History

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.)

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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.

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.]

 

 

 

 

Back to where it all began, in Detroit

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Last month, I visited my birth city, Detroit. I was born here and lived in the city less than a year. My family moved to Boston and later to St. Louis. Despite that short period of time, I am forever connected to the Motor City. I was, quite literally, made in Detroit.

I also was relinquished for adoption in Detroit, a topic that I explore in my new memoir on the American adoption experience. More specifically, I was born in Crittenton General Hospital, a facility that was created to serve single mothers in 1929. By the 1940s it had transformed into a maternity hospital that promoted adoption as the most suitable plan for single mothers. Like thousands of other babies born at the hospital, I was surrendered to an adoption agency, placed in foster care, and eventually adopted by my family.

Crittenton General Hospital opened in 1929 to serve the maternal health needs of mostly single women.

My birthplace was torn down in 1975. I examine the legacy of my birth place on the website for my book. The hospital location in central Detroit, a few blocks off of the John Lodge Freeway in central Detroit, is now the location of the Detroit Jobs Center and a nursing home. There is no memorial or marking indicating the building that stood on the property for decades earlier, serving literally thousands of patients, mostly mothers and infants. If a person did not know the story of the hospital and its role in promoting adoption, they would never know the history of this place.

The surrounding area today shows the economic distress that still is prevalent throughout greater Detroit. Some homes are kept tidy, while many others, as well as apartments, are showing decay.

I wrote about my feelings returning to the place where I came into this world more than five decades ago. I felt a mixture of exuberance and also sadness seeing the place on earth when I came into being.

One cannot undo one’s past. It is the foundation upon which one build’s an identity and place in the world. I am glad I have reconnected with my roots after all of these years.

 

April in Paris? Mais, non, c’est le printemps à St. Louis

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Lafayette Square in St. Louis is one of the most beautiful urban spaces in the United States. It remains mostly hidden from outsiders because of the city’s relatively lowly status as a tourist destination for U.S. and international visitors.

I frequently visit Lafayette Park, the oldest park west of the Mississippi River, and the surrounding Lafayette Square neighborhood. when I see my family on home visits to the St. Louis metro region. I stopped by in Mid-April and soaked up the scenery.

I did not experience the sublime pleasures of “April in Paris,” as Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong so eloquently evoke, but I had a fabulous time enjoying April in St. Louis.

St. Louis Downtown: Ghost Town at Locust and 21st Street

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Less than a mile west from the state-of-the-art Busch Stadium and Gateway Arch in downtown St. Louis, a visitor will find empty streets and an urban environment almost devoid of people on a weekend. This used to be a bustling area decades ago, before urban planners, our interstate freeway system, development, and white flight in cities like St. Louis drew people from historic urban centers to the suburbs.

St. Louis is not the only city struggling to encourage redevelopment in its urban core, to make its downtown a place where people want to live, play and work. But whenever I travel to the city of my youth to visit family, I am confronted, visually, by the permanency of the change that turned once vital urban spaces into practically human-free zones.

I was struck by this sensation during my mid-April 2018 trip to St. Louis. After visiting the historic Old Courthouse, I drove to the multi-block site of the now demolished Pruitt-Igoe housing complex. It is now a giant and fenced-in field of rubble, weeds and trees, decades after the high-rise housing blocks were demolished in 1972 and the complex was acknowledged as a failure in our national public housing strategy. It is also the story of the death of American cities in the 20th century.

Not far from this fenced-in area I found the Schlafly Tap Room, the cornerstone brewpub of the St. Louis area’s premier microbrewing company, Schlafly Beer. The tap room is located at Locust and 21st Street, a mile due west of the Mississippi River. The beautiful old building used to be home of the Swift Printing Co. Across the street you will find the stately Lambert Building, also known as the T.M. Sayman Products Co. building, dating from 1891. It is an example of what is called Richardsonian Romanesque. The structure’s striking red sandstone facade embodies the confidence of the former St. Louis, when it was a major industrial city that was ascending.

At this intersection, I stopped. I got out of my car and walked to the middle of the four-way intersection. Not only did I not see any people on a chilly Sunday afternoon, I did not see any cars driving by. It was as if the whole area in all directions had been given orders to flee because of some imminent threat. I took my pictures and left, leaving the urban ghost town behind.

For a more detailed description of this area of the city, please see this excellent photo essay on the outstanding Built St. Louis website. The essay on this section of St. Louis ironically notes, “The ground-level arches of the entryway can be seen in the 1981 film Escape from New York, posing as part of a postapocalyptic New York City.”

Abandoned in St. Louis, from the archive

 

 

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My ongoing photo-documentary project on St. Louis has explored the painful legacy of the city’s historic redlining and racism, de-industrialization, downfall through suburbanization, and slow demise because of a new economy that has seen industry collapse in America’s former industrial centers.

My past essays have told the story, focussing on different neighborhoods, or even streets and bigger thoroughfares like Grand Boulevard.

Inevitably, many pictures never made it into my stories. But I still feel a fondness for these haunting images on the proverbial cutting room floor.

In no particular order, I present random shots of St. Louis’ abandoned homes and apartments. They were taken between 2015 and 2017, in north, central, and south St. Louis. Poverty and decay are concentrated primarily in north St. Louis, the area that has been segregated by housing policies and redlining, harming the mostly African-American residents for decades.

I share these photos because of the bitter irony they represent. Our country is in the midst of a massive affordable housing crisis, particularly in coastal cities. Other cities, like Detroit and St. Louis, are grappling with population loss and abandonment. Every time I visit St. Louis, I think about the amoral reality of supply and demand and how the economy and national economic policies have left older cities behind. Properties like these in St. Louis would fetch a small fortune in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle.

What city is this that rises like the River Nile

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I just visited Seattle for the first time in about a year, and I came away disoriented by the massive developments underway on the south end of Lake Union.

If you are not familiar with this location, Amazon.com has its world headquarters located here, without any identifiable corporate identifier telling you that you are in the center of its global and growing empire. Multi-billionaire, real-estate mogul, and Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen was the big bucks developer who brought his personal vision of a techie, corporate Seattle to this once under-developed area of warehouses and retail.

My alma mater, the University of Washington, itself a corporate institution that is focused on real-estate acquisition and business partnerships, has developed the UW at South Lake Union complex here to promote biotechnology and medical research, with a vision of developing profitable revenue streams. One of its new buildings is well under construction too, as seen in the photo essay.

Good, Bad, or Unknown?

I left Seattle in 2014. Since that time, construction has taken off even more intensely in this area. The success of Amazon has also fueled the city’s runaway and skyrocketing housing costs. These also have driven many lower-income and now middle-income residents outside of the city, which some say is a larger reflection of growing income inequality. That is one reason I left.

The Stranger, the city’s alternative weekly, noted in April 2017 that the tech bubble is not the only driver—out-of-state and out-of-country investors, including hedge fund dollars and Chinese-source foreign capital, are helping to fuel real-estate speculation. “We do know that 38 [percent] of purchases in Seattle real estate are done with cash, which is a red flag suggesting something is out of whack,” reports The Stranger.

However, Amazon is having an outsized role in the rapid changes underway. In its Aug. 23, 2017 piece, “Thanks to Amazon, Seattle is now America’s biggest company town,” the Seattle Times described Amazon’s role in Seattle this way: “Amazon so dominates Seattle that it has as much office space as the city’s next 40 biggest employers combined. And the growth continues: Amazon’s Seattle footprint of 8.1 million square feet is expected to soar to more than 12 million square feet within five years.”

Fisher Auto Body Plant

The once state of the art Fisher Auto Body Plant in Detroit is now a crumbling ruin.

Historic Parallels? 

Seeing the multiple building cranes and stacks of bland, new office towers in the South Lake Union area reminded me of the golden age of Detroit, my home city. Motown is now the poster child for urban failure in the minds of many planners in the United States and even internationally. From a peak population of nearly 1.8 million in 1950 and once the epicenter of the nation’s manufacturing sector, it entered into a long downward spiral in the 1960s and never recovered. It is now a shell of its former greatness, struggling to reinvent itself in a post-industrial, post-NAFTA world.

So, Seattle, plan well and know the party cannot last forever. All great things reach an apogee. Some great beacons of power and commerce collapse quickly, and others slowly. Rome or Beijing or Istanbul may be eternal cities, but their mighty and powerful empires came and went.

(Note from Author: Yes, the title of this article is a play on words from the Bible, from Jeremiah; I could not resist, and I am not a member of any religious denomination.)

Remembering my travels in Turkey, in and around Adana.

 

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Today I read another wonderful post about the Roman Emperor Hadrian’s travels in south central Turkey, near Tarsus, by Carole Raddato, a German-based ancient historian, classicist, and travel writer.

Her Following Hadrian website is one my favorites because it combines travel with history, archaeology, excellent photography, and creative scholarship. Like Raddato, I am a student of historic civilizations, including the Roman Empire.

Raddato’s descriptions of Hadrian’s journey near Tarsus, a historic city from the Hellenic period onward and the birthplace of the Apostle Paul, brought back memories of my own journeys to Tarsus, Adana, and historic Armenian communities in 2001.

Here are a couple of photos from my stopover in Adana.

One shows the Sanbanci Merkez Camii (mosque) at sunset. When this picture was taken in 2001, this mosque in Adana was Asia’s second largest. The other photos shows the ruins of  the fortress of Sis in the old Kingdom of Cilicia, a stronghold of the Armenian people in Anatolia that was conquered by the Egyptian Mamelukes in 1375. That conquest, like many others, was not kind to those killed and captured. The fortress is located in modern-day Kozan, about a two-hour local bus ride from Adana.

(Note: This post was updated on Oct. 14, 2017, after I learned Carole Raddato’s surname.)

The wolves of Rome

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This week, various media agencies reported that the most iconic of all predators, the wolf, had returned to areas surrounding the ancient and still great city of Rome.

Two wolf pups were photographed frolicking in a reserve area for birds. For centuries, the predators were hunted to near extinction in Italy. The iconic predator also is celebrated in Italy’s history in the myth of Rome’s founding.

Capitoline Wolf statue, Sienna, Italy

The Romans credited the creation of their city to the kindness of a mother she-wolf, who nursed the infants Romulus and Remus, who had been left to die in the wild. According to the legend, the pair would go on to establish Rome. The wolf also is celebrated in many other cultures, through art, myth, and folklore.

Rome’s founding story is celebrated in statues called the Capitoline Wolf, first erected in Italy in the 11th and 12th centuries. I saw several such statues, in Sienna and Florence.

At the most basic level, Rome’s creation myth is literally connected to sucking the breast of a feared carnivore. The almost primal connection to something feared and revered is woven into Roman identity. For anyone familiar with that history, Rome went on to conquer and absorb all other cultures and civilizations surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, stretching from the highlands of England to the hot sands of modern-day Iraq to the Nile valley, as far south as southern Egypt.

I photographed these statues in 2006 during my travels in Italy, mainly because I feel a strong personal connection with wolves. I had some of the most memorable encounters with wolves in the wild in Alaska, when I lived there between 2004 and 2010.

During one spring mountain run, I met a wolf mom and her pups. They approached me, curious as pups are. Their mom whimpered, trying to signal them back to safety. She was a loving mother. Humans fear them because they have, I think, more dignity than us in many ways in how they care for each other.