October 24, 2013 § 9 Comments
Amity is a blink-and-you-miss it tiny town on Route J in northwestern Missouri. The last census put its population at 54, though it has since shrunk to 47 (though, in the stupidity of American metropolitan areas, it is apart of the St. Joseph MO-KS Metropolitan Statistical Area, despite the fact that there is 30 miles of relatively empty farmland between St. Joseph and Amity). It looks, for all intents and purposes, like a dying town. Amity was founded in 1872, but when the Chicago and Rock Island Railway was completed in 1885, the townsite moved about a mile north to straddle the tracks. In its new location, Amity thrived, as general stores, hotels, banks, schools, and churches popped up as the town became an important stop on the railway. A stockyard for the Rock developed and the town became a waystation and loading zone for agricultural products from DeKalb County onto the railway. Similarly, consumer items were unloaded in Amity for the stores there and for DeKalb County in general. The town’s population rose to a high of 225 in the 1920s.
But Amity was a victim of circumstances, as it lived with the Rock, it also died with it. The Chicago Rock Island and Pacific (as it was eventually called) was a notoriously poorly-run and inefficient railway. By the 1970s, the gig was up. It had been run into the ground, and it pulled out of Amity in 1975. But the Rock (and Amity) were the victims of more than just poor management. Deindustrialisation was also central to the story here. As factories shut down in the major cities of the MidWest, from Chicago to Kansas City and beyond, the railways became increasingly less important to the heartland of the United States. And Amitysuffered. Even before the railway pulled out, the stores were suffering, the schools and churches were closing.
Today, Amity is barely hanging on. During our cross-country trip in August, we stayed with friends in Amity, Sam and Monica. To my city eyes, Amity was a piece of rural paradise. But Sam and I got talking about the history of the town. Sam is a native of Amity and Monica is from nearby Maysville. The longer we talked, the more fascinated with Amity’s past and present I became. I have written before on the changing rural landscape in North America (Hawley, Massachusetts, Phoenix, British Columbia, and Sainte-Sylvestre, Québec), but in talking with Sam I began to think about the costs of deindustrialisation in North America.
Reams of work has been done on deindustrialisation in major cities (Buffalo, Cleveland, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Toronto, Hamilton), and my own work has looked at the cost of deindustrialisation on Griffintown, Montréal. But there was a real trickle-down effect at work here. The landscape of the MidWest (to say nothing of the rest of the continent) is cluttered with Amitys, places that were once important waystations on the railways, or homes to factories themselves (Monica’s mother worked at a Quaker Oats plant packaging instant oatmeal for two decades before it closed down). But their stories are in danger of being lost through little more than negligence.
As a culture, we don’t pay attention to these forgotten places, hell, we don’t even pay attention to the MidWest, at least outside of Chicago. For the life of me, I cannot call to mind a single TV show or movie set in a Midwestern city that’s not Chicago in the past quarter century. No wonder the people of the MidWest feel left out.
But there is history here (I realise that sounds like a dead obvious statement) and the stories from places like Amity are important, as they speak to the human and cultural cost of deindustrialisation in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s just as much as those stories that arise out of Buffalo and Hamilton and Milwaukee. They place a human cost on the depopulation of rural areas of North America, and they place a cost on the loss of culture. The four of us (my wife, Margo, and I, Sam and Monica) are barely into our 40s, but we have lived through a series of cultural revolutions, from politics to technology. We are a transitional generation between the old ways of doing things and the (post)modern, post-industrial culture that we live in today. We remember rotary telephones and a world before the internet. Hard to imagine. But we’re also glued to our iPhones and lost without the internet when it goes down. Sam’s work as an artist seeks to preserve what he calls “obscure” technologies, printmaking and pottery. And I am an historian, my entire professional life is centred on the past. As a public historian, my work is centred on how we remember that past.
I am currently working on a research project that looks at the relationship between the far right of American politics and its relationship to history. But once that wraps up, hopefully in the next 6-8 months, I am going to begin work on my next project, which will be based on Amity and DeKalb County, looking at the cost of deindustrialisation on these rural spaces in the MidWest.
October 2, 2013 § 6 Comments
In the mid-1980s in Vancouver, the BC provincial government built the SkyTrain, a new light-rail system connecting the western suburbs of New Westminster and Burnaby to the City of Vancouver. SkyTrain caused a lot of disruption when it was built, as you might expect for a brand new system. When it finally opened, just in time for Expo ’86, people were excited. Vancouver finally got rapid trasit! But some people weren’t so happy, the people who lived along the line in New West, Burnaby, and East Vancouver (it’s worth noting the SkyTrain went primarily through working-class neighbourhoods). I recall a news segment that investigated the claims of the noise. In particular, I remember a glass of water on a counter next to an open window as the SkyTrain went by. The water didn’t move. At all.
Nonetheless, I can understand in the inconvenience of the SkyTrain for those whose day-to-day lives were affected by it. They were there before SkyTrain, it moved into their neighbourhood.
But let us now consider Pointe-Saint-Charles. The Pointe has been home to a train yard since the Grand Trunk Railway built its yards there in 1853. For those of you who are mathematically challenged, that’s 160 years ago. In other words, the trains have been in the Pointe for a long, long time. And for much of its history, the trains were part and parcel of the experience of living in the Pointe. There was a train yard there. Life goes on.
But, as I’ve been noting in this series, the Pointe is undergoing redevelopment and gentrification. And nowhere is this clearer than in that part of the southern part of the Pointe which, even a decade ago, was a pretty dodgy part of town. Here, people have been snapping up cheap housing, both the 19th century stock and hideous new condos, and movingin. The Pointe, ever-so-slowly has become a more happening place because of this gentrification and that closer to the north end of the neighbourhood, near the Canal and the Nordelec building (which is in the process of being condofied now). In short, the yuppies (of whom I was obviously one when I lived there) are moving in.
For the most part, the process of gentrification has been more or less smooth in the Pointe, but, then again, I’m not one of the people being priced out of the neighbourhood. But the tension that exists in Saint-Henri was lacking in the Pointe. But, there were subtle changes in the culture of the neighbourhood when I lived there. This was seen most obviously to me in the case of the community garden at the end of our block. A couple of years ago, the arrivistes took control of it and essentially pushed the old-timers out of the garden. Not cool.
So, today I was reading the news on CBC Montréal, and I came across this little gem. Some of the yuppies who’ve moved into that southern part of the Pointe (taking advantage of cheap housing and pushing the poor out) are crying foul over the sound of the trains at all hours of the day. Yup. Imagine that! Trains! In a train yard! One resident hears the trains and he gets afraid of what might happen. Others complain sound like The Grinch, complaining about the noise, noise, noise!
Certainly, some of this is in response to the disaster in Lac Mégantic. But, it is worth noting that in all my years in the sud-ouest, I cannot recall a single accident involving trains in Pointe-Saint-Charles or Saint-Henri. Accidents between cars, bikes, and peoples, certainly. But not trains.
So, these people want Canadian National to reduce the trains and the noise they make. This is not unprecedented. There is a condo building on rue Saint-Ambroise in Saint-Henri, right where the CN tracks go through Saint-Henri. When it was first opened up, the people who bought in there respectfully asked that the Canadian National STOP running trains through their backyards. That line, which is connected to the largely disused yards in the Pointe, remains one of the busiest train tracks in North America, used by CN and ViaRail between Montréal and Ottawa and Toronto. I’m not making that up.
It would seem to me that one of the basic facts of living in a city is that there is noise. And if you are on the market for a new condo, you would look at what’s around you in your new neighbourhood and consider the inconvenience of the noise factor, or other things that might upset you. And, if you move into a condo near a train yard, you might want to consider the fact that it’s going to get loud occasionally. Trains are like that, they’re loud (I can hear the Commuter Rail train from my house here at all hours of the day and night, in fact, one is going by right now!). It is asinine and selfish to move into a neighbourhood with a train yard in and then act surprised when there are trains that make lots of noise. It is the height of idiocy, quite frankly. If you don’t like the noise, then go live somewhere else. It’s that simple. And so, that is my solution for these fine people in the Pointe. Sell. Move elsewhere.
September 26, 2013 § 16 Comments
Yesterday, there was a stabbing on my bucolic New England college campus. A male student (on leave from the university after an arrest two weeks ago) approached a female student on a campus shuttle bus and stabbed her. When the bus driver intervened, he also got stabbed. The wounds were not life-threatening, the woman was treated at the scene for a laceration to the top of her hand and the bus driver was taken to hospital for his wounds. The suspect then fled across the street and jumped in his car and escaped. This all happened about 150 yards from the campus police station, and the suspect fled past the station. Campus police then pursued him, but gave up the chase for safety reasons.
The university community was apprised of this about an hour later in an email sent out to everyone. I give the university full credit here. When I was in undergrad, there was a serial rapist on campus. The campus police and the university administration did not consider that to be information that the students, staff, and faculty had a right to know. Times have changed.
About half an hour after the email, someone resembling the suspect was spotted on campus. This led to a lockdown, or “shelter in place”, as it’s called, beginning around 12.30pm. For the next two hours, there were police crawling around campus from both the campus and city forces, there were at least two helicopters in the air (whether media or police, I don’t know) and there was a generally tense atmosphere in my building. My colleagues and I speculated on whether or not the suspect might have returned with guns. Who knew?
Around 2pm, classes were cancelled for the rest of the day and evening. About half an hour later, the lockdown was lifted. No one had any idea as to whether or not the suspect had been captured, but we presumed he had been.
But. A few hours later, it became clear that this was not the case, as an arrest warrant had been issued for the suspect, who had obviously fled. This morning, we learned from the news that he was arrested a couple of hundred miles away from here in Upstate New York.
So, in essence, campus experienced a two-hour lockdown and students, staff, and faculty experienced an unnecessary trauma. Looking at the suspect’s mugshot, he’s pretty generic looking and one can see a dozen or two young men who look vaguely like him on any given day around campus. It’s easy, of course, to conclude that the campus police and the administration over-reacted.
But did they? I’m not so sure. What happened yesterday on my campus appears to be the end result of terror and terrorism. Since 9/11, Americans have obviously become much more vigilant. And with mass shootings happening at an alarmingly frequent rate in the past couple of years, this only makes people, military/police/civilians, all the more vigilant (as an aside, I’ve noted the media, especially in Canada, likes to point out that gun deaths are down in the US, which is true, but then this is used to argue that mass shootings are no biggie. That’s false, there are more mass shootings now than ever). And, in pursuing this vigilance, the campus police and the administration yesterday erred on the side of caution, calculating the chance of a real threat to the campus community. The suspect had apparently attacked his victim(s) completely randomly. Thus, the threat was real, if he was indeed back on campus, he could conceivably randomly attack again. Or maybe he had a more destructive weapon?
And this is how terror and terrorism works (yes, I consider mass shooter and those who enable them terrorists). It causes terror, and it causes massive overreactions like we had yesterday because it is better to be safe than sorry. What if the campus police and administration did not react in the manner they did yesterday and the suspect had returned to campus and caused more damage? Imagine the lawsuits and negative reaction.
I’m not saying I like this, but I am interested in how terror works like this. I am presently teaching a course on the History of Terror. And while the course is centred around the very fundamental fact of the terror of history, that we’re all going to die, terror on a smaller scale (like 9/11, the Boston Bombing, these massacres) works the same way and makes us more vigilant, easier to scare, easier to over-react.
It’s all rather depressing, yeah?
June 10, 2013 § 2 Comments
All History is both political and public in nature. I tend to describe myself as a public historian. As such, I am interested in how history is viewed by the general public and I’m interested in the intersection of public memory and history. But that should be obvious to anyone reading this blog or what I’ve written on the NCPH’s history@work blog. But, sometimes I tend to forget about the inherent politicisation of any act of history or memory.
To wit, I got drawn into an argument on Twitter yesterday, my foils were both Canadian Army soldiers. One retired, one active. One I have never come across before, the other is a guy I follow and who follows me. The discussion was about Stephen Harper’s new paint job on his plane, one that makes it look like a Conservative Party of Canada Airbus, rather than an RCAF plane. We argued about the colours of the Royal Canadian Air Force, and whether red, white, or blue belong there (we all agree they do), and in what proportion.
The outcome of the argument is irrelevant. What is interesting was the very fact that we were having it in the first place. In Anglo Canada, history has long been a dead subject, it wasn’t usually the topic of public discussion or debate, and when it was, it was something we could all generally agree on, like hockey. Even when Jack Granatstein published his deliberately provocative (and generally quite stupidly offensive) Who Killed Canadian History? in the mid-90s, Canadians generally yawned and looked the other way.
But, in the past few years, largely I would argue as a result of Stephen Harper’s Prime Ministership, Canadian history has become a live grenade. Anglo Canadians argue about the role of the monarchy in our history, we argue about the role of the military in our history, and so on. Canadians are having real arguments about their history for the first time in my life. And, as much as I despise Stephen Harper and his government, I suppose we have him and they to thank for this.
April 7, 2013 § 3 Comments
South Boston is undergoing massive redevelopment these days, something I’ve already noted on this blog. Every North American city has a Southie, a former industrial working-class neighbourhood that is undergoing redevelopment in the wake of deindustrialisation and the gentrification of inner cities across the continent. In Montréal, the sud-ouest is ground zero of this process, something I got to watch from front-row seats. In Vancouver, it was Yaletown. Cities like Cleveland and Pittsburgh have done brilliant jobs in re-claiming these post-industrial sites. In Boston, however, Southie’s redevelopment has attracted the usual controversy and digging in by those working-class folk who remain there. It’s even the locale of a “reality” TV show that is more like working-class porn than anything else.
The same discourse always emerges around these post-industrial neighbourhoods under redevelopment, something I first noticed in my work on Griffintown in Montréal. Today, in the Boston Globe there is a big spread ostensibly about a sweet deal given to a Boston developer by City Hall, but is really more an examination of the redevelopment of Southie’s waterfront. In in, James Doolin, the chief development officer of the Port Authority of Massachusetts, one of the players in this redevelopment, reflects on the ‘new buzz’ surrounding the area, going to to talk about how this ‘speaks to a demographic that is young, employed, and looking for social spaces.”
Right. Because the Irish who lived and worked in Southie during its life as an industrial neighbourhood were really just bums, always unemployed and so on. And, of course, those unemployed yobs would never look for social spaces, all those little cretins hung out in back alleys and under expressways. This attitude is unfortunate and is part and parcel when it comes to the redevelopment of these neighbourhoods: the belief that the working classes never had jobs, had no social lives and were just drones. I’ve seen it in literature from developers in Griffintown and other parts of Montréal’s sud-ouest, so it’s no surprise to find this attitude in Boston. But it doesn’t make it right. In one sweeping, gross over-generalisation, Doolin (and the Boston Globe) sweep away centuries of history, of life in Southie, and the day-to-day struggles of the working classes in the neighbourhood to survive and live their lives on their terms.
March 12, 2013 § 2 Comments
Yaletown in Vancouver has undergone massive redevelopment in the past two decades. It was once the site of Expo 86 along False Creek, and before that, an urban wasteland (actually, after Expo, too). But today, it is a sea of glass towers; one statistic I’ve seen said the population just in Yaletown approaches 30,000, though I find that hard to believe. All along False Creek is a string of residential condo towers; all along Pacific Boulevard, from Granville to Cambie streets there are towers and pied-à-terre condos. Some of them even look nice.
As I went out for my morning run today (I’m staying with my sister here), I noticed something: this is actually a well-thought out urban redevelopment. There’s a billboard on Pacific Blvd that says that Concord, one of the developers is building community here. It’s easy to scoff at that claim. But it’s not a ridiculous claim. My sister knows her neighbours. More than that, she has friends amongst them. Dog owners around here have claimed a patch of Cooperage Park on False Creek as a dog run. They police each other, making sure nobody leaves their dog doo behind. They also police each other’s dogs, making sure they behave. There’s a bunch of cafés and restaurants along Marinaside Drive (I know, what a horrible name), and they’re populated with regulars, the neighbours around here. People nod and say hello to each other on the streets and along the path that goes along the bank of the water.
There’s more, though. There’s actual, real parks here. Cooperage stretches almost from the Plaza of Nations at the head of False Creek towards and under the Cambie Bridge. A few blocks on is David Lam Park, which lies between Pacific, Drake, and Homer streets. But it’s more than that. These parks are actually used. There’s basketball and tennis courts at David Lam, and a playground. An elementary school is on David Lam and the children can be seen playing in the park at recess and lunch and after school. The path along the water is almost always busy with joggers and cyclists, as well as roller-bladers and walkers (Vancouver was experiencing one of its trademark torrential downpours when I was out taking pictures today, thus, aside from one intrepid jogger, there was no one out playing).
When I lived in Vancouver in the late 90s, there was a lot of hand-wringing about the redevelopment of the old Expo site. The city was determined to increase density, to follow the model of the West End, which is apparently the densest neighbourhood of North America that’s not Manhattan. So the old Expo lands saw these condo towers grow out of the ground. The major difference between the West End, which lies on the other side of the Burrard and Granville Street bridges and this area, which is part of the larger Yaletown neighbourhood, is that Yaletown tends to be resident owners, whereas the West End is largely rental units (there are, of course, many exceptions to both).
At the end of the day, however, Vancouver got it right. There is community here, the public spaces are widely used. The cafés and restaurants are, with the exception of one Starbucks (this IS Vancouver, after all) independent operators (this isn’t as true as Pacific Blvd., the main east/west thoroughfare, which has plenty of chains in between and around the indie stores). This also contributes to community, as the small business owners connect to their local community in a way that Starbucks and Quiznos can’t. And studies show that locals are more likely to patronise these small businesses than the chains. Indeed, this morning, Bojangles, the local indie café was busy, filled with both commuters on their way to work and those with more time to sit and enjoy their coffee. Whereas the Starbucks, while it got a fair amount of foot traffic from commuters, it doesn’t have the same community feel.
I fear, however, that Montréal is getting it wrong with Griffintown. The early plans for the massive redevelopment of Griff by Devimco called for massive shopping areas and big box stores. The commercial developments were supposed to pay for the residential developments. As for anything else that urban residents might need, well, “Whatever,” Devimco seemed to say. Of course, Devimco’s bold plans were thwarted somewhat by the recession. The redevelopment is now a mixture of Devimco’s big District Griffin (how tragic it would be to have that old English name on the neighbourhood, eh, OQLF?) and a smattering of smaller developments, with the massive redevelopment of the old Canada Post Lands at the other end of Griff at the foot of rue Guy.
Missing, though, from all these redevelopment plans in Griff was any idea of what residents were supposed to do. There still are no plans for schools in the neighbourhood. It wasn’t until early 2012 that the Ville de Montréal announced that it had earmarked some money to create public parks. It’s still not entirely clear where they’ll be, other than the already extant Parc St. Ann/Griffintown at the bottom of rue de la Montagne at Wellington. And given Montréal’s history of development and redevelopment, and the fact that the mayor, first Gérald Tremblay and now Michael Applebaum, just has dollar signs in his eyes when talking about Griffintown, I have zero hope of Griffintown being redeveloped right. In fact, I am almost positive it will be a disaster.
It’s tragic, as Montréal has a chance to redevelop a huge swath of valuable land at the foot of downtown, to emulate what Vancouver did with Yaletown in the 90s and 00s. But it has done nothing to suggest that it will get it right. And that’s trafic.
March 12, 2013 § 2 Comments
Last week I read Eleanor Henderson‘s excellent début novel, Ten Thousand Saints. This was a book I randomly came across, and, like most books I randomly come across, I was lucky. Ten Thousand Saints tells the story of Jude, a disaffected teenager in Burlington, Vermont (disguised as Lintonburg, for reasons I don’t quite understand since the rest of Vermont gets to keep its names), a sad sack little city about two hours from Montréal on Lake Champlain. Jude, I should also point out, is about a year older than I am. His best friend, Teddy, dies of an overdose on New Year’s Eve 1987, after he and Jude huff pretty much everything, including freon from an air conditioner, but Teddy also did coke for the first time, introduced to him by Eliza, Jude’s step-sister, who’s in town for a few hours from NYC. Teddy’s older brother, Johnny, also lives in NYC.
The novel then follows Jude, Johnny, and Eliza through the hardcore scene in the NYC underground in the late 80s (looking at Henderson’s picture on her website, she does not look the sort who would). Jude transforms from a pothead huffing high school dropout in Burlington to a straight-edge hardcore punk in NYC, frontman of his own band, the Green Mountain Boys (a clever play on their Vermont roots and Ethan Allen during the War of Independence). Henderson does a great job of illuminating the culture of the hardcore scene of the late 80s, both in NYC and around the rest of the East Coast, as well as issues of gentrification on the Lower Eastside of Manhattan, especially around Tompkins Park in Alphabet City, where Johnny lives, and around St. Mark’s Place, where Jude sometimes lives with his father.
Ten Thousand Saints made me nostalgic. At the other end of the continent, in Vancouver, I was starting to get into some of this music, if not yet the scene. Many of the bands Henderson references were in my cassette collection by 1989-90, a couple of years after Jude and Johnny were rocking out in the Green Mountain Boys. Though I cannot, for the life of me, figure out why the standard bearers of the straight edge scene in the late 80s, Fugazi, are not mentioned, though Ian McKaye’s earlier band, Minor Threat, are the gods of Jude, Johnny, and their crowd. What made me nostalgic was record stores. This is how Jude got into the scene in NYC in the first place, hanging around the record stores of the Lower East Side.
As I mentioned in my last piece here, on the Minutemen, Track Records in Vancouver was where I began to discover all these punk and hardcore bands in my late teens. Track stood on Seymour Street, between Pender and Dunsmuir, and as you went up the block, there was an A&A Records and Tapes, then Track, then A&B Sound, and then Sam the Record Man. Two indies and two corporate stores. And between the four of them, you could find anything you wanted and at a reasonable price. Zulu Records also stood on West 4th Avenue in Kitsilano, a short bus ride from downtown on the Number 4 bus. Of those stores, only Zulu remains. I’m in Vancouver right now, and I think I’m going to make my way over there today.
But it was in record stores that kids like me learned about this entire universe of punk and alternative music in the late 80s. In places like Track and Zulu, we heard the likes of Fugazi and the Minutemen, as well as the Wonderstuff and Pop Will Eat Itself and the Stone Roses playing on the hi-fi. This is where we could find the alternative press and zines, I found out about all these British bands from the NME and Melody Maker. You’d talk to the guys working in the stores (and it was almost always guys, rarely were there women working in these stores), you’d talk to the older guys browsing the record collections about what was good. Some of these guys were assholes and too cool to impart their wisdom, but most of them weren’t. And then you’d rush home to the suburbs and listen to the new music, reading the liner notes and the lyrics as you did.
For the longest time, I held out against digital music. I liked the physical artefact of music. I liked the sleeve, the liner notes and the record/cassette/cd. In part, I liked it because of the act of buying it, of going into the record store, even the corporate ones, listening to what was playing in the store, looking around and finding something. There’s not many record stores left. The big Canadian chains are all dead and gone. Same with the big American ones. In Boston, the great indie chain, Newbury Comics, isn’t really a record store anymore. The flagship store on Newbury St. has more clothes, books, movies, and just general knick knacks than music. Montréal had a bunch of underground stores up rues Saint-Denis and Mont-Royal, but they’re slowly dying, too. And here in Vancouver, the only one I know of is Zulu (though I’m sure there’s more on the east side, on Main, Broadway or Commercial).
I miss the community of music, it just doesn’t exist anymore. I suppose if I wanted to, I could find it online, discussion groups and the like. But it’s not the same. There’s no physical artefact to compare and share. There’s just iTunes or Amazon.