Saturday, September 8, 2012

Popery and Tweed

Ireland! At times like this, I wish I had four stomachs. Between Belfast and Dublin, we drove across Northern Ireland to County Donegal, the northern outpost of the Republic. It was once part of Ulster, but like two other counties in the old province, it became part of the Republic because most of its inhabitants were Catholic around the time of independence. 

This hilltop, just west of Derry, is the site of a Celtic fort called Grianan Ailigh. Apparently the name means stone fort. The restored structure is a only simple stone ring perhaps 150 feet in diameter, but apparently it was significant enough in the second century to be included in Ptolemy's world map. The earliest fort was built in 1700 BC. 

This is the village of Ardara, which is known for woolen textiles. Donegal is fairly rugged country, swarming with sheep. I found myself a lovely tweed vest that still smells of mutton.

This fellow was working in the upstairs of factory in the tiny village of Killybegs. His son is a fisherman in Gloucester. He was quite a chatty fellow and happy to be photographed. The exposure is overly long but at least you can get a sense of the shuttle's movement on the loom.

Destined to become a blanket. 

We stayed in a b & b on Muckross Head, on the north shore of Donegal Bay. Behind me is Slieve League, the biggest coastal cliff in Europe. Christopher and I had hoped to climb it, but the weather was wetter than we were willing to endure. 

Tide was luckily out when we inspected the tip of the head. Our b & b was on the peninsula on the right of the photograph below. 

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Viaduc Millau

While staying in the Corrèze this summer, I took our rental car out for a spin through the Massif Central and, eventually, south to the Viaduc Millau. It was a good deal longer of a drive than I anticipated but well worth it. Remembering the splash it made in international news pages when it opened in 2004, I particularly wanted to see the bridge. Until then, the Tarn Valley in southern France slowed traffic between Paris and the Mediterranean tremendously, as its walls are so steep that cars could only descend and ascend on steep switchbacks. Now, he viaduct simply leaps a mile and a half across the gorge.

While it is difficult to appreciate the height of the bridge in person because of the scale of the surrounding landscape, it is the tallest in the world (though other spans cross deeper chasms). The piers rise higher than the Eiffel Tower.

Its symmetry, gentle curve, and white color give the bridge an almost dreamlike quality. It is slender and elegant. Apparently there was some concern that motorists, distracted by the architecture or blinded by fog, would be prone to accidents on the bridge.

The architect was Norman Foster, but the engineers were French, to the pride of the locals. The bridge cost 400 million Euros to construct; the toll to cross was 7 Euros. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Troubles Writ Large

I recently spent a few days in Belfast, an austere and shabby city that is nonetheless in its best shape in a half-century. Tensions between Unionists and Republicans still run high, but the violence that wracked Northern Ireland for so long is over, at least for now.

The conflict has dramatically affected the city’s physical landscape, especially in the poorer Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods that directly abut each other. Both groups use murals, as political propaganda and to relieve the drab expanses of brick that characterize much of the city’s housing stock. Let’s start with Sandy Row, a Unionist stronghold only a stone’s throw from the pubs and gin palaces frequented by the students at Queen’s University.

The Unionists, who have festooned their neighborhood with Union Jacks, revere Queen Elizabeth for obvious reasons, but the ubiquity of William of Orange in their murals seemed more obscure until I remembered that he quashed hopes for Irish independence at the Battle of Boyne. The above shot of the Queen is intended to suggest how down-at-heels the neighborhood is. The architecture is typical of UK “estate” housing.

These four paramilitary members are Protestant martyrs, memorialized here along the Shankill road, which is separated from downtown Belfast by an entrenched highway (similar to the Cross-Bronx Expressway, actually). Shankill Road gave its name to the eponymous Butchers, a gang that tortured Catholics (and a few Protestants) with butcher knives before killing them. Most members were caught and put away, but the leader, Lenny Murphy, evaded capture until a Provisional IRA hit squad got him.

The Red Hand is a symbol of Ulster that is traced back to Gaelic culture and the O’Neill clan, who were the last Catholics to rule the area until they fled in 1607 to seek help from the Spanish against the English invaders.

The Peace Line, as the wall running behind these houses is called, divides Shankill from the Catholic Falls Road neighborhood. First built to provide a temporary reprieve from the violence that erupted in the sixties, it has endured. Belfast has recently opened more gates in the wall, and there is serious talk about dismantling it altogether.

The murals on Falls Road are more sophisticated artistically than those of the Unionists and, to my mind, more effective as propaganda. They aim to justify the Republican cause by emphasizing persecution and expressing commonality with other liberation movements.

Bobby Sands was a Republican martyr who died on a hunger strike to protest the UK’s failure to treat IRA inmates as political prisoners. Eleven other men met the same fate. Subsequently, the UK changed its policy.

These next shots are from Derry, near the border with the Republic on the north coast. Derry is much smaller than Belfast but was another site of conflict during the Troubles. Bloody Sunday, in which British paratroopers killed thirteen unarmed Catholic marchers in 1972, took place here.

From the old city walls, I took these shots of the Bogside, one of the city’s Catholic quarters. As you can see by the architecture, it is a working-class place, and for a couple of years in the early seventies, it was beyond the reach of the UK security forces.

The woman holding the microphone, Bernadette Devlin, was a Republican MP from the area in the seventies.

The schoolgirl is Annette McGavigan, a fourteen year old who was caught in crossfire in 1971.

A British soldier breaks down a door during Operation Motorman, the 1972 campaign that allowed UK forces to take control of the Bogside. They subsequently leveled much of the housing close to the downtown and replaced it with far more porous structures, as you can observe in the picture of the Bogside.

A boy faces off against a British Saracen armored vehicle.

In this shot, back in Belfast, you can make out a police car. Note how a sort of modern chain mail extends down from the sides of the car nearly to the ground, protecting the chassis. This adaptation is to guard the undercarriage against Molotov cocktails.

As my presence suggests, the murals have gained a new function as tourist sites. Tour buses actually blocked me from photographing some of the murals along Falls Road. The city is still poor, especially in contrast to bustling Dublin, which I visited later on in the week, but it is safe. I watched several British and Irish athletes compete on a big screen by the city hall, and although the crowds were substantial, cheering seemed consciously muted. There was some trouble in Derry a few days before we arrived – offense was given to a Catholic storekeeper on a Protestant march – but no blows were exchanged. I hope the truce endures.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Knox Frank, 1978-2012

Knox Frank was a new counselor in 1997, my third summer at camp. Some favorite counselors of mine had not returned from the previous year, and I needed someone new to look up to as I made the eager, awkward transition to an older camper. Knox and his long hair, easy smile, and comfortable generosity made a big impression on me. He exuded Pasquanian ideals, but he also had his own confident style that distinguished him from the mainstream of camp.

Knox was the last word on cool as far as I was concerned. I turned up to camp in 1998 with shoulder-length hair of my own and, finding that we shared another interest – baseball – convinced him to be my battery mate on Riely’s Ruckus (a role he reprised the following summer for the Riled Wildmen). From this most faithful of positions, he guided me with gentle tact. During one crucial game, I remember flying off the handle at a camper who was dancing dangerously far off second base, but a well-timed, silent look from Knox impressed upon me the absurdity of losing my temper. One evening in Mem Hall, I bet that I could get ten strikes past him without giving up a home run. He gamely accepted the challenge, and when he missed a homer on the ninth strike by a foot, I thought I had him. With his powerful chop of a swing, he put the very next pitch into the trees by Court 3. It was around that time that he convinced Sam Madeira and me (Trey Winstead, the fourth in our cadre of longhairs, held out) to cut our locks before reveille on Trustees’ weekend, causing something of an uproar at Showers.

As I grew at camp and school, I began to develop the interest in the relationship between humans and the environment that continues to propel me in my job as a geography teacher. I spent more and more time up at the nature building, which was unusually bustling during those summers. Knox, a forestry major at Sewanee, joined me on several jaunts up the Lane, where we set up a dozen or so plots to compare and record the species composition in areas recently logged by camp with adjacent, still forested land. Undoubtedly there were other campers clamoring for his attention, but he took the time to teach me the rudiments of a systematic, scientific method for grappling with startling changes to the landscape. Now, when I send my seniors into DC to carry out their fieldwork, I am trying to accomplish the same thing.

I haven’t seen Knox since the summer of ’99. It is so easy to fall back into friendships with Pasquanians, and I had been looking forward to catching up with Knox. Another decade or two would have done little to dampen the warmth of the reunion. Now that he is gone I can make no sense of events except to be grateful for what he gave me during those three summers. 

I took these photographs on a First Walk hike up Liberty in 1999. I believe that the boys in the top photo are Phil Harris and Peter Havens, while Knox's companion in the shot below is Allen Potts.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Prospect and Refuge

Shortly after 6:10, I slink out of bed. In the wintertime, the frigid dark envelopes me. This used to be excruciating, but as I get older, I find that I love the quiet. Looking out my third-story window to the east, through the oak tree’s bare branches, a glow lights up the horizon. Sometimes its orange-red-purple spreads across the entire sky, spilling into my apartment and cascading across the white walls of my living room. Other mornings, when cloud cover is limited, the effect of sunrise is bright but local.

Cold subdues the neighborhood; barely a noise, save for an offending dump truck’s weekly excursion along the alley, disturbs the early morning silence. Later, I will hear the grumbles and curses of a couple of the old bums who used to occupy the park at the end of my alley. Lately, I haven’t noticed them – perhaps they’ve gone for good. Traffic rolls along on Park Street, mostly too quiet to catch my attention. Some nights, sirens pierce the air. Though Park only has two lanes, it is an important east-west thoroughfare for the fire trucks stationed a block to the east on Fourteenth Street. My large windows offer a wonderful prospect, but they expose me to the outside. Since few people think to look up, their impact is mostly auditory.

As the weather warms, the neighborhood comes alive. The park, so recently drab and deserted, occupied by gamblers and drunks, is now host to a clutch of children and their parents. It is one of the few spaces in the neighborhood where blacks, Latinos, and whites easily rub shoulders, perhaps because the demand for green space is so high in this neighborhood.

On weekend afternoons, the air pulses with salsa and merengue as the Salvadorans in the opposite apartment building prepare to grill on their balcony. By eleven AM on Saturday, I can smell the lighter fluid on charcoal, and grading is out of the question because the music is so loud.

Once I asked one of my neighbors, who was washing his car in the alley on a Saturday afternoon, to turn down his music. He was drunk and resented my admonishments, and he mistook me for one of the self-styled anarchists who live down the block, squatting in an abandoned carriage house. Their band practices fairly often, and sometimes they go so late that the neighbors call the police. Guests at their parties noisily gossip while they smoke cigarettes in the alley, just below my window, but their comings and goings keep the place safe. 

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Spring Break Street Art in Paris

During my nine days chaperoning the French exchange around the city of light, I saw quite a lot of graffiti, from simple territorial scrawls to more artistic stuff. Here are some tidbits from St. Germain des Près, slightly to the north of the school where I was staying, in the 6th Arrondisement.

It took me several days to realize just how much street art was around to see. These playful characters on the do-not-enter signs appeared in many locations, but I only thought to snap the last few that I noticed. 

If you've seen Exit Through the Gift Shop, you'll remember Space Invader, who makes mosaics of creatures from the game that gave him his name. His cousin is the film's subject, a street art idiot savant.

These colorful whirls began to jump out at me after several days. I wonder how many there are in all. These three shots are from fairly distinct neighborhoods in Paris - St. Germain, the Marais, and Notre-Dame de Lorette. Clearly, this artist is making an effort at display. Note more of Space Invader's handiwork in the final shot. 

What does all this street art mean? Surely this rather distinctive feature of the Parisian urban landscape tells us something about the mood of its inhabitants. First, like American graffiti during the 1970s, some of the simpler stuff must be a cry of existence. Here I am! Near my school, one perpetrator had used the bars on a window to climb so that he could get his tag ten or more feet off the surface of the street. Why did he take such pains to make so permanent a mark unless he felt unseen?

Perhaps there is a similar theme in the more elaborate works I've highlighted here. There may also be some mimicry at work, too - the English prankster, Banksy, has popularized street art enormously over the past five years. There is something appealling about its mildly subversive, nocturnal nature. It must be a thrill to see one's handiwork prominently featured along some of the most popular walkways in the city. Most of all, however, I see playfulness in these creations. These artists are careful about their work. Their modifications are slight but deliberate. They don't fundamentally change the purpose of their wall and signpost canvasses but reimagine them to make us laugh and think. For all of Paris' celebrated beauty, the city within La Periphèrique itself is remarkably homogenous - row after row of beautiful nineteenth century townhouses. Hard as it is for us tourists to imagine, Paris may be a little monotonous to its inhabitants. Street art adds color, variety, and humor.  

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Last of the Replicants

In last week’s Sunday Times, Michael Kimmelman urges his city to hasten the replacement of “the calamity that is Penn Station.” Its contrast with Grand Central Station is indeed stunning; one scurries, head down, through Penn Station’s indistinguishable corridors, while the airy heights of Grand Central create a sense of wonder and scale that evokes the best of the urban experience.

But when the trains do finally switch over to the reinvented Post Office Building next door (and it sounds as if this will not happen for quite some time, nor even that commuter rail will join Amtrak in the new building), something very distinctive about a certain era of New York will be lost. Today, we wonder how the city could possibly have razed the old, glorious Pennsylvania Station, but Kimmelman allows that it “had declined by the end into a symbol of gilded age opulence.” Penn Station will never attain beauty or even charm, but its modernist labyrinth is typical of an era whose architectural legacy, now so utterly out of fashion, is fast being erased from the landscape.

I can think of several similar, if smaller-scale, landmarks in my own life that are on their way out. One of the high schools, Newton North, in my hometown was recently replaced by a new, far more functional building hyped as the first “green” high school in the country. The old building was a monstrosity best suited for a prison, but it was nothing if not distinctive – a dead ringer for the school where those eighties teens served detention in The Breakfast Club. The school where I currently work is slowly replacing its functional but dull annex that rose in the sixties. And, on a street a couple blocks from my apartment, a Safeway dating from the late fifties will soon make way for a much larger grocery, itself only one section of a mixed-use development.

These buildings matter. They demonstrate the limits of planning and the inexorable ability of history to compromise practicality and aesthetic appeal. In conversation the other day, an acquaintance of mine pointed out how Safeway’s new mixed-use shopping complex will promote health by encouraging shoppers to walk and bike to the store. I don’t disagree, but the people who planned the old store thought the same thing, except that cars and convenience were the determinants of well-being during their era. The heyday of modernist optimism was particularly heady – tragically so – and when it is no longer around us to remind us of its failures, we risk repeating its mistakes.

Penn Station represents that bleak but fascinating nadir in New York’s recent history: the seventies. Its tunnels are a dystopian landscape, devoid of anything organic or decorative beyond advertisements. Its austere functionality reflected, even exacerbated the dire situation of the city as it descended into anarchic bankruptcy. Practicality was compromised because the architecture discouraged anyone from lingering and developing a sense of place. The movie Blade Runner captures this feeling in its chaotic vision of the future. The best of a legion of sci-fi films that examine a future gone wrong through the limits of centralized planning, its hero, Deckard, prowls a crowded, placeless, and sunken streetscape, where the only light is dim and fluorescent. His world is dead, but when he does finally come across something vivid and compelling, it is all the more worthwhile.