2012, thus far . . . .

The first run of the year, down to Strang Farm:

And the blooming Christmas Cactus:

An “Unfortunate” Encounter

Years ago, I saw a patient in the outpatient clinic who came in complaining of a heavy cold.  All his symptoms were consistent with a cold, and in fact, we both agreed it was a cold.  But he wanted antibiotics — and I could not convince him (he was a junior high school principal) that antibiotics were of no use for  the common cold.  He left, mad at me, the clinic, and the whole managed health care system — but without antibiotics.  My preceptor agreed with me, of course, but being older and wiser, advised me to “document everything.”  And she wrote a preceptor note at the bottom of the chart, beginning with: “An unfortunate encounter …”

Today I had an “unfortunate encounter,” different setting, different profession, but it left me feeling about the same: rather inadequate.  I am working on a architectural survey of a somewhat run-down neighborhood near the university; as the city and the university have grown, this neighborhood, established in 1920, has evolved from owner-occupied residences to student rentals and commercial conversions.  It is, basically, a student ghetto.  The powers that be in the city government have finally decided that they should figure out 1) what properties are in this area (the inventory survey), 2) which properties are of historic value (intensive survey), and hopefully with all this information, come up with 3) a development plan that  not only makes sense from an economic and preservation point of view, but that also do not impose on private ownership rights.

The “curbside” surveys look a lot like laundry lists: the form is essentially a checklist for things like what sort of roof, what sort of foundation, what type of material cover the exterior walls …  things, in other words, that can be seen from the sidewalk without stepping onto private properties.  One building we were interested in had been converted into a hair salon almost 40 years ago, and remains one today.  The owner noticed me taking pictures a week ago, and asked me what I was doing.  I explained, we chatted, and she seemed amenable to having an intensive survey done, which involved digging around for more details with regards to the construction and uses of the house, as well as establishing the chain of ownership and occupancy — but again, these were all information that could be gathered from public records (much of it online).   She gave me her phone number, and told me she had records she could share with me, but probably would not be able to get to them until the new year.

Today I saw her again, and she was deeply unhappy with me, my demeanor, my approach, my qualifications, my explanation of the project, the project itself, and of course, the city:

“How long have you been a historian?”

“Five, six years.”

“You have a lot to learn.  How long have you lived in the city?”

“Sixteen years.”

“You have a lot to learn,” she sneered.  “And see, you’re not happy about me asking you these questions.”

Well, actually, I didn’t mind them at all.

“You know, you are very antagonistic.  You come in here, and you want to know about changes to the building.  Why should you care?  It’s not your business, and you are just being a snoop.”

And so it went.  Not only was I a crappy historian, but I have not lived in my city long enough to be any sort of historian, even a crappy one.  And since I have not lived here long enough, I could not possibly be interested in its history, let alone actually care about what happens to buildings miles away from my own neighborhood.   So therefore, I am nothing more than a snoop butting into private business.  Moreover, the city is far too late getting into the act of figuring out how to protect her neighborhood — they let the beautiful old frat house be razed, didn’t they?

Well, yes, they did.  And perhaps it is too late, but this is a step in the right direction — isn’t it?

Two minutes ago she called me to find out exactly who I was working for.  I’m not sure if working on a project for the city is any better than being an actual city employee.  But I suppose, ultimately, none of this matters.  I assured her again that because of her reservations and objections, we would not be doing the intensive survey of her property.  And she muttered, “It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter — I don’t care what the project is about, I don’t want to know;  I don’t know what the city is doing, I don’t know what’s going on.”  And she hung up.

So what have I learned from this “unfortunate” encounter?  It was much like the earlier encounter with the patient with the cold.  This time, I did my best to address her concerns, I did my best to explain what it is I am trying to do with the survey, and I apologized for whatever I did that offended her — I know there is always room for improvement in how I approach people.  I understand that she is afraid the city will impose more rules and regulations on her property, and it is a legitimate fear — although I also know that nothing I do will have any direct impact on what the city chooses to do or not do.  Historians know better than to believe that they have any influence at all over decisions that are ultimately economically driven; I am the information gatherer, not the policy maker.  I understand she feels that what I do is an invasion of privacy, and the fact that by law all the information I have found are available to the general public is of no consequence to her.  She has taken good care of her house —  it is in wonderful condition, and she has done a good job of preserving its exterior — so what right does the city have to tell her about historic preservation?   I recognize her fears, and I begin to doubt myself, that what I am doing should be done at all.  Perhaps it is all an academic exercise, and the whole idea of “historic preservation” is akin to a paternalistic conceit.

So here I am, trying to “let it go” by writing about it.  I am still learning, I say to myself.  But I am also left with an uncomfortable truth: I had compromised my integrity.  With respect to Albert Einstein, I should have remembered that insanity is doing (in this case, saying) the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different outcome.  The property owner was right about one thing — she really did not want to know what the project is about . . . .  and I should have taken her at face value and walked away.  I had pandered to a narcissistic woman who thought she had exclusive rights to the city’s past and future — and I had grovelled.  It makes me physically sick to think of what I had been willing to do for the job.  I Will Not Grovel Again — not for my work, not for the project, not for the city.

Opie: Who, me?  Grovel? 


Everyone had cameras, images do not lie, and neither do photographers …  right?

“Migrant Mother”: photograph by Dorothea Lange (1936), Library of Congress FSA/OWI Collection

A picture so famous that no one questioned what it represented — because it was the right time, right issue, right photographer.  It is truth so obvious that it needed no fact-checking from no less a historian than Gary Gerstle, the James G. Stahlman Professor of American History at Vanderbilt University.  From his book,  American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century (2001):

The Depression era’s most celebrated photograph was Dorothea Lange’s searing 1936 portrait of the worn but proud, simple but virtuous “Migrant Mother” in transit from Oklahoma to California . . . .  No photographs of an eastern European immigrant, black, or working woman during the decade came close to evoking a similar kind of response to that elicited by the Migrant Mother.  She was universal American; she was a mother; she was also a Nordic.

I read this book as part of my graduate studies in history; we took it apart in seminar, it was on my reading list for the comps and orals, and hence a work I actually remember fairly well.  And then, this past weekend as I continued my reading of Richard Steven Street’s Everyone Had Cameras: Photography and Farmworkers in California, 1850-2000 (2008), the author discussed how fifty years after the image, various scholars scrutinized the facts Dorothea Lange supplied for the picture:

Migrant Mother emerges as a complicated image that is both more and less than it seems. At the center of this new appreciation is a detailed reconstruction of the photographic sequence of Lange’s Nipomo assignment, beginning with the first ten minutes, when she failed to learn that the name of the woman in Migrant Mother was Florence Owens Thompson . . . [S]he did not follow her usual technique of banter, photography, and diligent note taking.  Had she done so, Lange might have discovered that Thompson was not one of the migrant workers at the camp . . . .  or that she was not a typical Dust Bowl refugee, of European ancestry . . . .  She might have learned that Thompson, while born in Oklahoma, was in fact a full-blooded Cherokee, displaced from her tribal lands.

Although to be more precise about it, Florence Thompson was Florence Owens at the time . . . .  But to continue:

For most of the rest of her life Thompson resented her portrait and the way her image had been appropriated to serve larger symbolic, emotional, and political purposes.  “That’s my picture hanging all over the world,” she told a Modesto Bee reporter in 1978, “and I can’t get a penny out of it.  What good is it doing me?”

When I finished my orals, my professors asked me what I wanted to do next or in the future — and I said, prosaically enough, that I wanted to learn something new each day.  I am not sure I will ever reach that goal, but I learned something new this weekend — and I also relearned something I should have remembered.  In my work I do not question photographs the same way I question texts; somehow, they seem more reliable, more real, than the written word. “The photographs clearly show,” I write, and I forget that these photographs have creators — creators who frame, crop, remove, and manipulate truth every single time they look through the view finder.  I thought I knew what I saw, as did a historian I much admire, as did the third eye of a legendary photographer.

The Model Minority

Abercrombie & Fitch got into trouble in 2002 with a line of t-shirts featuring various Asian caricatures.  The company claimed it was just having fun, and that it was well-known for being equal opportunity when it came to insulting various ethnic groups.  Uh-huh.

Abercrombie & Fitch didn’t get it in 2002, and apparently neither did the teachers at Force Elementary School 8 years later.  A Denver Post photograph of 6 February, 2010, shows Force Elementary School kindergarteners learning all about the Lunar New Year: the kids, all looking very cute, are wearing vaguely Chinese-looking costumes and straw “coolie” hats.   Can’t blame the kids — after all, they are only 5 years old …  but the school claims to be a “safe, trusting, culturally sensitive community where you, the students, parents, and staff take ownership and accept responsibility for the students’ learning and behavior through valuable, active, inquiry-based activities.”  Uh-huh.

Who are these teachers?  Perhaps it is harmless — except the word “coolie,” so casually used for Chinese laborers, so casually used as an epithet, now so casually used for a hat, comes from the Mandarin ku li, which translates literally to mean bitter/hard/cruel labor.

When Denver Public School offered fried chicken, collard greens, and peach crisp in honor of Martin Luther King Day, people protested, and DPS apologized immediately for its “insensitivity.”  No such awareness applies for the Chinese, because they learned a long time ago to meet life with quiet stoicism.  In silence, they “eat bitterness,” they chi ku (yes, the same ku as in ku li).  And as my mother likes to remind me, ku never ends.

Lederer’s Hill

Francis Lederer Residence (photograph by Julius Shulman)

When my brother and SIL moved into their brand new house in 1983, they were at the western edge of town, their subdivision surrounded by not-yet-developed farm/ranch land.  I stayed a couple of nights with them, heard the crickets, smelled the manure, wondered about the gophers.

They are no longer at the edge — in fact, their end of town became its own city awhile back.  A major landowner in the area was the  former (and fairly obscure) Hollywood actor named Francis Lederer, who sold off most of his 300-acre ranch over the years to make way for some very lucrative enclaves — including the one my parents moved into over twenty years ago.  What’s left of the ranch is a Mission-style house on top of a small hill, which could be reached by decrepit driveways except for the many signs warning away trespassers (read Natalie Costanza-Chavez‘s evocative piece, “The nostalgic scent of a forbidden hill.“)  The Northridge earthquake damaged the house in 1994, and from the bottom of the hill, it looks like it is still crumbling to pieces.

The city extended a major San Fernando Valley thoroughfare through Lederer’s land in the 1960s, stranding his stables across the way.  It too is a fake-old Mission-style building, now a gift shop called The Hidden Chateau and Gardens.  The store sell shabby chic vintage furniture and knickknacks shoehorned into every inch of  the former stalls, and has a pretty — if not particularly quiet and serene — garden, available for weddings and parties.

Crammed at the bottom of Lederer’s hill is a new, but already going-to-seed condo complex.  Lederer’s widow objected to the development, claiming it would “adversely impact” her historic house and former stables because of increased traffic and other environmental issues.  As much as I think the new condominiums are an eyesore and a mistake for the area, her historic house and stable were compromised a long time ago — say, around the time the major road bisected the ranch, or later when the couple sold off their acres to real estate developers.   Meanwhile, the condominiums have been there for almost two years now, but are still unfinished.  They wait, dreary in the rain.  Like the Lederer driveways, many warning signs festoon the condo buildings — and in fact a security trailer seems to be permanently parked behind the gates.  Perhaps the patrols are for real, because despite some open windows and lots and lots of blank walls, vandals haven’t had a go at the place. Yet.  With enough rain, maybe Lederer’s hill will slide down and bury the place.

Francis Lederer in the 1940s, channeling Laurence Olivier ...

(Photograph from http://digital-library.csun.edu/copyright.html)

If on a Winter Morning

George Strauss Cabin, December 2009

George Strauss Cabin, December 2009: charred remains of original log cabin in foreground

George Strauss Cabin, December 2009: window

George Robert Strauss

Strauss Farm in 1911

Strauss Cabin in 1935

George Strauss homesteaded on the Poudre River in 1864 …  survived the flood that year to grow vegetables for the next 40 years.  Then came the flood of 1904 — his neighbor James Strang rescued him from that one, but he died the next day from exposure.  The original log cabin burned to the ground in 1999 after an arson fire.

Strang Farm, December 2009