Thursday, June 30, 2011
Somewhere in the archives of the American Studies Institute, there is a pile of pictures of small clusters of foreign teachers milling around, then climbing upon, and then riding, a farm trailer stacked with haybales. It’s a July 4th parade, and they are honored guests. In some of the pictures, you can see them waving small flags, few of them recognizable to most Americans. Britain, yes. Italy. France, perhaps. But Mozambique? Côte d’Ivoire? Vietnam? Still, they wave them bravely, and in some pictures, they throw candy to the crowd as the parade winds down what might be Main Street.
Might be, but isn’t. Or at least, it’s not any Main Street we, or they, might recognize as American. There’s no drug store, no five-and-dime, no public library, no Nibble Nook diner, no hardware store. It doesn’t cut one side of a public square, a commons around which a church or two or three are arrayed, on opposite sides, Protestants staring down Catholics, Methodists facing off against Baptists. For long stretches, blocks and blocks, there’s nothing on one side of the parade route but corn and soybean fields, flat and uniform to the horizon, unbroken even by a farm silo.
There’s not much on the other side, either, for that matter. That side is where the crowds are, but they’re pretty sparse. Every few blocks, there’s a denser subdivision or cul-de-sac community with its entry cut across the rural storm drain. There, families have set up lawn chairs, and the kids rush out to beg for candy. Eventually, the parade ends, at an odd park that seems to have been built around one of those aeration facilities for a water treatment plant or a stagnant industrial pond under EPA litigation. In these pictures, made around 2003, the park that is meant to be hasn’t yet taken hold; the trees are small and spindly, the new grass held under that combination of netting, chemical fertilizer, and recycled-newspaper mulch, all dyed a near-neon green. The teachers, by that time, have clustered under the few trees that are tall enough, for it looks hot. A few of them are fanning themselves with what appear to be promotional materials from the town or hamlet. If you look carefully, close up, you can see a logo of sorts, with the words Village of Homer Glen below it.
International teachers who’d come each summer to Chicago to study at the University of Illinois began to make the trek to Homer Glen just about the time the village was first incorporated—not 1890 or 1827, but April of 2001. The exurban communities springing up around Chicago had moved further and further out from the urban core, out along the interstates that ran in complex patterns southward and westward from Chicago, to intersect with the great west-to-east corridor of I80. When the tollway system finished I294, and then I355, a boom in new development took hold in the flat, rich agricultural lands far to the south and west of the city. Homer Glen was about as far out as you could get before coming into the magnetic field of older industrial towns that had flourished when manufacturing was done in the US: Elgin, Aurora, Joliet. And that defeated the momentum that was bringing a subdivision a month to completion in the areas between Lockport and Bolingbroke along the tollway corridors.
Homer Glen’s motto is: Community and Nature…In Harmony. The village itself is just north of a wide swath of Will County forest preserves, and there are a couple of parks within the village limits—pockets of land in the midst of what was, in 2001, a torrid homebuilding boom, edging out to the flat, treeless quarter-sections, full sections, and even double-sections of soybeans and corn.
Flatness and uniformity are pretty much the lay of the land. Riding in the parade, atop a farm trailer and two stacks of haybales, you could get a pretty good sense of the terrain, because there’s so little of it. The deepest declivity is the storm drain on either side of 151st St. and Parker Road as the parade made its steady, laser-straight path up to 143rd, where it would disband. The biggest hills are the man-made berms that separate the meridian-straight farm road and the huge, Renaissance-revival, atrium-ceiling, entertainment-center houses. The trees along the roadways were laid in equally rigid sequences; they were there to provide a sight buffer between the backyards of the subdivision homes and the roads. Once past them, the houses were arrayed in the theme-and-variations of American exurban housing—torqued rectangles and squares, regularized ovals with appendage lanes and ways and places forming something like the outline of a spider you just stepped on, and cul-de-sacs.
The heat of that morning-turning-to-afternoon gave a baked, flattened quality to the light, and everything seemed bleached from browns and greens. The foreigners waited, having done their part, with flags and candy and their native costumes, to make the parade an event more exotic than it might otherwise have been. Soon the school bus would come to take them on a tour of Lockport High School, and then to deposit them at the house of a typical American exurban family, where there was a swimming pool, and a rented tent, and neighbors from the cul-de-sac would bring typical American foods in a potluck: Ambrosia, potato salad brought from the chain grocery, baked beans made by doctoring the cans with some added sugar or, if adventurous, molasses. The host was promising hamburgers and hot dogs. God knows what the Muslims were going to eat.
Lockport Township High School is the other reason for Homer Glen’s invention and its boom atmosphere. Perhaps it’s even more important than the Tollway Extension that cut commute times from Chicago, but also from the tech-corridor areas far to the north, where O’Hare Airport was a far-eastern hub, and Schaumburg was the closest thing to a center of gravity. For a number of years, LTHS has trumpeted its ranking among the top 1600 high schools in the nation.
Last year, it was #1447.
But academic excellence can’t be all that draws emigrants to Homer Glen and LTHS. The high school’s official website features a baseball pitcher on its home page; in the subpage marked Academics, there’s a picture of ROTC trainees in uniform, at rigid attention. Below it, the description: An important goal of academics is to prepare for a career. As the workplace becomes more dependent on technology, and as global competition for jobs increases, students need to understand how and what they are learning in school relates to the rest of their lives, and future careers. Click on the links to access the Academic department web pages.
Perhaps the academics—the faculty, administrators, department heads—haven’t yet noticed the grammatical error in the second clause of the first sentence, or the punctuation error immediately after.
The Newsweek listings of top high schools are controversial on the extreme. Recently, the publication has begun to include the statistics for the percentage of students on subsidized lunch programs. That’s one of the best indicators for poverty in a school, and for what the rhetoricians of education like to call the at-risk student population. 9% of Lockport’s student population is on free or subsidized lunch programs provided by the federal government. High Point High School in Beltsville Maryland, directly above, at 1446, has 53%. On the same page, at #1459, Garfield High School, in Los Angeles, has 89% of its population well below the poverty line. In the city of Chicago, schools like Steinmetz (ranking 1646, subsidized rate 84%) and Kenwood Academy, a South Side school in a tough neighborhood (read: black; poor; gang-infested; desperately poor: ranking 1290, subsidized rate 73%) show a very different profile than Lockport’s promise of a solidly white, solidly middle-class, cohort.
Lockport Township High School has been embroiled in controversy for most of the length of Homer Glen’s existence. As it has bulged from the influx of new exurbanites, and as that bulge has appeared to be growing geometrically as young families have children and young children grow up and head for high school, the school administration has proposed a variety of solutions. But it has been riven by conflict, as the residents to the east, in the new communities like Homer Glen, have threatened to secede if the redistricting boundaries determining which community enters which schools have been drawn and redrawn. Lockport, Illinois, is overwhelmingly white—95.82%, just a notch above Homer Glen’s 95.5%. By comparison, nearby Joliet is 52% white with a burgeoning Hispanic population. But the financial picture is dramatically different. Lockport’s average household income is around 72,000; Homer Glen’s is close to 120,000. A sprawl of mobile homes adapted into temporary classrooms began to appear, a sort of educational favela.
The tensions around the high school expansion reveal the core of Homer Glen’s identity. It is an aspirational American community; the residents have come here so that their lives, and the lives of their children, can be appreciably better. They are willing to sacrifice a great deal of what, to the vast majority of those foreign teachers, constitutes a good life: a tight sense of community, deep roots in history and tradition, a physical and natural environment of diversity and charm.
What is it, then, that these emigrants aspire to? For Homer Glen is a telling snapshot of American demographic movement in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. If the 19th century’s vector was westward (Go West! Young Man, and Grow Up With The Country), the new vector is one of rings, rings that repeat at further and further remove from the urban centers that were once their magnetic center. Large and larger houses; isolation from those different from oneself; the chance to create new communities of similarity and commonality, a commonality bought as part of the real estate, not built from traditions and ties. In this, Homer Glen reinforces the long American tradition of self-segregation. When Governor Winthrop confronted the reformers from Rhode Island, he is reported to have said of them: They have Free Right: Free Right to Stay Away. When they returned, time after time, the Massachusetts Colony Puritans devised ever more draconian impediments: banishment; stocks; whipping; amputation of the tongue; and finally execution. Reading those documents of many centuries ago, you can nevertheless parse out the rising frustration of the Puritans: leave us alone! This is our Experiment!
So also with Homer Glen, where geographical isolation and economic segregation by housing price made a more and more nuanced commonality the ideal of community. Not white and black; not Anglo and Hispanic: already well on the way to being rich or not: 119,384 vs. 72,231.
The Great 21st Century Housing Bubble, Panic and Depression have been hard on Homer Glen. One of the dominant economic engines of the community was development, expansion, construction: a Ponzi Scheme more muted that Las Vegas’s but not a great deal more muted. Moreover, the jobs of many of those aspirational upper-middle-class emigrants were far more tenuous than they had themselves imagined. And because so many of these households were aspirational, the houses were built, bought, and financed with future dollars, dollars from the inevitable rise in home values, and the inevitable rise in household incomes, that were sure to come.
Until they didn’t. But the collapse in real estate and aspirational incomes wouldn’t happen for years. The trees around the houses in that subdivision where the foreigners now clustered under a tent, eyeing the aluminum-foil trays with strange foods, would be taller, and more lonely, shedding their leaves into the empty hole of the swimming pool behind the now-empty house, visible from the Google Earth view in the listing online at Trulia.com, the listing marked as Foreclosure or Pre-Foreclosure.
For the moment, all was well, all was an adventure, all was up, and over. As the host invited everyone to change into swimsuits and try the pool, as the neighbors peeled warily off from their huddle around the barbeque and the food tables to make contact with these strange, dark people, the sky blackened over the soybean field behind the tent, and the wind, fitful and hot, died to nothing. For a moment, there was a surprised lull in conversation and movement. Then, with a sudden, violent crack of thunder, the wind, now hard and cold, blew down from the north and west, across the long reach of the great farms, flattening the corn with its force and then with the rain, and hail; it carried almost horizontal along the vast treeless regime; it struck the house in front of the tent with an audible rush and, sweeping around on either side of it, took the tent up, poles, ropes, stakes and all, whipping one woman across the face and drawing blood, before it lifted its captive above the stunted young trees, disappearing with it into the bright patch at the far horizon, just as the tables, laden with their aluminum-tray bounty, tipped over, and lightning struck the last big tree, splitting it in two and sending sparks onto the yellow school bus we were running toward.
Friday, June 24, 2011
I got my maps in the mail this morning: road maps from the ‘60s. The AAA map of the entire US from 1964 wasn’t in fact from 1964. The person who sold it to me, online, didn’t read Roman numerals: it clearly said MCMLXIX, which to all of us trained in American schools, before they collapsed in the ‘70s, would have been pretty good evidence. As if to make the point more clearly, the copyright notice included the phrase 1969-70 Edition.
I could probably return it, or get my money back, but I’m not going to. I’m totally entranced by this one. It records America at precisely the moment when I first drove a 1961 VW Beetle from upstate New York to Santa Cruz, California, in the company of two companions: my sister Marty, then just 17 and set free of Barlow, the “free Progressive school” where she’d been dissecting frogs and reading Emerson, and Susan Bell, my girlfriend, a brilliant Sarah Lawrence student who had come to Haverford on an exchange and was destined to be the first woman to graduate from that institution.
Looking at the map confirmed most of what I remembered about the trip. We were the beneficiaries of a decade-long process of frantic national roadbuilding, and we were going to make our way almost entirely along the freeways and turnpikes that had been almost fully assembled by that very year.
For some baffling reason, we thought it would be an easy trip. We should have known better. That ’61 bug had already been through my father’s commutes between Guilford and New Haven, where it had sat, its air-cooled engine unhappily overheating, on the ill-conceived bridge over the Quinnipiac River, morning and night, six days a week, since the Connecticut Turnpike officially opened. I had rolled it on its side, with Paul and Timmy and Deedee in it, on a patch of black ice in North Guilford, and it had put me in the hospital for quite a time. Repaired, its frame never quite straightened nor its steering ever freed of tight spots, it had gone to Vermont, to Bennington College, with my sister, who taught me that you could predict the curves ahead by watching the telephone lines as they paralleled the mountain roads.
I don’t remember if we stopped in Morgantown to see our parents, but I’m pretty sure we did. If that’s true, there was surely a scene as Pa tried to talk us out of it, knowing as he did how perilous was the journey and how inexperienced, brash and full of bluff I was, and how persuasive to women of the rightness of my cause. It was a common theme back then.
But we were adamant. I had read On The Road that year, or maybe the year before, and I’d already been working on a sort of faster, looser form of writing, and I thought this trip would be good material for this new thing I was trying. I think I was already turning from Susan, or she from me, and I think I wanted to see the mountains of Santa Cruz and to travel up Bonny Doon Road before what was between us was shattered.
But now that I think about it, I don’t know that we did stop, because the trip seems one uninterrupted passage, a passage marked most strongly by fear, fear that kept me awake, fear that drove the car forward, fear that only once diminished enough that we slept, the three of us, in our seats, in a rest area, somewhere I think east of Denver.
When we awoke, it was full dark, and we pulled through Denver and began the climb up toward Boulder: in fourth gear, then in third, and at the worst spots, in second, at 30 miles an hour, with my foot all the way to the floor.
They were building that section of I70 west of Denver, and it was a mess. We jockeyed with the semis between construction dump trucks, great big Euclids, like the one my father had driven, at 13, for the family company, telephone books under him and blocks of wood added to the pedals, back in the ‘30s. The banks of construction lights were blinding, especially after perhaps two hours or three of sleep in the bucket seat, awakened by the cold of 1 am. Susan slept in the back, and Marty sat next to me, keeping me company, sharing the rising panic as the engine struggled in the increasing altitude.
Then, suddenly, the roadway stopped; in its place was a chewed-up remnant of the old US6. The dust was choking, and the dim 6-volt headlights only showed more dust directly ahead. Now there were downhills, too, and the big semis, laboring up one side even more slowly than we, barreled down, as close to out of control as you might cut it. Somewhere around Georgetown or Silver Plume, old mining towns about to be sacrificed to the relentless vector of the Interstate, there was a cluster of flashing lights and all traffic stopped for a time. Susan woke up in the back, feeling the non-motion as abruptly as if we’d hit something. After a time, a long string of cars and trucks came past, and then it was our turn. The burned-up hulk of the semi could be seen down the mountain; there was little left of the tractor cab, and I thought I saw the bodies.
We probably should have gone up US40 to Boulder, then through the Rabbit Ears Pass and crossed into Utah at Vernal, but we didn’t. We took US6 all the way to Salt Lake City, passing through Spanish Fork and Springville and Provo, towns Pa's side, the Mormon side of the family, had founded so long ago. By then it was late afternoon and we stopped at Saltair, thinking to swim in the Great Salt Lake. But the smell was overwhelming, and the water brackish. I80 hadn’t been run through there; it was back and forth between US40 and the wide reaches of I70 most of the way to Reno. I remember Emigrant Pass, as tough as they come, hot and dry in the early afternoon. Then there was the Sierra Nevada Range, and then the wide green mass production farms with their irrigation channels and their great swinging sprinklers and the Mexican farm workers bent over.
Santa Cruz was cool, with a scent intense and piercing, part eucalyptus, part ocean, part pine forest. We drove up Bonny Doon Road, fighting big rigs again, this time the forest trucks, back wheels lashed to the tree trunks of giant redwoods. And then we were there.
We had delivered Susan to her family, but we were not welcome, exactly. Not I, for I could sense that this was a family that shared its secrets, and I was already known to them, known in a way that charm and enthusiasm and a guitar could not erase, no matter how well-played. Not Marty, for she was my accomplice, my supporter; she was a distant presence, to be acknowledged with the politeness of the well-bred academic family. Susan’s father was a famous economist and the founding provost of Merrill College, the so-called Third World College at UC Santa Cruz. Next door to their place on Bonny Doon Road was the spaceship-mansion of the eccentric science fiction writer Robert Heinlein. Heinlein had published Stranger in a Strange Land in 1962, and its arguments for sexual freedom and communal living, and its indictment of American life, had made it a fixture of the freak world at whose edges I was living in 1969. I was far out of my league, a brash provincial, cruel to the woman they loved, my internal anguish hidden from everyone, even from me. We turned east, Marty and I, not a week later. The trip back was quieter, slower, and in my sister’s genuine caring, her antic humor and her long conversational monologues, I found some measure of solace.
That trip of ours was a common one, in 1969. Tens of thousands were descending on Haight-Ashbury, having read or heard of the Summer of Love and the great Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out promises there. Or they were crowding the communes, from New Mexico to Oregon, interfering in the delicate work of making some entirely new social, economic, and ecological system, and ensuring the failure of the counterculture’s utopian arm.
We didn’t see much of America on that trip. We drove its length— 3,268 miles, give or take a hundred—but there was no pleasure in it. Every detour, every impediment to speed, every distraction from the pavement markings and the exit signs, was a frustration to be endured. We were among the very first of a new generation of Americans in motion. Our greatgrandparents had traveled by horse, by wagon, and by handcart to the promised lands of the West. They feared the small things that could kill so easily: a cactus needle stuck in a foot that soon swelled and turned black; a snake poised in the shadows; a ruthless guide, an empty canteen. Our parents had traveled back and forth, sometimes for pleasure, often with the urgency of wartime passes for a few days to see the one whose letters they had read and reread over the months, or to arrive just in time for the funeral of aunt, grandfather, father. They had felt the hot wind of the flatlands and the gusts, threatening snow or worse, down the mountain passes. They remembered the cockroaches, big as children, swarming the streetlights in Enid, Oklahoma. At night, they had told us the stories of their travels, as the fireflies lit the cornfield and the cicadas buzzed.
What had we learned from them? We had raced to our destinations, heedless, and impatient, our eyes shut and our ears numbed by the rush of highway wind, the noisy equivalent of the cool silence of the air conditioned cabins of those who came after us. And when we got where we were going, there was nothing there for us, nothing but the waiting until it was unbearable, and we would turn, and go, leaving behind us what we should have given everything to hold.
Thursday, June 23, 2011
Masahito was in Texas in late October of last year. I know this because he poked me on Facebook, and then I found a file of iphone pictures Yuuki had put up, including a picture of a Blue Bell ice cream container, and a plate of authentic Texas barbeque, down to the plastic utensils, Wonder Bread slice, and the pickles on the rim of the Styrofoam plate. They were down there for some exchange-style event with Lamar High School, on Westheimer in Houston, and the group took a bus up to Austin to look over the state capitol and eat barbeque at the Iron Works.
I wish I could have met them there. Masa was a good friend and an excellent traveling companion, and I lived in Austin for some time, going to school and playing pedal steel in a variety of C&W and country-rock fusion bands, and I know a few authentic places that may yet be there— and not just the Broken Spoke, where so far as I can tell nothing has changed except the house band has gotten greyer and more potbellied. They still two-step with that frozen-faced seriousness that marks their ancestry in Scots-Irish dancing, and periodically some young punk will try to dance with one of the women, on a dare, and he’ll be welcomed and no one will make fun of him. His dancing will indict, try, and convict him without need of sheriff, judge or jury.
Masa’s role this time was something like mine was with him some years ago: he was teacher-chaperone for a passel of Japanese high-schoolers on a visit to Lamar High, possibly an exchange visit. Yuuki was one of his charges, handsome, usually dressed in the formal school uniform, excited but embarrassed to be photographed with the Lamar High cheerleading squad all giving the V-for-victory sign. High-school football is pretty serious business in Texas, and Yuuki picked up on the fact that it’s even more serious at Lamar High.
Besides the football game and the trip to Austin, the capitol and the barbeque joint, the group spent most of the time—or, more accurately, most of Yuuki’s interest—at the Space Center in Houston. Yuuki was also entranced by the details of his host-family’s house: the bed, with its frilly comforter-bedspread, the many framed photographs of family members on the walls, the nearly-obsessive neatness of everything, its newness, the layout of the bathroom. Yuuki studiously photographed the new-old dresser, and the Timex clock radio and the tv remote on the bedside table, along with the lamp. Masa was probably too polite to point it out to him, but I’d pointed it out to Masa when we were touring houses in the Chicago exurbs: no books. No reading material at all.
Masa’s group, with hosts, also toured the Galleria, hit an amusement park, and got a tour of “downtown” Houston. Just which downtown it was, I’m not sure, but I could find out with Google maps by tracking the locations of various spots Yuuki shot and uploaded. Yuuki’s pictures are right there on Facebook; I came to them by searching for pictures of Masa, for I was trying to remember which year he’d been with me, with us. And I mapped their itinerary with Googlemaps, located the houses and the mall and the amusement park, too. I can’t tell you which Tex-Mex joint they went to for fajitas, but I can narrow it down to a cluster.
We live these days in two Americas, two cultural landscapes, one above the other: the physical and tactile and experiential world, the old world, and the virtual, digital, floating world that has come to supplant it. Here, in honor of Masa, I am paying homage to those Japanese wood-block pictures of everyday life in Edo and Meiji Japan, between roughly 1670 and 1860, known as ukiyo-e. Like Yuuki’s photographs, the ukiyo-e flourished because of new democratizing technologies of vision and communication, and a new class of artists and cultural interpreters who could make, and receive, these radical forms of sight and site. With these prints, it became possible for talented observers of the social scene—of fishermen and aristocrats, of street vendors and street walkers—to record the sudden epiphanies of daily life, and to transmit that new way of seeing, with all its spontaneity and lack of static formal conventions, to a widening audience that would otherwise never have had access to such radical changes in thought and attitude. Ukiyo-e were responses to a loosened, more contingent moment, but they also catalyzed that loosening and contingency.
This is what has happened with the floating world of today and, like the moment of ukiyo-e, it is unstable and daunting, as well as liberating and catalytic. It is a moment when the Nook and the I-book are replacing the bulky objects that are piled up all around me—music books and scores, old Life magazines by the dozens, trash novels and scholarly hardbacks, the jumble of CDs and DVDs that range from Jerry Douglas’s instructions for fast Dobro licks and tricks, to multiple versions of the late Beethoven String Quartets.
My piles are residues of an older revolution, the Western version of that ukiyo-e moment, the moment of modernization. In their place, we have the Youtube lessons of Troy Brenningmeyer, the online interactive Beethoven scores, the computer games with a density far greater than Tom Clancy’s.
But there is one difference worth paying attention to. The ukiyo-e master Hokusai had a very good idea of the nature of his revolutionary actions, the possibilities and dangers, to him, to those who purchased and viewed his prints, and to the larger moment of Japanese culture. I am not so sure that Yuuki has as full a sense of what he is setting free with his 291 pictures of his trip to America.
This is what worries social media critics so much—stolen identity, lost copyright, digital stalking, loss of privacy: loss, even, of identity, not through the simple mechanism of identity theft, but through the blurring of the line between self and milieu, a melting of I into us and it, bringing a loss of control, responsibility and fatalism. I think these very things are happening, have already happened. But there are historical precedents, and ukiyo-e Japan is one.
For Yuuki probably does know what he’s doing, knows the risks he’s taking. Those risks are thrilling. His cellphone camera frees him from the uniform Masa and the school make him wear. His native habit of reticence and reserve, trained into him as a Japanese schoolboy, but also as a guest in a new country, can be circumvented with a camera that stares at the porcelain swan filled with colored hairnets that sits atop the toilet in the bathroom at his host’s house, that observes the shelf, high on the wall of the bedroom, attired with decorative painted plates and small stuffed animals. This is what an American guest room, in a middle-class house in Houston, Texas, looks like, he says. To his host, the picture isn’t strange at all: this is my guest room, in my house in Houston. To a Japanese friend who lives an hour east of Tokyo in a midsize city, the world portrayed, the world implied, is utterly exotic, alien, even though tatami mats and traditional Japanese-style squat-toilets have long been replaced by wall-to-wall carpeting and Westernized toilets, albeit with heated seats and special sanitizing technologies.
Yuuki’s intense interest in the things that are so American, and so different from his own, is different from mine. It is I who notice that everything Yuuki has been shown is ersatz: the Tex-Mex food he eats is a plastic plate of fajitas, an overwrought gringo-appetite version of tacos al carbon; the Galleria Mall is an air-conditioned adaptation of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan of the mid-19th century; and even the Texas state capitol is a cutdown of the US Capitol building.
But that’s the point, isn’t it? Yuuki’s hosts gave him an authentic Texas experience, and the experience of Texas is an experience of inauthenticity. Yuuki then further dematerializes and deauthenticates, and liberates that authenticity into a new cultural landscape.
Return for a moment to the authentic Galleria, in Milan. A product of new building technologies, and of new forms of capitalism, it stole the idea from the Burlington Arcade in London, and its style from the triumphal arches of the Baroque, which were taken from the Renaissance arches that drew on Roman arches. Yuuki’s Facebook albums, My trip to U.S.A.!!! Part I, and the more sober and restrained My trip to U.S.A Part2, reach all the way back to the sketchbooks of the Grand Tour by William Henry Fox Talbot, inventor of photography, in the 1820s, and those were attempts to reconstruct earlier diaries and records of the Grand Tour as far back as the Baroque. Yuuki knew that he was being given a sample of the foods he expected to sample, even if the Texadelphia Cheese Steak came from a place ten minutes’ drive from Lamar High School and not from that dive on 9th Street in South Philadelphia , Pat’s King of Steaks (or, if you’re an apostate, from across the street at Geno’s). He ate everything, but not until he’d photographed it, and uploaded it to his Facebook page. Now he’s American, too, at least part of him. And because America (U.S.A.!!!) adapted itself to him, Yuuki became a part of us. It feels like dematerialization, but it’s not. It’s a new form of physicality, new enough that we revel in it, shrink from it, study it too closely and not closely enough. It is both a new form of representation, and a thing to be represented. We are in the hall of mirrors, and it’s kind of fun to race up and down the length of it, without grownups to tell us to slow down, to hush, to have more reverence. Thanks, Yuuki, for putting up the pictures, and thanks as well for choosing a wide-open privacy threshold on Facebook. Perhaps a century or two from now, they will speak of Yuuki the way we talk of Hokusai.
Monday, June 20, 2011
If you’re not used to narrow, winding, sharp-climb mountain roads, heading out of Morgantown, West Virginia on the Kingwood Pike can be a harrowing experience. If you’re on a bike, it’s worse. There isn’t any shoulder on the Kingwood—it’s narrow to begin with—and you’ve got coal trucks and lumber trucks competing for the road, along with everything from the big diesel pickups riding high on their 4x4 drivetrains to the ratty 1987 Caprice running on three cylinders, wide, slow and smoky, packed with a family, not one of whom weighs less than 300 lbs.
Kingwood starts as County Road 81 before Monongalia County gives out and Preston County begins; then it’s just the Kingwood Pike till it hits Reedsville. After that, it’s state route 7. In the summer, the trip is a riot of smells—honeysuckle, rhododendron, goldenrod, dogwood, hot grass, smoke from the sawmill where they’re burning sawdust, hot grease and the hint of dough as you pass the older houses, the ones without air conditioning, with the doors and windows open to catch the breeze.
These days it’s a lot easier to ride the Kingwood; once they put the Tour de France on the Versus channel for cable and dish. Versus got its name as a fishing and hunting channel, branched out into Indy-car racing before adopting the Tour. That happened right around the time the Americans, Armstrong, Hincapie, and the rest, began to dominate the cycling world, and suddenly I found people passing me on the hills with their fists in the air, rather than throwing their slurpee cups at me.
I started riding the Kingwood when my mother first took sick. Pa and I would go to the hospital in the morning, and we’d sit by her bed till noon or so, and then go home for the afternoon. I’d get in my jersey and take the Lightspeed out the front door. Ma and Pa lived at the top of town; going down the back hill to the day-old Wonder Bread store near the reform school, you’d hit 40 without thinking. Then it was all uphill for miles and miles.
The Kingwood runs between Morgantown and Kingwood. After Reedsville, it’s the Morgantown Road to the mapmakers, but to everyone who lives there, it’s the Kingwood even after it crosses the Cheat River and meanders all the way to the Maryland border.
The Kingwood isn’t the major road through West Virginia, and it wasn’t the main route back in the ‘30s, when Eleanor Roosevelt took a shine to the countryside there. Back then, you came out of Washington on US50, which took you all the way past Parkersburg to Cincinnati. 50 ran south of Morgantown, and you might take the Grafton Road, US119, up into town, but the coal and timber trucks used that route and to call it dangerous was to awaken a certain sardonic glint in the eyes of the locals, most of whom had someone in the family driving coal or timber, and most of whom had someone in the family who’d died behind the wheel. With a big coal truck lumbering down the hill toward you, unable to keep itself to its own lane, you'd pull over till your front wheel hooked over the 5-inch lip between pavement and gully, and pretty soon someone up the hollow would see the dust and smell the smoke of burning rubber and upholstery and maybe they’d come down to see if anyone had made it, and maybe they wouldn’t. It depended on the day, and the chores. In late fall, when the leaves are off the trees, you can still see the hulks of model T and model A Fords and Oldsmobiles and Hupmobiles on their sides, rusted out, down off the uphill side.
So if you were smart, you took the road up toward Reedsville, and that’s pretty much how the Arthurdale Project got started. Eleanor Roosevelt had developed an interest in utopian schemes to relocate disenfranchised or unemployed workers to subsistence farming communities. Scott’s Run, West Virginia, was the first site for that relocation. A hardscrabble deep-mine company town, Scott’s Run had, in the ‘20s, supported close to 40 separate mines, with a high demand for labor and, consequently, a polyglot mix of workers, including local Scots-Irish, Eastern European immigrants, Great Migration blacks, and even Jews and Italians. Roosevelt had adopted Scott’s Run as early as 1933, and the Reedsville Project, later renamed Arthurdale, was the first of the New Deal planned communities that would eventually include the Greenbelt towns and a number of FSA demonstration villages and towns, not to mention the first urban housing projects in places like Chicago.
Scott’s Run was north of Morgantown, but it was on state route 7, so when her motorcade cut off US50 on Roosevelt’s periodic visits to Scott’s Run, she passed through the rolling farmland, much of it already under foreclosure or awaiting a tax sale, south of Reedsville. That was where she chose to relocate her mining families, in a fully planned community that could serve as a model for new lives made possible by the New Deal: running water, enclosed sewer systems, new construction, community centers, schools, small craft studios and larger factories, small farm plots for each family.
Throughout the ‘30s, Arthurdale existed as a counterfoil to Scott’s Run; a benevolent, thriving community under the warm maternal eye of the state, set against the ramshackle company-town housing, open sewers, underpaid workers and undereducated children of that excrescence of untrammeled capitalism. The Roosevelt administration poured money into Arthurdale, every subsidy begetting a further subsidy, every setback requiring a remedy, and the result was to create a built-in symbol of failed creeping socialism for those who so hated the New Deal. By contrast, though, New Deal propagandists swarmed over Scott’s Run, producing articles and exposès, and a raft of truly memorable photographs by FSA photographers Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, and Marion Post Wolcott. As early as 1935, the New Deal had a photographer entirely dedicated to the opposing poles of Arthurdale and Scott’s Run: Elmer Johnson, who would later move to memorialize Greenbelt, Maryland, another of the New Deal’s planned communities, and would provide a steady stream of pictures documenting the horrors of Scott’s Run (“Note Sewerage System” read one subcaption to a picture of a miner’s house, a picture for the most part of a large puddle in front of a high-perched frame house), and the virtuous community-building at Arthurdale.
The New Deal sent two of the best photographers to supplement Johnson: Ben Shahn and Walker Evans. Predictably, both of them found Arthurdale dull as dry toast, and concentrated their activities on Scott’s Run. Shahn focused on the politics—he was a devoted Communist, and class struggle was his bread and butter—while Evans was entranced by the architecture, the topography, and the signage.
In fact, Evans may never have actually photographed Arthurdale; there’s evidence the pictures attributed to him were actually made by Elmer Johnson. If he did, the pictures that resulted are perfunctory, even clumsy. By contrast, some of his most famous photographs were made in Scott’s Run, and along the roads that connected it with Arthurdale. He escaped the stultifying self-righteousness and artificiality of Arthurdale to Morgantown, where he set up on the bridges over the creeks and even the Monongahela, and he went into the miner’s shacks in Scott’s Run, Pursglove, and Masontown to make remarkable images, images of grace and beauty.
And he did photograph the Kingwood Pike. It was his sort of road; because of the steep elevations, buildings tended to cling to the road or perch above it, so he could set up the big view camera and shoot his pictures without clumping through the bramble and thick undergrowth that comes with the warm, wet climate of that part of West Virginia. Two of these pictures show a filling station on the Kingwood just beyond Reedsville. In one, he’s pulled his car up to the gas pump and then included it, front and center, in the picture. Another shows a telephone pole with a gas station behind it.
Homely subjects, gloriously rendered. This was the problem with Evans’s work. In a mirror-reversal of Shahn, who recorded a class struggle that never boiled over, and so failed in his struggle to link politics and photographs, Evans recorded a hardscrabble rural life whose forced simplicity was the very core of a great beauty. Evans’s pictures show an America about to be thrust into modernity, and he grieved the losses that would come.
Along the Kingwood, though, things didn’t turn out as he feared. The foreclosures continue—unlike in the rest of photogenic America, they never stopped. The road is still host to clusters of small stores and filling stations. They’ve been refaced; the logos on the signs have changed, but behind them you can still see the rusted hulks of the cars Evans was photographing almost eighty years ago.
If you were to reset the battle of the Roosevelt years today, you couldn’t do better than to return to Scott’s Run and Arthurdale. The interstates have made the area less accessible rather than more: you take I495 up to I70 and then to I68 to get from Washington to Morgantown, and then I79 north to I70 again and to Pittsburgh, or south to I64 and thence to Lexington, Kentucky. There’s no notion of exiting, no bypass more scenic than the vistas the interstate offers you. The deep mines are closed up, and the Scott’s Run Settlement House, one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s favorite stopping-places, is just up the hill from an Old Navy, an Olive Garden and a Red Lobster. The University Center Mall, as it’s called, isn’t anywhere near the university. When they cut it into the hillside, proximity to I-79’s exit was the priority. It hasn’t done well. The hillsides around the mall didn’t take to the excavations and relocations of hills and streams. They look like bad strip mine reclamation zones, gullied and barren above the Barnes and Noble, the Starbuck’s and the Walmart. Twenty miles south, between Reedsville and Brown’s Mill, what’s left of Arthurdale is a failed monument to the New Deal, with a nice website that presents it as a thriving historical restoration, with demonstration activities and the restored community hall available for rent—to virtuous preservationists, one assumes. For no one else comes here, website to the contrary.
The road itself still winds and climbs. The buildings Evans photographed are mostly still there, though the gas stations have new logos and new vinyl siding. Behind them, though, you can still find the rusting hulks of the cars that Evans aimed at, some 80 years ago. There’s a funeral home just past Reedsville, on the left, that Evans might have noted, might have stopped the car and taken out the camera to see if it would make the picture it might make. It’s pretty much a shed, with just the giant M above its double-entry doors to mark it as The Morgan. The rest is modified prefab, and there’s no website, just a mention in the funeralhomesguide.com search engine. Dying doesn’t happen fancy, here, for a person or a community or an ideology. But it happens.