Thursday, October 29, 2009

"Nobody" goes there

I had a wonderful visit to Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA. In addition to spending time on the lovely campus, I got to poke around in the city, enjoying Historic Allentown especially. I walked on the Main Street, Hamilton Street, and took pictures as I do everywhere I go. In front of the city's tallest building a guard warned me that it was forbidden to photograph that location. There were no signs announcing this, but he insisted that if I were spotted on the cameras, the police would be called and they would take my camera away. My attachment to my camera is profound and this antagonized me, though I tried to remain civil. "I'm just telling you," he said in a tone that was none too friendly, which provoked me further. I looked around at their all-too-empty street, and thought, "That's why nobody's here: you lot don't trust people." This, of course, was a snap judgement based on annoyance and not information, but sometimes bad judgements provoke closer inspection and help us get closer to the truth. This was such a time.

As I walked along, the people of Allentown set out to disprove my unfair idea about their friendliness. I was taking a picture of the New Museum when a passerby smiled and pointed out the Indian Store, which she said she loved and she showed me the ring she'd gotten there. She also showed me two lovely bracelets she'd gotten at the dollar store. A young man, wearing a dollar store uniform, walked by and smiled and said hello in a very friendly manner. I laughed at a bit of urban collage made by someone who had the bright idea to add two stickers of eyes to a piece of abstract art on the wall of a very ugly building. The silly eyes humanized the whole thing, and seemed to saying, "It's OK!" Then a woman blowing leaves as part of the Hamilton Street Crew said that she was making a pile and I could jump in in a minute. She laughed and so did I.

By this time, I was in a much better mood. I climbed up on the Civil War Monument to get a picture down the length of the street. I expected the police to arrest me as the forbidden building was looming on the horizon and I got it in my photo, but I got clean away. I stopped to admire the ruins of an old bridge that crossed the rushing Jordan Creek, and which was beautifully decorated with a graffiti refrain that read Jesus Saves. "Is spray-painting a religious slogan a sin?" I asked myself, still a bit stuck on crime and punishment.

At the college a bit later that morning, one of the students described Main Street in her hometown and said that there's a lot of violence on Main Street so "nobody" goes there. This, of course, raised a paradox: if nobody goes there, who is doing the violence? Anyway, in that case violence was keeping people away, while in Allentown I was wondering if repression were the cause.

With so many questions in my head, I figured I should go the Visitors' Center and get some information. The woman who ran the place was very helpful, and I learned that there was an outstanding regional art museum, just 3 blocks away. I immediately went over, and was rewarded handsomely by the chance to see an outstanding exhibit of artists who had funded by the Julius Rosenwald Fund to do work on Black life in the 1930s and 40s. I knew a few of the paintings, but not most, and the sculpture and dance were entirely new to me.

As I exited the museum, uplifted by the chance to imagine the world in a new way, I was struck by a block-long paved plaza across the street in front of the museum. It was bounded to the north by a large bronze horse that flanked the Art School, to the east by a mural with a wonderful trompe l'oeil, and to the south by a historic county building. The plaza was not empty: people were having lunch, walking to and fro, chatting, enjoying the beautiful fall day. It was a place anybody would go.

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