The Addendum

A Child’s View

It occurs to me that I have always viewed the world as a child views a kitchen counter-top: on my toes, peering over a divide, trying to see what goes on where I am not even thought of.

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Vancouver: the similitudes of the past, and those of the future

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I have not been to Vancouver, in any meaningful sense, in five years. By Vancouver I mean the real one, the one that in the states (and only in the states) we append with “B.C.” in order to distinguish it from a suburb of Portland, Oregon. On that first visit, I felt that I had been glimpsing the future, or at least one possible urban future. There was fast, frequent, metropolitan scale transit. There was high-rise transit-oriented development. There were multiple dense nodes throughout the metropolitan region, as well as an intensely developed downtown that mixed both historic and ultra-modern development.

This is not to say that the city had been perfect. Main and Hastings was still an infamous intersection not just of its two namesake streets, but of the heroin trade and urban decay. Gastown—Vancouver’s equivalent of Seattle’s Pioneer Square or Portland’s Old Town—was still a cotton candy and knick-nack ghetto. Despite the cosmopolitan pretensions of the city, you still had a hard time finding non-corporate coffee or a place to eat on the peninsula that wasn’t aimed at high priced businessmen’s lunches and even higher priced tourist and convention-goer fare. Five years on, however, and times have changed.

Woodward's, on the edge of Gastown, when it was new back in 2009.

Woodward’s, on the edge of Gastown, when it was new back in 2009.

WOODWARD’S WAS THERE BACK IN 2009—and I mean the present one, the big red-and-blue condo tower that looms high above to border on the edge of Gastown. Then, the tower had struck me as something out of Niihama from Ghost in the Shell, or an unconventional and futuristic take on the Flatiron Building.

Woodward’s used to mean Vancouver’s big department store, a B.C. based rival to the Hudson’s Bay Company that was roughly equivalent to Sears in the states. In the 1990s, the company went bust, selling out to Hudson’s Bay, and the large facility on the east end of downtown went vacant. Now, though, Woodward’s means the redevelopment that took over the site of the former department store, including a 400-foot high, 43-story tower.

The development trades on its urbanity, a mixture of grit and sophistication that taps into the narrative of authenticity.  Indeed the entire building becomes a kind of work of rhetoric, a foil for ideas about what urban living means. The atrium of the facility has, at one end, a large photo-mural mounted on glass, showing a graphic depiction of the 1971 Gastown riot. Policemen on horseback swing billy-clubs against pot-smoking hippies and street people in a crass display of culture warfare turning into the literal kind. Thus a key moment of counter-culture history has become—via the robes of art—a way of branding the Woodward as progressive, urbane, sensitive to the neighborhood and its history.

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The Woodward tower, reflected in the installation of Stan Douglas’ Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971.

The photograph, however, was a re-enactment; in a town colloquially known as “Hollywood North,” the real intersection of Abbott Street and Cordova Street, as it appeared in August 1971, was reproduced in the 2008 parking lot of an amusement park out along Highway 1. History was thus recreated, then photographed by artist Stan Douglas, then installed as part of the corporate branding of an upmarket condominium tower.

To quote the Woodward’s slogan, used throughout its media marketing: “Be Bold or Move to Suburbia.”

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MY HOTEL WAS LOCATED AT PENDER AND RICHARDS, the same as it had been five years before. Then, I had selected it because it was affordable, close to downtown, but not too close to Main & Hastings. I had found that it was perfect; fairly quiet, it was located near two used book stores and not far from the Waterfront Skytrain station, letting me get anywhere I needed to go with relative ease. Then, though, there was a slight air of Skid Row to the street; there were cheap diners and dives, marginal looking stores that sold smoking accouterment or travel services or check cashing. It was not far from the edge of Gastown, from where Woodward’s was, when Woodward’s—the tower—was new.

I don’t know why I expected that things would not have changed; after all, change is the natural state of urbanity. Woodward’s—or perhaps the city it represented—had changed much of it. Just around the corner from my hotel, across the street from hole-in-the-wall $2 pizza places and the questionable looking convenience stores, there was now a bar with cocktails, craft beer, handmade gyoza fried in authentic Japanese cast iron pans, and deep, pork-rich ramen soups.

A few blocks away, Save On Meats—a butcher-cum-cafe—had reopened along Hastings, offering classic diner fare. The food is excellent, and if you are worried that this is the bogey-man of gentrification, there is an easy solution. Wooden tokens are available for purchase, redeemable for a breakfast sandwich, no questions asked. If you feel guilty, you can buy one,and give it to someone on the street. Gentrification solved. It’s good food, a welcome addition to the block and the neighborhood, and fraught with all the conflicting questions with no answers that gentrification brings.

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Even Gastown itself is not safe. The cotton candy and caramel corn atmosphere is shifting, slowly. There are still homeless here, panhandling from the tourist trade, but many of the gift shops are now gone. Simply put, the tourist has a much harder time finding commemorative Canadian license plate frames or stickers or keychains or jade rings or crystal fragments or 14k gold chains or stuffed Royal Canadian Mounted Police plushies. If you want your Canada in the canned, maple-syrup flavored variety, you will be disappointed with much of Gastown, and may resolve yourself to buying your trinkets at YVR. In the place of these traditional vendors, there are now a half dozen coffee shops, perhaps twice as many bars, places selling “Carolina pulled pork” or “50 beers on tap” or “almost famous fish and chips.” There is even a hat store—not Lids, not some knockoff baseball hat store, but “Hastings Hattery,” a hipster haberdasher. There would not have been a haberdasher on Hastings Street in 2009.

As you walk down Water Street, you’re likely to find as many interior decorating stores as trinket shops, each offering furniture meant to evoke the designs of Charles and Ray Eames without infringing on Herman Miller’s intellectual property rights. Kitsch has been replaced with Kitchen stores, one of which placed upon its window glass a Julia Child quote that, read differently than it was spoken, sums up this sort of lifestyle: “If you’re afraid of butter, use cream.”

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“DISTANCE AVAILS US NOT” SAID WALT WHITMAN, “and place avails not.”

Vancouver in 2009 was exotic, seeming so far in the future that we, in the states, could never catch up. It was a benchmark, a role model, a fantasy to which cities like Seattle and Portland aspired, the cosmopolitan other on the other side of the least exotic and most exotic international border in existence.

Yet walking along the streets of Gastown, Vancouver feels eerily familiar. Sure the details differ. The exact forms of the buildings, their styles, their ages, they all differed. Yet it was hard not to feel, in Gastown, that I was walking through a familiar place, a street very much like, to cite one example, Valencia Street in San Francisco’s Mission District. We in the states—in those cities growing and thriving, in the San Franciscos and Seattles, the Portlands and the Oaklands—have more and more caught up Vancouver, sometimes even surpassing it in our absurdities.

We are now, like Whitman crossing the Brooklyn Ferry,  among “the current rushing so swiftly.” As the distance has receded, Vancouver is no longer the exotic, no longer so much the other. Vancouver is less an “ism,” and more a morally opaque and complex organism—more of a city, less of an idea—for all the good and bad that entails.

(Many thanks to UBC’s Elvin Wyly for showing me Save On Meats and telling me the story of the Woodward’s and its mural.)

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Apostrophe as an idea

» From Evelyn Shih’s “Sidewalks,” on the blog Photopos:

“As I delve back further into my photographic archive, I feel more acutely what was always true of this blog: that we write of the absent, of the past. That photography cannot escape apostrophe.”

 

» From Wikipedia’s Wiktionary:

“From French apostrophe, or Latin apostrophus, from Ancient Greek ἀπόστροφος (apóstrophos, “accent of elision”), a noun use of an adjective from ἀποστρέφω (apostréphō, “I turn away”).”

 

» From Randall Brown’s photo project prompt called Apostrophe, as described on the blog A Just Recompense:

“First, the title: “Apostrophe” is a rhetorical device originally from ancient Greece used to “describe the act of an orator turning away (Gk. apo ‘away’ and strophein ‘to turn’) from his normal audience, the judges, to address another: whether his adversary, a specific member of the jury, someone absent or dead, or even an abstract concept or inanimate object” (Irene Kancades, Style, 1994). As used in fiction, the narrator, instead of addressing the reader, addresses another person or abstract idea – in this case, the “you” is a friend from childhood who “turned away” – a word twist that is enough to make a geek jump up and down – from the narrator at a troubled point. Obviously, this could not have been done in first or third person! So this story absolutely requires second person, and makes excellent use of it!”

 

» As described on the web site of Apostrophe Books, a small press, and making several quotes of the Oxford English Dictionary:

“The word itself is derived from Latin (apostrophus) and Greek (apostrophos/prosoidia), and involves the idea of “turning away” or “turning aside,” as well as simply an indication of “loss” or “omission.” So, it is here, in loss, in turning way from intention or purpose where the material or noumenal interacts with the phenomenal, as Kant would put it; or, where the sign enacts its meaning; i.e. the mark as an indication of loss, a moment of pause, a digression in meaning.”

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Somewhere West of Vale, Oregon

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[View larger image on Flickr.]

The idea of Oregon is a slippery one. Much of the population is concentrated in the western third of the state, primarily in the Portland metropolitan region and the fertile, lush Willamette Valley to its south. Visitors to the state have the false assumption that everything hill here is decorated with rain-drenched Douglas fir trees. Those visitors can be forgiven for their ignorance, because most Oregonians, too, do not know their state, and have rarely ventured east into the dry territory beyond the rain shadow of the Cascade Range, except perhaps to luxuriate in the resorts of Bend or to attend the annual Pendleton Roundup.

Yet Oregon is far more than this movie-set rainforest. Much of the state, speaking in geographic terms, is an arid plateau that is watered—barely—by tributaries of the Columbia River. Further east, still, even beyond the Blue Mountains that ring Pendleton and the high and holy Wallowas that were the Nez Perce’s homeland, the state is even more remote, known better by Idahoans from the Boise Basin of the Snake River than by anyone who was born in the Beaver State. Not far from the state line, the town of Vale sits, once a minor epicenter of a minor but thriving agricultural region that spread up along the Malhuer River and its tributaries. Today, like much of rural Oregon, Vale is a shadow of itself, still cared for but worn about the edges, a place where time doesn’t seem to pass despite the emptying of old strore-fronts, despite the ever-changing processing of new versions of the same old Ford trucks and John Deere tractors that pass through the town each year.

Like most of the rural communities of the state, it lived off of—literally—the railroad, the great road of commerce that funneled the products of the region through the town and in the process connected it to global markets and to a flow of jobs. Yet those same economic forces grew and changed even as Vale did not. Today, the old Union Pacific branch that once stretched to distant Burns (a third of the way across the state) has so little traffic that the mighty UP divested it. It is now operated—just—by a short line called the Oregon Eastern, which has all of one customer, a diatomaceous earth mine.

Whenever it goes, so too the frontier of 19th century exuberance will recede further, as a tide going out from across the land, leaving its wake the rubble of abandonment, decay, and communities whose purpose for existence is more for the sake of habit than any other nameable reason. Perhaps this is only natural—if anything economic can be called so—and perhaps it is, in some larger sense, just. Yet for the people of Vale, home cannot be numbered by the cold rationality of profit and loss, and balance sheets make bad community members.

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Quote: Jed Perl on Jeff Koons and a new Gilded Age

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Jed Perl, writing in the New York Review of Books, reviews the new Jeff Koons exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/sep/25/cult-jeff-koons/

“For the Gilded Age avant-garde, such legendary events have become the model for new marketing opportunities, and there is an assumption that if the public has a very strong negative reaction to something—if a work of art disturbs or annoys or flummoxes some of the public—it most likely is important. Incredibly enough, there are highly intelligent observers who believe that Koons challenges them in more or less the same way that Matisse, Picasso, Nijinsky, and Pollock might once have done…. I would have hoped that by now everybody agreed that not all unease is equal. Why should we imagine that because once upon a time certain gallerygoers were troubled by something that they later came to admire, then it follows that anything that troubles a gallerygoer is necessarily worthy of admiration? Just because it makes you sick doesn’t mean that it’s any good. I am not saying that either Rosenblum or Nagel, both scholars widely admired for their erudition, would take this view. But there is no doubt in my mind that Koons is alert to a tendency on the part of the art audience to submit—to submit to something (to anything) that exerts a certain discomfiting power. This is the S&M of the contemporary art world, with the audience angling for an opportunity to grovel at the feet of the superstar.”

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If I have any prototype, it is the detective

If I have any prototype, it is the detective.

— Sometimes when I think of my research and my work around cities, I compare it to others and balk. I think of all the high theory and the sophisticated language of more reflexive urbanists and I do not connect. If I have any prototype, it is the detective. For me it keeps being reduced to simple things: means, motive, and opportunity, but really it is all motive in the end. Theory and grand meta narratives only concern me when they help explain that motive.

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What does it mean to be “from” somewhere?

In Oregon, I have this silly game I play regarding license plates. In 1960, the state issued its first and only slogan-bearing license plate. Yellow letters, blue background, and along the lower edge the phrase “Pacific Wonderland.” They lasted but four years, but they became cultural icons. It probably helped that vehicles from those four years have been, by-and-large, considered classics for decades. It also helped that the plats coincide with the myth of a more innocent, pre-JFK assassination America, and with the roadside highway culture of the pre-Interstate era, and with a time when Kodachrome and cheap German and Japanese cameras made memories so much more easily recorded. So those license plates are forever linked to these cultural memories. Perhaps I feel the connections a little stronger than some; 1960 Pacific Wonderland plates still adorn my mother’s Triumph, a car I grew up with.

The connection, the specialness, is not merely my own sensation. In 2009, as part of the celebration of Oregon’s 150th birthday, the state re-issued the plates. Their issue was, like the state’s many other commemorative plate designs (the Salmon, the Oregon Trail, the Cultural Trust, the Wine Country, and so forth) a fundraiser for a specific set of causes, in this case several historical ones, including the Oregon Historical Society. As with the original plates, numbers on these plates take a special sequence: number, letter, and four more numbers. Eventually I bought a set of my own, and mine began with “9P” followed by a number in the 7,000 series.

Therein lay the game. Every time I saw another car with another new Pacific Wonderland plate, I had this subtle but real sense of warmth, of camaraderie. “Those are my people,” I would say, sometimes only softly to myself, sometimes to whatever companion was with me at the time. And I would take note, too, of the numbers. Look, a 9P-8XXX, someone who was less quick on the draw than I with their home-state pride. Oh, look, a 9P-4XXX. Much respect. A 9P-00XX! I am impressed. There was a smidge of humor in this, but there was also some genuine sense of belonging: here were people who valued the causes this plate supported, or who felt that romantic twinge of nostalgia when they saw that slogan, or who simply felt a certain pride in Oregon that was a bit above and beyond what others felt.

Who belongs more, who less? Who is loyal, who is less so? Who is committed, who is just drifting by? The numbers on those plates became an indicator, a stand-in for insider versus other that was almost visceral. And I smiled warmly at those who belonged, or felt that they did, and I felt a certain distance with those who were not members of my club. It gave me pleasure, even though it should not have.

 

* * *

There is no earthly way that I could know where I was born. Infants simply do not recall such things, and in point of fact I cannot really recall anything from before the age of perhaps four or five. I am old enough, for example, that I would have seen ash rain down from the sky after Mount St. Helens incinerated 1,312 feet of its summit with the power of 500 Hiroshima-sized nuclear bombs. I do not remember it, however. I don’t even really remember any sense of place at all as a small child. Portland looms large now and then, mostly because her girder-bound collection of bridges is a natural fascination for a small boy peering out a window. The larger region, though, is less distinct. A visit to Mount Hood when I was four or five is just a vague memory of a parking lot at Timberline Lodge, which in these memories is itself merely an amorphous sense of mass to which I never got close. The coast? Been, but don’t recall it. In fact probably the only sense of any kind of location other than my own house and backyard that survives from this time in my life is a couple of days in my father’s father’s RV, as our whole family took a road trip north to the San Juan Islands. My parents’ motive was to explore and consider a move from their suburban Portland-area home. I remember the excitement of a ferry ride that lasted all too short a time, and I remember my mother pointing out the King Dome in Seattle as we drove by; like Mount St. Helens, the dome that once was home to the Seattle Seahawks is no more.

Beyond these things, I don’t think I really got much of a sense of place at all until I was older, in grade school, and on off days my mother would take me with her on errands in her car and we would now and then stop to make a photograph of something in my rapidly suburbanizing childhood town. An orchard, surrounded by houses, not long for the world. A pasture with cows. Another, as a place to board walnut-colored horses and pretty Appaloosas like the Nez Perce used to ride. Neither of these would survive past my teen age years. Even my main street—sleepy, still outfitted with a feed store that smelled of damp old fertilizer, a bar nailed together from plywood sheets, and a shoe store where the dust was thicker than cheese spread—even it would not last. It languished. The feed store and the bar were both demolished, the shoe shop finally met the same fate as the corner pharmacy and the coffee shop and the hardware store and the saw shop and the vacuum store and the—well, you get it. My memory of Main Street—which I spent many years, later, serving on different boards and committees and trying to rescue—is filled more with the closures and the absences and the emptinesses and the wonderment of what might have once been there, than with any memory of what was there, and because of it there is little sense of living in a place and more a sense of living in what used to be a place.

This past-centered idea of geography was cemented by film. Before I was born, in the 1960s and 1970s, my parents used to make day-trips in the car, often with no particular destination on mind. How was it Chuck Berry put it? “Cruisin’ and playin’ the radio / with no particular place to go.” But my parents did not cruise Broadway in Portland, as my mother probably had at least once during high school. Instead, they chose the back roads of the state, the old state highways, the old country roads, the old ways that linked villages to towns, and sometimes villages to ghost towns. Throughout, my mother carried her camera, and they would stop and make photographs of various things that attracted her attention. Unwittingly, my mother became a typologist, as she made portraits of specific building types, often vernacular. One-rood school houses. Sawmill wigwam burners. Covered bridges. Old houses. Barns, of course. Churches. There were lots of other scenes too, like views of the four-car, cable-propelled ferry across the Willamette River at Wheatland, or twisting gravel roads in the Chehalem Range or the Coast Range during a freakishly low-elevation snow storm, or her russet-colored Irish Setter, Autumn, dashing through the golden grass of some down-valley pasture. Those slides gave me more sense of Oregon than my own direct experience. Viewed from the hot, wheezing, dust-spewing slide projector onto the white surface of a hallway door, they were my first understanding of a wider region that I was situated within.

In my hometown, which was rapidly becoming a home-suburb, I could not easily see the outside world, but there were perhaps three or four indications of it. The first, and most ever-present, was the sky. I spent more of my childhood looking at clouds or stars than most children spend looking at books. When the great, dying poplar trees across the road, at the old closed farmstead atop the little knoll, bent in the pressure of a northward-moving storm, it gave me a sense of this larger thing that my own small world was caught up in. And at night, despite the ever-increasing presence of street lamps, there were stars. I would go out sometimes—usually in spring, when the nights are still long and the air still chill but within me was the restless longing for every minute sign of new life outside—out to the oft-neglected garden, and stare up and imagine how many more stars I might see in some more rural place, or I would take binoculars from the house and use them as the cheapest and most impromptu of astronomical instruments, and find that with them I could see so much more in the heavens, albeit in a circle only about an inch across. In the blackest part of the sky, dead above, sometimes if I was patient I would see the slow but steady march of a little white speck, a satellite, moving across. The sky, however, is not so specific to place, or at least it does not seem to be in the absence of knowledge of other places. After all, almost every child is taught to paint the most rudimentary scene by using the same generic blue to represent the heavens above. So while the sky reminded me that there was a larger world, it did not tell me much about my own.

Roads, on the other hand, were stronger beacons of promise and place. The highway—mine was the Pacific Highway, 99 West, its double nines a vague alliteration to me, later, of the legendary Route 66—was itself a kind of place. First, it linked other places that I knew of—from my mother’s slides, from my increasing obsession with maps—and so by this combination of other places it took on the promise of each of their characters, combined. It also had its own character, with a different kind of buildings and built landscape than did the roads to the old farm lands, or the new and antiseptic concrete of the subdivisions. More potent, however, was the road I was denied rights to, the railroad. Two lines ran through my town, each promising the same sort of links to other places, but through this also blocking me, for only bums and disobedient children and scary people walked the tracks, and it was illegal, and it was dangerous, and since they could not be followed by you or I, it was a mystery to where they really go. And unlike the highway, and especially unlike the freeway, they were covered in rust, and dust, and grime, and smelt of creosote and dirt, and seemed as something from another time entirely. They seemed, in short, forever linked to that world of Main Street’s past, and became both a riddle for the mind and a space of movement to which I did not have a key. Such exclusivity was dangerous to me, it inculcated within me an irrational interest in railroads that persists to this day, despite much history that has passed since that has given me more measured, less romantic, less naïve perspectives on that world. Yet even the allure of the railroad did not give me a truly centered idea of place; it was still place as a connection to other places, still more of a state of mind than a locale. If the sky, and the highway, and the railroad were the only terms by which I could affix place, I would be no less happy in Saskatchewan, or Nairobi, or on the Kamchatka Peninsula for that matter.

The promise of other places ultimately did give me a sense of my own connection to place, my own patriotism in the most literal sense of that word, for the fourth place that found its way into my head and heart as a child was the image of Mount Hood. This mountain, standing 11,234 feet in height, is one of several volcanoes in the Cascade Range, and it is also the highest in the state of Oregon, and prominently visible from much of Portland. I, however, did not live in one of those places. In fact in my home town I lived at an elevation of 200 feet, and was hemmed in by mountains to the east that were another 700 feet higher, themselves volcanoes though much humbler and long extinct. In the metro region, the mountain was ever present. Its image was used as a backdrop for evening news broadcasts. It was used as a logo on trucks from every service imaginable, from plumbers to carpet cleaners, from realtors to restaurateurs. Yet from my house, and from my town, it could not be seen. It was denied me, except on those occasions when my mother would take me for a ride, and we would go up to the top of one of the mountains that surrounded my hometown, and from there if the weather was clear I could see the faces of the high and holy Cascades. From there, I could see Mount Hood, I could see the snowy flanks and the glaciers and the rocks that from the distance appeared blue rather than their true brown. Here, above all else, there was something, some place that was like no other, and that in some way I could not explain was connected to me. Were I more sentimental, I might point out that the water I drank as a child came from Bull Run, reservoirs on its flanks and fed by streams that carried mineral deposits from its slopes. I had grown up literally ingesting that mountain. But at 10, 11, 12, I was not aware of this curiosity, I was merely in awe of this perfect-imperfect cone of rock and snow and ice, and when I felt it was in my blood, it was not from rational knowledge, but from some almost pagan reaction from within.

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Nervousness

Portland has the socially nervous, self-conscious awkwardness of a younger sibling. From an objective view, the city is as culturally rich as San Francisco but, more importantly, it is denser with that culture. The neighborhoods of Portland sprawl out more horizontally than San Francisco and yet are still denser with shops, cafes, restaurants,a nd bars than is San Francisco. Outsiders–especially Californians–will not believe this until they see it, and when they do they often see how the prices are so much lower and begin to plan a move here.

When the history of these two cities are set aside, San Francisco just barely edges out Portland for looks, thanks to its jewel-box setting — but only barely, as the Cascade Range makes Portland very, very competitive (and light years ahead of rivals elsewhere in the United States). But when compared by the amount of things to do, places to go, neighborhoods to relax in and explore,  the quality and variety of the food, the inexpensiveness of the drink – all the general aspects of daily life — Portland wins. Many times over. There are a few foods that San Francisco can offer that Portland does not, but they are far outweighed by the many foods that Portland has and cannot be had in San Francisco. Life, simply put, is less glamorous but is cheaper and better in Portland.

Yet living in Portland, being from Portland, one quickly learns that nobody here believes this, or if they do, only nervously. There is a deep sense of insecurity. Portland is always trying to prove itself to the world, as if the small blocks that make the city so pedestrian-friendly might also have made it pedestrian. There is a sense that whatever we are, we do not measure up to what others are, even when we surpass them. There is a feeling that what we have is less than what we could be, even when what we have is so far beyond the rest of the nation. Portland is, at the end of the day, a beautiful, charming, and lovely city that somehow is always worried that in being these things it has missed the mark at being a great city, not understanding that greatness may not be the best measure of a life or a place.

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Cultural Landscapes Defined

The first issue of Landscape, J.B. Jackson's magazine of cultural landscape studies, printed in spring of 1951.

The first issue of Landscape, J.B. Jackson’s magazine of cultural landscape studies, printed in spring of 1951.

So just what are cultural landscape studies? As the study of them plays a significant role in my academic work, I get asked this question a lot, so I felt I should try and answer it here. Consider this, then, the most cursory of definitions, leaving much out, and concentrating much on my own personal experiences and studies.

The term “cultural landscape” is not new, in some circles of geography its study is considered a bit outdated. In simple terms, the idea is that by studying the landscape—literally, the shaped land—for how humans have altered it, one can infer knowledge of local life. Conversely, this also assumes that human cultures vary over geographic space and alter those spaces in distinct ways. The local landscape means not just land itself, or things altered in the land such as plantings, crops, water courses, and the like, but essentially all human alteration to the world’s organization, including built form. It is an interpretive art, and in some ways it is kin to the way that archaeologists interpret the ruins of long-gone cultures.

John Brinckerhoff Jackson (1909-1996) did not invent cultural landscape studies, but he was perhaps one of the most influential American forces shaping it in the second half of the last century. That era’s thinking about place has been a huge influence on my photography, my writing, and my own thinking. One of the reasons I applied at and eventually entered graduate school at UC Berkeley was the ability to work with Paul Groth, one of Jackson’s protogés, and the person who inherited teaching his landmark undergraduate class, American Cultural Landscapes. Last semester, I had the honor and privilige of working as a graduate student instructor for the B-half of the course, which covers from 1900 to present.

“Landscape” is a key word, and it was also the title used by Jackson for his publication on the cultural geography of America. Founded in 1951, Landscape was part magazine, part literary publication, part academic journal. In it, he republished European pieces about cultural geography along with writing about the American landscape. Jackson particularly loved the Southwest region—the magazine was based in New Mexico. Often he wrote the pieces himself, sometimes using his own name, and often using pseudonyms. We still don’t know how many of the latter he used, and this sort of thing—along with a lifelong aversion to footnotes or citations—made him a bit of an academic rebel. Yet his sense of observation was keen and interpretations brilliant. By the mid 1960s, this man—without an advanced degree—was lecturing at Berkeley and at Harvard, teaching his American Cultural Landscapes course.

For photographers of landscapes and industry, cultural geography in the vein of Jackson’s provides a strong philosophical basis for work. For example, the concept of a “sense of place” has become so used by photographers that it is now nearly a cliché. In a broader sense, the idea that landscape itself tells a story, even before photographed, is compelling. It gives purpose to the photography of place, as it gives to photographers not just the power of expression but also the role of revelation.

“Sense of place” was also the title of the first Jackson book I picked up, A Sense of Place, a Sense of Time (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996). It was before I knew anything significant about cultural geography, when I was still only a writer and photographer who was also a lover of place. One day I saw it on a shelf and idly picked up a copy at the Burnside Powell’s Books in Portland, and skimmed through it. I can’t remember now if it was chance, or if it had been recommended to me by another photographer.

What I do remember was finding a book of essays by a man who dared to suggest that roads belonged in a landscape, that the way that humans change the world is as much a part of the world as is nature itself.

Above all, it was a work by someone who clearly loved place, and for me, place had always mattered. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, in what Stewart Holbrook (who was not a cutural geographer and yet often wrote like one) called the nation’s Far Corner (New York: McMillan, 1952). I had always felt that somehow the soil of the fields, the stones of the mountains, and the water of the Columbia river were mixed in with my blood. I still do feel that way. So it is little surprise that I loved Jackson’s work. I put $4.95 down on the checkout counter, and the book went home with me. Little did I know that almost ten years later I would be the student of one of Jackson’s students, and helping teach his class. (The experience was special, and for which I am profoundly grateful.)

Some might question how an undergraduate education in communications meshes, in any way, with the cultural landscape studies, but the uncanny thing is just how much connection there actually is. Treating landscape as a subject of interpretation is to treat it like a text to be read. Meaning, message, medium; all are present in the landscape. Power dynamics, conflict? You can’t find a place that is not shaped by them. The study of cultural landscapes, then, is in many ways a communicative method that analyzes and interprets one of the greatest texts ever crafted: the Earth itself.

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A note on sources: much of the story of cultural geography and J.B. Jackson came from many conversations with Paul Groth, as well as several of Jackson’s works, most especially Landscape in Sight, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000).

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Mourning at Ocala

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[View image larger on Flickr.]

On June 24, 2011, Amtrak’s California Zephyr sped through the Nevada Desert near the station point of Ocala, between the towns of Fernley and Lovelock. A truck driver on US 95, however, must have been oblivious to the silver train that was traveling towards the highway at 77 miles-per-hour. Crossing devices were all functioning, but they, too, were not seen by the driver, or were ignored. Within a few minutes, the train was in the crossing—and then the truck was too, right into the side of one of the big double-level Amtrak cars. The car derailed, the car burst into flames.

Six people died. The truck driver, naturally, but also a female conductor and four passengers. An investigative panel later determined that the driver was either fatigued from lack of sleep or checking his phone when he struck the train. Before he crashed into the train, before he died, he did see the train, and begin to brake. He should have been able to stop in time, but investigators claimed that inappropriate levels of maintenance prevented the truck from stopping in time.

Robert Sumwalt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, talked to the Associated Press in the subsequent months. “This accident could have been avoided if the driver would have applied brakes 1.4 seconds sooner,” Sumwalt told them, “or if John Davis Trucking would have maintained the brakes as they should have been maintained.”

I had never been to Ocala before. Nor Nevada. Almost exactly three years after, this changed, as I toured the northern end of the state along with a friend. My friend, a railroader, had once met Laurette Lee, the Amtrak conductor who had died there. As we drove near Ocala, he told me the story of the wreck. “I wonder if there’s a memorial,” he said as we neared the spot of the impact. “There had better be.”

When we got to the crossing, at first it looked like there was nothing. Then, as we passed over the tracks where six people had died, we saw to the left an open stretch of dirt, and a small mound of earth, and a set of worn white crosses. It was not impressive. You would think that someone at the railroad would have put up something better than this, something with more permanence if not more presence. Instead, just these seven crosses made of boards, jammed into the dirt where rescue crews and cleanup crews had probably worked, their feet decked with plastic flowers and small American flags. In front of them, a small plywood tombstone stood, the names of the dead upon it. The victims aboard the train were all grouped together towards the top, and the driver’s name placed, with some space above it, at the bottom.

My friend took a cell phone photograph and then messaged it to a fellow railroader who had known Lee better. We had gabbed a great deal on the journey, but here we were more reserved, our voices kept as temperate as the weather was not. Overhead the skies were boiling with clouds.

I took out a camera. I made a photograph. I put the camera back over my shoulder.

One of the bouquets of plastic flowers was knocked over. I walked back over to the memorial and I tugged at the bouquet—a thunder storm’s rain had glued it into the alkali dirt—and re-set it back in its wire holder. Then we walked back to the truck. On the way there, though I am no Catholic, I crossed myself.

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