Friday, June 26, 2015

Changing the heads on the statues

David Brooks wrote his NY Times column about the "Robert E. Lee Problem."  I rush to add that for me, there has never been a Robert E. Lee problem.  Asked to write a precis of a poem about Lee when I was in high school, I refused.  The teacher wanted me to say that he was a great man, but I refused to do that either.  What is about being a "courtly" person that excuses leading the fight to preserve slavery?  I really appreciated David Brooks' point that Lee's father-in-law left his wife 196 slaves to be emancipated on his death but Lee did not emancipate them.  That's two strikes against Lee -- he ignored last wishes and he kept people in slavery -- and there's a third -- he was an officer trained at West Point but took up arms against his country, otherwise known as treason.  So I do not have a Robert E. Lee problem, but David Brooks is right to point out that "we" have a Robert Lee problem in that some people, this includes my English teacher, think Lee was a really nice guy.  Brooks proposes a kind of compromise -- keep some, get rid of others -- arguing, "This is not about rewriting history. It’s about shaping the culture going forward."

It has certainly occurred before, that statues once venerated have been toppled.  It doesn't ensure that the problem symbolized by the stature is actually addressed.  In essence, the map is not the territory.  This is a key issue for Main Street because the street is such an important site of symbolic conversation.  Recently in Orange, a new building owner decided that the historic gargoyles were causing her bad luck so she had them chopped off, much to my dismay.  I don't know how her luck has fared but I know that the symbolic conversation on the street is different.  Similarly, somebody decided to put up a mural of black woman jogging.  She is heroic in proportions -- is she meant to balance the great white soldiers that stand guard up and down the street? Is she running towards them or away from them or just for her health?  If it's just for her health, why does she have that scary look on her face?
Running Jane on the YWCA, Main Street, Orange NJ

This is just to say that Running Jane changes the symbolic conversation -- but how?  Have we simply added another heroic character without changing the lives of the vulnerable?  Have we possibly made it worse by signaling it's safe to jog and therefore safe to gentrify????

It's not the flags or heads on the statues that are the problem -- it's the nitty gritty stuff, like paying a decent hourly wage and investing in all neighborhoods and making sure all schools prepare children for the world of work in the 21st century.  

The real "Robert E. Lee Problem" is that he wanted to be able to own people and not pay them for their labor.  People can't be owned -- ok, that's taken care of -- but they also can't be deprived of good pay for good work.  We have a lot of work to do on the substantive issues.  

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Magic's in the Music

In my book Urban Alchemy: Restoring Joy in America's Sorted-Out Cities, I wrote about Ironworks, home of the ORNG Ink, and other creative endeavors.  Today I had the opportunity to attend the "Creative Musicianship Recital" led by teachers Doug and Jessie with their three "graduating" students, all Orange middle school students.  I had no idea what creative musicianship might be, but it started with all of us clapping to the beat of our individual hearts and then shifting until we were all clapping together.  It got better: the five of them joined together to play a "Drum Concerto."  After it was over we in the audience clapped our hands off with the joy and surprise of it!  Then Molly asked some questions: what did you like best?  Shudnuk -- who stars in a video about factories in the Valley -- told a story about dividing into two groups and practicing in two different rooms and then having the experience of seeing how it worked when the groups were brought back together.  It's hard to go wrong with kids and music, so I don't want to appear silly and sentimental.  It's not that that got my heart.  It is that the kids had been led into the structure of the music and were inventing it in concert with their teachers.  That's like kids doing robotics or 3-D printing.  In fact, Shudnuk is joining the Robotics Team at Orange Preparatory Academy, a team that went to China and won first place.  The dad of the drummer was as overwhelmed as I was.  He kept thanking Doug and Jessie for making something positive -- he was beaming with joy.  In a city like Orange, there's not a lot of money -- our wealth is in Shudnuk and all of the kids.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Podunk, VT

I was visiting Dr. Martha Stitelman this past weekend with the goal of seeing the Strolling of the Heifers on Main Street in Brattleboro.  I loved the parade, and the many ways in which the town expressed itself and linked urban and rural.  I realized that they make much fuller use of their spirit animal -- the cow -- than Hike the Heights does of our spirit animal -- the giraffe -- and we have some room for exploration.  Martha proposed that she take me to the train in Albany via a longer, scenic route through the forest on a road that had been washed out by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 but has recently been reopened. Vermont is a great state for questioning the rural-urban divide, because it is modestly urban and highly structured rural: here is no mountain or state park that we pass that Martha does not point out the excellent paths that traverse it.  But passing "Lower Podunk Road," I said, as people before me have, "There's really a Podunk?"   It turns out there's more than one -- small towns that passed their peak.  But here's the rub -- right near Lower Podunk Road is a marker that Martha pulled off the road to show me -- in the middle of the woods it says that Daniel Webster spoke at that spot to a gathering of the Whig convention in 1840.  We looked around the woods and wondered how 15,000 could have gathered there.  But the answer is that small towns like Podunk were functioning places -- Vermont was cleared of forest at that time, and the forest I see has grown since Daniel Webster was there.  Martha pointed out that there are lots of markers of habitation as one walks through the woods -- cellars and stone walls and gravestones.  Just as with the heifers strolling on Main Street, Vermont shifts the focus so that we can see the urban and the rural flow into and out of another.
Marker where 15,000 people once gathered but now we see a forest.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Michael Lally and the "Swing Theory" of Main Street

I had lunch with poet Michael Lally the other day.  David Lehman, reviewing the book on the blog, "The Best American Poetry," says, "Michael Lally scores big with his new collection, Swing Theory, just out from Hanging Loose Press." It is a wonderful review of the book -- though touching largely on poetic form and schools of writing.  Here, I am simply arguing that Michael's poems are essential to reading main street.

The question on my mind was, "As a poet, what are your thoughts on Main Streets and symbols?" That's about as vague as a question can get. I was a little clearer in my elaboration -- at any rate, I think I was clearer -- that I have come to understand that everything about main streets is symbolic of our way of life.  "Think about the two main streets in Maplewood -- the one so 'village-y' and quaint, and the other quite different, part of Springfield Avenue and blending into Newark."

Michael smiled wryly and talked about the threat posed to the village-y main street in Maplewood by a new complex planned for the post office site and cheered on by the Springfield Avenue businesses who thought it would generate money to help them. "This has been a pleasant place for artists and writers and others to come, feel at home.  But the new complex is going to shift the place, driving those people out, except for the financiers, who'll be able to stay.  When we sit in this diner and look out we won't be able to see the blue sky because the building will be in the way."

In Swing Theory, Michael has a poem called "November Sonnet" which reads the symbolic moment as much as his story of the two main streets.  It opens with a memory of cars pulling over to the side of the Garden State Parkway, and drivers sobbing -- it turns out that this was when they learned President Kennedy had been killed.  "But it's not even a poem about Kennedy,"  Michael said.  "It's about the black guys" -- fellow enlisted men whose faces relaxed when they learned that "Lee Harvey Oswald" was white.  From the twitch of a facial muscle to the height of a building -- this ability to speak in the language of symbols is what makes Michael such an important poet for those of us wanting to create a sane America.