript entry is preserved in the Jones Library Special Collections) and played a crucial role in the founding of both Amherst Academy and Amherst College, The connections don't end there.  One of his partners in the creation of the College was Samuel Fowler Dickinson.  In 1844, the latter's eldest son, Edward (left, foreground),  who had served as the College's Treasurer from 1835 to 1837, purchased a new reprint of the 1841 edition of the dictionary, published in Amherst by J. S. and C. Adams for the family library (that copy is preserved in the Houghton Library at Harvard).  It was, by the standards of the time, an expensive acquisition.  It was also much appreciated.  His daughter, Emily, more than once described it as her only or sole "companion."  According to her niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, the poet read it as "a priest his breviary." Scholars have in the meantime come to see it as crucial to an understanding of Dickinson's poetry, and especially, any attempts at translation.

Still, as I noted in my 250th anniversary post, Webster was also involved with his local and Massachusetts surroundings through agricultural, scientific, and political pursuits.  I alluded there to his extensive, 12-acre farm in what is now the center of town, and to anecdotal and archaeological evidence for the site of a well on his property. I thought I would therefore add a few more details on those excavations, which took place 12 years ago this week (Oct. 21-27, 1998)—all the more appropriately because this is Archaeology Month.

The University of Massachusetts Archaeological Services (UMAS) undertook that survey in conjunction with preliminary plans for the Boltwood Walk Parking Garage.  (Nice coincidence:  Only when I read the original report for the first time several years ago did I realize that friend and fellow cultural historian and blogger Jan Whitaker did the editorial work on the document. Check out her award-winning writing on food and restaurant culture.)

The story is actually fairly simple, but the evidence is ambiguous (not uncommon in such preservation cases). We know that Webster lived at this site, the former "Phoenix Row"—now on Main Street, in the area of the "Amherst Block" (the late nineteenth-century multi-unit structures were called "blocks" and given names: thus, "Cook's Block," "Carpenter Block," etc.). The Lincoln Building (below) occupies approximately the site of the former Amherst Block.

Because the area was the site of periodic demolition and renewal, any visible trace of Webster's home vanished long ago. Writing in the local newspaper in 1962, however, local historian Lincoln Barnes recalled seeing a surviving fragment amidst the remnants of an 1880s building:
When this building was torn down (in the early 1940s, but really in 1938) . . . the ancient well which was used by the Noah Webster family was uncovered . . . . (arrow in photo shows location of well)
It therefore became a prime target of the archaeological investigation.  "Trench #1" explored the site of that late nineteenth-century "industrial structure" "known as Carpenter's Hall or the Carpenter Block (earlier known as the Amherst Record Printing office, a tin/stove shop, and Red Men's Hall)."  The excavations uncovered the expected 1882 foundations and layers of fill from the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  In addition, however,
Within the eastern half of the foundation a well was identified (Feature 2).  The well consisted of a circular shaft, lined with brick, extending below the concrete floor.  Above the concrete floor, a semi-circle of brick remains, approximately 2 ft in height.  One side of the well was apparently removed in order to cover it with concrete, leaving an opening only for a small pipe, which extends vertically out of the well, and runs to the north to the exterior cistern.  A jackhammer was used to remove the concrete floor and observe the well below.  The well had been filled prior to covering it with concrete.

The layers of historic fill from Strata 14 and 15, from the exterior and interior of the structure, respectively, contained promising traces of early ceramics—1 fragment each of tin-glazed earthenware (Delftware;1640-1800), 6 sherds each of creamware (1762-1820) and pearlware (1780-1840)—but because they were found in association with later items, the best one could do was to date these fill levels to the nineteenth century.

Unfortunately, the photograph of the well itself that Barnes claims to have taken cannot be located.  He did not mention the location in a cellar (though this does not rule out the more recently excavated site as identical, for this would have fit the practice of the day). More curious, perhaps, the well appears on none of the historic maps (including the famous Sanborn fire insurance maps so valuable to historians and preservationists, nor even on the detailed sketch of the farm that one of Webster's daughters left behind.
 The mystery thus remains.  As the archaeological report puts it,
If the well found in the archaeological trench was not the well observed by Barnes, this raises the possibility that another well may lie on the property.  However, beyond the reference by Barnes, no other documentation of any wells known to exist. The well is not recorded on a nineteenth-century map of the Noah Webster property made by one of his children, even though other outbuildings are recorded (Figure 6).  Nor is the well detailed on any of the Sanborn fire insurance maps, or any other historic maps that have been found to date.
With the underground garage now in place and the plaza paved, it seems unlikely that we will get a chance to explore any alternative sites anytime soon. That's one of the prices of change.

In any event, we do know for certain that Webster's farm occupied this entire area.  So, next time you station your car in the parking lot and visit one of the many restaurants that border it, pause for a moment to remember that it was from the ground under your feet that Noah Webster derived at least some of his food and drink.

The Historical Commission wants to make sure that no one forgets.  In 2005, we commemorated Webster's significance for the town on the community history mural created by artist David Fichter in the historic West Cemetery (the image at the top of this page, from the education panel of the painting).  In 2009, on the occasion of the town's 250th anniversary, Town Meeting appropriated Community Preservation Act funds for our Amherst Writer's Walk project, markers to be placed at the residences of the town's major authors, among them, Webster.  The request for proposals for fabrication of the markers is now in the works, and with any luck, the Writer's Walk will become a reality sometime next year.

Jones Library Special Collections: one of my students enthusiastically researching Noah Webster for the Amherst Historical Commission's "Writer's Walk" project in 2008.  She is holding a copy of the 1844 Amherst edition of the dictionary, published by J S. and C. Adams.

In the meantime, don't forget that it's archaeology month.  Webster's famous 1828 dictionary defined the term as

ARCHEOL'OGY, n. [Gr. ancient, and discourse.]

    A discourse an antiquity; learning or knowledge which respects ancient times.

It's a definition that could apply to historic preservation—and good advice for us all.


Noah Webster's 1828 American Dictionary
• September 24, 1847: "First 'Merriam-Webster Dictonary' Published in Springfield (from Mass Moments)
• Joshua Kendall, "Poets and Their Passion for Lexicographers: Plath and Roget, Dickinson and Webster" (from Psychology Today, 26 October)
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Sunday, October 24, 2010

The "Gazette" on the Historical Commission: Demolition Delay Imposed on House and Barn Wins Praise from Public

 "Year-long demolition delay placed on 19th-century Amherst farmhouse, barn,"  Scott Merzbach reports in Saturday's Gazette, on the recent Historical Commission proceedings involving the Hawthorne property, acquired by the town for purposes of creating recreational spaces and affordable housing. Scott takes his characteristic pains to capture some of the subtleties and details of our decisions within the context of a brief article.  He notes both the town's promises of flexibility, and public skepticism over the planning process to date.  He concludes with praise for the Historical Commission from concerned members of the Community Preservation Act Committee (CPAC):
The letter, signed by Vince O'Connor and Mary Streeter, both members of the CPA Committee, and Denise Barberet and Ellen Kosmer [NOTE: Ellen is likewise a member, and Denise, a former member; JW], reads, "We urge the commission to continue to push staff to get off of their laurels and go beyond their initial assessments of the Hawthorne house by investigating creative sources of funding and innovative partnerships and community involvement that could make rehabilitation and reuse of the house economically feasible, and to be open, responsive, and respectful of both public participation in the process and of committee input."
I haven't actually seen the letter myself (I assume it went directly to Town Hall and that I will therefore receive it by the time of our next meeting). The goal of finding projects that combine historic preservation and affordable housing has, however, been one of the top desiderata that we share with our colleagues on CPAC, about which we have had many and cordial conversations. The trick, of course, is getting all the details to line up: finding the site that is both intrinsically appropriate (proximity to to infrastructure and services) and yet financially viable can, as we have repeatedly found, be maddeningly difficult. It therefore seemed particularly worth pursuing in this case, if only to put the lingering doubts to rest.

As noted earlier, now that the procedures are completed, I will be able to offer a full account of the deliberations and rationale, which help to explain our actions in the cases under consideration as well as the underlying rationale of preservation policy, which is an ever-changing mix of general principles—in our case, guided by the Amherst Preservation Plan and Master Plan—and the contingent conditions deriving from the site in question.

For the moment, just two points and one announcement:
  1. From the standpoint of the Commission, at least, this was not in any way an adversarial process.  Although some earlier public comments from the former Town Manager unfortunately suggested that the Town was planning to act precipitously, subsequent public and private statements from both Director of Conservation and Development David Ziomek and Town Manager John Musante made clear that the Town lacked the desire, plans, and funds for action anytime soon.  Both officials therefore affirmed that they would gladly accommodate themselves to whatever decision the Historical Commission might take.
  2. Even though the Town indicated that it was in no hurry to demolish, the Commission felt that imposing a delay that could be lifted if conditions were met represented the best means of satisfying our mutual interests and reassuring a skeptical public that felt its wishes and concerns had not been heard earlier.
  3. For a variety of reasons, the public process promised by the Town concerning the property did not take place before the demolition delay hearing. The Town has now announced that it will begin on the morning of November 6 with a site visit for interested residents (see the calendar, above for details).

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Fall Colors at the North Amherst Library

The autumnal oranges, browns, and yellows were visible at the North Amherst Library this past week—on the walls of the building—as repainting got underway. This refreshing of the exterior (restored to these original colors over a decade ago) is being financed with funds from the Community Preservation Act.

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Tributes to Jones Library Head Bonnie Isman

Now that the public and press have had a chance to digest the unexpected news of Jones Library Director Bonnie Isman's pending retirement, the retrospectives and tributes are appearing.  Most pieces tread a fine line between, on the one hand, celebrating her career, and on the other, noting her recent clash with library trustees, which, in the eyes of many, contributed to her decision.

Friday's issue of the Gazette includes a tribute ("A librarian's legacy") by the editors.  Although alluding at several points to the controversy over the trustees' evaluation of her performance ("a nine-month soap opera"), the piece sensibly and calmly expressed the hope that "she will be remembered for her optimistic nature, the library's improvements and the crises she capably navigated."   In the course of some three decades, it says, she managed budgetary and political challenges alike with aplomb, making the Jones Library into "not only a treasured part of Amherst's cultural life but a model for libraries across the state." Among the achievements:

•  "Isman . . . coordinated a $5 million expansion and renovation of the Jones Library that greatly improved its services to residents"
• "Isman led the Jones through a communications revolution. She was an early advocate of bringing in computers and helped set up the regional online catalog and interlibrary loan system."
• "She has also been a library leader on the state level, serving on committees and keeping abreast of policies and grant possibilities."

It concludes, "she leaves a proud legacy at the Jones Library that should not be sullied by the contentiousness of her final year."  (read the rest)

Writing in the Amherst Bulletin (15 Oct.), Scott Merzbach summarizes her achievements in terms similar to those in the Gazette:
In her three decades at the helm of the Jones Library, Bonnie Isman led the system through the renovation and expansion of the main building, brought the libraries into the computer age and preserved the historic collections that recently earned the library recognition as a national literary landmark.
As a piece of reportage rather than an editorial, the article has the luxury of greater space for detail and background.  It cites both a generous tribute from current Trustee Chair Pat Holland and several voices critical of the trustee role in the recent controversy. (read the rest)

Finally, my own tip of the hat: no commentary, no editorializing, just best wishes:

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

21 October 1797: Launching of USS Constitution; the need for preservation and interpretation continues

 Mass Moments notes that, on this day 1797, USS Constitution was launched in Boston. It took three attempts to set the immense ship, reinforced with heavy diagonal planking and copper sheathing, afloat. Shipyard officials warned townspeople to be prepared for a great wave when the boat was finally launched, but none appeared. Her greatest moment came during the War of 1812, when in less than 20 minutes her guns turned a British warship into a hulk, not worth towing to port. When British cannonballs appeared to bounce off her thick wooden hull, a sailor exclaimed, "Huzzah, her sides are made of iron!" Ever since, people have referred to the ship by her affectionate nickname "Old Ironsides." Berthed at the Boston Navy Yard, she is the oldest commissioned warship in the world.
(read the rest)
This year, the Globe reports, the "Constitution," which attracts half a million visitors annually, made one of its brief forays (typically, 6-8 per year since the restoration) into Boston harbor and "fired a 21-gun salute off Castle Island and then a 17-gun salute off Boston's Coast Guard station, which was the site of the former Edmund Hartt shipyard, where the ship was built and then launched on Oct. 21, 1797."

As the Mass Moments entry notes, the unusual reinforcement of the ship accounted for its strength but also made it difficult to maneuver at launch.  And possessing the strength of "Ironsides" did not necessarily mean longer effective life.  The piece goes on to explain that "In 1830 the Navy declared that Constitution was no longer seaworthy and recommended that she be scrapped." Thanks not least to a popular poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes that celebrated the ship that year, the public protested, and Congress appropriated funds for repairs, but there were to be three more threats of destruction, and three more reprieves.  A major four-year restoration took place on the eve of the 200th anniversary celebrations in 1997. Another round of repairs began in 2007.

It's an interesting case to contemplate for a variety of reasons. To begin with, one could classify this as one of the earliest historic preservation efforts in the nation, antedating the commonly accepted starting point—the formation of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association in 1853—by a generation.  There are in addition the enduring technical challenges, particularly when it comes to working with old wood and massive timbers (see this fascinating article from American Forests; incidentally, I'm proud to say that the University of Wisconsin Forest Products Laboratory, familiar to me since my childhood, played a major role in the last major restoration).  Finally, in the case of structures so subject to decay and deterioration, there is the conceptual or philosophical problem of "the same axe twice," as the old joke or anecdote goes (if you change the handle three times and the head twice, is it really the same tool?).  How much is original?  According to the Naval History and Heritage Command Detachment Boston, approximately "10 to 15 percent of the ship’s fabric is composed of timber installed between 1795 and 1797."  One offshoot of the process of deterioration and restoration has been the market for discarded materials. The 1927-31 restoration was financed in part by the selling of such souvenirs.  The tradition of course is older.  Pieces from the timbers or sheathing of old Royal Navy ships, whether hulks or preserved—Nelson's "Victory" is probably the best example—have been marketed at least since the nineteenth century. I myself have a couple of such items in my collection.  All in all, then, the "Constitution" wonderfully embodies the theoretical and practical aspectts of preservation.

And the need for interpretation as well as preservation continues (otherwise: why preserve?).  The USS Constitution Museum recently announced that it is seeking "an energetic, enthusiastic intern to assist in the development of a Museum/Public Libraries outreach program" (application details). Always nice to see my interest in historic preservation and books and libraries combined.

Speaking of documentation and public history:  In the meantime, inland Whitehall, NY, the official birthplace of the US Navy (who knew? bonus points: the date is Oct. 13, 1775) finds its historic claim challenged by Providence, R.I., and three Massachusetts locales:  Beverly, Marblehead, and the "Constitution"'s home of Boston.  A meeting at the Constitution Museum on the anniversary of the Navy's birth, organized by Archivist of the United States David Ferriero (a Marblehead native whose wife is from Beverly), took up the vexed question.  He explained that the real purpose was educational rather than juridical:
Ferriero set his staff researching the Navy's origins shortly after he was appointed the archivist last year. Curiosity about the competing claims to his hometown's title was one reason, he said, but he added the real purpose is not to settle the argument. Rather it's to use the good-natured debate to send a message about the archives: "These are your records, you should be using them, we provide access to them and there are all kinds of stories to be told from the records of your government," Ferriero said.
To end the suspense: the title remains both officially unchanged and popularly disputed.  When Ferriero put the five choices to an unofficial voice vote, the audience sent up "huzzuh"s in equal volume for Marblehead and Beverly. And so, advocates of local history keep the struggle, like the "Constitution" itself, alive.


USS Constitution Museum
• Boston Navy Yard (map; National Park Service site)
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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Preservation Update: Hawthorne and Rooster's (Survival Center) Properties

In a characteristically thorough deliberation lasting for some two and a half hours, the Amherst Historical Commission ruled on two important demolition cases.

First, the Commission resumed and concluded its deliberations on the demolition applications for three structures on the Hawthorne Farm property recently acquired by the town under the Community Preservation Act.  The majority of the property is to be used for Open Space and Recreation (primarily, playing fields, with possibilities for multi-generational and passive recreation), but the western end of the parcel, on which the structures are located, is to be dedicated to affordable housing, whether through adaptive reuse of the existing farmhouse, or through new construction.  Town staff have explained that they view the demolition application as part of their due diligence:  keeping options open and seeking the expert opinion of the Commission.  At a recent public hearing, abutters and others expressed strong support for efforts to save the farmhouse.  The Commission found all three structures to be historically significant but tabled a decision on the demolition application, as such, until tonight.

Second, the Commission held a public hearing on the proposal by the Amherst Survival Center to demolish a mid-nineteenth-century barn. The Center is relocating its operations from the former North Amherst School to the site of the former Rooster's Restaurant.  It plans to retain the existing house and to add new construction to the south, on the site of the existing barn.

The Commission decided as follows:

in the case of:

DDA2011-0004,-0005,-0006 235 East Pleasant Street [Hawthorne Farm]
Request to demolish one (1) c. 1830s vernacular Greek Revival farmhouse; one (1) c. 1850s barn; and one (1) c. 1950s barn. (note:  these are the official designations in the application; actual dates may vary)

1) to impose a 12-month delay on demolition of the farmhouse.
The Commission further attached the following conditions that, if met, could allow the delay to be lifted earlier:
  • Applicant (the Town) provide cost estimates for new construction, to be shared with both the Historical Commission and Community Preservation Act Committee.
  • Any eventual demolition would entail either relocation of the structure or salvage and reuse of its materials.
  • Any eventual replacement structure should employ massing, materials, etc. similar to those of the original house.
2) to impose a 12-month delay on demolition of the large barn.

3) to allow demolition of the small horse barn.

in the case of:

DDA2011-0009 138 Sunderland Road (Map5A-26) [former Rooster's Restaurant]
Request to demolish a c. 1853 timber frame barn.

To permit demolition, on the condition that the applicant return to report on the possibility of (in order of priority):
  • incorporating the barn into the plans for new construction, or
  • moving the structure, intact, to a new location on the property, or
  • arranging for relocation of the structure off-site, or
  • re-use of structural elements, preferably on-site

Full story to follow soon.

100 Best First Lines from Novels

From American Book Review:

100 Best First Lines from Novels
1. Call me Ishmael. —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)

2. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

3. A screaming comes across the sky. —Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow (1973)

4. Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. —Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967; trans. Gregory Rabassa)

(From the book blog: read the rest)

Friday, October 15, 2010

15 October 1830: birthday of Amherst Author and Native American Rights Activist Helen Fiske Hunt Jackson

Mass Moments reminds us:
On This Day... 1830, an Amherst College professor and his wife rejoiced at the safe delivery of their second child, Helen Maria Fiske. A lifelong friend of Emily Dickinson and a talented poet in her own right, Helen Fiske Hunt Jackson would become one of the most admired and prolific authors of her time. Her poems, essays, travel sketches, and children's stories were widely published in the 1860s. On a visit to Boston in 1879, she heard an Indian chief speak about the injustices his people had suffered at the hands of the U.S. government. Never before involved in reform, Jackson was moved to action. She became a crusader for Indian rights and devoted the rest of her life to the cause. (read the rest)
In recent decades, as interest in both women's and Native American history has increased, Helen Hunt Jackson has begun to reclaim some of the attention of scholars and general public alike.  She is now best remembered for her indictments of policy toward Native Americans in A Century of Dishonor: A Sketch of the United States Government's Dealings with Some of the Indian Tribes (1881) and the bestselling novel, Ramona (1884).

Jackson was an almost exact contemporary (born in the same year, dying a year earlier) of Emily Dickinson's. The manuscript "List of Women Delivered by I.G.C," a record kept by Dr. Isaac G. Cutler of Amherst and preserved in the Jones Library Special Collections, records the births of the two children (though only the fathers' names are listed) on the same page.  They corresponded in the last decade of their lives, and it has been said that Jackson was one of the few contemporaries who fully appreciated Dickinson's originality.  Jackson published one of Dickinson's poems in an anthology in 1878, and just before her death, asked the poet to "make me your literary legatee & executor."

Helen Hunt Jackson (center, in purple dress)
The Amherst Community History Mural (2005) in the 1730 West Cemetery includes a portrait of Jackson in a panel of local literary figures. In 2009, the Historical Commission proposed, and Town Meeting approved, Community Preservation Act funding for up to ten signs to commemorate the sites associated with the lives of Amherst authors.  Among these was the birthplace of Helen Maria Fiske, attributed to architect Warren S. Howland, at what is now 249 South Pleasant Street.

The late art historian and former Historical Commission member Paul F. Norton  described it as follows:
The side of the house facing eastward is typical of the Greek Revival in having four pilasters (though the order is more Roman than Greek) supporting an entablature, above which a low-pitched gable rests comfortably.  Weather boards fitted flatly increase the classical effect, but on the other sides traditional clapboards were used.  The central chimney also suggests the strength of early Colonial tradition.
[Amherst: A Guide to Its Architecture (Amherst Historical Society, 1976), 136]
Amherst College acquired the structure in 1921.  The Historical Commission is now moving forward with requests for proposals for fabrication of the markers and hopes to have them installed sometime next year.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Fishing for Compliments: Smart, Sustainable Fish Farming

In a recent post, I mentioned controversial plans for a genetically modified farmed salmon and alluded to the complexities of these issues, which are not helped by the knee-jerk resistance to such scientific engineering, particularly when it comes (as is often the case) from people whose other statements and life choices reflect a complete absence of scientific understanding.

Obviously, any genetic modification of an organism should be undertaken only with the most careful consideration of ethics and health safety.  Above and beyond that, though, the point, for any objective and rational observer, should be not simply about "natural" versus genetically modified species, as such, and rather, about sustainability.

As chance would have it, recent news stories provide fine evidence of why the genetically modified salmon is unnecessary and undesirable and why there are better alternatives. They were all the more welcome because they involved a local entrepreneur, friend, and Hampshire College alumnus, Josh Goldman. 

As environmentalists have long argued, world fish populations have reached a crisis state, solely because of rapacious, irresponsible human actions. A year ago, writing in The New Republic, Daniel Pauly, Professor at the Fisheries Centre of the University of British Columbia and principal investigator of the Sea Around Us Project, offered a dire warning of "Aquacalypse Now:  The end of fish." The oceans, he said, "have been the victims of a giant Ponzi scheme," as we run through one population after another, pretending that the total supply will not be exhausted.  Industrialized fishing first depleted the great, classic northern fish stocks, which had fed us for centuries, and then moved on to the third world, deeper waters, and species previously regarded as inedible. Nothing a little name change wouldn't fix, in the latter case. Would you still shell out those facny-restaurant prices if you knew that the Orange Roughy and Chilean Sea Bass were originally called the Slimehead and Patagonian Toothfish?  Mmmm.

Large-scale fish farming of the traditionally desirable varieties has proven to be a false solution to the problem.  The negative consequences of much commercial fish farming (familiar in environmental circles for many years) are finally becoming better known among the general public. Now we are beginning to push the questions back one step further, to ask why a given species was selected for farming in the first place.  The answers can be surprising.

Barry Estabrook's recent article in the Atlantic magazine begins:
Our prehistoric ancestors in Southeast Asia had good reason to domesticate the area's wild sheep instead of tigers. Sheep were docile creatures that preferred to live together in flocks and could convert grass and weeds that humans couldn't digest into valuable protein. Tigers were solitary and wide-ranging and needed to be fed many times their weight in perfectly edible animal protein. Early man realized the sheer folly of feeding several sheep to a tiger in order for it to produce a sheep's weight of meat.

In the 1970s, when modern aquaculturists began casting about for fish to tame, they ignored this 10,000-year-old wisdom. Species were chosen on the basis of their value in the marketplace. If not, what logical reason would anyone have for domesticating Atlantic salmon, a carnivorous fish that cruises the open oceans and needs to eat many times its own weight in smaller fish and marine animals? A tiger of the seas. 
I'm puzzled by the reference to southeast Asia (my ancestors first domesticated the sheep in Central Asia some ten millennia ago), but I guess he just had to get the tiger in there somehow.  Anyway, when the issue is framed so strikingly, it's hard to see our current practices as anything but sheer folly.

Enter Josh Goldman, CEO of Australis Aquaculture, based in Turners Falls.  He did his senior thesis at Hampshire College on aquaculture and then set out to become an entrepreneur. After initially working with striped bass, he eventually settled on the Australian barramundi. As Estabrook tells it:
In terms of biological needs, barramundi are the anti-salmon. They are born in the sea and migrate to fresh waters as adults, the reverse of a salmon's lifecycle. The sluggish rivers they call home are subject to frequent droughts, forcing barramundi to form tight schools in tiny pools left in otherwise dry riverbeds. Huge gills enable them to live in oxygen-deficient water. And best of all, they have the rare ability to transform vegetarian feed into sought-after omega-3 fatty acids. Salmon require as much as three pounds of fish-based feed to put on a pound of meat. Goldman's barramundi need only a half pound, the bulk of which is made from scraps from a herring processing plant.
What's more, whereas ocean salmon pens cause a host of environmental problems, the fresh water for the inland barramundi farm is recycled 300 times, and the solid waste "goes to local farms as fertilizer."

This report provides me with a welcome opportunity to catch up on a story about another friend, which I had meant to post earlier (the spring was a hectic time).  My Master Planning Committee and Town Meeting colleague Jim Oldham—another Hampshire College alumnus, I am pleased to add—practices yet another kind of aqualculture. Active for years in environmental and social justice movements in Latin America, he has for more than a decade worked with the indigenous Secoya people of Ecuador. When oil exploration and other forms of economic development threatened both the environment and local land ownership, he introduced fish farms "as a source of food and income." Ever mindful of the need for sustainability, he recommended the use of local species, in small, less intensive, family operations involving a few thousand rather than tens of thousands of fish, each. It has been another success story.

Why should the advantages of such systems over conventional fish farming be so hard to grasp? Congratulations to these local friends for patiently teaching us the simple truth.

Meanwhile, half-way around the world, fish farming offers hope of another kind. A team of Israeli, Turkish, Irish, and American graduate students in Israel is proposing a new start-up, Nets for Peace.  The idea is to develop commercial fish-farming in Gaza as a means of enhancing the food supply and in the process promoting both economic development and cross-border cooperation.
The five graduate students "found commonality in Economic Peace Theory. We felt strongly that reduction in tension would be a product of economic empowerment; that the solution lies within the private sector in Gaza. That being said, it was clear that Gaza has limited natural resources, with the exception of human-power and sea. That fact, coupled with the strong seafaring heritage of the population, along with a drastic reduction in the fishing industry, made fish farms a natural solution," says David Welch, speaking for the Nets of Peace founders.
. . . .
Responding to a question from ISRAEL21c about their goal to supply Gazans with "a healthy protein supply," Welch says, "We have come across significant data stating that the population within Gaza (especially the child population) has been lacking essential parts of a healthy diet. The proteins and fatty acids found in fish could be a great way of bridging this gap. Eventually, we would like to see Gaza become a major Mediterranean exporter of fish products, but our first goal is to meet the demand within Gaza itself. We see this as an attainable goal."
The project "reached the finals in New York at the United Nations' 'Spirit Initiative', a business case competition for actionable solutions to long-standing international conflicts," and was also featured at TEDxTelAviv.

All three of the above undertakings, each in its way, holds the promise of small steps toward a better world.


Seafood Watch pocket guide (from Monterey Bay Aquarium)

[updated links]
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North Amherst Library Preservation Work Underway as Autumn Begins (and some reflections on maintenance, preservation, and the use of CPA funds)

I’ve always been a big fan of the North Amherst Library, and not just because it’s near my house at the edge of town and I drive past it every day. It is in fact one of the town’s hidden architectural and cultural gems. Founded in 1869 by 45 residents who paid fees to use it, the library was opened to residents in 1873 and incorporated in 1875. After the schoolhouse that held the collections succumbed to fire (a not uncommon fate for Amherst buildings in that era), a combination of private donations and public funding permitted construction of the current building, designed by Roswell F. Putnam of nearby Leverett and and dedicated in 1893. The site thus has the distinction of being home to both the earliest public library and the earliest public library building in town.

With its small but revolving, steadily updated collection and role as an exchange center for loan items from both within and beyond the Amherst libraries, the diminutive structure generates much more use than the casual visitor could possibly imagine. Add to that the dedicated staff and outreach efforts such as story time and the summer reading program, and you can see how it functions as a true multigenerational social hub of the North Amherst village center.

When we first moved to the area, the library was painted a uniform, somewhat-the-worse-for-wear, and unhistorical white. Our stereotypical vision of the New England town probably includes white, clapboarded houses and churches. Nowadays, this passes for simplicity in frugality. What most people probably do not realize is that it wasn’t until about the 1830s that white came into its own. Before that, many buildings were unpainted or used darker colors. (I often ask my students: If you were living in the hinterlands of Colonial western Massachusetts and wanted to make your own paint for a building, how would you do it? They get the point: one would turn first to mineral earths or vegetable dyes; hence the prevalence of reds and browns based on iron oxide. White paint required pigments derived from from chemically treated lead.) As commercial paint preparations came on the market in the later nineteenth century, a proliferation of new colors (many derived from new substances and processes) became more practical as well as fashionable.

An early photograph gives a hint of the library’s variegated hues, and a postcard shows the actual colors.

In 1996-97, the building was repainted in its original colors and the interior restored thanks to a very generous (then-anonymous) gift from William Holland (father of current Jones Library Trustee Chair Pat Holland).

The library is now in the midst of a double makeover.

At the close of last month, at the very end of the warm weather just before the incessant rains hit, workers began cleaning the exterior in preparation for repainting, funded (along with some modest electrical and insulation work on the interior) by $ 12,000 for historic preservation from the Community Preservation Act (CPA) that Town Meeting voted earlier this year.

However, as I pointed out at the time, although the Historical Commission is always pleased to support the needs of our valued libraries, the fact that the structure had not been repainted since the original restoration nearly 15 years ago gave one pause.  Regular touch-up and occasional full repainting are part of normal maintenance, an obligation that falls on owners of Colonial mansions and contemporary ranch houses alike.  Unfortunately, if enough time elapses, deferred maintenance turns into preservation work.  This was the conundrum—greater by several orders of magnitude—that we faced when Town officials first suggested using CPA funds to repair the Town Hall masonry.  Although numerous projects are worthy and could conceivably qualify as historic preservation work in any given year, there is a great temptation, particularly in times of fiscal constraint, to fund as many undertakings as possible outside the regular budget, and CPA cannot become a piggy bank for use on rainy days.  Otherwise, local historical commissions, which have clearly defined mandates under state law, are forced to set aside their own carefully devised priorities and respond instead to external, ad hoc demands.

The key is good strategic planning.  Our Historical Commission works on the basis of a ten-year Preservation Plan.  In the realm of town government as a whole, our new Master Plan furnishes the prime directives.  In addition, the Select Board has in recent years begun to emphasize rational planning and the long-term view, thus avoiding some of the penny-wise and pound-foolish mistakes of the more distant past.  Since I have joined that body, I have been very pleased and encouraged to see how this approach is reflected across the board (no pun intended), from the setting of the Town Manager's performance goals, to the work of the Joint Capital Planning Committee (JCPC), on which I serve—along with two Library Trustees.

Clearly, the Library (like the town itself in the case of Town Hall) in the past simply did not plan ahead, and ironically, the windfall gift of the 1996-97 restoration may have brought about a false complacency and helped to postpone precisely the sort of strategic thinking that was necessary.  One simply cannot do business that way today.

I am gratified to see that the Library is now engaged in applying more sustainable principles in its own domain. Indeed, long-term and strategic planning appears high on the list of the Trustees' priorities (more on that in a later post). The Historical Commission successfully supported additional CPA funding for the preservation of the collections and building of the main Jones Library branch:  $ 40,000 for restoration of the slate roof and $ 75,000 for archival climate control, as well as $ 20,000 for the latest installment in a joint document conservation project involving Jones Library Special Collections and the Town Clek's office.

It was not only CPA funds that were at work on the North Amherst Library.  Over a year ago, the immense and stately beech that had reigned over that landscape succumbed to disease and had to be cut down.  The town planted in its place a Princeton Elm (a new variety derived from one of the few disease-resistant old specimens), donated by Hadley Garden Center. This weekend, volunteers, inspired and guided by Trustee Chair Pat Holland, continued recently begun improvements to the now open triangular lawn on which the library sits, planting shrubs and autumn flowers.

Carpenter and Morehouse, in their History of the Town of Amherst (1896), describe the library as "a neat and ornamental structure." it is becoming such once again, with grounds to match.

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