Tuesday, September 29, 2009

what we think and what we feel

I recently read a blog post that got me thinking a bit more than most of them manage to do. It's The Alice Swanson Ghost Bike: What really happened by Dave Stroup on his why.i.hate.dc blog. Stroup investigated an incident which stirred a bit of local interest lately. In brief, a bicyclist was struck by a truck and killed at a busy intersection near Dupont Circle in DC. A ghost bike was placed to commemorate the death, warn both motorists and bicyclists to be careful, and keep transportation planners mindful of pedestrian and cycling needs. Here's one of many photos of the bike.

{Ghost bike for Alice Swanson; source: Prince Of Petworth}

The DC government has a policy covering unofficial memorials such as this and another policy covering bicycles that appear to be abandoned. Stroup undertook his investigation because they didn't follow either one of them in this case. When they abruptly removed the Swanson ghost bike, a whole lot others suddenly appeared in the same area. These too the government removed. Apparently (as Strop found out) both removals resulted from merchants' pressure on local officials).

It's easy to track down information on all this activity. For example you could do Google searches on the phrase "alice swanson" ghost. Limit this search to blogs only and you'll get a feel for the extent of community concern about the city's actions. Limit the search to news sources and you'll get a feel for the extent of local buzz the story generated.

Stroup's investigation found that the Mayor's Office became nervous about the negative publicity being generated. It began to distance itself from actions of its transportation department tho it seems apparent that it had something to do with the aggressiveness of those actions.

This whole event as it plays out is emotionally charged: Swanson's family and friends are deeply concerned about her death, its commemoration, and the City's response. Bloggers and news media see an instance of callousness on the part of bureaucrats, politicians, and local merchants. And there's extra emotional import because the locale is known to be more than usually full of pedestrians and cyclists and there is high tension between those people, on the one hand, and motorists on the other. The emotional component is the more readily conveyed by the visual imagry associated with this piece of news: all those ghost bikes and mourners.

A few weeks ago an article by Andrew Beaujon in the local City Paper gave a photo gallery of the bunch of bikes that appeared after the first was removed — 22 of them, one for each year of Swanson's short life — and profiled the young man who acquired them (by dumster diving "as well as wailing on Freecycle and Craigslist"): Ghost Bikes Return to Dupont Circle: Alice Swanson Rides Again.

{This is the guy, Legba Carrefour, who put up lots of bikes after the one was taken away; source: washingtoncitypaper.com}

My first thoughts on this ghost bike incident and Stroup's research were pretty straightforward: I noted the rapid collection and dissemination of news and photos about an emotionally-charged event where ethical values of decency and fair play seem to be violated by impersonal forces. I noted the outrage generated by this, particularly in comments made in response to blog posts. I thought about the power of bloggers and local journalists who cover local news. And I thought about the importance of in-depth investigative reporting, in this case by a local blogger.

The next day I came across an image which shares some qualities with the ghost bike photos. Here it is:

A little searching showed me that this pair of photos with their captions appeared as a composite image within hours that AP and AFP put out the individual shots and very quickly gained widespread internet penetration. It also showed that almost everyone reacted as I did. The composite image made me feel that the mainstream news media were showing (yet another) instance of racism in the way the two shots were captioned.

Not surprisingly there was some probing into the circumstances in which the photos were made and captioned. As with the investigative reporting in the ghost bike case, this took place quickly, but in this instance the work was done mainly by journalists. And in this instance, the investigation showed that the immediate conclusion formed by people like myself on seeing the photos and captions was not accurate, or not entirely accurate.

The day following first appearance of the composite image Aaron Kinney wrote an article in Salon — "Looting" or "finding"? — which discussed the rapid dissemination of the composite and said the two captions might not be the product of simple racial bias. A few days later, Tania Ralli of the New York Times wrote up the issue in an article called HURRICANE KATRINA: THE PHOTOGRAPHS; Who's a Looter? In Storm's Aftermath, Pictures Kick Up a Different Kind of Tempest. It's worth while reading this short article in full. The author describes the AP definition of looting and explains that what its photographer had observed met this definition: "He had seen the man in his photograph wade into a grocery store and come out with the sodas and bag." She also quotes the person who gave the caption to the second photo:
The photographer for Getty Images, Mr. Graythen, said in an e-mail message that he had also stuck to what he had seen to write his caption, and had actually given the wording a great deal of thought. Mr. Graythen described seeing the couple near a corner store from an elevated expressway. The door to the shop was open, and things had floated out to the street. He was not able to talk to the couple, "so I had to draw my own conclusions," he said.

In the extreme conditions of New Orleans, Mr. Graythen said, taking necessities like food and water to survive could not be considered stealing. He said that had he seen people coming out of stores with computers and DVD players, he would have considered that looting.

"If you're taking something that runs solely from a wall outlet that requires power from the electric company -- when we are not going to have power for weeks, even months -- that's inexcusable," he said.
Sometime later, a Canadian media issues site, Media Awareness Network, did a page on the matter as a "teachable moment" study guide for classroom instructors in secondary schools: Hurricane Katrina and the "Two-Photo Controversy". It didn't add to information that Kinney and Ralli had given but gave some discussion questions to help people think through the controversy: what do we mean by looting and finding, what difficulties do journalists face in covering dramatic events like Katrina, why do these photos have such impact, how could the captions have been written to help people understand what the photos really show . . . ?

Whereas in the case of the ghost bikes emerging facts supported peoples' immediate conclusions, in this case the investigations contradicted or at least tempered them. This might have led to dissemination of the new facts or a sudden dropping off in dissemination of the composite image but it did not (or not to any perceptible extent).

Despite these three explanations concerning the photos and their captions, the composite image continued to circulate and commenters continued to express outrage at the racism they found in their captions, right up until my sighting this morning. That's a good four years of circulation and comment. You can do a Google search on the terms graythen martin katrina looting to get an idea of this persistence over those years (you could also do phrase searches such as: "Black people loot, white people find" and "looting vs. finding")

What's apparent to me about this isn't at all surprising: people (myself included) tend to follow their emotions and seek reinforcement for beliefs they hold. It's not easy for factually based correctives to counteract (or temper) image-based communications that resonate with the growing numbers of people who see them.

These thoughts led me a step further.

I recently read an article by Michael Bérubé that's been creating quite a stir. Entitled What's the Matter With Cultural Studies?, it contains reflections on the academic subject which he teaches. It's thoughtful and well written, and the controversy it's generating is fun to observe. Nonetheless, what caught my attention is only one aspect of his argument. In discussing a prevalent point of view within cultural studies departments he says there's a tendency among practitioners in the field to jump to conclusions or, put differently, to indiscriminately grab what seems to be evidence which supports one's beliefs. This behavior is a lot like the response to the ghost bike and Katrina "looting vs finding" photos.

Bérubé cites an old essay by Stuart Hall* on the tendency to condemn people who jump to conclusions. Hall wrote that adherents to one political party tend to think the other party is brainwashing voters. It's an arrogant and unjustified point of view, he says. Bérubé quotes him thus:
It is a highly unstable theory about the world which has to assume that vast numbers of ordinary people, mentally equipped in much the same way as you or I, can simply be thoroughly and systematically duped into misrecognizing entirely where their real interests lie. Even less acceptable is the position that, whereas 'they' — the masses — are the dupes of history, 'we' — the privileged — are somehow without a trace of illusion and can see, transitively, right through into the truth, the essence, of a situation.
Bérubé also cites an interesting paper by Ellen Willis** that makes much the same point. He doesn't quote her but I cannot resist. She says:
Reagan did something the left, to its great misfortune, has never understood: with his paean to “morning in America” and call for an “opportunity society” he coopted the yearnings that had been aroused by the `60s movements and stifled by the nonstop pull-up-your-socks lecture of the Carter years. Freedom, as recoded by the Reagan right, meant pursuing unlimited wealth, at least in one’s dreams, and so identifying with the rich, their desire for low taxes, and their aversion to “big government”; it meant embracing America’s mission to make the world safe for democracy; it meant license to express rage. Pleasure in sex might be restricted, but pleasure in aggression was encouraged, including uninhibited bashing of black people, poor people, criminals, deviants, and liberals. The cultural elite, on the other hand, was portrayed as not only immoral and unpatriotic but repressive, what with its guilt-mongering attacks on greed and its allergy to guns and its lectures about bigoted language. Ever since, the right has won elections with some version of this formula. Its success has depended on convincing working-class swing voters not only that liberals are their class enemy, but that their own aspirations for “opportunity” and “ownership” are best expressed by policies that favor the rich.
Like Hall (and Bérubé) Willis says the Democratic left in the US does wrong to 'dismiss as “hallucinatory” people’s embattlement about what moral and cultural norms will govern their everyday lives and intimate relationships.' Writing years before Obama's election campaign, Willis concludes that Democrats should do basically what he subsequently did: adopt a platform based not on perceived practical "interests" but rather on a broad vision of well-being akin to the vision inherent in the Reagan slogans. She says (paraphrasing her), we need a politics that recognizes equality and freedom, class and culture, as ineluctably linked.

As is certainly apparent from what I've written here so far, I reacted as many others have done in response to the emotion charged images of both ghost bikes and "looting vs finding" photos. I did a little searching and found my first reaction to be supported in the one instance but not (very much if at all) in the other. I connected this little exercise with warnings I happened to encounter about jumping to conclusions.

It particularly interested me that these warnings were more about the mistake people (including myself) make in condemning others for what seems to us to be their instances of unwarranted jumping to conclusions. It's pretty much universal to base lots of the decisions we make on our emotional responses, on intangibles and intuitions, and not on our carefully-reasoned practical "best" interests. It's arrogant and self-defeating to dismiss large groups of people — say political opponents — for acting this way. Better to seek to understand the underlying causes of of the emotion, intangibilities, and intuitions.

That's my primary conclusion from this little thought process, but I'm also grateful to citizen journalists like Dave Stroup who take time and expend resources to uncover and report facts. I'm just as grateful to the (dwindling number of) reporters and professional investigators who do the same. And I'm pleased to live in a time when information flows so freely and widely even though much of what's distributed is misleading and correctives take a bit of searching to uncover.

*"The Toad in the Garden: Thatcherism Among the Theorists" by Stuart Hall in Marxism and the interpretation of culture By Cary Nelson, Lawrence Grossberg (University of Illinois Press, 1988)


Saturday, September 26, 2009

Detroit's gilded age

If the 1890s were a Gilded Age in the U.S. then Detroit in that decade might be said to have been a gilded city. In fact it liked to be called the Paris of the West for its architecture and for its own unique street lighting.*

Here are photos of the central part of the city — the Campus Martius — taken in the latter part of the 1890s. They come from the Detroit Publishing Company Collection of the Library of Congress Prints and Photos Division.

I prepared the following three panoramic images from nine photos in the LC collection. As you can see they are made of three photos each. The first two pairs of three were made within minutes of each other; the third was made on another day. They were all from the same elevated location. As usual, click to view full size.

In the left-most images of the three panoramas you can see the plaza called Campus Martius at Woodward and Michigan Avenues. The building on the left is Detroit's first sky scraper, the Hammond Building. The monument in the middle of the intersection, bottom center of the 2nd and 3rd panoramas, is the Bagley Fountain and Statue. The spire in center of the left photo belongs to the Fort Street Presbyterian Church. All the buildings in this photo have been demolished except for this church. The building on the right is City Hall, seen in full in the center photo.

The center images in each of the three panoramas show City Hall.

The images on the right show the Majestic Building on a corner of Woodward & Michigan. In these shots the Opera House is on the right. The Majestic Building was home to the C.A. Shafer department store. In front of the it you can see a tower supporting carbon arc lamps. This was one of the Arc Lighting Towers, also known as Moonlight Towers, which led people to link Detroit in their day with the City of Lights. Below the Opera House is the Soldiers & Sailors Monument, seen most clearly in the 2nd and 3rd panoramas.

The 2nd panorama shows the city's electric streetcars which date from the 1880s, replacing a horsecar system from the Civil War era.

Here are some details from these images.

• Two photos of a busy intersection.

• Three photos of a sunny corner.

• Steps of City Hall.

• A newsboy.

• Pedestrians, a lounger, and a head-scarfed woman.

• Corner by the side of City Hall.

• As you can see, Shafer's is completing some renovations.

• Some buggies and bikes.

• Young men in derby hats; I like this detail a lot.

• Goods wagons with patient, blanketed horses.

• The stanchion of the arc lamp tower.

• The arc lamps themselves.

• The leader of the Salvation Army is coming to town.

Here are the nine large-format images that make up the panoramas.

• The three left-images showing the Hammond Building.

• The three center images showing City Hall.

• The three right-hand images showing the Majestic Building.

LC's collections also include this extreme wide angle shot, taken about a decade later.

{LC caption: Majestic Building and Detroit Opera House, Detroit, Mich.}

Links for further information:

• From the Shorpy blog where two of these photos appeared:
  • Moonlight Tower
  • Austin’s Moonlight Towers
  • Soldiers and Sailors Monument
  • Bagley Fountain: The visible side says FOR THE PEOPLE FROM.
    The four sides say:
    The Bagley fountain is the only existing work of H.H. Richardson in Michigan. Richardson also built an armory in Detroit, but it is long gone. Today the fountain sits in a different location in Cadillac Square.
  • Demolition of City Hall
    In one of the most notorious incidents in the history of Detroit, as preservationists and boosters alike fought to save the old city hall, an injuction was filed to stop the demolition. The contractor snuck a bulldozer into the site at midnight and demolished the portico on the front of the building, compromising the structural integrity of the edifice, and forcing the full demolition.

• From a site called Buildings of Detroit:

Some sources:

* Detroit was the only large city in the US (and in the world) lighted wholly and exclusively by the tower system.

Detroit placed 122 towers (see illustration at left and at right) with a height of 100 to 180 feet, lighting 21 square miles of the city. All towers were installed in the 1880s and remained in use up to the end of the 1910s.

The lighting infrastructure in Detroit was regarded as the future of street lighting, and stood as an example for the rest of the US. The following excerpts are taken from “Municipal lighting”, a practical guide for city lighting that was published in 1888:

“The press of the country has uniformly conceded Detroit to be the best-lighted city in the world. All its streets, yards, backyards and grounds are illuminated as effectually as by the full moon at the zenith. The blending of light from the mass of towers serves to prevent dense shadows.”

“There are 122 towers of 153 feet each. Detroit has about 230,000 inhabitants, and has a dense business section of about one square mile. This section has about 20 towers, which average 1,000 to 1,200 feet apart. The belt immediately contiguous, embracing the closely-built and densely shaded residence section has its towers about 2,000 feet apart. Beyond this the spaces widen to 2,500 feet apart, and in the suburbs they are spaced about 2,500 to 3,000 feet apart.”

Moonlight towers: light pollution in the 1800s

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

of love and irritation

A couple of weeks ago I attended a funeral Mass for Tina, a woman who had been afflicted with Down's Syndrome. She defied what I had thought to be conventional wisdom about that impairment by attaining a long and largely independent existence. With support from care-givers and a community of similarly-disabled people she lived on her own and earned her own livelihood. Her self-knowledge was substantial. She wished she could have been tall and slender; recognized that she must carry art supplies with her so, as she said, she could keep her hands busy; and explained her stubborn streak as an inherited Irish mulishness.

She was well and deeply loved by family, friends, and those professionally responsible for helping her. She also could irritate others, so much so that her care-givers would fairly quickly burn out. One of the eulogists who spoke at the Mass gave some insight into both the love she attracted and the — not really incompatible — prickliness of her personality, prickliness that made her somewhat difficult. She, the eulogist, said a care-taker asked to move on but relented on hearing how much she herself, her presence and care, meant to Tina. She saw how much affection Tina had for her and I think she also realized that she reciprocated this affection.

One of Tina's sometimes-irritating traits was her outspokenness. She had little fear of speaking her mind regardless of social inhibitions and the likelihood that embarrassment and hurt feelings might result.

The conjoining of mutual expression of affection along with unwelcome public outbursts reminds me of events in the life of George Fox. He thrived during the middle of the 17th century England when religious controversy had stirred up large numbers of noisy and intrusive eccentrics. And although almost all of them disappeared from sight, he was founder of an enduring sect, the Society of Friends, called Quakers. His was a message of love, but, as with Tina, he had little fear of irritating others.

There are many traits which make this plain. Like other Quaker men, he refused to defer to his social betters by doffing his hat or using the formal "you" in place of the informal "thee." He also, like Tina, would speak his mind plainly in public places, whether outdoors in the marketplace or inside churches ("steeple-houses" as he called them).

The following extracts from his Journals are among his best descriptions of his freedom from reserve. The account follows his release from prison (one of many arduous imprisonments that he and co-believers suffered). He is afoot, as usual, and, wandering northward from London, finds himself outside Lichfied. He says:
Then was I commanded by the Lord to pull off my shoes. I stood still, for it was winter; and the Word of the Lord was like a fire in me. So I put off my shoes, and left them with the shepherds; and the poor shepherds trembled, and were astonished. Then I walked on about a mile, and as soon as I was got within the city, the Word of the Lord came to me again, saying, "Cry, 'Woe to the bloody city of Lichfield!'" So I went up and down the streets, crying with a loud voice, "Woe to the bloody city of Lichfield!" It being market-day, I went into the market-place, and to and fro in the several parts of it, and made stands, crying as before, "Woe to the bloody city of Lichfield!" And no one laid hands on me.

As I went thus crying through the streets, there seemed to me to be a channel of blood running down the streets, and the market-place appeared like a pool of blood.

When I had declared what was upon me, and felt myself clear, I went out of the town in peace, and, returning to the shepherds, I gave them some money, and took my shoes of them again. But the fire of the Lord was so in my feet, and all over me, that I did not matter to put on my shoes again, and was at a stand whether I should or no, till I felt freedom from the Lord so to do; then, after I had washed my feet, I put on my shoes again.

The next day I went to Cranswick, While I was here, there came a great woman of Beverley to speak to Justice Hotham about some business; and in discourse she told him that the last Sabbath-day (as she called it) there came an angel or spirit into the church at Beverley, and spoke the wonderful things of God, to the astonishment of all that were there; and when it had done, it passed away, and they did not know whence it came, nor whither it went; but it astonished all, -- priest, professors, and magistrates of the town. This relation Justice Hotham gave me afterwards, and then I gave him an account of how I had been that day at Beverley steeple-house, and had declared truth to the priest and people there.

I went to another steeple-house about three miles off, where preached a great high-priest, called a doctor, one of them whom Justice Hotham would have sent for to speak with me. I went into the steeple-house, and stayed till the priest had done. The words which he took for his text were these, "Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters; and he that hath no money, come ye, buy and eat, yea come, buy wine and milk without money and without price."

Then was I moved of the Lord God to say unto him, "Come down, thou deceiver; dost thou bid people come freely, and take of the water of life freely, and yet thou takest three hundred pounds a year of them for preaching the Scriptures to them. Mayest thou not blush for shame? Did the prophet Isaiah, and Christ do so, who spoke the words, and gave them forth freely? Did not Christ say to His ministers, whom He sent to preach, 'Freely ye have received, freely give'?"

The priest, like a man amazed, hastened away. After he had left his flock, I had as much time as I could desire to speak to the people; and I directed them from the darkness to the Light, and to the grace of God, that would teach them, and bring them salvation; to the Spirit of God in their inward parts, which would be a free teacher unto them.

{George Fox, shod; source: stokenewingtonquakers.org}

{Market Square in Lichfiled with church in background; nearly a century after Fox's visit, Samuel Johnson was born in Lichfield, and the statue is of his biographer James Boswell; source: Herbaltablet's photostream on flickr}

My source for the journal entry: GEORGE FOX - An Autobiography CHAPTER V. One Man May Shake the Country for Ten Miles 1651-1652.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Here are some details from an image I showed a few days ago, Russell Lee's FSA photo called Negro cabaret, taken in April 1941.

First, the photo — again — with the caption given it at the time. As always, click to view full size.

Here are the detail images that I find interesting:

1. The girls, of course, the ostensible subject of the photo, most of whom seem to be just putting in their day's work.

2. The band, giving their work a bit more concentration than the girls, but not seeming to be any happier.

3. The paying customers who are see at the stage-side tables — most appearing to be white and light-skinned (in those times when lightness conveyed more social advantage than it does now). I like the held hands in the first image of this group and the broom in the last. It's curious that many are drinking beer; that's not what we'd expect from what we see in contemporary movies that show the night club scene. It does seem, though, that the beer bottles are more prevalent the farther removed the tables are from front-and-center.

4. Those off the front and above.

Curious, isn't it, that no one is smiling?

Some links:

1. Wikipedia's article on Slumming. It's hard to say whether the white patron's are doing this or are just out for a night's entertainment at a place they can afford. I suspect the latter. There's more on this subject in an illustrated book called Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885-1940 by Chad C. Heap (University of Chicago Press, 2009).

2. A review of a book of photos and articles about Chicago's South Side at this time: Bronzeville: Black Chicago in Pictures, 1941-1943 - Book Review

3. A book on the work of Russell Lee and the other FSA photographers in Chicago and downstate: Chicago and downstate: Illinois as seen by the Farm Security Administration by Robert L. Reid, ed. by Larry A. Viskochil (University of Illinois Press, 1989)

Note: All photos are from the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection of the Prints and Photos Division of the Library of Congress.