Back in December, the Racist Salon Owner had told me I was nothing more than a snoop — oh, I might call myself a historian, but really, it was just a polite term for a professional snoop.  Since then I have continued to snoop, poking around in the archives for tidbits of gossip to liven up forty dreary survey reports, helped considerably by this wonderful website: Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection.  It is very easy to wander off the subject, with goofy headlines like this: “John Nightingale Dropped Dead Saturday,” or “Buried After 36 Years After Marriage,” and a personal favorite, “Elks Kill 228 Rabbits for Santa Claus.”  It was definitely a more plain-speaking era.

Six of the houses we are writing architectural surveys for were owned by Roy A. Portner (1885-1976), one of the city’s most illustrious citizens, a man referred to back in 1908 by the town newspaper as a “capitalist.”  Yes, it really was a more plain-speaking era …   Mr. Portner did this, Mr. Portner did that: he began building houses at age 19, began building reservoirs at age 21, bought his first farm also at age 21.  He organized an irrigation company and built dams and ditches and diversions; he was a founder and director of an investment firm as well as a building and loan association, and apparently played with a lot of money, including the city’s, when he was the finance commissioner.  He was a Rotarian, and never missed a meeting in 35 years; he was also a Methodist, a Mason, and a member of El Jebel Shrine, some of those memberships going as far back as 1902.

And then I find this “In Society’s Realm” item from May 1, 1907: “The KKK club was entertained at the home of Roy Portner Tuesday evening.”  Clearly not something ever mentioned in his entry in the Historical Encyclopedia of Colorado, or in his Denver Post obituary.  So … what does it mean?  Does it in fact mean anything?  The man is dead, I will never know, but I wonder — did Mr. Portner think it was a social club?  He was, after all,  fairly young at the time, even though already a “capitalist.”  Why did he join?  What did he get out of it?  Why did he leave — I assume he left, or did he leave because the KKK left town?  Did he ever think about it again when he was older, say, through the 1950s and 1960s and later?

I look at his picture, a typical studio portrait of an elderly white male in a suit, like so many other pictures of successful elderly white men, and think: History small and large is littered with dead white men.  And there is Mr. Portner, who perhaps never thought that years after his death, some nosy person would find that one sentence, 13 words about an unremembered past.

Insanity is …

The other historian called and said, “I didn’t realize there was so much junk to fill out on each survey!”  Or words to that effect.  And his dogs were smart enough to realize that much of what we do is indeed junk — and ate his homework.

Project Manager reminded us that we should do more searches in her files because there were probably more even older surveys  in there than the ones she had already given us.  And indeed, there were: our project area had architectural surveys in the early 1990s,1999/2000, 2004, and now … 2011.  If this isn’t insanity, I don’t know what is.

When property owners ask me what the city plans to do with all that information, I used to tell them that the information go into a database which then could be used as part of the planning process, and then of course, they get riled up because it’s a Big Brother sort of thing, isn’t it?  What I should tell them is, “No worries, it’s just busy work.  Every few years they hire people like me to gather basically the same information, and it gets filed away in some virtual  folder, never to be seen again until the next time.”  Really.  The surveys from 2004 have never even been photocopied/scanned, let alone entered into the master file.

I guess that is what history is . . . .  going over the same ground again and again, perhaps hoping for a different result.  This is my personal moment of disenchantment: why did I become a historian?

An Unfortunate Encounter: Racism

When my father immigrated to the United States in the late 1960s, there were still places that “discouraged” Asians, especially restaurants and hotels.  He does not talk about those years much, but once  in a while,  he drops hints of what it felt like.  When he brought us over, my brothers and I enrolled in schools where the teachers — and the students — had never seen or encountered Asians before.  We were “Orientals” back then: we were slanty-eyed, buck-toothed, yellow-skinned aliens.  It was an interesting, if appalling, experience, but kids are resilient.

My parents accept racism as part of life; they keep to themselves, they expect it of others.  It has been years since I experienced overt, or even covert, racism — but then, I have always used my intellect to protect myself.  During my psychiatry rotation, my preceptor, who had been practicing for 40 years, gave me a pearl I have never forgotten: what you feel when you walk out of a patient’s room is the diagnosis.  When I finally walked away from my “unfortunate encounter” with the salon owner, I felt awful — but it was more than just having been blindsided.  Something was off, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

The woman is a racist.  She would deny it, of course; she would be the sort who tells you that she has friends of other races, and be completely sincere about it.  But, she is a racist, and unless you are on the receiving end, you would not ever realize it.  I had somehow forgotten that for some people, I remain an “other.”

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? 

History from the Bottom Up: Pioneer Memorial Museum

Almost a decade in Salt Lake City, and I never made it to the Pioneer Memorial Museum (also known as the Daughters of Utah Pioneer Museum), up North Main opposite the State Capitol.  That is, until a couple of weeks ago.  The building is newly renovated, and the staff is friendly, as is typical of all the public places in the city where the Saints like to make the Gentiles feel welcome . . . .

It is a museum devoted to Mormon memorabilia of the pioneer era (1847-1869): clothing, crockery, quilts, hand tools, pianos (hauled across the plains before the railroads), christening gowns, furniture, badges, medical tools (and a vial of pulled teeth!), sewing machines, a copy of the Golden Spike, Brigham Young’s 1847 roll-into-Zion wagon (and his bathtub, too), and of course, the legendary hand carts.  The DUP ladies, bless them, do their best — but it really does feel as though all the pioneer descendants cleared out their attics and held a gigantic garage sale — and some of these artifacts might have been the left-overs.  Conservation efforts are somewhat haphazard, but funding is tight and the museum staff are all volunteers.  The displays are overwhelming — not just one christening set, but hundreds of baby bonnets and gowns; not just one quilt, but cases and cases of them, their less-than-pristine condition a silent history of the hardships of pioneer lives.  Perhaps some selectivity is in order — but then, that would probably be contrary to the mission of the museum:  the testament to faith is not just one story of one important man, but all the stories of all the pioneers.

DNR: Cry Me a Rivulet

The Thing that Refuses to Die!

Back in April, after I was chastised by National Park Service representatives for apparently over-estimating the intelligence of the average American adult (as well as the intelligence of the average NPS science communication assistant) by using big words like rivulet, I went into a corner and sulked.  And blogged.  I then consigned the report to oblivion and went on to something else — and so under-the-radar was the project that no one noticed!  Not the Natural Resource Specialist, not the Science Communication Assistant, not my nominal supervisor(s).  Or so I thought . . . .  until last week, when I received a rather ominous email requesting a “more updated version” for some other unit of the NPS to look at.

What to do, aside from looking really shocked by the turn of events?


1.  Ignore the request.

2.  Challenge my pancreas to a duel.

3.  Clear out my arteries.

I managed #1 for five day . . . .  and on Day 6, performed #2 with this:

Berry Cake

. . . . and in conjunction with #3, a glass of wine (to raise my HDL, of course).

Thus fortified, I retrieved the report, pretended to be an intelligent NPS specialist of some sort, and decided it is still a pretty fine piece of work.  Done!

And I kept all the big words,  like rivulet . . . .  and garrote . . . .

Bobcat Ridge Natural Area

Bobcat Ridge Natural Area is one of our newest designated “natural areas,” even though it is outside the city limits.  Pioneers arrived in the area beginning in the 1860s, and various families through the years used the land for agricultural purposes — subsistence farming, dairy operations, then cattle ranching — before the last owners decided to let the city buy the land as a nature preserve.  And it is gorgeous up there!

This morning we strolled (on an accessible trail) to the restored 1917 log cabin:

Bobcat Ridge: Kitchen/Smith Cabin (1917, 2008)

Bobcat Ridge: Kitchen/Smith Cabin (1917, 2008)

View from the Kitchen/Smith Cabin, built in 1917, restored 2008

Bobcat Ridge: View from the Kitchen/Smith Cabin

It was apparently marginal crop and stock land around the cabin, but families managed to live off it for years.  One family had a kitchen garden, and also raised chicken, pigs, and milk cow — no money, but enough to eat — until the well ran dry.  The Natural Areas people installed a new well and hand pump in front of the cabin when they took over the land.

The Kid snapped a picture of a cottontail — she remains rather fond of these bunnies, despite the fact that one (or perhaps a family) of them ate her Arbor Day tree last year:

A Bobcat Ridge Natural Area cottontail

A Bobcat Ridge cottontail

Scattered behind the little cabin are various old farm equipment, including a hay raker, a press wheel for planting different grains, a wheat thresher, a ditcher, a plow, and this:

Bobcat Ridge Natural Area: Corn Planter

. . . . a corn planter, of course!