Friday, August 7, 2009

Riding the post-real railroad

Although this blog is supposed to be about cars and heritage, I seem to keep stubbing my toes on railroads as I’m thinking about heritage and automobility. In an earlier post, I wrote about the divergence of tourist railroads and “real” ones, and about my hope that they might yet converge again in a mode of transport that is more present-oriented, as a viable alternative to automotive travel. That seems to be starting to happen on at least one heritage railroad line, according to an article in the most recent bulletin of the National Biodiesel Board, and it’s raising some questions for me as I ponder just what is emerging or converging here.

The Strasburg Rail Road of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, which one commentator has called the granddaddy of U.S. tourist lines, recently pulled a 27,000 gallon tank car filled with biodiesel—about four tractor-trailer loads’ worth—over a short run for regional energy supplier Amerigreen, which will use it to supply its network of retailers who sell it in home heating oil and fuel for vehicles like my own diesel Jetta. Hauling freight isn’t a new venture for the tourist railroad, which has been very savvy about diversifying its business as a way of keeping itself going (the then-century-old Strasburg Rail Road found a new lease on life as a tourist attraction in 1958, and has successfully branched into locomotive restoration, parts fabrication, upscale wining and dining, and other activities in recent years).

The presence of the biodiesel tanker on the tourist route creates heartening resonances. Alongside the valuing of Lancaster County’s rural landscape for its scenic beauty is the idea that we ought to be turning toward “greener” kinds of energy for a whole host of good reasons, something that is echoed in Amerigreen’s own focus on renewable fuels and its new “100% American Fuel” campaign, which buys petroleum only from North American sources in a kind of attempt at relocalizing the oil economy (Pennsylvania’s own oil production apparently doesn’t factor into its supply, being more suited to specialized uses than to heating and vehicle fuel). And it seems that the people involved are picking up on those resonances. Dave Hessen of Amerigreen, describing the run to me, noted, “It was a beautiful day, and it was great to see the tank car coming in through the farm fields.” His comment evoked the greenness of the fuel, the landscape, and the mode of transport, all of which are easier to see and celebrate within the context of the old-fashioned train line and the pastoral setting in which it operates. You could make a case that this represents what things might look like if we came to our collective senses and started building more diverse, environmentally responsible, and regionally-oriented systems of energy production and delivery.

I think there’s something more complicated going on, though, and it has to do with where tourism fits in all of this. Rather than just being one layer of the overall scene, it seems to me that tourism actually permeates almost all the layers, from the promotional advantage being seized by the National Biodiesel Board and Amerigreen to the carefully-negotiated balance that the area's Amish farmers have developed with curious outsiders. The Lancaster Farmland Trust, which partners with the Strasburg Rail Road, emphasizes heritage in its mission, and the railroad itself, while seemingly driven by its organizers’ desire to see the old trains and the craft knowledge embodied in them survive, has embraced tourism (and its central value of authenticity) as a primary strategy to ensure that survival. The tale of the biodiesel tanker on the tourist railroad suggests to me that tourism—the marketing and consumption of places and experiences—has indeed become ubiquitous in contemporary cultural production.

So this seems like more than just a harbinger of a possible change in direction from an oil-powered, car-centric society to a greener, more local one. At every step of the way, for better and worse, we’re likely to see producers and consumers approaching what they’re doing in a touristic way, with an understanding of landscapes and experiences—from plowing fields to hauling fuel to riding a train—deeply conditioned by the expectations and promotional tactics of tourism. Culture and energy use are fundamentally entwined, and our culture is increasingly a touristic one.

The “worse” part of this equation would be that events like the tanker run become purely symbolic public relations statements or experiences to be consumed like a new wine to be sampled on one of the Strasburg Rail Road’s popular wine-tasting tours. A more positive interpretation—the one that Dean MacCannell was originally imagining when he wrote The Tourist back in 1976—is that we’ve created a touristic culture where both production and consumption are more fully participatory and able to incorporate radically new visions of what our lives might be. If the lines have irreversibly blurred between the real and the “not-real”—if we have in fact entered a kind of “post-real” culture where this distinction has become largely moot—then it probably behooves all of us to enter intelligently into the marketing of places and experiences, and to use the ubiquitous tools of publicity to delineate the kind of society that we most want to see.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

"Driven to the Past" keynote address

I've posted a web version of my recent keynote address at the Mass. History Conference, held in Worcester on June 8, on my website. The theme of the conference was "With Power for All: Energy and Social Change in Massachusetts."

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Chinese bike, Canadian rider - Happy Fourth of July!

Yes, Bertha the e-bike and I were in the Petersham Fourth of July parade, assisting the town energy committee by pulling an "insulated house" (there was also a windmill on wheels, a battery-powered lawnmower, miscellaneous big puppets, two other electric bikes and a non-electric one, and a small fleet of Priuses). Larry Buell of Earthlands was also there, in his living history persona as Lucius Spooner, a 19th-century Petersham farmer. Old green meets new green!

Friday, July 3, 2009

I went out today to start beta-testing some surveys that I want to use with motorists at tourist sites, and decided that I would begin at the Upper Pioneer Valley Visitor Information Center in Greenfield, MA. This facility has been open for about a decade, and I've read about it off and on in the Greenfield paper, but this is the first time I've actually been in there. It's a bit tricky to find - you have to get off Interstate 91 or Route 2 (whichever of the nearby big roads you happen to be travelling on), get onto Route 2A, keep a sharp eye out for signs (the main directional sign is partly obscured by a "Left Lane Must Turn Left" sign), then take a smaller side road, sidestep an Applebee's Restaurant, and resist the impulse to turn into a motel parking lot.

Unlike most roadside rest areas, this one - once you manage to find it - has a decidedly local flavor, which is explained in part by the fact that it's funded by the state but operated by the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce. It's a showcase for beautiful local crafts, and was conceived very much as a gateway point for the local area as much as a pitstop for those on the big roads. Route 2 (a.k.a. the Mohawk Trail), which stubbornly remains two lanes wide west of my own town of Athol, is another reason for this flavor; the visitor center was purposely not sited on Interstate 91 itself so that the Route 2 traffic, especially the fall leaf-peepers, would be more easily able to access it. One motorist was complaining at considerable length to the manager this afternoon about the obscure location and limited hours (it's open 362 days a year, but closes at 5 p.m. every day), but all the other visitors I saw there spent quite a lot of time browsing the shelves and apparently enjoying the ambience.

It occurred to me, in fact, that this facility itself might make a useful entry-point for some ethnographic inquiry. The site seems to challenge the usual "convenience is paramount" model for the roadside rest stop, and to insert some insistent localness (in the form of the somewhat convoluted access route and orientation to Route 2, as well as in its emphasis on local items for sale) into the highway experience. I was talking to people today about their general enjoyment (or otherwise) of the driving experience, and a bit about how fuel prices and other modes of transportation factored (or not) into their decisions about how they were getting to where they were going. There weren't any big surprises in what I was hearing (people really like driving!) but I wonder if asking them about finding the Greenfield Visitor Center might tease out some opinions about the interface between the usual seamlessness of high-speed motor travel and the localness of this site.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Lost in the brand

I was going to write a somewhat straightforward post about a Merecedes-Benz ad that I happened to catch on television this weekend (an unusual event as I very seldom watch TV). The ad alternates shots of people looking at old Mercedes E-class cars in the Mercedes-Benz Museum near Stuttgart with the usual footage of a gleaming new car careening around curves and over hills ("Professional driver on closed road--do not attempt at home"). At the end of the ad, the new car smashes through a glass wall of the museum and "takes its rightful place," as the narration puts it, along with its automotive ancestors.

According to a recent New York Times article, Mercedes' overall sales have fallen almost 30% over the past year, with its U.S. market taking the deepest plunge. But the company has decided that there's no mileage to be gotten from promoting efficiency and affordability as most other carmakers are curently doing. Instead, it's hyping its distinguished lineage and enduring association with luxury and innovative design, an association very much reflected in its sleek museum, designed by Amsterdam's UNStudio and opened in 2006. My original post was going to be about how interesting it was to see a company weaving its own heritage production and celebration into its advertising.

But it gets more interesting yet. In poking around looking for links for the post, I discovered that the museum's current exhibit just happens to be called "Evolution of the E-Class." So the ad is really an outlying piece of the exhibit, making the explicit connection between advertising the product and preserving/continuing the lineage. This didn't really surprise me--corporate and industry museums have always been about self-promotion, and lately we've seen a rash of high-profile new corporate museums being built or re-built. (These include the New World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta, which opened in 2007 in Atlanta, Harley Davidson's flashy new Milwaukee museum in 2008, which I wrote about in an earlier post, and The Hershey Story, replacing the old Hershey Museum this past year, not to mention the Henry Ford complex in Michigan, now re-branded as The Henry Ford. Meanwhile, Wells-Fargo has steadily built a network of museums, now numbering nine, which may continue to expand as the bank absorbs other institutions around the country.)

What startled me when I made the link between the museum exhibit and the Mercedes ad was the sense that a production like this seems to have achieved utter seamlessness among design, exhibitry, promotion, product, media, and image--a state of perfect brandedness where all roads lead to the same place, and that place is all about buying and selling. Again, the basic dynamic isn't new, but this seems particularly well-integrated and far-reaching. From the museum's slick website (with its elaboration of the Mercedes-Benz "myth" but without any mention of Germany's two 20th century world wars, let alone the company's use of slave labor from concentration camps during the second one) to the book and movie tie-ins (check out the inclusion of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones's sunglasses from Men in Black 2, which featured a flying E-Class Mercedes-Benz) to the television ad campaign to the sexy museum building itself, there's a sense of control and hyper-coordination that leaves me feeling a bit short of breath, and not in a good sense.

The "fourth wall" is being broken in this ad, with the new car rushing into the museum. But the wall is breaking inward, into the over-determined territory of the brand rather than outward into any kind of messier or more participatory cultural production. Any musealogical reflection taking place here is strictly the kind that results from gazing at a shiny surface, self-referential and self-serving. (See, this is why I usually don't watch TV!)

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Both vintage and viable

The places and activities I'm most fascinated by are the ones where the relationship between the past and present is unstable and up for grabs. This past week, as I was taking the train up to Canada and back for a family visit, it occurred to me that trains fall into that category--increasingly so, as more tourist railroad routes are developed and as more people are riding trains as an everyday alternative to cars. (While it's true that car use in the U.S. is increasing--it grew 21% between 1995 and 2008--public transportation use actually grew 38% in the same period, while the overall U.S. population grew just 14%, according to the 2009 Fact Book of the American Public Transportation Association [p. 11])

So it was interesting, as I was clickety-clacking my way across New York state on the "Maple Leaf" train, to see the current issue of Amtrak's "New York by Rail" magazine also noting the way that train travel seems to go in two directions at once. "Rail journeys on Amtrak are great for whisking you effortlessly from point A to point B," the magazine says in a page about "Scenic Railroads." That is, trains are an everyday, consequential mode of travel (and maybe close to an ideal one in many ways, combining high degrees of relative mobility, comfort, and accessibility). But our shift into automobility in the early 20th century marooned many passenger and freight routes in the past, where many of them have been re-framed as heritage. The magazine goes on, "Tourist railroads, on the other hand, offer a slower-paced journey specifically intended to bring you close to scenic vistas and historic sites." The article points out the appeal of vintage rolling stock, refurbished depots, historic locomotives, and rail museums along the many tourist railroad routes in New York.

As I noted in an earlier post about Pennsylvania's oil heritage area, these tourist railroads are deeply and somewhat weirdly entangled in car culture, since the usual pattern is to drive to the station, take the train, and then drive away again. Tourist trains don't go from Point A to Point B--they go from Point A to Point A, in a self-referential loop rather than a consequential journey. But they do hold something in public memory of the earlier extent of American rail networks, and in a time when we may actually be moving in that direction again, these symbolic journeys exist on the unstable edge of the past/present relationship rather than simply as nostalgic representations of the obsolete. We can hope.

The Amtrak route across New York offers plenty of opportunities to contemplate the shifting relationship among different modes of transportation. At various places, particularly where the Mohawk Valley narrows, you can sit on the train and see the Mohawk River, the Erie Canal that parallels it (the straighter, lighter-green band), and roads large and small, including of course the New York State Thruway (Interstate 90 on the map). The image above shows all of these sharing space in the valley just west of Canajoharie, in the same neck of the woods as the early 20th century postcard at the top of this post. (The railroad tracks are the light gray line just below NY Route 5.)

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Pilgrims and Progress (on Petroleum)

A dark and rainy day it is for the launch of a cross-country centennial reenactment of Alice Ramsey's 41-day drive across the U.S. in a 1909 Maxwell touring car. Ramsey was a 22-year-old Vassar graduate and avocational car racer who undertook the 3,800 mile trip in part to prove that a woman was capable of matching the feat already accomplished by numerous men in the previous six years and in part as a publicity campaign for the Maxwell car company (which was subsumed in the Chrysler company in the 1920s). A real-life version of the plucky girl motorists whose adventures formed the basis of a sub-genre of kidlit in the early 20th century, Ramsey lived until 1983, and published her own narrative about her trip, called "Veil, Duster, and Tire Iron," in 1961.

The centennial project was initiated by an antique car buff from Washington State, Dr. Richard Anderson, who recruited his daughter Emily to take the role of Alice Ramsey in the cross-country drive. The route will largely follow the 1909 itinerary, with due alterations for changes in the road system and without the hazards of the unpaved roads of early 20th century America (as seen above). Part of this route follows what would become, in 1913, the Lincoln Highway, a kind of prototype for the later Interstate system. (Click here for the original Lincoln Highway route. The Lincoln Highway Association's own annual conference in South Bend, Indiana will be a stop on the Ramsey/Anderson trip.)

All of this gives me lots of food for thought, too much for a single blog post. As my colleague David Glassberg put it yesterday in discussion about automobility and heritage at the Mass. History Conference, "the auto is deeply woven into the DNA of historic sites" because road-building, automobile-promotion, and way-marking projects have so often overlapped with each other, right from the earliest days of the car. It's a process that continues in the heritage area movement, which ties whole regions together thematically and creates auto, bike, boat, and pedestrian routes through them. This is a history I hope to be exploring more deeply as I get further into my cars and heritage research.

On this rainy Tuesday morning, though, what I'm mostly thinking about is how the symbolic resonance of the journey reflects various human conceptions of progress and achievement, whether that means escaping the cycle of reincarnation, visiting the axis mundi, becoming the first woman to cross a continent by car, or overcoming cancer. This notion of moving toward something better or more transcendent is of course the basis for pilgrimage, which has a very long history. Theoretically, the liminal qualities of movement and travel always open up some space for reflection and some potential for transformation. It's surely no coincidence that Emily Anderson, who is taking the role of Alice Ramsey in the centennial journey, is a professional event manager for a company that designs fundraising walks and other events for non-profit organizations (for example, three-day breast cancer walks).

So how do we understand a pilgrimage in a petroleum-powered car at a time when you can make a case that the resonance of both cars and petroleum is tinged with as much gloom as hope? There are lots of indications that the Ramsey reenactment crew is thinking about transformation on both personal and social levels (Emily Anderson chose Women for Women International as the beneficiary of any proceeds from the drive, making the connection between the mobility and opportunities open to some women but closed to others). But there's no sign that the project is encouraging anyone to think about transforming our automobile or petroleum use, which makes me suspect that this may be another of those efforts, like the Sharon Welcome Center in Vermont, that promotes positive social change in one direction while masking its own close ties to a culture of automobility that continues to have less-than-positive social and environmental implications. This seems to be another way of "progressing" (literally and symbolically) without necessarily questioning the costs of the "progress" we've already made.

I may be wrong about the potential for reflection on all of this in the Ramsey re-creation, and maybe it's just the gloom of the dark morning that's getting to me! Surprising things can always happen on the road. As a reality check, though, I just want to note another news story today: a long-awaited resolution in a legal case against Shell Oil for its complicity in the 1995 execution of Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others who were protesting the environmental degradation caused by the operation of foreign oil companies in the Niger delta. Shell agreed to a $15.5 million settlement, a mere drop of its overall profits but an important precedent for human rights groups looking for ways to hold multinational corporations accountable. $5 million of the settlement will be used to set up an educational foundation in the delta region. In the Gokana language spoken by the Ogoni, the name of the trust, Kiisi, means "progress."

Monday, May 25, 2009

Parking on the past

I'm always fascinated by debates over what gets defined as "history" or "heritage." In Greenfield, Massachusetts, not far from where I live, there's a mild kerfuffle currently taking place about the fate of a one-story building long associated with the automotive business. It's not clear from an April 7, 2009 Greenfield Recorder story what its original purpose was when it was built in the 1920s; it looks to me as though it might have been an auto showroom at one point, but that's just guesswork. It was a service garage from 1931 to 1940, then an auto parts store until 2006. "There's no value in the building," the Recorder quotes GRA chair (and current mayoral candidate) William Martin as saying. "It's all in the land." The Historical Commission disagrees: "This building is part of Greenfield's transportation history," according to commission chair Marcia Starkey, who describes the little brick and concrete building as "an architecturally fine surviving example of Greenfield's classic garages of the 1920s and 1930s."

The GRA wants to raze the structure to build--you guessed it--a parking garage. The Olive Street site is in a part of town that is seen as crucial to downtown redevelopment plans, right around the corner from the striking buildings of Bank Row (pictured at left), which perennially seem to be inching their way back to occupancy. A renovation of county courthouse facilities, mixed-use office and retail space, and a kind of cultural zone centering around the Garden Cinema are among the plans for this block, while the locavore restaurant Hope and Olive (née The Bottle of Bread, from Shelburne Falls) anchors its southeast corner. One end of Olive Street (almost) connects this part of town to the wonderful Greenfield Energy Park, a project of the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association that showcases renewable energy technology along with the history of the town's transportation (and especially railroad) history. The lot directly across from the 1920s garage is slated to become an intermodal transportation center, and perhaps even a railway station if passenger rail ever returns to Greenfield. Interestingly, there's another empty car-related building on that lot at present--the former home of Greenfield Toyota, which has moved up to Main Street and is currently bunking with a Ford dealership while constructing its own new home.

I've been trying to figure out what I think about all of this. On the one hand, sweeping away a couple of relics of the car age--the 1920s building and its much more recent counterpart across the street--in order to create a more concentrated mixed-use downtown area with access to non-automotive modes of transportation seems like a terrific thing. And you can make a case that the Historical Commission's claims of architectural distinction are a bit of a stretch. But their larger point is a good one: something is lost from collective memory if the evidence of the longer span of car culture disappears from the municipal landscape. This seems particularly likely to be the case if the site is simply turned into a parking garage to service the cars that we still have such a very hard time managing without.

NESEA has done an exemplary job of making the Energy Park into a lively site for contemplating past, present, and possible futures, and many of the technological and spatial links among them. It would be great to see the town of Greenfield somehow do the same thing with this site, maybe by building a parking garage that references the 1920s garage and uses it as part of the ongoing civic conversation about transportation, localness, mobility, and the uses of public space. The Historical Commission has talked about perhaps using the facade or some design elements from the old building in the new parking garage. Many of these "facadectomies" can be less than compelling (here's a classic example) but it seems that there might actually be some interesting resonances in this case. 'Twould make an intriguing public history thesis project for someone to propose a design that would not only keep the old building from being erased entirely, but incorporate some of its possible meanings into the redesign and reinvigoration of this part of Greenfield.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

One if by car, two if by SUV

Well, I’m back. Not that I’ve been anywhere terrifically exciting—just so busy teaching that I haven’t had time to work on my cars and heritage project. But now that the semester is starting to slow down, I’ll be able to hit the road again and have some fun with this. (Not that teaching isn’t fun, but…you know…)

I went to Minute Man National Historical Park today (107 miles, round trip) for part of the Patriots Day weekend festivities. I spent some time following Revolutionary War reenactors around at Minute Man about ten years ago, and they were certainly out in force today, colorful and eye-catching as always. However, I’m working on re-focusing my ethnographic gaze on cars and car-related infrastructure at historic sites, which is surprisingly hard to do (especially when the British are coming) but which starts to reveal some interesting new layers if you can do it.

Minute Man NHS is a particularly rich site for thinking about this, because in some ways it’s all about cars, and our struggle with cars. It’s celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, but the idea of creating a national park along a long stretch of preserved land following the line of the British retreat in 1775 actually dates back to the 1920s, when a prominent Boston landscape architect, Arthur Shurcliff (left), proposed it. Shurcliff was an amazingly prolific designer who worked on gardens, campuses, parks, and historic environments at Colonial Williamsburg, Mt. Holyoke College, the Quabbin Reservoir, parts of Frederick Law Olmsted’s “Emerald Necklace” (Shurcliff worked for Olmsted’s firm in Brookline), the Paul Revere Mall, the grounds of Plymouth Rock, and many other iconic places, trying to resolve the old nature/culture, city/garden tensions in a pleasing way.

Shurcliff, and the preservationists who shared his values and made use of his ideas, worried about development, traffic, and what a 1956 report called “mundane and disrespectful uses” of the sacred ground of the Battle Road. Long story short, the park as created in 1959 was based on a plan, which has since been almost entirely realized, to “restore” the landscape to something close to its 1775 condition, with rolling fields, stone walls, and a dirt road where there once was blacktop.

This feat of restoration has required many decades, the deaths of life-tenants in park properties, and recurring tussles with the adjacent Hanscom Air Force Base and other neighbors who would like to see more development of the very desirable real estate along the Route 128 corridor that rings Boston. You can still see glimpses of the old paved road within the park, if you look for it. And if you follow the restored road all the way to its end at Fiske Hill in Lexington, you can certainly hear evidence—via the noise of the eight-lane highway right around the corner—of the manic automobility that the park’s creators were reacting against.

And when the park hosts a big event, like today’s encounter between the redcoats and the Yankees along the Battle Road, you get a sense of just how hard it is to reclaim a road from automobiles in a place where most people are reliant on them. Parking is always a huge issue when there’s a crowd at Minute Man, and today’s plan involved many, many park rangers and police from the Middlesex Sheriff’s office (volunteering their time, I was told) and the takeover of an almost mile-long stretch of the Hanscom Airport Road for parking.

I need to figure out a good way to talk to visitors at sites like this about how driving to and from events like this fits within the larger heritage experience, and also to find out how people feel about the shift from being in the car to walking in the woods or whatever historic environment they end up in. There are such similarities between these environments and college campuses, “natural” parks, botanical gardens, and the other kinds of car-free places that Arthur Shurcliff designed so many of. They all promise an experience of a different pace and beautiful things to look at—once you’ve negotiated the hassle of getting there and finding a place to park.