Monday, October 20, 2008

A few post-road-trip thoughts:

Driving across Pennsylvania yesterday, I kept seeing these billboards. The logic is a little shaky--it's like saying, "Without bullets, guns wouldn't be able to hit anything"! True enough, but it sidesteps the point of whether you think guns are good, bad, or some mixture of the two. It turns out the billboards are funded by F.O.R.C.E.--what seems to be an "astroturf" coal industry group masquerading as "Families Organized to Represent the Coal Economy." Fossil fuels fight back, although not without those who are questioning and opposing the organization.

My e-bike battery is charged and I'm planning to take my first road trip on the bike tomorrow.

My fuel economy on the trip back was fantastic. Somehow my inner speedometer has finally re-set itself to 55 mph. It was a whole lot less stressful to be the slowest thing on the road--you don't have to participate in nearly as much of the frenetic highway driving that way!

And I've posted a larger album of photographs from the oil museums and other sites here.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Emlenton (continued): After oil

The final piece of my oil trip was a visit to the Pumping Jack Museum in Emlenton. This offered an interesting “middle way” between the Drake Well’s largely unreflexive exhibits and the Venango Museum’s sharp critical look at oil. “Industrial progress has a way of leaving a clean sweep in its wake,” the Pumping Jack’s website notes thoughtfully. “Sometimes it creates ghost towns, other times it expands over the ashes of its origins. Rarely does a small community retain many vestiges of its vital past, while still remaining alive and well - and small. Emlenton has been unique in the important part it played in early Oil & Gas - without ever really booming - or busting!”

I’m not so convinced that Emlenton has escaped the boom-and-bust cycle of industrialism, but it’s heartening to find a small museum reflecting on its setting and its place in that larger cycle. In an interesting example of adaptive reuse, the museum is located in a former school, along with a day care center, some judicial and municipal offices, and a small restaurant, the Oil Rig Lunch Depot.

The Oil Heritage Region has identified Emlenton as the southern gateway to the oil region, and the entryway and one hallway of the school are lined with professionally-produced exhibits about the town and oil—one side devoted to “Black Gold” (oil) and the other to the “Blue River” (the Allegheny).

The Pumping Jack Museum itself occupies one former classroom, and is essentially a local history museum created from artifacts and information provided by interested residents and friends. I got a soup-to-nuts tour of the exhibits courtesy of museum board member Dick Carr, a retired chemical engineer with deep roots in Emlenton (his father-in-law, also an area native, taught him physics and chemistry in this very school, helping to prompt his later career choice). After working for Standard Oil in New Jersey, Dick returned to Emlenton to run a small company in his home town. He told me about the demolition in the 1990s of the former Quaker State plant upriver from the town, on a site that is currently undergoing an environmental assessment and being considered for a riverfront trail. He also noted that the world’s oldest oil well still producing at its original depth (1867/891 feet) is located in nearby Mineral Springs park; the museum and heritage area worked with the municipality, which actually owns the well, to get it started again this year, and there are hopes of building a Drake-Well-style reproduction structure over it in time for the 150th anniversary celebration next year. (An article about this can be found on pp. 2 and 4 of this recent issue of the Oil 150 newsletter). The municipality actually earns a tiny royalty from this, but its real value to the town is clearly as heritage.

And that’s pretty much my oil sojourn, as I’ve now reached Pittsburgh where I’m attending a board meeting of the National Council of Public History in conjunction with a conference of the Oral History Association. My hotel room window looks out on the confluence of the Monongahela River with the Allegheny, which I’ve been following for much of this trip. There’s plenty of evidence of Pittsburgh’s turn to culture-based redevelopment after the decline of all those ferrous and fossil sources of Pennsylvanian wealth (coal, iron, steel, oil)—the fleet of riverboats just outside the hotel, the pink fountain in Point State Park at the V where the rivers meet (pink, I’m assuming, because of something to do with breast cancer research), and the inevitable waterfront area redevelopments, including the Station Square area where my hotel is (a "playground of historical proportions," according to its website), the Carnegie Science Center, and Heinz Field, home of the Pittsburgh Steelers, with its prominently-displayed ketchup logo.

And there are the cars—speeding or creeping across the bridges, emptying out the city at rush hour and creating a rush of sound at all hours. Unless the train buffs are successful in restoring enough of the rail infrastructure to make tourist excursions to the north country feasible again on a large scale, all of these oil heritage projects remain dependent on automobility (including the use of cars to carry bicycles and kayaks so visitors can access the rivers and the trails made from former railroad beds). It’s an economy with its own logic and its own momentum, and my sense is that it hasn’t fully taken hold yet in Pennsylvania’s oil country. It will be worth watching to see whether oil’s sesquicentennial next year changes that in any substantial way, and what happens with all of this in response to whatever fluctuations in oil prices (whether up or down) we see in the near future. And it will also be worth watching to see if any of the oil heritage sites do make connections with conversations about a possibly less oil-dependent future. When I asked Dick Carr if that was happening at the Pumping Jack Museum, he said, “Well, everybody’s thinking about it, of course, but we haven’t had any conversations about it here yet.” The word yet makes me cautiously optimistic about the future of oil’s past.

Emlenton: Under the Interstate

So tonight I’m in Emlenton, in a bed and breakfast inn right on the Allegheny River. By far the tallest thing in Emlenton is the I80 bridge that crosses the river just downstream from the B&B; I can see it up in the sky when I look out the window. There’s a great deal of truck traffic charging back and forth across it—the new version of the railroad that opened up this part of Pennsylvania in the 1860’s.

I’m going to look at Emlenton more closely tomorrow, but one interesting thing did strike me about it this evening when I was taking a brief walk by the river on my way to look for some dinner. The town has been severely plaqued—that is, there are heritage plaques all over the place, and one of them, next to the river, actually commemorates the four hotels that once lined the riverbank not far from where I’m staying. Emlenton doesn’t have a once-grand downtown like Titusville or Oil City, or the distinction of being the firstest or the mostest at anything, but it does appear to be determinedly marketing its heritage nonetheless, and one of the things it’s marketing is its own former history as a little river resort town and transportation hub.

This reminds me of John Sears’s good discussion in Sacred Places: American Tourist Attractions in the Nineteenth Century (University of Massachusetts Press, 1989) about how Mauck Chunk, Pennsylvania (now renamed Jim Thorpe) developed simultaneously as a coal terminus and a tourist destination, and for many of the same reasons—mountains, river, trains, people’s curiosity about the marvels of a young and flourishing industry. Interesting to see tourism itself being folded into the heritage mix.

Oil City: Oil on the Brain

From Titusville, I drove down to Oil City, resisting the temptation to drive into Oil Creek State Park (maybe on the next trip) or to take a detour farther east and visit the site of the vanished boomtown of Pithole, which went from being an isolated farm to a town of 15,000 people to being virtually abandoned when the oil ran out, all in the space of a few years. Instead, I set my sights on the Venango Museum of Art, Science and Industry in Oil City, and was rewarded by as provocative an exhibit on oil as I could have wished to see.

This county-run museum is housed in the old post office, a wonderful high-ceilinged place that is, inevitably, enormously expensive to heat and cool, according to the director, Betsy Kellner. (They do have some conservation measures in place—interior storm windows and a new furnace—but inheriting the mixed blessing/burden of this carbon-age structure does seem appropriate for a museum that is trying to pose some pointed questions about our carbon dependency!)

The permanent exhibit, installed in the mid-1990s, is called “Oil: Black Gold or Black Magic?” It’s a beautifully done professonal exhibit, with some pieces of vernacular local memory woven into it in more or less successful ways—an extensively, fully-restored theater organ from Oil City’s stunning Latonia Theater, allusions to native son “Rattlesnake Pete,” an entrepreneur and healer who opened the town’s first museum in the 1890s, an area showcasing local oil brands and products, and a meeting/performance space where temporary exhibits are hung (currently, a show of photographs of remnants of the older oil industry in the area).

Kellner told me that when the museum was first established, in the 1980s and early 90s, the exhibitry had been all temporary and focused on subjects deemed to be of local interest. “But when tourists would come here, they told us they wanted the museum to be about oil,” she said--in other words, oil is Oil City's brand, and that's why tourists came to the museum. With foundation and public funding (much of it via the Oil Heritage Region), the museum had Boston-based Christopher Chadbourne & Associates design a permanent exhibit all about oil.

While there’s some local history here, the main thrust of the exhibit is to expose the taken-for-granted ways that oil has come to permeate modern societies. There’s a wonderful section on plastics (including a 15-minute “Clueless” style video called “Fuel-less”), a graphic representation of who the world’s main producers and consumers of oil are (the U.S. actually produced nine million barrels of oil a day in 2001, but consumed twenty million), and a substantial area devoted to automobility, including a comparison of urban and suburband spatial patterns and how the latter have been shaped—unhealthily—by the car. One exhibit panel asks visitors, "How much oil do you use?" (Americans use an average of three gallons a day, all told, it turns out).
While acknowledging the productive and appealing aspects of the oil economy (for example, the "Society of the Road" section admits that "The road trip has become a classic element of American culture"--so this trip of mine is classic, not merely self-indulgent!), the exhibit pulls no punches when it comes to connecting the dots between oil and its many less desirable consequences: conflict of various kinds, environmental degradation, social disconnections, and so on. I didn't spot the actual terms "peak oil" or "climate change" anywhere (even a decade ago, when the exhibit was mounted, these weren't as common currency as they are now) but the underlying ideas are very present here.

It’s a terrific exhibit, and of course my big question about it is whether visitors are using it in critical or consequential ways. Kellner reported that their school audiences often seemed enlightened or provoked, particularly by the plastics section. (One boy, insisting that compact discs couldn’t possibly be made from oil, told her, “I’m going to have my father come down here and give you a talking-to!”) But it didn’t seem that the museum had any strong linkages with any post-carbon or peak-oil or relocalization kinds of discussions that may be going on in the region.

So the question there is whether this site is, like Lowell National Historical Park and other places that raise good questions about industrial capitalist society, a place where critical museal questioning is rather carefully enclaved away from any real-life applications of the knowledge that is so compellingly on display here. The Venango Museum isn’t as beholden to either local memory or local industry as the Drake Well and many other industrial history sites, and that has given it a freedom to create an exhibit that puts local memory and industry into a much broader context. But does it follow the usual pattern of contextualizing without making actual social connections to groups and people who are working on the issues the museum represents? More research would tell… There's certainly the potential here for some productive linkages with consequential present-day efforts.

A clock outside the Oil City Library proclaims the city to be “The Hub of Oildom” and “Gushing with Pride,” but it’s clear that the loss of industry here is very much an ongoing process, and that the city is still struggling to cope. Population continues to drop, and the big Pennzoil refinery plant north of downtown was demolished about five years ago. Quaker Oil was bought by Shell in 2002, and its operations were subsequently shifted to Houston, continuing the now almost century-old pattern of northeastern American industry moving south and away. A recent edition of a booklet called "Oil City: The Town That Grew Up With Oil," sold in the Venango Museum shop, is book-ended by addenda detailing these and other losses since the booklet was first produced in 1989, leading one to wonder whether Oil City is also likely, eventually, to die with oil.

The city is actively courting artists at present (what deindustrialized town isn't courting artists?), with an active artist relocation program that includes technical assistance and financial incentives to move to Oil City. And this of course prompts my other big question about how much room there will continue to be for these things if that new economy either (a) takes off or (b) fails to take off! Where's that crystal ball when you really need it?

A footnote: A local high school band has made a recording of 1860s popular songs about the Pennsylvania oil boom, including an 1864 ditty called "Oil on the Brain" that is quoted at the beginning of the Venango Museum exhibit:

"Our stocks, like clocks, go with a spring,
Wind up, run down again:
But all our strikes are sure to cause,
'Oil on the Brain.'"

Oil’s axis mundi: Titusville

I started my day yesterday in Titusville, home of the first oil discovery in the region (and the nation, and the world). It’s this anniversary that the oil and gas industry is celebrating next year with its “Oil 150” commemoration. The heritage signage seems geared more for people coming from the south than from the north, so I missed the Drake Well signs on my first pass through town, and fetched up at the Perry Street Station in a mob of tourists.

The mob turned out to be temporary, as the day’s train ride on the Oil Creek and Titusville Railroad was due to leave shortly and everyone but me seemed to be getting on board. I’ve often wondered what the economics of these train-and-trolley tourist ventures are—there are so many of them, and clearly they provide railroad enthusiasts with a reason to play with their great big toys, but I wonder if most of them manage to pay for themselves as well? However, despite the “modes of transportation” connection, I’m not here to think about trains. Armed with directions, I found the Drake Well on my second try.

This has the feel of an older local commemorative museum lightly overlaid with more recent professionalized historical interpretation. Ironically, the site is there largely because the early oil industry itself was so ephemeral. By the 1890s, all that remained of the original Drake Well site was a derelict pipe, and some preservation-minded local people feared that the knowledge of the location of this origin-point might be lost altogether. The property owner, the widow of an early oil explorer, donated the acre of land to a local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, who put up a sizeable plaque in 1914.

The American Petroleum Institute funded the upgrading of the site in time for the 75th anniversary of oil’s discovery, in 1934, at which point it became a state historic site. The state built a re-creation of Drake’s engine house and derrick, copied from a photograph, in 1945, and constructed a new and much larger limestone museum in 1964 to house its exhibits and its collections of materials donated by its friends in the industry.

There are references to all of these layers in the Drake Well’s interpretive landscape, making this quite a complex heritage palimpsest. The place comes up strikingly short on critical interpretation (the orientation film is a boosterish "look what oil has done for our world" production), and the woman in the gift shop seemed puzzled when I noted a couple of books for sale about peak oil and the politics of oil power and asked her whether the museum was part of any kind of discussion about those issues. The two exhibitionary moments that seemed to connect even remotely to real-world oil politics were in the entry lobby of the museum, where a bulletin board included a selection of editorial cartoons about oil prices and a group of labeled bottles offered visitors an opportunity to take a “sniff test” to compare the “nose” of crude from different parts of the world, including Venezuela, Iraq, Russia, and Canada, as well as such delicacies as whale and lard oil, for the sake of comparison.

The more salient set of meanings at the Drake Well was about technical knowledge, particularly as embodied in the operating equipment in the museum’s “back forty.” Out on the far reaches of the lawn, an incredible Rube Goldberg network of wires and pumps simulates a working oil field of yesteryear, all moving at a stately and deliberate pace and making a weird series of noises (the 20 horsepower gas engine coughs and wheezes, the unlubricated irod rods squeak in their rings, the hinges of the support mechanisms creak). Most heritage sites have these somewhat ghostly presences, for example in the form of video and audio recordings, but these ones seemed particularly numinous, like a machine whose original momentum hasn’t run down yet. I know there’s actually a lot of skill and labor that goes into keeping this stuff moving, particularly the big “hit or miss” engine, but that labor also has a ghostly quality to it, since the workers are (or at least they were today) pretty invisible, older guys retired from the declining-but-not-really-gone oil industry in the area. This is really a site dedicated to local memory, and it very much has that memorial quality to it.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Going, going, but not gone

Having spent much of the morning acquiring my new e-bike (more on that below), I spent the afternoon driving past seasonally-closed oil museums and discovering that there is actually considerable oil and gas pumping and refining going on here in northwestern PA. I was also ogling fall foliage (there’s a lot of that here, too) and trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to convince myself to maintain a somewhat critical stance toward all this automobility.

I knew the oil museums were going to be closed, although I’d hoped to catch someone at the Pioneer Oil Museum in Bolivar, New York (that’s pronounced BALL-i-ver—“Home of the Deer and the Derrick,” it says on their welcome sign). I was there five years ago, and still have a souvenir bottle of light, sweet Pennsylvania crude that I bought there on my desk. Oil from this part of the country, it turns out, is of exceptionally high quality, and prized for various high-end and specialty uses. It is still pumped, and apparently becomes profitable again as extraction technology improves and whenever imported crude prices spike.

I didn’t realize, though, that the refining business was still so extensive in this part of the world. It’s obviously not the economic mainstay that it once was in places like Bradford and Warren, PA—these towns have all the hallmarks of economic decline and various attempts at revitalization. But there are still sizeable refineries in both places--the American Refining Group in Bradford, pictured below, and the United Refining Company in Warren, where I'm staying tonight. In fact, ARG is refining more petroleum from the Bradford oil field now than at any time in its history, according to its website. United refines about 70,000 barrels of Canadian crude oil a day under the Citgo brand, for distribution to convenience store gas stations.

What was more startling was to discover oil fields in the Allegeny (or Allegany, depending on which side of the NY/PA border you’re on) National Forest. Can you spot the pump in the forest in the image above? I kept driving past these and finally had to stop and tromp into the woods to get a better look. Lo and behold, the Bradford-based Minard Run Oil Company, which has been in existence since 1875, is developing the petroleum resources here, although the project has not been without controversy. It turns out that there’s been a kind of mini-oil boom going on in Pennsylvania in recent years, with 9,000 wells already pumping (almost 5,000 were drilled in 2006 alone) and another 2,000 expected to come online this year.

So the oil industry clearly isn’t gone from this region, and in fact high imported crude prices may help it to rebound somewhat. This raises some intriguing questions which I hope to be able to ponder as I move on tomorrow to the museums that are supposed to be open. Is oil actually leaving western New York and Pennsylvania, or is it here for the long term? If it’s really not leaving for the foreseeable future, how does that affect the usual dynamic of industrial history museums, which, in Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s formulation, are “instrumental in the foreclosing of what is shown”*? Are these, in fact, industrial history museums per se, or are they really industry museums, created to celebrate the achievements of local enterprise rather than to interpret it critically or in larger contexts? Is there any potential at these sites for a helpfully retrospective look at how we got so mired in black gold, or is that just wishful anthropological thinking on my part?

And is there a parallel here between an industry that is kind-of-going-but-by-no-means-gone and an oil-driven economy that we-kind-of-know-we-should-unplug-from-but-we’d-really-rather-not-have-to? Today’s drive really made me think about that last point. This is a very beautiful part of the country, and a very beautiful time of year. And I have to admit I really like going for long drives by myself, especially when there’s stunning scenery to look at.

Oh, and the e-bike. The story there is that a guy from Knoxville, PA (pop. approximately 600) went to China in pursuit of machinery that he wanted to sell for his seamless gutter and ductwork business, and he noticed that everybody seemed to be riding electric bicycles, which he’d never seen in the U.S. So now he has two businesses, Liberty Seamless Enterprises and Liberty Electric Bicycle Company.

I bonded with the bike about forty-five seconds into my test ride, and I would post a picture of it here except that at present it’s stuffed into the back seat of my car. (It looks a lot like the bike over the bar in the restaurant where I ate dinner in Warren, PA tonight, except that mine has a battery behind the seat post, it’s not festooned in electric lights, and it’s not pink.) There’s not a ton of room in the back seat of a Jetta, so as much as I’d like to get it out and ride it around some more, I don’t want to undo the work of the three helpful guys at Liberty who helped me wedge it in there.

I’m not complaining about the Jetta, though. We just turned 500 miles on this tank of fuel (about a 25/75 biodiesel/petrodiesel blend) and the gauge is still above a quarter of a tank. Jimmy Carter was right: slowing down to 55 mph does make a difference. It helps a bit to dispel my guilt-induced confusion about whether I should be wholeheartedly enjoying this road trip!

*Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), p. 159.

The factories that aren't there

I haven’t quite hit oil country yet, but as someone with a fascination for deindustrialized and postindustrial places, I wanted to mention my stop last night in Corning, New York, just north of the Pennsylvania border. The corporate headquarters of glass- and ceramic-maker Corning, Incorporated is still there, in a low, shiny, black, somewhat Darth-Vaderish complex along the waterfront. Also prominent is the Corning Museum of Glass, built in 1951 and expanded several times since then. Near the museum and corporate headquarters is Corning’s “Gaffer District” (a gaffer, in glass-blowing parlance, is the person who actually blows the glass), its version of the ubiquitous arts district in deindustrialized places.

And deindustrialized Corning definitely is. The helpful woman at the motel where I stayed told me she’s been watching industry leave the Chemung River Valley over the 20+ years she and her husband have run the motel. She added a phrase that didn’t seem to make sense at first: “If you go downtown and look along the riverbank, you’ll see all the factories that aren’t there anymore.” When I looked at the riverbank, though, I could see that her description actually seemed apt: the riverfront park really looks like a bright green scab over a fairly recent wound. It’s a nice space, especially at sunset, but it still looks very new and tender. There’s a clear feeling that the museums and arts district constitute the new industry in town, but as these kinds of redevelopments continue to proliferate and fuel prices remain high (although they’ve certainly dropped from the point they reached a few weeks ago), how robust are all these heritagized towns likely to become?

I’m posting this from Wellsville, New York, not far west of Corning, which also shows signs of a substantial investment in creative production and the arts. Lately I’ve been starting to wonder whether artists themselves may become a scarce resource at some point, or whether this is an endlessly self-reproducing sector!

Automotive link: Corning’s ceramics are important in the manufacture of catalytic converters for gasoline engines. (Test your knowledge of these handy devices here.) Corning is also apparently working on emissions control technology for diesel engines (so perhaps more of these will be able to pass muster in more U.S. states, giving us a more European-sized range of diesel passenger vehicles to choose from!)

Friday, October 10, 2008

You've got (really old) mail

Today is the final day of another vehicular reenactment—a 24-day pilgrimage along the 2,800-mile route of the Butterfield Overland Mail from St. Louis to San Francisco. Wells Fargo’s extensive public history program has been sponsoring the rolling commemoration of the arrival of the first overland mail coach’s arrival in San Francisco in the small hours of October 10, 1858. In addition to its network of corporate museums, which stretches from Anchorage to Minnesota to San Diego, Wells Fargo maintains a fleet of reproduction stagecoaches that it considers its “living logos,” but for this trip, it supplied the curator of one of its nine museums with an RV from which he’s been blogging and vlogging his way across the western half of the country.

Founded in 1852, Wells Fargo has a particularly long corporate history to chronicle. It’s interesting to speculate about the intangible value of the Wells Fargo name (and heritage) in its acquisition in 1998 by Minnesota-based Norwest Corporation, which then took on the more famous name. To quote the New York Times on the merger, “No bank in America has a more storied history” (and am I the only one who thinks that the word “storied” is overdue for a rest? Ever since that storied franchise the Boston Red Sox won the 2004 World Series, I seem to be hearing it everywhere. And in this “historic” election and financial cycle, the word history itself has gotten similarly overworked, in this anthropologist’s humble opinion.)

If I’m sounding testy, it’s probably because I’m ready for a vacation—and in fact I’m hitting the road myself this coming week. Destination: oil heritage country in western New York and Pennsylvania. In case you didn’t realize it, that’s where this whole petroleum thing really got started. I’m not travelling in an RV, but lest fingers still point (“You said you were trying to find ways to use your car less!”), I should point out in return that despite the cooler weather, I’m using as high a proportion of biodiesel in my tank as I figure I can get away with. And my first tour stop is going to be Liberty e-Bikes in Knoxville, PA, to try to buy myself an electric bicycle.

But I realize it’s still problematic to drive for hundreds of miles to go and contemplate how we got so mired in a petroleum-driven economy. Heritage is full of interesting contradictions. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Hog Heritage

A recent LA Times article by motorcyclist and journalist Susan Carpenter notes that Harley-Davidson’s sales are down due to high fuel costs, and that this poses something of a dilemma for a brand built on power, noise, and a robust disdain for such bourgeois concerns as fuel economy.

Carpenter quotes Harley’s CEO, James Ziemer, as saying that owning a Harley is “not about transportation, it’s about an experience.” The selling of experience is nothing new in the vehicle industry—in Auto Mania: Cars, Consumers, and the Environment (Yale University Press, 2007, p. 79), Tom McCarthy notes that when the U.S. car market began to reach the saturation point of an average of one car per family in the mid-1920s, manufacturers turned to creating new models and brands which could be linked to differing social statuses and aspirations and promoted through the growing advertising industry. But what happens to a gas-guzzling brand when more and more people are seeking the experience of actually saving on fuel?

Rather disingenuously, Harley seems to be trying to have it both ways. On the one hand, it is promoting its smaller models, like the Sportster and the Buell Blast. But as Carpenter points out, giving in too much to demands for efficiency threatens to erode the core brand itself. Harley’s solution to this dilemma seems to be a turn toward more forceful marketing of its own heritage.

Take, for example, the current lead ad spot on Harley-Davidson’s website, which has also been popping up recently on Facebook and elsewhere. It reads:

America, please don't buy a Harley because it gets 50 mpg. Mpg describes riding like biology describes sex. History has shaped this tank, not the whims of foreign oil. Let's ride to parties like rock stars. Let's fill the tank that gives back more than we put in. So screw it, let's ride.

The implication, of course, is, “Do buy a Harley, because it gets 50 miles per gallon—isn’t that great?” (It doesn’t seem so impressive to someone whose diesel Jetta gets at least that, but that’s another story.) But having made that point, the ad then shifts to plausible deniability: only a limp-wristed foreigner would actually care about fuel economy. That’s not the reason to buy a Harley. It’s a classic heritage move—inviting us to experience the past (in this case, the pre-oil-worries, pre-climate-change past) from the perspective of a more comfortable, more advanced, or more responsible present, without really having to resolve the tensions or contradictions between them.

All of which leads me to think that Harley’s heritage turn is in fact fostering a type of historical reenactment, in which riding a hog becomes a conscious way of connecting to a lost or vanishing past when Detroit was dominant and Americans didn’t have to worry about miles per gallon. It strikes me, in fact, that this may be an early sign of the coming of a post-petroleum age. Archaic forms of transportation, like other aspects of culture, have always been “heritagized” when they’ve been superceded—think horse-and-buggy, steam boats and trains, trolley, or, more recently, Detroit muscle cars. Given that the time lag between original experience and heritage experience seems to be shorter and shorter in our “experience economy,” the official turn to Hog Heritage may be one more canary in the mine as Americans start to realizing that our petroleum-based way of life is likely to cave in on us sooner rather than later.

Harley-Davidson’s recently-opened corporate museum in Milwaukee is clearly designed to support this heritage move. In a post entitled “Some of our Best Exhibits are in the Parking Lot,", museum blogger Bill Rodencal describes how the museum was created with only a glass wall between the exhibit floor and the parking area, so that museum-goers' own bikes could be incorporated visually into the Harley heritage on display.

The current advertising campaign seems to break the “fourth wall” in much the same way, making Harley ownership into a “place to play” (one commenter on the blog post wrote, “H-D did not so much build a museum…[as] build a new club house we can all call home!”) that is strikingly reminiscent of the use of historic sites by military reenactors playing out their own visions of the martial past. I know that muscle car clubs et al. have been doing this for many years – but what seems new is the corporate involvement in pushing this heritagizing process along. Is Harley creating an imagined/remembered/fantasy space for Americans who know they need to wean themselves from oil but can’t quite let go of their own image of the country or themselves as they do it? Maybe this is a first unconscious step toward turning the ritualized weekend Hog club ride into the kind of transportation heritage display that we usually associate with draft horse pulls and Mississippi steamboat rides. As with all heritage, the question is whether this helps to facilitate a needed change or just slathers a layer of nostalgia over the bigger questions that might prompted by all of this!

(And since I ended my last post by talking about vehicular sound, I feel like I should add this link to a site that describes how the signature Harley thunder sound is crafted. Aural heritage on the hoof!)

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The hand is greener than the eye

I drove north through Vermont last weekend and stopped at the Interstate rest stop in Sharon, home of the Vermont Vietnam Veterans Memorial. At one point this memorial was just a granite plinth at the entrance to the rest area (where it always used to puzzle me, because it’s engraved with the line from the Gettysburg Address about “that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth,” and I could never quite figure out how the commemorators were seeing that in the context of the Vietnam War). It seems that in the mid-1990s, the rest area was going to be closed, in part because its septic system was inadequate, but veterans got together and made a case for not only saving the memorial but rebuilding the entire welcome center around it.


So now there’s this extremely interesting hybrid facility, opened in the fall of 2007 as part of an upgrade of Vermont’s whole welcome center system, that raises some questions for me about Vermont's relationship with automobility. There are four components to the new rest area. It’s a functional place for highway pit stops (bathrooms, picnic area, free coffee, tea, and WiFi). It’s a promotional place (with Vermont crafts as well as the usual brochures and information). It’s a much-expanded veterans’ memorial (incorporating a sizeable outdoor memorial area, a central column of names in the main building, and a panel exhibit about the Vietnam War and Vermont’s involvement in it.

And finally, it’s a “green” building that puts its own state-of-the-art infrastructure on display. The geothermal heating and cooling system is invisible, but the new waste disposal system is front and center, in the form of a greenhouse dome that houses a “living machine” where tropical plants and microorganisms process the waste and produce recycled, useable water. (This water is likely to be one of the first things people notice about the place when they come in, in fact, since it greets them—dyed avocado-green and explained by informational plaques—in the toilets).

The educational toilet water is just one illustration of the extraordinary degree of integration and seeming transparency among all the types of display here. Education, commemoration, promotion, and functionality are blended in a way that would make a brand manager weep with admiration. The brand, of course, is “Vermont,” and virtually everything here reinforces it: the native marble and granite in the memorial wall, the expression of “greenness” and environmental consciousness, the complimentary Green Mountain coffee, the views of the hills on the other side of the Interstate, the stories and pictures of the Vermont boys who didn’t come home from Vietnam, the handmade furniture on which you sit to check your email (creating a sneaky sense of sitting in someone’s living room rather than a state-sponsored welcome center).

I happen to love the Vermont brand and consume it avidly when I get the chance. This place, though, raises questions for me. Outside, at least in the parts of Vermont I tend to visit, the state brand always has some welcome rough edges and complexities, so it feels as though real people are always thinking about it and constructing it with their eyes open rather than just pushing a packaged product. There’s something about the Sharon Welcome Center that seems to head in the packaged direction, and I think it has to do with cars, or rather, with the way that they’ve been rendered almost invisible at this place that can only be reached via the Interstate.

I seem to recall that at the old Sharon welcome center, you parked at the bottom of the hill and walked up to the building. In the new layout, cars park at the top of the hill, behind the building, so that you literally leave the evidence of automobility behind you as you enter this beautiful and rather utopian space. Ahead of you are the Green Mountains (the veterans liked the location, we are told in the brochure and on the walls, in part because it is reminiscent of the landscape of the Southeast Asian highlands). I89 is not immediately visible from the building or the lawn.

Trucks and RVs still park down below, so I don’t want to read too much into this new spatial arrangement. But it does seem worth noting that while the septic arrangements have been incorporated into the exhibitionary space in an intriguing, educational, and aesthetically appealing way, the big, underlying infrastructure of the site—the highway and vehicles that are the only means of accessing it, and that constitute the circulatory system of Vermont’s considerable tourism industry—are tellingly pushed to the background. Exposing the septic sytem is compatible with the brand; exposing the role of the automobile would presumably be less so. And the literal transparency of the one—the glass dome that houses the “living machine”—serves as a trick to distract the mind’s eye so that it becomes easier not to see the other machines—the little (or in some cases, not so little) moving rooms that conveyed us here. In this context, it’s hard to decide whether the veterans’ memorial actually helps to sacralize a secular space or whether the memorial itself participates in the sleight-of-hand, opportunistically grabbing a little of the tourist audience while they’re in a receptive and potentially reflective mood.

My own trip through Vermont and back this time was a very speedy one, and I was pretty fried by the time I drove back south again a day and a half later. I was in that fully passive driving mode when I stopped at another of the new rest stops (liquid out, liquid in, and I don’t want to have to think about where any of it came from or where it’s going). But I did pause by the doorway on the way back out to my car to look at a much more traditional temporary panel exhibit that actually did focus on the history of Vermont’s Interstate highways. Other people were breezing past this without a second glance—the space did not in any way encourage contemplation, unlike the Sharon welcome center, which, as its brochure notes, “accommodates lingering thoughtful visits as well as brief highway stops.”

It’s interesting to think about the contrast between an exhibit panel in a classic “non-place” that exposes the mechanisms that created the site, versus a kind of hyper-branded exhibitionary space that serves to mask the mechanisms on which it (and much of the state’s economy) depends. Is the net effect essentially the same, I wonder? We all get back in our cars and drive on, creating wastes of various kinds (CO2, noise, the no-one’s-land of the Interstate corridors themselves) that we don’t want to scrutinize too directly. Perhaps it’s only safe to touch on them in isolated moments, not to bring them too centrally into grander statements about the greenness of the Green Mountain State.

For a New York Times article on the opening of the new Sharon rest area, click here.

For the work of a sound artist who does bring the actual noise of automobility into contemplative spaces, visit this page on Bruce Odland's work.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

About this blog

I’ve worked through a lot of ideas about history and heritage in the past dozen or so years, but the car part is new. Here’s my basic position on how history and heritage get produced (and this is far from original, by the way—it’s built on the thinking of Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Dean MacCannell , and many others):

* We can never make a simple or straightforward retrieval of anything from the past—there are always present-day mechanisms of collection and interpretation that shape what we know about the past.

* We give this knowledge different names—“history” and “heritage” are two of the main ones—depending on who is doing the retrieving and interpreting, and why.

*We usually want the mechanisms for creating knowledge about the past, like the mechanisms for producing tourist experiences, to be somewhat if not completely invisible. Modern humans have a huge thirst for “authentic” or unmediated experiences, and we’ve developed immensely complex infrastructures to provide them for us!

Those mechanisms, which have been studied in increasing detail over the past couple of decades, include museums, folklife displays, tourist attractions of all kinds, reenactments, parks and preserves, monuments and memorials. One component of all this that remains largely invisible, though, is the role of the internal combustion engine in shaping the contemporary landscape of heritage production. (The Centre for Mobilities Research—CeMoRe to its friends—is beginning to address this question, among others. This isn’t surprising, as this is the home base on British sociologist and influential tourism theorist John Urry. Click here for a paper by him on cars and other kinds of what he calls “weightless mobilities”).

I actually started out looking for ways to study the role of the car in American culture more directly, rather than thinking about it in relation to heritage production. I wanted to do some kind of engaged social scientific research that would contribute some useable knowledge to the current widespread attempt to unplug from our petroleum-powered economy and society. And on the list of things we would need to change radically in order to accomplish that unplugging, it has seemed to me that our use of cars is among the most intractable items. So much of our physical world and so many of our behavioral patterns are shaped by the car, particularly in North America. Remaking these landscapes and behaviors feels like one of the more overwhelming tasks on a long list of overwhelming tasks. Faced with what feels overwhelming or baffling, my typically egg-headed response is usually to design a research project about it.

So this blog represents a first step toward bringing together the intractable social/spatial question of how to shift our car culture for a post-carbon world with the ever-intriguing (well, to me, anyway) set of questions about how we construct our knowledge about the past. How many historic and heritage sites wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the automobile? How does the creation of a North American heritage infrastructure relate to the construction of a car culture, and to the development of various national, regional, and local identities? How do we display and memorialize car culture itself? How is all of this changing (or is it changing?) as the environmental, social, and economic consequences of our reliance on cheap, abundant petroleum become clearer and clearer to us? Is there any way to mobilize heritage display itself to help make the changes that we’re going to need to make?

Those are the kinds of things this blog will address, in the context of looking at some specific roadside attractions. (Note: This isn’t the only “History on Wheels” project – this one is a military vehicle museum in the U.K., and this is a vintage motorcycle club in India, while there are several that are more straightforward projects taking history “on the road” in some way. To my knowledge, though, this is the only “History on Wheels” project looking at the automobility and heritage production combo.)

It’s a new adventure for me to be putting out my field- and research-notes in a more or less public format like this one. But it seems to me that understanding and changing our automobility is a mammoth challenge that demands collective effort and pooled resources on many levels. So I’m putting my thoughts-in-progress into the mix, for whatever they’re worth. I hope to hear others’ in response!