Old Hawley Town Commons

October 13, 2010 § 11 Comments

Driving through the hills of Western Massachusetts this past long weekend, we came across the old Town Commons of Hawley.  Hawley today is a town that is home to fewer than 400 people and has no real centre to it.  Aside from a Highways Department, there’s not much evidence of an infrastructure in Hawley, though there is also a Town Hall.  There is no post office or schools in Hawley, nor is there, to my knowledge a church.  There is one corner store, though, but no gas stations.  For services, the people of Hawley tend to travel to neighbouring towns, in particular, Charlemont.

Hawley Town hall

But Hawley has a history.  Pioneers from nearby Hatfield made their way up the mountains and into Hawley.  It was incorporated as a town in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1792.  From then until the mid-19th century, Hawley was a centre of the forestry industry, as well as several smaller businesses, like the usual: blacksmiths, taverns, etc.  There was once an old town commons on what is today called East Hawley Road.

Today, the old Town Commons is the parking lot for a series of trails that explores the bog and lakes around the area.  There is also an information kiosk about the old town commons, including a plan of what used to be there.

Now, it’s not like North America is a place without history, though sometimes it’s as though Europeans seem to think it is.  The aboriginals have been here for thousands of years, and there are remnants and ruins of their cultures littered across the continent.  The Spanish have been in Mexico since the early 16th century.  The French have been in Canada since the early 17th century, around the same time the Dutch and the English landed in what is now the United States.  And those European colonies conquered, colonised, and displaced the aboriginal populations as they expanded across the continent.  So none of this is news, but my point is that there is evidence of earlier settlements and cultures across the continent.

Out west, there are ghost towns.  These places were once booming frontier towns whose time has come and gone.  The most recent spate of ghost towns date from the 80s and 90s, as frontier industry dried up and hit hard times.  Sometimes, the ghost towns aren’t on the frontiers.  As a teenager, I lived in Port Moody, BC, which itself had annexed and old Imperial Oil Company town, cleverly called Ioco (get it, Imperial Oil Co.?).  By the time I lived there in the early 90s, the town had long since been abandoned, the oil refinery on its last legs (it’s since been closed).

Lawn Bowling in Ioco, c. 1920

In the eastern part of the continent, ghost towns are rarer, but if you find yourself in the countryside, there are abandoned farmhouses and homesteads.  In the swamps of Eastern Ontario between Kingston and Ottawa, near the Rideau Canal, one sees countless abandoned homesteads from the windows of the train.  This was marginal land, settled in the 19th century and then abandoned and farm kids moved into the industrial towns and cities that dot the landscape of eastern Ontario.  In Western Massachusetts, the area around Hawley is littered with decaying stone fences that once marked of homesteads from each other.  Now they appear as seemingly random markers in the woods.

But to see visual evidence of a settlement that no longer exists is something else.  I found it slightly strange to be standing on a site that 150 years ago was home to taverns, churches, shops, and the like.  More people lived in Hawley in those days, of course, and travel to the neighbouring towns wasn’t as easy as it is today.  The roads of Western Mass are narrow and windy as they go up and down the hills, around corners, avoiding private property, mountains, hills, lakes, creeks, and rivers.

Drawing of Old Town Commons, Hawley, MA

But once there were people in Hawley, and there was a common.  And that’s where they conducted their business, got married, had their children baptised, got drunk, fought, and came together as a community.  It was rather eery to stand in that same place on a sunny Sunday 150 years later, contemplating whether or not the bog would be a good place to walk the dog, and pondering the Volkswagen, Subaru, and Volvo station wagons that brought the yuppies from Boston, New York, Northampton (and, of course, Montréal) to the trails that lead out from the Old Town Common of Hawley.  The land today is owned by the 5 Colleges of the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts.  And they’re the ones who’ve put the effort into at least re-creating the plan of the Old Commons and they take care of the bog and the trails.


Urban Archaeology & Material Culture

April 21, 2010 § 1 Comment

Recently, I’ve been thinking about urban archaeology and material culture.   Given my research interests, I suppose it’s only natural that I would also think about the actual physical landscape of the city and how it shifts and changes with time, populations, and construction.

Years ago, I visited Montréal’s Pointe-à-Callière Museum, in the Vieux-Port.  Point-à-Callière is the site of the first settlement of Ville-Marie, where Paul de Chomedy, Sieur de Maisonneuve decided to plant his new settlement in 1642.  The museum itself is based around 3 archaeological digs (Pointe-à-Callière iteslf, as well as Place Royale and Place D’Youville), and artefacts from these archaeological digs are on display.  But it’s not just that.  In the underground of the museum, down where the digs took place, one can physically see the layers of city and settlement on Pointe-à-Callière, from the initial aboriginal inhabitants through the founding of Ville-Marie, to the governor’s mansion that was once located there, through urbanisation, industrialisation, and so on.  The physical remnants of the buildings, and artefacts are there for the viewer to see.

My favourite part is the William sewer, which canalised, and placed underground, the Rivière Petite Saint-Pierre, which itself had become a stinking cesspool as it flowed above ground through what was once the Nazareth Fief (and later Griffintown), into the St. Lawrence, hence creating Pointe-à-Callière.  Apparently (at least according to its entry on Wikipedia), the museum has plans to open up and expose the Petite Saint-Pierre, as well as the old location of St. Ann’s Market in Place D’Youville, as well as the remains of the Parliament House of the United Province of Canada, which was burned down in the Rebellion Losses Bill Riot in 1849 (just imagine a riot today in a democracy burning down the house of parliament!).

Anyway, this is where I first thought about urban archaeology, but I never really gave it much more thought in terms of my academic interests until a couple of summers ago, whilst walking along the Canal Lachine, where, at the St. Gabriel locks, Parks Canada has dug up the foundations and remnants of a factory on the northeastern side of the locks.

Andy Riga, over at The Gazette, has an interesting blog, “Metropolitan News;” his latest post is about the public toilets, disused and buried under Place D’Armes.   During the reign of Mayor Camillien Houde in the 1930s, partly as a public works project, Vespesiennes were built in Carré Saint-Louis, Square Cabot, amongst other places, and public washrooms were constructed in places including Place D’Armes.  The washrooms there were shuttered in 1980, victim of many things, including Montréal’s notoriously crumbling infrastructure.  Since then, there have been a few plans or attempts at plans to revive the public toilets, but they are in serious decay and would cost too much money to renovate them, due to years of neglect, water damage, and humidity.  So they remain buried under Place D’Armes which, like Dorchester Square downtown, is undergoing a massive renovation.

So notions of what’s underfoot have long interested me as I’ve wandered about the city, but especially in the sud-ouest, Griffintown and Pointe-Saint-Charles, as well as Saint-Henri, where I’ve lived for most of the past decade. 

Also, too, there is the influence of Prof. Rhona Richman Kenneally of Concordia University, who encouraged me to give some thought to material culture in approaching my dissertation and my work on Griffintown.  Ultimately, as interesting and exciting as I found approaches to material culture in my studies, there was no way to fit it into the dissertation (the same can be said of proper mapping of the Griff).  But I remained intrigued by these ideas.

So, with all of this in mind, I finally got my hands on Stephen A. Brighton’s Historical Archaeology of the Irish Diaspora, based around digs in the Five Points of Manhattan and in Newark, New Jersey.  Using the archaeological evidence, Brighton constructs an argument centred on the material culture of 19th century Irish-American life in these two urban centres.   Using this methodology, Brighton is able to answer a lot of questions we cannot answer using more traditional historical methodologies.  Brighton has the remnants of the material culture of the Irish immigrants and Irish-Americans.  Finding glasswares with symbols of Irish nationalism on them suggests that the movement had some traction amongst the tenement dwellers of the Five Points.

My favourite part of his analysis, though, comes in relation to medicine.  The artefacts from the Five Points come from the 1850s and 60s, whereas those in the New Jersey digs are from the 1880s.   In other words, the Five Points Irish were more recent arrivals and lived in greater poverty than those in New Jersey.  Thus, their access to the nascent public health system was different than that of their compatriots in Jersey.  Brighton found that the Five Points Irish relied more on cure-alls and pseudo-medical tonics to cure what ailed them.  Throughout the dig site are bottles that once contained tonics and cures, whereas in New Jersey, the digs uncovered evidence of reputable medicines.  This, concludes Brighton, is symptomatic of that poverty but also, too, perhaps of the alienation of mid-19th century Irish immigrants from the mainstream of American culture and society (remember, the 1850s also saw the Know-Nothing movement in the USA and the Bowery B’hoys Riot of 1857). 

So what Brighton offers up here is a piece of evidence to support what historians already know from more traditional sources.  And this brings me to my problem with Brighton’s book: it doesn’t add much in the way of new information to our historical knowledge.  Rather than challenge historians’ traditional takes on the Irish in the Five Points (especially), Brighton confirms what we already knew with the archaeological evidence.

New Project: Current Intelligence

March 11, 2010 § Leave a comment

The Complex Terrain Laboratory is being retired.  Mike, Eric, et tout le gang from the Lab, have begun a new project, called Current Intelligence:

is a journal of opinion and analysis. Its editors and writers are preoccupied broadly with culture, politics and current affairs; narrowly with conflict,crisis, and the state of the world “out there”; and laterally with the intellectual concerns of those who research, teach, and write about the issues.

We went live on Monday, 8 March, and we will publish daily, Monday-Friday, with a quarterly print journal as well.  Current Intelligence comes with its own set of sections:

We can even be found on Twitter.

So, come on over, grab a coffee and read what we’ve got to say.  As for me, I’ll continue to offer my own particular position on issues that require a deeper, historical, long-view of understanding.

Here We Go Again: Looting in Chile

March 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

By now we all know that Chile was devastated by a massive earthquake this week, and by massive, we’re talking 8.8 on the Richter Scale; by comparison, the earthquake that devastated Haiti in January measured 8.0, certainly massively devastating.

In the aftermath, looting has broken out in across the nation.  I find looting in the wake of natural disasters fascinating, as condemnations of it clearly show a disturbing trend of our culture: that private property in many cases is more sacrosanct than life.  Indeed, if Western history teaches us anything, it is that property was and is quite often more important than the lives of the commoners or the poor or the working-classes.  Indeed, this is clear from Thompson and his The Making of the English Working Class: property matters.  The state is constituted to protect men, true, but also, men’s property.  Especially that of wealthy men.  Indeed, as no less an authority as Jean-Jacques Rousseau points out in his Discourse on Inequality, it is private property that is at the heart of that inequality.  Thus we band together to be governed, surrendering some of our own personal sovereignty in order that our lives and property can be protected and, thus, at the same time, inequality.

Consider this passage from the Washington Post today:

Though there were middle-class looters — some carried off their booty in expensive four-wheel-drive vehicles — the pillaging was carried out largely by poorer Chileans, and it left some horrified onlookers wondering whether their country had really advanced as much as the economists and government officials had believed.

I can’t understand why it is that the poor looting carried out by the poor would cause such hand-wringing and soul-searching.  And this causes The Post to go onto a long discourse on inequality and poverty, the nation with the lowest poverty rate (14%) in South America.  But one also, according to Piero Mosciatti, a lawyer and director at Radio Bio-Bio in the city of Concepion.  He says that:

I think there are very big resentments on the part of those who are poorest and marginalized.  Chile is a country that is tremendously unequal, scandalously unequal. The statistics show it.

That may very well be.  But aren’t all Western nations predicated on this inequality?  It is one thing to wring our hands and tut-tut when the desperately poor of Port-au-Prince engage in looting.  But, culturally, we expect that.  We expect the desperately poor in a desperately poor nation to loot in the wake of a natural disaster.  But when it happens in a supposedly wealthy western nation, then we get concerned.  We saw this in New Orelans after Hurricane Katrina.  And we’re seeing the same thing in Chile after this earthquake.

The media is shocked to learn that there are poor people, an underclass in first-world nations.  Why this is is beyond me.  Any trip through any major city in the west, be it London, Miami, New Orleans, Buenos Aires, and one is confronted by the urban poor.  Our society is predicated on that inequality, for better or worse.  And quite often, wealthy, industrialised nations have a massive disparity between the rich and the poor.  This was made abundantly clear in the wake of Katrina in New Orelans in 2006.  And this is true of not just the United States.

According to one of the looters in Concepcion, Chile, “This is done for necessity.  Everything is abandoned, and we are looking for what has been left behind.”

At least the Chileans, according to The Post, are beginning to have the discussion as to whether or not Chile, which has developed rapidly, has done enough to bridge the gap between rich and poor.  This is a discussion worth having in Canada.


January 4, 2010 § Leave a comment

I just came across this blog, an appendage of the Transit City site.  It’s a kind of French-language version of Geoff Manaugh’s BLDGBLOG, run by a chap named François Bellanger, a Parisian sociologist.  OK, I must admit, M. Bellanger has entered my consciousness because he has made use of my review of Chip Jacob & William Kelly’s Smogtown: The Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles in a post of his own.  Tune in later, once I get a chance to read and digest more of Transit City, I’m sure it will become a mainstay.

Canada and Its Inferiority Complex

October 6, 2009 § 8 Comments

Last week, I published a review of Canadian journalist John Lorinc’s new book, Cities: A Groundwork Guide, over at the Complex Terrain Laboratory.  As much as I liked and enjoyed this book, I found myself wondering, though, as I read this book, was what is with Canadians’, or maybe just Torontonians’, obsession with Toronto?

Toronto is mentioned more than any other city in the world in Lorinc’s book.  More than London, Hong Kong, Sao Paolo; more than Nairobi, and New York.  Toronto is mentioned more than twice as often as Canada’s other 2 major cities: Montréal and Vancouver.  Moreover, Montréal is usually, though not exclusively, mentioned in a negative light.  Not Toronto.

We are a nation with an inferiority complex, that I can accept.  Toronto’s wiki page, though, is kind of sad, as it has to point out that: “As Canada’s economic capital, Toronto is considered a global city and is one of the top financial centres in the world.”  It is indeed a top financial centre in the world, somewhere around 20th.  Great.  Who cares, really.

Why can’t we just stand on our own merits and not have to defensively point out that we can play with the big boys?  I liked Canada more when we were an unassuming nation, proud to be what we are, but not a neighbourhood bully or the whiny little brother of the USA.  This inferiority complex is getting out of hand.

And whilst Lorinc, on the one hand, is showcasing Toronto for the domestic audience, it is kind of sad that it has to come at the expense of Montréal and Vancouver, and that Toronto is mentioned more often than any other city in the entire world.   Years ago, the Vancouver band, Spirit of the West, wrote a song about this, called “Far Too Canadian;”  times have changed, though, we are no longer content to be the unassuming, quiet Canadians.  Now we’re becoming a bunch of loudmouths.  I like the old way better.

the house of the irish

October 5, 2009 § Leave a comment

i submitted a book proposal to mcgill-queens university press the other week.  i mailed it out monday, i got an email response on thursday.  i was astounded canada post could get something somewhere that fast, even if the proposal travelled no more than 3.5km from pointe-saint-charles to mcgill.  anyway, mqup liked what they read.  they are interested in publishing the book, once it becomes a book.

so now, i am beginning to ponder how to turn “the house of the irish”, the dissertation, into the house of the irish, the book.  i am cutting out the first substantive chapter, on the shamrock lacrosse club.  that will become an article or two.  and i am extending a chapter on nations and nationalism in griffintown, c. 1900-17 to at least 1922, with the establishment of the irish free state.  part of my argument is that once ireland gained something approximating independence, even if the north was left out (or, more properly stated, opted out), the irish of the diaspora more or less lost interest in ireland, at least that was, i think, the situation in montréal.  ireland was already an imagined nation by the early 20th century on account of there being hardly any irish-born irish in montréal by this time, immigration having dried up shortly after the famine.  but after the free state was established, the irish here turned even more inwards.  so that’s the first major revision or expansion.

the other is to correct the methodological issues in the last two chapters of the dissertation, which is too much reliance on the same set of sources.  to correct this, i am going to engage in some oral history.  but i am back to the same problem i had with the dissertation in a sense here.  i am not interested in talking to the professional griffintowners, the don pidgeons and denis delaneys of the world.  their thoughts and opinions on the griff are very well known, they are part of the commemorative process amongst the griffintown diaspora.  i want to talk to people who didn’t necessarily think that they grew up in shangri-la.  the ones who have an alternative view of the griff, or at least a more critical one.  one former griffintowner in burman’s film said something like it was a shame to see the griff go, as they had it all.  oh really?  despite the poverty, unemployment, insecurity of tenure, etc.?  of course, this is partly nostalgia, partly a child’s view of life in the 1940s.  but i want to talk to people who have a more critical memory.

and that’s the hard part.  where do i find these people?  they’re not the ones at all the various griff gatherings.  i have a few ideas, one of which is to make use of the parish of saint-gabriel, the historically irish church in the pointe (in fact, almost next door to us here).  i recognise old griffintowners standing outside of saint-gabriel’s every sunday morning, so i’m hoping i can start there, talk to a few of them, get references to their friends, and so on.

either way, i am excited about this, i’m excited to turn this story of griffintown into a book.  i think this is a story that has wider implications, not just for montréal, but for the irish diaspora, and even as an example of the acculturation of an ethnic group in a major metropolitan centre in north america.

as my favourite soccer blogger used to say at the end of each post: onwards!

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