Author: Rudy Owens

I have a professional background in journalism (MA from UNC-CH), public affairs, and more recently public health (MPH, University of Washington). I publish several online properties, including my web site www.rudyowens.com. My photographs have appeared in a diverse number of media and print publications. I also have traveled on six continents and in more than 30 countries. Most recently, I have just finished writing my first book.

Enjoying Oaks Bottom’s final fleeting fall colors

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Portland’s fall season normally ends just after Thanksgiving. Because of warmer weather and a mild autumn this year, leaves still clung from tree branches along the Willamette River, about a half mile from my home, when the first weekend of December arrived.

I found the last hold-outs along the river’s edge and in the Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge, next to the river. Before everything fell to the ground, I made my mandatory fall leaves photo outing. Though this safari did not feature the Kodacolor brilliance I remember from Alaska, it more than did the job. I had a chance to photograph some of the juvenile black tail deer that have made their home in this wetlands area. I also found a few other holiday-themed treats, including decorated small rail cars used for seasonal rides from Thanksgiving through Christmas.

When I left Seattle a little over four years ago, I wondered if I could ever replace the beauty and views I had of the Puget Sound and that spectacular area from several parks near my home. Luckily I have with this space, walking distance from my new home. I never have a bad time running or walking in this urban wildlife area.

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November morning light at Cannon Beach

 

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My relationship with the Oregon Coast has changed since I became a surfer two years ago. I now see the rough Pacific Ocean waves as fickle tricksters, always appearing beautiful but seldom inviting to insignificant surfers who dare paddle a few hundred feet from shore.

I also appreciate the magic moment when the first cold light of a fall day climbs out from behind the coastal range and illuminates the beach from the east. I have come out many times at this golden hour of the day, just after sunrise.

I drove out this month with a friend, hoping to catch some approachable waves. Unfortunately, the five-foot breaks resembled overheads, and grew taller as the waves barreled close to shore. We still had the beauty of the beach before us.

We first headed to Seaside. Both of us disliked the ferocity of the breaks. Next we headed to Cannon Beach. Our first spot already had two expert surfers in position.

When we saw the intensity of the waves we decided to bag that location too. It is also a secret hideaway that locals want kept that way. We knew we made the right call after seeing one the two surfers get stuck in the current. He spent 15 minutes in the current, stuck, unable to get back out to the lineup. As we were leaving, another surfer arrived, obviously upset by our presence. On such a beautiful morning, my friend and I let his cool glaze roll off our backs.

We suited up instead for some mediocre foam rides at a spot called the Needles, just south of Cannon Beach’s landmark Haystack Rock. Despite the junky foam waves rides, we caught our quota and soaked up the beautiful morning on the crisp, cold, clear fall day. Nothing could be better. You can never go wrong after a morning surf.

Those who forget history are doomed to repeat the past

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I took these images of the statue of Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet Robinson Scott, and the Old Courthouse in St. Louis in April 2018. Slaves were auctioned from the courthouse steps in estate settlements prior to the U.S. Civil War. Today the courthouse is a National Park site because of its historic significance.

The courthouse also was the location of one of the nation’s most important legal cases. The Scotts brought their suit for freedom in this building in 1847, testing whether they would remain property of slaveholders or be freed. The Scotts’ quest for freedom ultimately helped to speed the divided country into Civil War, starting in 1861.

These images are fitting now because of another recent dangerous test of the United States’ democratic principles, this time by President Donald Trump. During an interview on Oct. 30, 2018, with the news site Axios, Trump claimed he could do away with birthright citizenship by executive order—in other words by dictatorial fiat. Such a move with sweep away the protections of the 14th Amendment of the United States and deny citizenship to children born of immigrants in the United States.

The 14th Amendment, ratified by Congress in 1868, granted citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States.” This included former slaves recently freed. It addressed the injustices highlighted in the famous Dred Scott case a decade earlier. It also barred states from denying citizen “life, liberty or property, without due process of law” or to “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Not only was Trump saying he could ignore the constitutional separation of powers, his gesture sought to erase a constitutional measure passed after the nation’s bloodiest war in response to the denial of citizenship and core human rights to African-Americans. Trump’s latest statement was another in a series of dangerous moves to unravel basic democratic institutions in the United States.

The Old Courthouse in St. Louis is now a popular tourist destination in downtown St. Louis, where visitors can learn about the underlying national divisions and the institution of slavery that led to the nation’s bloodiest war from 1861 to 1865.

Who Were the Scotts?

Born a slave, Scott was brought to Illinois and Minnesota, where slavery were illegal, and later to Missouri by a slaveholding surgeon. The Scotts’ first owner died and the couple were then, like property, deeded to his heirs. In 1846, Scott and Harriet Scott sued for their freedom.

In a trial held in the Old Courthouse in 1847, Scott and Harriet Scott lost their case on a technicality. During a second trial in the same building, they won their freedom in 1850, but it was also appealed by their purported owners and heirs.

In 1852, The Missouri Supreme Court overturned the 1850 decision and defended slavery itself, saying that it places “that unhappy race within the pale of civilized nations.”

The Scotts sued again in 1854 in federal court. The court upheld their right to sue, but the jury found that the Scott family members still were slaves. The Scotts’ lawyer next appealed the case to the Supreme Court of the United States.

In 1857, the nation’s highest court ruled that Dred Scott’s suit for freedom should be dismissed because African-Americans were not considered citizens. What’s more, Congress could not intervene to pass laws limiting slavery because the Constitution ensured the right of property.

The case was one of many triggering factors that erupted in the ensuing four years, culminating in the start of the Civil War after the election of Abraham Lincoln as president of the Untied States.

It is not without irony that Trump’s latest pronouncement revisited the very measure that sought to end the root injustices and moral failures of the most divisive chapter in U.S. history. My own view is that Trump intentionally seeks to sow deeper divisions and establish precedents for authoritarian power under his presidency. Disturbingly, he is doing this in the light of day and not in the shadow of war, as past presidents have done in the name of national security.

(See Dred Scott timeline here.)

The Wildwood Trail of Forest Park

 

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Fall is a lovely time to go for a run or hike in Forest Park, in Portland, Oregon. The park is one of the nation’s largest urban forests. Visitors will find more than 100 species of birds and an extensive trail system, including the more than 30 miles that make up the Wildwood Trail.

I photographed the Wildwood Trail last weekend, one of many times I have captured it in different seasons.

As a photographer, I love preparing for a shot in nature. You have to pause, set up your tripod, and think the process through. That makes you enjoy the moment better. But as a trail runner and walker, I hate carrying gear and do not want to be bogged down. This short series attempted to do both. In the end, I brought the wrong tripod and did not get a great walk. That is probably the reason I only got a few good shots.

They have no particular meaning other than my impressions of the sights and visitors I encountered. I never have had a bad time in Forest Park.

Reliving my past dark days

 

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Halloween is approaching. I have never been a fan of this holiday.

Perhaps I don’t like it because I feel during my life I had enough real-life scares and unsavory characters to make a holiday that makes light of horror seem absurd. Or maybe I just don’t feel the spirit to dress up and change my identity to escape from my reality. It could be that too. I have been this way most of my life, and it is OK.

With the holiday approaching, I was thinking about a real place that was my personal place of unpleasantness. That would be Huntington, West Virginia, and Chesapeake, Ohio, just across the Ohio River.

This region, on the edge Appalachia, remains trapped in intergenerational poverty. Huntington today is as impoverished as it was in the years I spent there, periodically, in the 1970s. The city today has a poverty rate of a whopping 30 percent, with median income just below $30,000 a year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It feels as if good times have still never come.

I came here for years after my parents divorced, spending weeks at a time. My sister and I would visit my father, who lived in Huntington and then across the river in Chesapeake. Those are not pleasant memories for me. I briefly describe them in my memoir, You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are, which I published in May this year.

All of the places captured in these pictures have a special meaning for me. They are part of my memory of unhappy times, when I had to get tougher than I thought I was, and do that much quicker than I thought I could. I came back here in 2015, in order to revisit those many swirling memories as I wrote my memoir that tracks my life through bad times and good.

So to honor this holiday, with tens of thousands if not more drunken revelers cross dressing, wearing zombie outfits, play acting as if they were cast members of fantasy shows, or perhaps becoming something fun even, I give tribute to All Saints Day on the Catholic Calendar and Día de los Muertos on the Mexican calendar. Here are some black and white shots, from 2105, reflecting on that time when I confronted those things that frightened me and likely should have beaten and broke me.

Read my book and learn how well things came out in the end. Trust me, I did well when one measures success and fulfillment in the span of one’s lifetime. You can order my book today and learn how I did it.

The critters of the Missouri Botanical Garden

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I visited St. Louis last month to visit family. As I always do when I visit St. Louis, I took time to enjoy the Missouri Botanical Garden on a hot, end-of-summer day that was serenely beautiful.

My mother and I always come here. It is our special place. Each time provides something new to learn and see. This visit was no exception.

Our walks always go counter-clockwise from the entrance, past the water lily reflecting ponds, to the Museum and Victorian Garden and then to the Japanese Garden. Our tour provided lovely encounters with birds, bees, and dragonflies.

The water lilies were in bloom and had a lot of visitors with six legs and wings. The dragonflies were particularly stunning. I cannot believe how nice the pictures were with my simple point and shoot Lumix.

At the large pond in the Japanese Garden, I spotted a snowy egret, clearly hunting. There are fat, lazy carp in the pond, and it may have been trying to grab one for lunch. Hopefully it was hunting a small carp, as these voracious eaters can grow nearly two feet in length with all the free food from visitors.

Oddly, a day later, I spotted another snowy egret in the great public park of St. Louis, Forest Park, on my run. I kept thinking it might have been the same one that flies between the two water ways that could feed it.

 

The landmarks and urban landscape of South St. Louis

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During my last trip to St. Louis this month, I did not find time to do as many photo trips in the city as I had planned. Because my activities took me between south St. Louis County and University City, I limited my picture-taking to neighborhoods of South St. Louis.

St. Louis, as long as I have been alive, has been one of the most divided cities by race I have ever seen. There is a long history of redlining, federally supported programs like the Interstate Highway System, and private lending practices that have contributed to entrenched racism in how residents of this great city have been segregated.

Historically, the north side of St. Louis, north of Delmar, has been the home of the majority of African-American residents. South of Delmar and south of Forest Park, one finds a larger concentration of white residents. Neighborhoods like the traditionally Irish neighborhood of Dogtown or the Italian-American neighborhood of The Hill are two of the more famous areas in South St. Louis.

University of Iowa history professor Colin Gordon’s masterful book on the racial and economic history of St. Louis, Mapping Decline, provides an in-depth look at this history and its legacy that is now visible throughout this fallen American metropolis that I still love. (You can see his maps of these racial divisions here.)

These photos have no central theme other than highlighting noticeable landmarks, including the former St. Louis County Insane Asylum, also called the Missouri State Hospital, which housed the institutionalized mentally ill. I also found an array of small businesses, my favorite frozen custard shop in the universe called Ted Drewes, some landmark bars, and the brilliant Turtle Playground (known also as Turtle Park), which sits across Highway 40 from the St. Louis Zoo.

While taking these photos, I met a property manager and groundskeeper by the major mental health facility that sits on the highest point of land in the city. She asked me what I was doing. We had a great conversation how she constantly sees photographers coming to properties she cares for, taking pictures of decay. She said she didn’t understand why they kept coming. I laughed. I told her that I loved St. Louis and felt attached to its fate. I told her I took pictures because every building and every business had a story, about people and a community that are worth remembering. I think she appreciated learning my passion. We are now connected. That is the power of telling a story.

Forest Park in dawn’s early light

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Forest Park in St. Louis remains the crown jewel of the greater St. Louis area. A visitor will find an incredible array of amenities that are not found in most U.S. cities, or even in great cities of the world.

The park features a world-class art museum, an excellent history museum run the Missouri Historical Society, a popular public golf course, miles of trails for bikes and pedestrians, the world-class St. Louis Zoo, nature areas, festivals, lagoons, and occasionally visiting wildlife. I saw a snowy egret on one of my morning runs last weekend.

A nonprofit organization called Forest Park Forever now provides strong organizational and fiscal support to steer the park’s development and strategic planning needs. Given the fiscal challenges facing St. Louis, this approach likely will pay strong dividends for the entire metro region, which collectively benefits from having a free and accessible public park of this stature.

As a former University City resident (raised there) and longtime visitor to the St. Louis area over the decades, I cannot separate my love of the park from my concern for the metro region. The park’s current success in fulfilling its mission remains at odds with the prolonged pain of the City of St. Louis’s decline and de-urbanization. One needs to keep in mind the larger challenges facing the city, and its many residents who are struggling and whom the park serves, if you come and enjoy it any day of the year.

I took all of these pictures on a three-mile stroll along Lindell Boulevard to the Missouri HistoryMuseum, to the St. Louis Art Museum, through the wildflower savannah off Skinker Boulevard, and back to my starting point. You cannot beat a St. Louis morning walk like this in Forest Park!

September at the Oregon Coast

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September is my favorite month for visiting the Oregon Coast. The long days have not fully ended, and we often get beautiful, warm days in this often cloudy and chilly place. I consider September to be the month when I first began surfing on the coast.

I took this shot with a point and shoot camera after a memorable outing at Indian Beach, in beautiful Ecola State Park. That beach is considered a beginner’s surfing sport on the north coast. I totally blew it my first time there. In time, however, I improved.

At the overlook point where I took this picture, visitors can gaze south to Cannon Beach all the way to Oswald West State Park (also a surfing location). Enjoy your fall days, wherever you are.

Is The Grove the face of gentrification in St. Louis?

 

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St. Louis’s efforts to revitalize some declining neighborhoods can be seen in changes in an area called The Grove, along Manchester. Located in south-central St. Louis, The Grove itself is located in the official Forest Park Southeast Neighborhood. As I noted in an earlier post about renewal and decay in The Grove in April 2017, the Grove Community Improvement District was created in 2009, and has been working to restore the area.

The district has boasted how it turned around urban decay along on Manchester, seen in the rise of major anchor business establishments like the Urban Chestnut Brewery (a favorite of mine): “Known for its diverse community, The Grove is home to several LGBTQ friendly businesses, several of which lead the initial wave of investment in the area, starting with Attitudes Night Club opening in the 1980s. In recent years, community members devoted to filling one vacant storefront at a time, have revitalized the district.”

But is this change truly evidence of gentrification, as that term is understood, in the city?

Gentrification or De-Urbanization?

Todd Swanstrom, professor of Community Collaboration and Public Policy Administration at the University of Missouri – St. Louis, just published a thoughtful essay this month asking, “Is St. Louis Gentrifying?” His analysis looks at available data and concerns from local groups about reported gentrification in the struggling city. Despite fears of gentrification in the mostly African American neighborhoods of North St. Louis, he claims there is no evidence this type of change is occurring in this area: “If you go to Zillow.com, you will find that there are almost no houses for sale … and the few that are often sell for less than $50,000.”

By contrast, he looked at the data and found change resembling gentrification is occurring, in areas that I documented with photos I took in The Grove: “The Central Corridor is booming with growth in medical, biotech, and various tech start-ups. My research on neighborhood change in St. Louis documents that there are, indeed, what I call ‘gentrification-like’ processes going on. Young professionals who work in the Central Corridor are moving in to the Central Corridor and nearby neighborhoods to the south.”

The day I took these photos in April 2018, I met a long-time African-American resident and duplex owner, who lived next the units that were being remodeled and shown here — all of these shots were taken within four blocks south of Manchester. The father and homeowner said he welcomed the change, higher-end apartments, and the remodeling. It increased the value of his property and improved the quality of life in his immediate walking radius. He said he planned to hold on to his property, keeping it in his family.

This sentiment may not be shared by everyone seeing change. Swanstrom notes, “For the black community, concerns about displacement have a real basis in history. In the 1950s and 1960s, urban renewal and highway building forcibly displaced tens of thousands of African Americans. ‘Gentrification’ is a shout out by people who feel they have little control over their lives and their neighborhoods.”

Swanstrom suggests a different and more nuanced vocabulary is needed to describe change where there are rising neighborhoods, but without the massive displacement seen in red-hot cities like San Francisco and New York.

“Today, however, the big disruptive challenge facing older industrial cities like St. Louis is not gentrification but depopulation and disinvestment — not re-urbanization but de-urbanization,” he writes. “Contagious abandonment and the decline of solid working and middle-class neighborhoods are the most pressing issues facing St. Louis — not gentrification.”

[Article has been updated on Sept. 26, 2018 to correct the spelling of Professor Todd Swanstrom’s name.]