Thursday, October 21, 2010

The presence of the ancestors on Route 2

Route 2 in Massachusetts is a pretty mythic road, to my eye.  You've got the cradle of the nation at the eastern end, with Lexington, Concord, the Battle Road, and all that 1775 stuff.  On the western side of the state, the Mohawk Trail evokes a romanticized Indian past, linked infrastructurally with the dawn of the car age itself.  I've been thinking about all of that as I drive back and forth to Boston, and trying to figure out how to connect it with the very ordinary experiences of roads and driving that usually feel very ahistorical and disconnected from larger histories or contexts.

So I was tickled to hear Royalston storyteller Norah Dooley's recent story about her experience of finding herself as a driver--and connecting with a personal past--on Route 2.  Her short piece, called "Transported:  Driving with the Ancestors" is online here.  I still think that modern highways separate us from history in insidious ways, but Norah's story confirms my sense that there's more to be explored in terms of how drivers make their own mythic connections to this and other spaces of automobility.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Neo-bohemia meets living history: the Dodge Challenger campaign

It's hard to know where to start deconstructing the recent "Freedom" ad campaign for the Dodge Challenger.  First aired during the World Soccer Cup meetup between Britain and the U.S., the central TV ad in the campaign is an incredibly rich and mythic little text, with three black Dodge Challengers (the lead one driven by George Washington himself) roaring out of the American mountains to scatter a waiting group of British redcoats.  American flags wave from the windows of the cars, as they did everywhere after 9/11.  A plaintive violin soundtrack clearly evokes the elegiac nationalism of a Ken Burns documentary, while the expressions on the faces of the panic-stricken Brits neatly invert the historical Native American experience of being overwhelmed on the open battlefield by a mysterious and vastly superior technology.  Guns, here, are no match for the internal combustion engine and the awe it inspires--it's "a f***ing black monster," in the words of one of the production crew in the "making of" video.  In the tag line at the end--"Here's a couple of things America got right:  cars, and freedom"--the emphasis is subtly on the word "America," a not-so-subtle poke at non-American car producers (are you listening, Toyota?).   

One of the many things that strikes me about this ad is the neobohemian ethos and location of the company that created it.  Wieden + Kennedy (and oh, how tired I'm getting of that plus sign as a shorthand for corporate hipness) is a design firm headquartered in Portland, Oregon and with outposts in several major cities around the world.  Like Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, Chevrolet's new ad firm which I wrote about in an earlier post, W+K projects a counter-cultural image  that's very appropriate for Portland's civic image of carefully-nurtured weirdness.  The firm's homepage includes nuggets from its corporate philosophy, ranging from the counter-intuitive ("Hire wrong") to the provocative ("Creativity comes out both ends").  Photos of W+K's personnel similarly emphasize artsy individuality and in-your-face funk.

But in their work for Target, Levi, Chrysler, and others, these creative types are neatly knitted into the circuits of global capital, perhaps in the kinds of ways that Richard Lloyd writes about in his great book Neo-Bohemia:  Art and Commerce in the Postindustrial City (Routledge, 2006).  Lloyd's book takes a detailed, ethnographic look at the music, art, and design scenes in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood, and concludes that big-time capitalism has become very adept at mobilizing the talents and desires of economically marginal artsy workers, allowing for a workplace atmosphere that retains what is bohemian while enlisting the products of these workplaces in its own quest for accumulation.  What I love (in a perverse way) about the Dodge Challenger ad campaign is the way all of this is pulled together with a Ken Burns/History Channel/reenactor kind of sensibility.  It's as though we've reached the point where the forms of high capitalism truly can absorb and hybridize any and all cultural materials, from what I assume are the leftie and progressive artists of Portland to the gun-totin' centrists, conservatives, and libertarians of the reenactor world.  Now, that's an achievement to put fear into anyone trying to take a stand against it!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Roads scholarship

Is it just me, or are people actually beginning to pay more attention to the histories of roads?  Road history is something I'm exploring in my own (fairly slow-moving) research at the moment, relating to Massachusetts' Route 2, the road I spend a good deal of my time on.  But a couple of interesting pieces of work also came to my attention this summer, focusing on both the distant and recent past of one of the east coast's most-traveled corridors.

I've been reading (also slowly) Eric Jaffe's new book The King's Best Highway: The Lost History of the Boston Post Road, the Route That Made America (Scribner, 2010), which follows the first organized postal route in colonial America (Ben Franklin, anyone?).  The book isn't terribly weighty, but it does give a sense of some of the political, military, and other factors that went into creating the road, which has now morphed into coastal Route 1 and inland Route 91 in central New England.

There's a bit more critical depth  in parts of National Public Radio's series about everyone's least favorite road, I 95.  I'm looking forward to going through the segments in detail one of these fine days, although some things about the mix are a little jarring--for example, the juxtaposition of a segment on the hardships of migrant workers traveling up and down the coast with one called "Eat Your Way Down I-95." I guess that's how it is with highways, though--love 'em, hate 'em, can't hardly avoid 'em.


Sunday, September 5, 2010

Inadvertently recreating car history

Route 2 in north-central Massachusetts was closed for three hours this past Friday because of an accident just west of Athol, where I live, and all of the holiday weekend traffic got diverted along Main Street of my town and the one next to it. “I kept looking out the window and thinking, boy, there are a lot of campers and trailers going by,” a woman at the pizza place said.  “I thought everybody must be coming here for the weekend, but then I realized there was something else going on!”

We don’t usually have major traffic jams here, so this one has been a topic of conversation for the past couple of days. It has struck me, though, that that kind of traffic was probably similar to the way Main Street used to be before it was demoted to Route 2A and a bypass--now the main Route 2--was built in 1957. In fact, at one time Athol was something of a magnet for auto tourism, in the days when public “autocamps” catered to newly mobile Americans in search of both automobility and the great outdoors.

Warren Belasco’s 1979 book Americans on the Road: From Auto-Camp to Motel, truly an oldie but a goodie in the academic literature on car culture, chronicles the progression of this fairly short-lived form of auto touring. Because early American automobility was limited to the well-to-do few who could afford cars, and because there was a dearth of paved roads in most of the country, touring by car in the 1910s involved roughing it. Many of the first auto-campers relished the challenges of the road, including the necessity of fixing their vehicles on the go, meeting fellow enthusiasts, seeing the “real” America on their own timetable, and stopping to camp whenever and wherever they wished.

Farmers and others whose fields and roadsides became impromptu campsites were less enthusiastic, and by the 1920s, a network of somewhat more formal—although still rustic—autocamps had developed across the U.S. to service the growing numbers of car tourists. One of the first of these camps in New England was on Route 2A (then Route 2) in Athol, opened in 1921 in a pine and hemlock grove at the top of a long hill that leads into the town from the east. Like other municipal auto camps, it was intended at least in part to boost the town’s image by providing a free amenity to people from outside the area.

It appears to have done this quite effectively. A local paper reported favorable comments by many 1924 campers: “This is the best treatment that has been offered to us by any New England town,” one visitor wrote in the guest book. “Thanks Athol,” wrote another. “You are a wide awake burg.” By this time, the American Automobile Association estimated that there were between 10 and 20 million autocampers on the American roads each year (Belasco, p. 74), and people were becoming better-informed about the more desirable camping spots, as well as more discriminating about services offered. Cars from 48 American states were spotted in the Athol autocamp in 1925, by which time it offered a central kitchen, toilets, running water, and electric lights.

But the Athol autocamp had another side to its existence. The camp was situated on the property of the Town Poor Farm, essentially a home for the indigent and impoverished, who were expected to help defray the cost of their upkeep through labor on what was then a working farm. The Overseers of the Poor also managed the autocamp, as well as selectively harvesting the wooded property on which the Poor Farm and the camp were located; in 1923, about half a million board feet of chestnut and pine timber were cut and sawn, with the money being turned over to the town. (The autocamp and roadside were left forested.) As a combination of tourist facility, social service agency, and farm/forestry program, Athol’s Poor Farm and autocamp seem intriguing and possibly unique.

It didn’t take many years for the charm of autocamps to pall. As the comfort of roads and cars improved, a more specialized travel infrastructure began to develop, offering greater privacy and comfort both on the road and off of it. Private camps that charged a fee took over from free municipal camps like Athol’s, while the expansion of the tourist population in the 1920s and 30s caused some unease among motorists who liked the ideal of meeting the “real” America but didn’t necessarily want to camp right next to it. The permanently or inadvertently nomadic—hoboes, gypsies, the unemployed who roamed the roads after 1929 in search of work—threatened the carefree mobility of the auto tourist on a two-week vacation. A group of gypsies who made use of the Athol autocamp in July 1924 was asked to leave when they seemed disposed to stay all summer. “This camping ground and log cabin have become quite popular with tourists, and its privileges must not be abused,” a local paper editorialized. Autocampers also became loaded down with so much impedimenta—like the “Kamp Kook” stoves advertised in an Orange newspaper in 1930—that the experience lost any vestige of the rustic. And growing concerns about the effects of car culture on middle-class families, car and campground safety, cleanliness, noise, and—at bottom—social difference in all its forms prompted a shift toward individual cabins and motor courts that eventually evolved into the familiar motels—including the comfortingly familiar brand-name chains—of today.

Athol’s Poor Farm was occupied until 1951, and the old house and barn still stood on the property until last fall (the shot at left was taken in August 2009). Then, with no public fanfare, both were torn down. The property, which spans the distance between Route 2A and Route 2 right at exit 18, is earmarked for some kind of economic development project, although the town and the owners have not been successful at attracting a developer despite several years of effort. In the meantime, they’ve erased a fascinating piece of local history—not only the Poor Farm itself, but its association with the autocamp that Athol built as a way to attract visitors from among the streams of car tourists traveling through the town in the 1920s.

I’m not necessarily saying we ought to have made a tourist attraction out of these sites, although it’s worth noting that two autocamps in Glacier National Park, Rising Sun and Swiftcurrent, have recently been added to the National Register of Historic Places. And I’m not generally a big fan of replacing real things with plaques and signs telling us what used to be there. But even a small marker at the side of the road might have given those thousands of travelers who passed through town at 10 miles an hour last Friday something to ponder—a little-known layer of the past that might have said to all those Labor Day drivers, “This, too, has a history.”

(NOTE: For information about Athol’s Poor Farm and autocamp, I’m indebted to Dick Chaisson’s incomparable local archive. The images below, taken in November 2009 and February 2010 respectively, show the barn site during and after demolition; Route 2 is at the base of the hill seen in the post-demo photo.)

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Still heritage, not history

This week's New York Times Auto section includes a piece that lists about a dozen automotive museums in and around Detroit, including several fairly venerable institutions founded by, or in honor of, or to house the collections of the American auto industry's great white patriarchal figures (Ford, Sloan, Olds, et al.).  Looking at the list, I was struck by how old-fashioned it all seems in terms of museology and historiography.  Most of these still appear to be essentially industry museums created by companies and hagiographers bent on celebrating invention and achievement, rather than industrial history museums taking a serious look at the very serious subject of cars in America.  They're heritage, not history.

I feel a bit funny saying this, because normally I argue against making too simple a distinction between the two, and I tend to be irked when professional historians use "heritage" to denigrate other kinds of history besides the kind they practice themselves.  But if this list is representative, our current view of automobility's past in the U.S. does seem stuck in a state that hasn't really been touched by the more questioning perspectives that a rigorous historical approach can bring.  There are certainly museums on this list that do work to move their collections in that direction, but the overriding impression I got from looking at the list and the websites of the museums themselves was that uncritical celebration and the veneration of the artifact still rule the day and that the "new social history" of the 1970s and later might as well not have happened as far as most of Detroit's car museums are concerned.

I'm actually not averse to exhibits that let people contemplate an artifact without a whole lot of interpretive apparatus to content with.  But so much of our culture is already set up to support that kind of uncritical, seemingly unmediated contemplation of and communion with automobiles.  It would be nice to see at least a little more sign that the museums of 2010 were working to create a counter-space for some different ways of seeing the car--and not just through the usual "here's the cool car of the future" endings to automobile exhibits, either. 

(I was also struck, looking at the list of inductees to the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn, by the virtual absence of women.  I spotted only three among the nearly 350 names:  race car driver Shirley Muldowney of "Heart Like a Wheel" fame, driver and sportswriter Denise McCluggage, and our old friend Alice Ramsey, the first woman to drive across the U.S.  If you want evidence of what a global Old Boys' Club the car industry is, look no farther!)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

No room to maneuver

So last week Chevrolet made headlines for its half-hearted attempt to get its employees to stop using the nickname “Chevy.” Noting that the company has “a proud heritage behind us and a fantastic future ahead of us” (standard corporate rhetoric that always leaves out any mention of an inconvenient, contested present), the authors of a memo on the subject tried to make a case that good branding demands absolute—one might say totalitarian—consistency.

A startled worker leaked the memo to the New York Times and there was some predictable public pushback. One online commenter who goes by the monicker “JoeProBono” noted, “The people, not the company called those cars Chevy.” The people having spoken, Chevrolet quickly retracted the directive, which had included the hackneyed idea of putting a plastic can labeled “Chevy” in the hallway to collect a quarter every time the banned term was used (the memo-writers noted that the money collected would be used to fund “a team-building activity”).

There’s lots that could be said about this in relation to heritage, but one thing that jumped out at me was that the brand-alignment effort was one of the first projects of the corporation’s new advertising firm, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, which was recently hired after Chevy severed its relationship with Detroit-based Campbell-Ewald. That relationship had lasted, amazingly, for 91 years, since 1922.

Campbell-Ewald grew up with the Detroit car industry and was responsible for such iconic Chevrolet campaigns as "The Heartbeat of America," "Like a Rock," and "An American Revolution.” And its early history, while perhaps not as familiar, was hugely influential in shaping how Americans relate to cars. In the 1920s, under CEO Alfred Sloan, Chevrolet’s parent company General Motors successfully challenged Henry Ford’s dominance by introducing the idea that people should trade in their cars every few years whether the cars still ran or not—anathema to Ford’s frugal notion of keeping vehicles on the road as long as possible. Sloan, abetted by the growing advertising industry, positioned the GM brands in a way that quickly made annual styling and planned obsolescence the way of the American automobile, to such an extent that it’s still seldom challenged or even remarked on—truly, a legacy that most of us are affected by without realizing it.

I have to wonder whether the firing of Campbell-Ewald had anything to do with the embarrassment that resulted from the agency’s 2006 campaign promoting the Tahoe SUV. Somewhat clumsily embracing the world of social media, the campaign invited people to make their own Tahoe ad using a “Chevy Apprentice” program that offered a set repertoire of video clips and music. 20,000 ads flooded in, including about 400 that took advantage of the relative openness of the format to make spoof ads. One presented the Tahoe as a fetishized god and many referenced global warming (what in the world was Chevy thinking, including an image of the Tahoe on a glacier?).

400 out of 20,000 isn’t many—just 2%. But a 2% opening for challenging the hegemony of the car is still something. And it’s better than taking people to task for uttering forbidden words or trying to argue—as Chevy’s new ad agency Goodby, Silverstein does on its website—that “the sense of craft and surprise we associate with art” is fully compatible with the service of capitalism. In fact, that sense of surprise—the carnivalesque spirit that gleefully subverted the Tahoe ad generator and that creates at least some space for reimagining and revivifying aspects of culture—is deeply antithetical to the kind of corporate thinking that can’t possibly question the bases of its own existence. It’s easy to picture executives at bailed-out General Motors saying, “We desperately need fresh thinking—get us a new ad agency,” but almost impossible to envision them creatively engaging with the histories that got us to the oil- and car-dependent state we’re in now, let alone radically re-tooling for a different kind of future. The pathetic attempt to abolish the use of the “Chevy” name—pathetic because it was so unnecessary and so clearly doomed to failure—is a small but suggestive signal of a tottering industry, led by people who don’t dare utter big truths and so are reduced to little acts of control that are the managerial equivalent of patching holes in a wall that’s beginning to give way.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The global car

Whether March goes out like a lion or a lamb, it's still the time of year when I have to get my car inspected. Inspection time tends to make me testy about the growing extent of the regulatory apparatus surrounding automobiles, particularly since Massachusetts started flunking vehicles whose "Check Engine" lights are on (Gretta the Jetta has a recurring non-safety-related issue that makes her light come on, although fortunately it didn't happen this week, so I have my little sticker in the window that allows me to drive legally for another year).

According to another little sticker, this one on the driver's window, Gretta is a Mexican Volkswagen, made in VW's Puebla plant. (Here's a list of all of VW's plants.) I've been thinking lately about the globalness of the car, in part because I've been reading Matthew Paterson's great book Automobile Politics: Ecology and Cultural Political Economy (Cambridge University Press, 2007). Paterson sees the car as perhaps the crucial technology for the expansion of modern global capitalism, involved in accelerating both production and consumption and in generating and circulating enormous amounts of industrial wealth. The car industry is often seen as the exemplar of a globalized industry, especially during the 20th century; "Fordist" and "post-Fordist" labels for types of production directly invoke the history of auto manufacturing, and car companies have long been leaders in innovating new forms of global supply and financing. Paterson points out (p. 99) that while much of the actual assembly of cars is still done in the "triad" countries of North America, Japan, and western Europe, other parts of the world are beginning to catch up, particularly in component manufacturing.

Within these vast global flows of cars and car parts, there's a little heritage-oriented trickle created by vintage car collectors and enthusiasts--something that's been on my mind because I got an email yesterday from the Alice's Drive project, letting me know that a New York Times article this week featured a story about how the Alice's Drive team assembled their 1909 Maxwell from scratch. (I wrote about this project in a post earlier this year.)

Much of the hunt for Maxwell parts for the cross-country reenactment of Alice Ramsey's 1909 trip took place on the U.S. swap meet circuit, but the Internet was of course a key tool for the team as well. The Times article quotes Richard Anderson, who assembled the car: “My wife and I were on our wedding anniversary in Italy, and we stopped at an Internet cafe to get a cup of coffee and check our e-mails. And there’s an e-mail there from a Maxwell guy who lives in Australia. He said you ought to check out number such and such on eBay, I think these are the levers you need.”

Ordering hundred-year-old American-made levers from Italy on an email tip from an Australian, like driving a Mexican-made German car in New England, underscores the globalness of car-making. But the Maxwell story also makes me realize that automobility's past is still circulating out there, too, in tangible ways that newer technologies make increasingly accessible. This is a pleasing thought, given my sense that we need to see and recognize automobility’s histories (those dim days before the advent of the Check Engine light) if we’re going to remake or unmake it. Perhaps cars are really neither created nor destroyed, but are all just out there somewhere circulating in global flows that we may be able to tap into if we're tenacious enough.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Mass Motorization and the Environment

So here I am in Portland, Oregon, a famously "green" city (on the way in from the airport I was startled to see people getting on the light rail train with bicycles which they then hung up from hooks on the walls!) at the National Council on Public History/American Society for Environmental History conference.  It's always fun to come to conferences and get to encounter what I heard a grad student refer to last year as "walking books" - the actual authors behind what we're reading.  In this case, the first panel I attended featured Tom McCarthy, author of the wonderful book Auto Mania:  Cars, Consumers, and the Environment (Yale University Press, 2008), one of the first things I read when I started my current study of cars and heritage.

Along with other speakers on the topic of "Mass Motorization and the Environment," McCarthy posed questions about the intersections of policy, politics, and automobility, and reached some conclusions that were ultimately rather dispiriting.  He spoke about the Clean Air Act of 1970 as the high water mark of environmental legislation in the U.S., representing "the frontiers of the politically feasible" when it was passed.  When states and agencies began trying to enact and enforce its provisions, though, particularly in the Environmental Protection Agency's ill-judged and possibly self-sabotaging promotion of mandatory gasoline rationing in California, public and political support quickly turned negative.  The EPA's credibility was badly damaged, and the episode formed part of a backlash against a whole constellation of things (including the 1973 OPEC oil embargo) that suggested to Americans that there might be limits to their expectations of mobility and freedom.  Noting that the EPA's projections and data were actually quite solid, given the scientific knowledge about car-based pollution at the time, McCarthy had to admit that "rational argument alone rarely carries the day"--an acknowledgment that echoes the ideas of Bill McKibben and Laura Nader that I wrote about in my last post.

On a slightly more positive note, McCarthy pointed out that although the EPA's data may not have swayed the public, policy-makers inside the Beltway actually did listen to what the scientists were saying, with the result that pressure to entirely gut the Clean Air Act was successfully resisted.  Federico Paolini, another of the "Mass Motorization" panelists, offered comparative comfort by showing that Italian regulation of traffic-related problems, including pollution, is only just beginning to be enacted--something that commentator Brooks Flippen said made him feel better about the U.S. government's actions in this area!  (Meanwhile, I take heart from watching Portland's light rail trains gliding past the hotel, and tomorrow I'm going to go on a bike tour--in the rain, it seems, but this is the Pacific northwest--to explore some of the city's extensive bicycle infrastructure.  Should be fun, if damp.)

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Laura Nader on energy and the commons

I went to hear anthropologist Laura Nader give the annual Distinguished Lecture sponsored by the Greater Boston Anthropology Consortium last week at Clark University in Worcester. Her talk was called “Energy, Environment, and the Commons: The Specialist and the Generalist,” and while she wasn’t speaking about cars or history per se, some of what she said resonated in interesting ways with the reasons why I started this car/heritage research project.

Nader’s talk was a somewhat loosely-strung-together set of points, drawing on her teaching, research, and engagement in energy studies over the past several decades. She argued that in order to “think new” about energy, we need to decouple a number of taken-for-granted equations: that “progress” is achieved through technology, that greater access to energy always equals an improved quality of life, and that the ticket price of energy reflects its actual costs. She also focused sort of obliquely on history, noting that most Americans know little or nothing about the histories of our own energy use and policy, and arguing that in order to wise up about this, we need to look far beyond the industrial and fossil fuel era and think about energy use within the long span of human life on the planet (what some people are now calling “Big History”). Even among people who agree that we need to change our energy habits, she said, we seem stuck in the same unproductive debates about which “alternative” fuel source will let us perpetuate a way of life that is a miniscule blip in the history of human existence, and which is predicated on quickly using up one type of fuel that took millions of years to create. And these unproductive debates give us a society in which, as she put it, “everything changes but nothing moves.”

The role of “the commons” was the least developed idea in her talk, but by implication, she made something of a case for the importance of a discursive or intellectual commons in which we can figure out the fraught questions around energy use in a civil, collective way. She noted that for most of human history—presumably meaning the long phase where humans were all hunters and gatherers—everyone had equal access to sources of energy. It’s only with the relatively recent advent of other modes of subsistence (like agriculture and, of course, industry) that access to energy has correlated to social difference and wealth. I couldn’t tell if she was advocating some kind of utopian return to commonly-held energy sources; her examples of the hopeful signs she sees in the emerging “green” energy sector actually seemed focused on small-scale entrepreneurial projects very much in the capitalist mode. But she did direct a lot of her remarks to the difficulty of having a shared, creative, open civic conversation about energy. She argued for the importance of generalists who can help all of us to “connect the dots” and to overcome the narrowness of either specialization or vestedness in the fossil-fueled status quo.

Her points echoed those made by Bill McKibben—an articulate generalist and a writer I admire greatly—in a recent Tom Dispatch piece. McKibben notes how depressingly easy it is to skew public debate when there isn’t agreement about the basic nature of the evidence we’re looking at (in this case, the always contestable evidence created by scientific inquiry). One side is saying, “Look, we don’t know everything, but on balance, we know enough to be concerned and to take action,” while the other side seizes gleefully on the admission of indeterminacy and uses that to call the whole body of knowledge into question. (McKibben compares this tactic with the way the O.J. Simpson defense team threw enough sand into the works of the prosecution’s case to secure a “not guilty” verdict for their demonstrably-guilty client.)

Like Nader, McKibben sees a need for tolerant, broad-minded thinkers who can weigh different kinds of evidence and not be bamboozled by narrow interests, special pleading, or their own anxieties (which people often displace onto the nearest handy target—say, Al Gore). The goal of producing tolerant, broad-minded, generally-educated thinkers is, of course, the ideal of many people involved in liberal arts education, and it’s also the implied goal of much public history practice, which is where I see a connection between Nader’s and McKibben’s thoughts and my own car/heritage research.

Like science, history is open-ended, always in process, always contestable. And like scientists, historians have a tricky kind of authority, based on careful specialized study but always subject to challenge and possible revision. Scholars are used to challenges from within their disciplines, but when they enter the public arena, they become subject to challenges from those who aren’t playing by the same rules—a situation familiar to public historians who find their work running afoul of community or political opinions. Given how hard-fought the energy and climate debates currently are, perhaps it’s not surprising that historic and heritage sites (with a few exceptions, like this one) have not become deeply involved in those arenas so far. Listening to Laura Nader, though, it seemed clear to me that until we have a more productive space of discourse and debate, we’re unlikely to be able to reinvent our energy use in the ways that we need to do. Looking at the way the climate-change nay-sayers are misreading the recent Washington, DC blizzard, it feels as though we’re a long way away from that kind of commons at the moment, but I want to hope that public historical display might have some role in eventually helping to create it.

(Laura Nader's new edited anthology The Energy Reader, which I'm looking forward to, is due out in a couple of months.)

Monday, February 15, 2010

The things you see when you're not in a car...

So I've become a little less of a car commuter this semester, by taking the train from Fitchburg to teach my Tufts class two days a week rather than driving all the way to the city from home. (It's still a 40-minute drive to get to the train, but that's how it goes here in car culture...)

In addition to various other benefits, including more time to read and less angst about traffic, I've been enjoying the walk from the train stop in Porter Square to the Tufts shuttle bus stop in Davis Square. It's hardly breaking news that driving through an urban landscape, or any landscape, is like speed-reading through a text, as opposed to the kind of in-depth encounter that can happen when you're on foot, and I wouldn't be devoting a blog post to it except that the very first thing that caught my attention the first day I was making the Porter-to-Davis hike was an art/history panel devoted to, of all things, Somerville's automotive heritage.

I guess I've driven past this many times, but it's not something that's legible from a car.  It's one of three panels about Somerville's history, this one focusing on the Ford Motors plant that once existed on the Mystic River waterfront, on the site of what is now Assembly Square Mall (and which, in fact, gave "Assembly Square" its name). Ford relocated the plant there from neighboring Cambridge in 1926, and it thrived before and during World War II, when it manufactured military vehicles. But it didn't survive the Edsel debacle, and closed in 1958.

This was of course the time period when the Interstate highway system was being built, and I 93, which transects Boston, rammed through East Somerville and isolated Assembly Square from the rest of the city--another piece of Somerville's automotive history that it's been trying to overcome in recent years. While the highway isn't going anywhere anytime soon, the city is in the midst of an ambitious partnership with private developers to remake the Assembly Square site as a mixed-use "urban village" that will include access to a cleaned-up riverfront, a new Orange Line subway stop, and a giant Ikea store.

It's nice to see that mass transit advocates seem to have been heard in the planning for this project. Call me cynical, though, but I have to say that nothing immediately jumps out at me from the marketing materials to suggest that this will be anything but another upscale, consumer-oriented, mall-like waterfront development, of the type that the main developer has already built in California, Maryland, and elsewhere. I find these kinds of spaces deeply unsettling, in large part because they're built on so many erasures of past uses of the site, and because their shiny new surfaces mask the gigantic amounts of money and effort spent re-tooling after the bottom has fallen out of yet another attempt to make a place economically viable. (The Ford plant was at Assembly Square for barely 30 years, and the first mall in this location, which opened in 1980, was all but dead 20 years later.)

And the Porter Square panel seems to be a good example of the kind of erasure-through-memorialization that is such a salient feature of places re-tooling themselves in a new economic climate. Like many such history-related displays, it works hard to create a sense of continuity with the past, in this case by making an oblique textual connection between the Ford plant and the former maritime industry that existed on the Mystic River.

But the art piece also works against a sense of historical connectedness. It’s coy on the subject of why Ford left Somerville, leaving viewers themselves to connect the dots between the decision to manufacture the Edsel here, the volatility of the car industry (by the time the Edsel rolled off the assembly lines in 1957, disgruntled American car-buyers were shifting to much smaller models like American Motors’ Rambler and the newly-imported VW Beetle), and fallout from deindustrialization in places like Somerville.

There are other potential connections to be made with the continuing extension of car-based mall culture, or with the fight to expand mass transit and the the accompanying gentrification around new subway stops in places like Porter and Davis Squares, which has meant that many of the working-class Somervillians who assembled cars at the Ford plant no longer live in these places. Tellingly, this panel is on the very opposite side of Somerville from Assembly Square. In fact, its back is up against a Cambridge wall, on the side of a small-scale mall that has flourished in large part because of a subway station added here in the 1980s. And it’s right next to what is surely one of the busiest parking lots in the area, which is always something of a hazard to cross on foot if I’m trying to take the shortest distance to the station while rushing to catch a commuter train. Even in progressive, transit-conscious Somerville and Cambridge, car culture still feels very dominant at those moments, with trains and subways only a partial, problematic response to what often feels like an insatiable shared need for mobility. And the pretty panel on the wall of the mall seems likely to create, at best, only a tiny blip in the collective consciousness about how we got to this state and how we might get out of it again.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

RIP the Greenfield Visitor Center

Back in the summer, I wrote a post about the Pioneer Valley Visitor Center in Greenfield as a potentially interesting ethnographic site--halfway between the "non-place" of a highway rest stop and the place-saturation of a local tourist info booth.

Well, it turns out that the 10-year-old Visitor Center is due to close on February 1, a casualty of the state's budget crisis. The facility costs about $130,000 a year to maintain, and about half of that has come from state funding which has now been cut. The Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, which picks up the rest of the tab, can't afford to pay the full amount, and in fact Chamber director Ann Hamilton estimates that the operation has run at a deficit of more than half a million dollars over the ten years that it's been in existence.

So it looks as though there will be no more Visitor-Center-brand jam or coffee beans in the foreseeable future--and no more surveying of vehicular visitors as I was doing this summer and fall. Chamber director Hamilton noted last spring that it was difficult to quantify the impact of tourism in Franklin County, because so much of it is in the form of hybrid kinds of travel, like parents visiting their children at the area's many boarding schools and colleges. That was certainly borne out by my interviewing--it seemed as though the majority of the people I spoke with were on family visits of one sort or another. The Visitor Center seemed appropriate to those hybrid road trips, creating a bit of "hereness" in its strangely out-of-the-way location. I'll have to think of whether there's another spot on Route 2 that will offer such a useful place for talking with drivers--methodologically tricky if you don't happen to be in the car with them!