Winter morning in Lafayette Park

Paris? Toulouse? Perhaps Lyon? No, not really, but the city that is home to this park was profoundly influenced by its original French-American inhabitants, who named their town after their beloved king, calling it St. Louis.

Lafayette Park, also known as Lafayette Square, is the oldest public park in the United States west of the Mississippi River. It was dedicated in 1851, 10 years before the Civil War. It is found on St. Louis’ south central side. It remains a treasure for anyone who appreciates urban design and American architectural history. The former upscale neighborhood surrounding the park has been well-preserved, including the elegant French row houses and mansions. This is where the 1 percent called home in the city’s heyday.

I visited in early January and found the public space well maintained and used by dog walkers. If you visit St. Louis, visit this park and spend a few hours wandering the neighborhood.

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

Tourists of Rome, and everyone is loving it

Rome has been on my mind lately. So I dug up some of my old shots from my only trip there in 2006. It was perfect, in every sense. Even the horrible trip coming back to the United States, getting stuck in Paris, getting harassed by French security officials, train stoppages and bus mishaps–it all faded in the dazzling memories Rome left behind. Here are tourists in Rome, quite of few of them in nuns’ habits. They were having a grand time too. (Click on each photograph to see a larger picture in a separate picture page.)



It’s a big old goofy world in carnie land

I visited the Oaks Amusement Park this weekend, in southeast Portland, along the Willamette River. This 110-year-old facility is a classic, old-style small amusement park, not a corporate-themed fantasy land that milks consumers for all they got. It is among the oldest in the country. Old-school amusement parks are part of an older, carnival world that dates back to the Midways and Pikes of the 1893 and 1904 World’s Fairs in Chicago and St. Louis. In fact, Oaks Park is part of that tradition, opening as part of the 1905 Portland World’s Fair.

There is something utterly low-brow about businesses like these. No one who attends the opera would be found anywhere near here. The rides are not forcing us to buy Disney products or watch a Universal Pictures film. Most are just about flinging our bodies in different directions, so we can momentarily feel a sense of safely packaged fear and excitement, with a slight twinge of panic these old contraptions might break down and fling us to oblivion.

What I saw at Oaks Park also was about the most diverse crowed I have seen in one place in Portland since arriving. Parents and their kids, and also grandparents, were letting it rip, laughing, and having a good time. The carnie atmosphere prevailed on the main strip, complete with gun-skills galleries, basketball tosses, junk food, and stuffed toys. I thought about the people who worked here and what they thought about their daily grind, and the people who spend their hard-earned money just to escape from life for an hour or two without going broke.

Surprisingly, amusement parks are almost always portrayed as sinister places in film, from West World to Jurassic Park, to even older films like the noir classic Third Man with Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten. This American Life did a pretty good episode on amusement parks also. It is worth a listen too. So amid that joy, and it was joy, you always feel that sense of trepidation, like maybe, just maybe, the rides might not work. And maybe, that is why people keep coming back, year after year.

A story for every stone

My explorations of Portland’s historic Lone Fir Cemetery found lots of fascinating headstones. Each represents a life, a full story, a story that intersects with hundreds of other stories. And how do we remember these former residents, who are now but forgotten. Cemeteries remain a good place to contemplate one’s life and what one does with one’s life. Because ultimately we all return to the earth, and our life is but a speck in the passage in time in an infinite universe. (Click on each photograph to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

Monument to the Fallen and Murdered in the East, Warsaw

In Warsaw, ghosts of World War II are all around. In July 2000, I found this one, Monument to the Fallen and Murdered in the East. It honors victims of Soviet atrocities to Polish prisoners who died in captivity in camps in the former U.S. S.R. during that insane war that only ended 70 years ago today. Seems like an appropriate day to honor the memory of ghosts. (Click on the photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

The Sistine Chapel of Native American art on the Columbia River Gorge

Native Americans, according to archaeology records, lived continuously on the banks of the Columbia River for more than 12,000 years prior to their near demise due to new diseases and the arrival of white settlers in the 1800s. Their culture thrived because of trade among tribes and the stable supply of one of the world’s most nutritious natural food sources: migrating salmon and other fish species in the Columbia River.

The many generations of Native inhabitants also left behind a legacy of artwork, in the form of petroglyphs (rock carvings) and pictographs (paintings). The latter were mostly with white paints, derived from bones, and red paints, derived from blood. The age of these pieces of art are not fully known. They can be found in the region roughly east of Hood River and eastward for the next 40 or so miles. The residents who lived here at the time Lewis and Clark made their journey in the early 1800s on the river were known as the Wishram people.

Sadly, most of the art, the paintings and rock carvings, were flooded when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built dams on the Columbia, flooding historic village sites that had been settled since well before the rise of ancient Rome. A number of rock art carvings were salvaged and then reassembled in 2004 for public display at Columbia Hills State Park, in Washington state, near The Dalles, Oregon. The location of the art today was once the site of a thriving Native settlement. Today, the Yakama, Umatilla, and Warm Springs bands hold ceremonies here by their ancestors’ art, which was once on their ancestors’ land.

There is no written record describing the purpose of the art. Current theories suggest the artwork provide guideposts for dream quests, connecting the people to the spirit world. Other pictures also depict elements of folk myth, the most famous painting of all, “Tsagaglalal” or She Who Watches, derived from a story about coyote and clan matriarch who was cast into the rock and stood watch over her people. (The painting is now used as the logo for the Columbia River Interpretive Center.) This is considered one of the finest examples of Native American art in all of North America.

The petroglyphs today are accessible to all for the price of admission to the state park. To see the rock art paintings in an area with limited viewing, you need to call the park in advance and sign up for a guided interpretive tour, led by a park cultural interpreter or a Native American guide. This was one of the highlights of my regional outings in the Pacific Northwest.

I would recommend this trip to anyone, of any age. You find yourself in one of the most scenic areas in North America, standing on land where countless generations stood before you.

You can see some photos of this area and its former Native inhabitants in the collection of Edward Curtis, famed photodocumentarian of Native American people (including staged photos). His work is archived on a superb Smithsonian photo media archive. Look for pictures marked “Wishham” (note spelling differences from above).

Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.

Rueda flash mob hits downtown Portland, dancing ensues

Rueda de casino is a hypnotically cool dance from Cuba that uses Cuban partner dance patterns called casino to traditional Cuban rhythms that today we know mostly as “salsa,” with dancers moving around a circle and changing partners. You can dance to salsa, traditional older Cuban dance music, and even reggaetone. Fun beyond description, really. Today this is literally a global dance phenomenon, like so many dances that have originated in Latin America.

A great group of Portland-based rueda enthusiasts and instructors, who band under the name Portland Casino Fridays, organized a series of rueda flash mobs at Director Park and then a bit later (after we got kicked out) at the park strip near the Portland Art Museum on Saturday, March 28. Bet you did not know there is such as thing as Rueda de Casino Internationl Multi-Flashmob Day. Well I did not until I joined the fun.

If you have not tried rueda, look it up in your city and give yourself some time to pick up the moves. There are hundreds if not thousands of instructional videos on YouTube now. Oye, baila!

Art and the loss of human heritage


In the last 30 years, several countries whose current dominant religion (Islam) considers artistic representations of the human form as idolatrous, have seen the destruction of some of humanity’s great artistic and cultural heritage. Those countries include Afghanistan, where cliff-size statues of Buddha at Bamiyan were dynamited in 2001 by the Taliban, and Syria, where the Baathist regime of dictator Bashar al-Assad has outright plundered and looted the great Roman ruins of Palmyra. Both places have been ravaged by civil war, invasions, and religious intolerance. Even before these attacks by religious fanatics and criminals on monuments to cultural melting pots that were ancient Syria and what is now Afghanistan, art from these areas has been plundered and sold.

The St. Louis Art Museum, a great institution that I love dearly, has two examples of art from these locations. They include a funerary bust in the Roman Palmyriene style and the head of a Buddha that mixes Greek-Hellenic features with Chinese traditions, which dates from the 4th century of contemporary Afghanistan, from the ancient Gandhara region. I have no idea how these two pieces ever entered the art market, but many pieces like them have flooded into the global art market because of civil conflict and violence in both countries, where proxy wars, terrorism, religious intolerance, and intolerance have prevailed. Our sense of who we are has been lessened and ultimately chipped away by the destruction of such places.

Kenton City, a Portland hood ready for prime time


I decided to visit Kenton City in North Portland after spotting the famous Paul Bunyan statue from the Max rail line. This is on the U.S. Register of National Historic Places, a giant slab of concrete reminiscent of miniature golf course art from the 1950s and 1960s. Across from Paul sits the stripper club, as Portland apparently has the greatest concentration of stripper clubs per capita after sin city, Las Vegas. Had a nice coffee at Posies, found a nice piece of large-scale sculpture, and generally enjoyed my brief visit. This place exists because of the large stock and lumber yards that thrived along the Willamette River in the late 1800s and early 1900s. I am guessing this spot will gentrify in about three to five years, max.

Joan of Arc, savior of … Laurelhurst, in Portland?

Joan of Arc is one of history’s great, inspiriational figures and a saint beloved by the French. She was a poor woman, born in a violent era of never-ending war. In this male-dominated world, she rose to become one of the most revered military strategists (celebrated at West Point) and a religious icon at the same time for helping save the Kingdom of France from disintegrating. She was burned at the stake at the young age of 19, having accomplished more in a short life than most of us can even dream of.

She inspired others to action. She took bold and decisive action. She used her wits repeatedly to challenge more powerful groups and opponents around her. And she remained passionately committed to her vision that many claim was inspired by either religious visions or psychological disorders.

She famously said, “Better today than tomorrow, better tomorrow than the day after.” She also is remembered by her words, “go forth boldly.” (See an article I wrote about Joan in 2013 on my policy and ideas blog.)

Joan also is feted at a major traffic circle in Portland at Cesar Chavez Boulevard and Glisan, in the upscale Laurelhurst neighborhood. This statue honoring the “Maid of Orleans” was commissioned and bequeathed to the city by Dr. Henry Waldo Coe in 1924. It is a replica of an original by French sculptor Emmanuel Fremiet, at the Place de Rivoli in Paris. So this is yet another thing I never knew existed here before, when I lived in Portland in the 1980s, though I was too busy then to discover the city.

Well, I say, I am glad Joan is riding her prancing steed through my fair city. Watch out dull-witted, arrogant occupiers. We have the saint to protect and save us. Never underestimate a strong mind with a clear purpose. You will be overcome if you do. (Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)