Aug 31, 2005

Update: Toledo's Baker Street


Left: Baker Street, sans several abandoned houses

Yesterday's post detailed the plight of Baker Street, a Toledo residential thoroughfare beset with at least a dozen vacant houses.

Since my Toledo Free Press article ran in July, the city of Toledo has demolished two of the worst problems, and grass has been cut recently at all of the street's vacant houses. Readers can judge for themselves if this is a testament to the power of print, or the fortuitousness of this being an election year.

At any rate, the notorious house at 1023 Baker has been leveled, known to neighbors as a haven for drug dealers and prostitutes.

Perhaps this bodes well for the future of Baker Street; Meckel was pleased that progress is beginning to happen on his street.

"It's a start," he said today. "Let's hope that the city does not lose momentum."

Aug 30, 2005

The View From Toledo's Baker Street


Left: Meckel Mayes and his grandaughter Makayla

Meckel Mays’ 4-year old granddaughter Makayla showed me the impressive playhouse that her grandfather built in the backyard of his Baker Street home. The structure allows the tiny Toledoan to see much farther than her 3-foot-something frame would ordinarily be able to.

Left: Meckel's beautifully restored Baker Street house

Unfortunately, there is plenty on Baker Street that Mays would rather Makayla not see.

“Across the street are five consecutive abandoned houses,” he said, estimating periods of vacancy from 3 months to 7 years for the buildings. “Stay around long enough, you’ll see prostitutes, drug dealers, addicts, and winos.”

As if on cue, an inebriated young man began to urinate on the back of a party store behind Mays’ house.

“The crime around here is worse than I have ever seen before,” he said. “One day while I was out back with my granddaughter, I heard a noise behind the house. I took a look and there was a prostitute – in broad daylight – having sex like it was nobody’s business.”

The worst of the abandoned buildings is at 1023 Baker, which the county lists as owned by a Thomas and Thelma Higgins. The back door is missing, and the interior of the house is littered with liquor bottles, fast food containers, and drug paraphernalia.

Lucas County is in foreclosure on the property, which has an outstanding tax balance of $2344.07.

“Prostitutes and addicts go in and out of places like these,” said Mays. “People steal everything they can get their hands on. Thieves have even stolen my hedges and my granddaughter’s toy basketball hoop.”

Mays next pointed across the alley at a used appliance store’s storage yard.

“I put a lot of rat bait out, and luckily there haven’t been any rats this year from that place,” he said. “Welcome to the view from my front porch.”

This is an extended photo-essay of an article I wrote for the Toledo Free Press.

Aug 28, 2005

Toledo Mayoral Candidates At Beaner's Cafe


Left: Host Roland Hansen calling the event to order

The gathering of mayoral candidates at Beaner's Cafe was billed as an opportunity for the general public to meet those who wish to next occupy the 22nd Floor of One Government Center. In some ways the event was a microcosm of the campaign itself.

Opal Covey, of course, brought with her the latest revelation from God, in which He informed the citizens of Toledo that "over half the city will disappear" if Opal is not elected mayor.

Don Gozdowski again devoted most of his five minutes to apologies; this time he offered his regrets to Covey for calling her a "fruitcake," and praised the Prophetess for her "courage and conviction" in bringing forth her inspired predicitions. He also renewed his calls for a campground on the east side of the Maumee.

Earnest, Eagle Scout-like Martin Okonski laid out his vision of a monorail public transportation system for the city. The first phase will be a line that links the struggling Southwyck Mall with downtown Toledo.

Rob Ludeman reemphasized his dedication to making Toledo business-friendly, and stressed that job growth is the key to revitalizing the city. Low-key as ever, he nonetheless came across as a knowledgeable and thoughtful candidate.

The most energetic and polished speech came from Keith Wilkowski, who made a convincing case for change from "the leadership of the last 12 years" that has led Toledo to its current situation. Confident, calm, and bright, Wilkowski seemed to make an excellent impression on the room.

I was most impressed today, oddly enough, with Mayor Jack Ford. He defiantly stood by his record, even going out of his way to defend his controversial position on the citywide smoking ban. This was a more engaging Ford than I have seen in a long time, and he even (gasp) cracked a joke at the end of his five-minute speech. He made his way around the coffee shop, speaking with almost everyone present.

Perhaps it is too soon to count Jack out, folks.

The best exchange of the day? This happened long after most attendees had finished off their lattes and espressos, and occurred when Carty Finkbeiner finally arrived (he had just returned to Toledo from his Michigan vacation). Smiling, shaking hands with the few remaining people, he was spotted by Opal Covey in her Megaphonemobile.

Opal, who had been in the middle of a 110-decibel amplified prophecy when she saw Carty, began to go on the political warpath.

"What kind of city do we live in when a mayor can sieze a person's businesses and padlock them out?" she asked, referencing her late-1990s evictions and animal cruelty cases. "What kind of mayor is Carty, who will steal a million dollars from Opal Covey and make her have to go on welfare?"

Carty's smiling, friendly reply: "God bless you, Opal!"

A classy move by a man with the reputation for hotheadedness, and perhaps exemplary of the "mellow" Carty who we are told has evolved in the past four years.

Few questions were settled in this less-than-formal affair, and few undecided minds were likely swayed to one candidate or another, but there are certainly worse ways to spend a Sunday afternoon in Toledo, Ohio.

Aug 26, 2005

Mass Exclusion: The Legacy of Latin American Independence Movements


Left: "El grito de Dolores," Father Miguel Hidalgo's legendary call to arms

The image of thousands of peasants following such charismatic revolutionaries as Father Miguel Hidalgo and Simón Bolívar contributed to the traditional historiographical view of Latin American independence movements as popular, democratic uprisings. However, as noted by historian Brian Hamnett and other researchers, a more complete understanding of the Latin American drives for domestic sovereignty recognizes that these changes were ultimately elite-driven; in addition, the governments that evolved from the revolutionary campaigns largely reflected the political desires of the criollo elite.

Hamnett correctly argues that the independence movements of the early nineteenth century in the American colonies of the Iberian powers were, in large part, a function of events far removed from the colonies themselves. For example, the Napoleonic invasions of Spain and Portugal created temporary power vacuums; the disruptions in metropolitan authority and the corresponding diminution of colonial legitimacy played significant roles in the rise of Latin American clamors for self-rule. Other factors, such as the English naval blockades, contributed to a disruption in the economic status quo, which helped fuel the rise for autonomy.

Another contributory factor in the rise of Latin American independence sentiments was the Bourbon predisposition towards reserving key administrative posts for peninsulares. This created class conflict within and among colonial elites, as criollos bore natural resentment towards those who they perceived as peninsular interlopers. However, such frustrations remained an intra-elite squabble; the incursion by peninsulares into the upper echelons of colonial administration was hardly a concern for persons of the lower castas, for whom such posts were beyond normal access.

Members of colonial Latin American elite classes tended to fall into two categories – those who favored a form of constitutional monarchism, and those who held republican notions of representative government. However, neither group exhibited a tendency towards egalitarian, inclusive democracy. It is not surprising, then, that the governments evolving from the independence movements of Latin America excluded the landless masses from participation; the post-independence governments reflected the political viewpoints of the elites who constructed the new systems.

It is important to recognize that there did not yet exist a sense of nationalism among the colonial populace; the focus of popular consciousness remained at the local and regional level. Given this rather limited ability by the peasantry to think of themselves as part of a larger whole, the ability of elites to shut out the masses from any significant political participation in the new Latin American governments seems, in retrospect, to be a pre-ordained outcome.

Similarly, events at the national level did not have significant, immediate effects on people in the outlying areas. For the most part, the establishment of new central governments separate from the Iberian metropoles was, to the rural peasantry, of little concern to life in agricultural villages. In addition, the radicalism inherent in some liberal beliefs, such as Church reform, were in direct conflict with popular traditionalism, and this neo-conservative backlash played into the hands of the proponents of limited republican governments.

Far from the traditional representations of flag-waving peasants throwing off the yoke of Spanish imperialism, the independence movements of colonial Latin America were more akin to the cynical model envisioned by the Who's Pete Townshend:
"Meet the new boss...same as the old boss."

Pope-Toledo: The Glass City's Entry Into Automaking


Left: the former Pope Motor Car Company, then located at 960 West Central Avenue

In 1900, recognizing the trend toward motorized transportation, Toledo's American Bicycle Company converted its 249,000 square foot manufacturing facility to the production of automobiles. Reorganized as the International Motor Car Company, the firm in 1901 began to produce steam-powered vehicles named the "Toledo" and the "Winchester."

Pope switched to gasoline-powered engines in 1902, and the Pope-Toledo made its debut as the company's marquee product.

Left: a 1904 Pope-Toledo

A 1906 strike led by the plant's machinists idled the nearly 1,600 Pope workers, and was a contributing factor in the company's eventual demise in 1909. After going into receivership in 1907, the company never fully recovered, and the firm was purchased by Willys-Overland in 1910. By 1920, Willys-Overland had become the second-largest automaker in the United States, trailing only Ford.

These were the relatively humble beginnings of automobile production in Toledo, a tradition that continues into the 21st century.

Aug 25, 2005

Benjamin Rush: Revolutionary Psychology


The following is an excerpt of an article I recently submitted to an academic journal.

Left: Rush's "tranquilizing chair"

American medical philosophy drew heavily from European models in the colonial period, in large part due to the dearth of formal medical schools. Such institutions serve as the training facility for the next generation of physicians, but, more importantly, medical schools also function as important sources of the practical experimentation and theoretical discourse that push forward the knowledge base of the field of medicine. This lack of prestigious medical schools drove Benjamin Rush, like so many of his colonial American compatriots, overseas to complete his medical instruction.

Rush traveled to Edinburgh and London to study under what were then the world’s preeminent medical instructors. The influence of European instruction is evident throughout his writings, but the medical philosophies of Benjamin Rush were equally the product of a mind that was shaped by the American Revolution and the earliest years of the young republic.

In addition to his influence on American medicine, Rush was also noteworthy for his innovative work in the nascent fields of psychology and psychiatry. He led a drive in 1792 to force state funding for a ward for the insane at the Pennsylvania Hospital, arguing that mentally ill patients were deserving of humane treatment. Rush’s practical work with such patients provided the foundation for his theories on the causes of mental illness, and it was in this environment that he developed the material for his well-attended lectures on the nature of the mind.. This series of lectures, developed over a period of nearly three decades, demonstrate the depth and uniqueness of the philosophies of Rush. The collection Benjamin Rush’s Lectures on the Mind bolsters the case for Rush’s reputation as the “father of American psychiatry,” and provides a massive database of the material that influenced thousands of the first American physicians.

Rush, like the rest of the Jeffersonians, was an avowed materialist, and there was a physical basis for every process, including the realms of thought and religion. Rush, however, avoided the label “materialist,” given the association that often existed between materialists and atheists. It is important to note that members of Jefferson’s inner circle of like-minded thinkers did not subscribe to an organized theological or philosophical school per se, save the umbrella-like American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. Each individual possessed unique religious beliefs, and there was some variety between Jeffersonians in the manifestation of their respective views. Nonetheless, the high degree to which Jeffersonians agreed on philosophical issues makes a strong case for the validity of a model of “typical” Jeffersonian beliefs.

Rush believed that the human mind and the process of thought were material entities, and that physical forces caused them to act as they did. He argued that the Divine creation of man, depicted in the “breath of life” passage in Genesis, “thus excited in him [man] animal, intellectual, and spiritual life, in consequence of which he became an animated human creature.” This physical process of jump-starting the lungs provided the force that drove every human function, including mental activities. In his Lectures on the Mind, Rush left no room for debate on his beliefs over the material basis for the mental faculties:
…there is no such thing as a mind either immaterial or material, but that thought, and all the operations of what is called mind, are the effects of external and internal impressions upon the brain…thought is as much the result of the organization of the brain, as vision is of the structure of the eye, or hearing of the structure of the ear…

For Rush and the Jeffersonians, the human mind and thinking were active, material processes, and they scoffed at metaphysical explanations for thought. Jefferson himself argued that thought was “an action of a particular organization of matter,” much like magnetism and gravity. Continuing on this track, Jefferson questioned how a metaphysical, non-material entity like spirit, “which has neither extension nor solidity, can put material organs into motion.”

Concurrent with this belief in the material basis for human thought was the conviction that the great variety in human minds reflected the variety found in the physical attributes of any animal. Rush declared that the differences in the minds of men were akin to differences in human physiques. Thus intellectual, political, and theological conformity were not ideals to the Jeffersonians any more than, say, blond hair, green eyes, or any other physical characteristic. The development of ideal standards of thought ran counter to the designs of the Creator, in whose infinite wisdom begat intellectual variation among humans. To attempt to build such models of ideal thinking not only risked offending God, but were the vainglorious blunders of fools.

Benjamin Rush, while firmly ensconced in both the philosophy of the eighteenth century and the western European religious traditions, nonetheless advanced the nascent American traditions of psychology and psychiatry. Mental illness was no longer a sign of demonic possession or moral failure, but was seen by Rush and his adherents as a physical disease; this vision of a holistic approach to medicine and psychology has only recently come to bear fruit. We know today, for example, that there is a chemical basis to mental processes, and that any abnormalities are likely the result of an imbalance of neurotransmitters. Modern psychiatry owes a significant debt to the work of Benjamin Rush.

By extension, the demystification of mental illness brought about a revolution in the care of patients with mental illness. Patients were no longer to be feared as agents of Satan, or as moral degenerates who could corrupt those with whom they came in contact. Instead, persons with mental illnesses could be treated with humane measures, and began to receive compassion from the larger society in place of scorn. Rush and his teachings brought the study of the mind to a more elevated science, and imparted a uniquely American imprint upon the fields of medicine, psychiatry, and psychology.

Aug 23, 2005

"Swamp Salvation": The Reverend Cutting Marsh


Left: the Reverend Cutting L. Marsh, a Presbyterian missionary who resided along the banks of the Maumee in 1829-30.

Northwest Ohio was one of the last regions settled in the vast swath of land known as the Old Northwest, which encompassed territory that would later become the states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin. The primary reason for the area’s slow development was the presence of an enormous wetlands region, commonly referred to as the Great Black Swamp.

This swampy area was the remnants of a body of water known to geologists as Lake Maumee, the waves of which last lapped against a sandy shore 14,000 years ago. Approximately 120 miles long and, at points, as much as 40 miles wide, the Swamp posed a geographical, logistical, and epidemiological barrier to trans-Appalachian white settlement. Consequently, while much of Ohio experienced a population boom in the 1820s and 1830s from neo-European settlement, Northwest Ohio remained much the same as it was in the previous centuries – a land of dense swamp interspersed with a few villages of indigenous peoples.

Traders, soldiers, and missionaries were the first whites to enter the region; French fur agents made forays through the Swamp as early as the late 17th century. A small French trading outpost existed near the mouth of the Maumee River in the mid-18th century, and the British occupied this site after the peace agreement in 1763. Known as Fort Miamis, the site served as an anchor for future white settlement. The British continued to use the post as a means to trade with Native Americans, and the fort was a source of consternation to the fledgling United States.

Purported British agitation among and arms supplying to Native groups were principal reasons for the War of 1812, and the region hosted a number of pivotal battles at Fort Meigs and Fort Stevenson. On the heels of the military personnel were the Christian missionaries, who sought to convert the remaining native groups to a variety of Protestant flavors of Christianity. Chief among the earliest of these groups were the Moravians, the Methodists and the Presbyterians, the latter of whom founded a missionary station in 1821 on the banks of the Maumee near present-day Waterville. Clark Waggoner, in his History of Toledo and Lucas County, described the station:
The distinctive work of the Mission was the instruction of the young of the tribe in the English language, rather than reaching adults through their own language. The pupils for the first Winter, averaged about 30. The adults were not neglected, the Missionaries preaching to them as best they could through interpreters. At first, they were shy and distrustful ; but soon became more confiding. Some 30 were believed to have been converted. The work might have been more successful, but for the opposition made to it by neighboring Indian traders, whose traffic was most profitable when they were left to deal with the Indians without interference such as Missionary work inevitably caused. The Indians are spoken of as kindly in their intercourse and specially grateful for favors shown them. Among the Mission buildings was a two-story frame house, which yet remained in 1873, when the property belonged to George and Thomas Yunt.

It was to this station that a young Connecticut missionary named Cutting Marsh arrived – fresh from divinity school - in November 1829. The Reverend kept a diary throughout his life, and during the six months he was stationed in the Swamp he made a number of observations about indigenous groups, environmental conditions, and flora and fauna in the region. Marsh’s writings traveled with him to Wisconsin, where he spent the rest of his life working as a missionary among the Stockbridge Indians. His observations on Northwest Ohio remained in the archives of the Wisconsin Historical Society for over 100 years, away from the eyes of researchers interested in the history of the Swamp.

The Marsh diary contains many valuable nuggets of historical, sociological, and ethnographical information on life in the Swamp. Marsh, unlike many early visitors and settlers to the region, seemed genuinely fascinated with the culture of the indigenous peoples he encountered. While he occasionally exhibited a judgmental streak toward practices outside the moral constructs of his neo-European mindset, he nonetheless reported events with a decidedly detached eye for detail.

The cultural differences between whites – especially Protestant missionaries from New England – and indigenous peoples such as the Potawatomi stand out in this passage. Marsh was taken aback by the manner in which the Potawatomi dressed, and found odd the idea that humans could cohabitate with domesticated animals. Neo-European notions of cultural superiority seep through in Marsh’s writings, despite his obvious concern for the welfare of Native Americans. His solution was much in keeping with that of most colonial whites: groups like the Potawatomi needed to adopt white culture in order to become “civilized.”

Marsh, as a Christian missionary, believed that the Gospel was the path by which civilization could best be attained, while many in the American government believed that Indians needed to take up the agricultural lifestyle espoused by the Jeffersonians to achieve white ideals of civilization. Neither view, of course, entertains the idea that Native American groups already possessed a form of civilization with which they were satisfied, or that peaceful coexistence with groups like the Potawatomi was a possibility.

This essay is a excerpt of an academic article that I am finishing; I hope to have it published in early 2006.

Aug 22, 2005

War and Peace: Sergei Bondarchuk's 1967 Epic Revisited

Left: a 1993 photo of the late Sergei Bondarchuk, Russian film director

The differences between the various film versions of War and Peace are no clearer than in the first few minutes of the Bondarchuk version, as Count Pierre Bezukhov and Prince Andre Bolkonsky take a short walk after Anna Pavlovna’s party; the two men ambled along the Volga, and the Kremlin itself served as a backdrop. This brought an element of realism to the film that the other versions lacked; the BBC version was filmed in Yugoslavia and Britain, while the American Vidor version -featuring Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn - was filmed in Italy.

The Bondarchuk eclipsed the BBC version in its battle scenes. Perhaps most impressive of these were the battles leading up to Austerlitz; whereas the BBC version showed lines of soldiers five deep and 20 long, Bondarchuk used thousands of film extras to create immense infantry columns that mirrored the actual forces of Napoleon and Kutuzov. Cavalry charges involved many hundreds of men and horses, creating a thunderous roar as they approached; modern viewers have likely forgotten the terror that an advancing cavalry unit meant to an infantryman. Bondarchuk recreated entire fields of operation spanning miles of terrain, giving the viewer a sense of being on the actual battlefield, and one of the battle scenes ran nearly 45 minutes in length. The director recorded competing battle songs of the French, Russians, and Austrians and mixed in the sounds of war in the tumultuous vista surrounding the battle of Austerlitz, and this sonic cacophony reinforced the chaos of a heated battle. In the scene where Pierre travels to the front at Borodino, the audience gets an uncompromising view of the horrors of war: bodies strewed everywhere, men cowering as munitions explode nearby, and fires blazing for miles in any direction.

Far superior also was the scene in which Bondarchuk recreated Count Rostov’s injury and escape from the French infantry. The hussar unit assembled by Bondarchuk must have numbered three hundred men and horses, and he made innovative use of a camera attached to a charging cavalry horse. As Rostov fell from his horse, the camera began to blur, much like the view that would have been experienced by the stunned hussar as he approached the ground. The retreating Russian troops of Kutuzov trudged through ankle-deep mud and picked their way through shell craters and raging fires; in the BBC version, uniforms rarely seemed to become sullied, and the war scenes seemed stilted and choreographed.

Bondarchuk also spared no expense in recreating the elegant balls that were the hallmark of Muscovite society. In the BBC version, dance sequences were well choreographed, but consisted at most of three dozen actors. This was not the case in Bondarchuk’s vision of the aristocratic balls; perhaps three hundred actors participated in the elaborate ball in which Prince Andrei first asked Natasha to dance. The assembled throng of performers twirled like perfectly synchronized leaves falling from a forest of oaks to the waltzes arranged by Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov; like leaves wafting on a late autumn breeze, the aristocratic guests remained oblivious to the fate that awaited them in the season ahead.

The wolf hunt scene with Nikolai and Natasha was also much more realistic in the Bondarchuk film. Filmed across a vast expanse of field and forest, Bondarchuk’s recreation of the tracking of the wolf also featured a grisly vignette of a Russian wolfhound fighting its lupine counterpart. By contrast, the BBC version seemed contrived and without the brutal authenticity that Bondarchuk achieved, and looked as though it were filmed on a back lot of the BBC with footage from a wildlife show.

There are moments in the Bondarchuk film that are simply brilliant, and that show the director to have a keen eye for cinematography. As the narrator announced the 12 June 1812 invasion of Russia by Napoleon – described as “an event that took place totally opposed to human nature and human reason” – an aerial camera slowly moved away from the earthly hell of battle. The smoke and circling armies created an image reminiscent of a hurricane; like the dreaded tropical storm, Bondarchuk depicted war as a powerful force seemingly beyond the ability of individual people to affect. Swirling and ebbing, the smoky battle gradually raged eastward, as though it were a potent storm headed for Smolensk and Moscow.

Bondarchuk also admirably highlighted many of the themes so important to Tolstoy. Unlike the BBC version, in which the role of the scheming Bonaparte was so prominent that David Swift could have been billed as a co-star, Bondarchuk’s film keeps Napoleon in a near-cameo role. This is in keeping with Tolstoy’s belief that individual men – no matter how great – had little effect on the outcome of events, and that the actions of a higher power drove the course of history:

The period of the campaign of 1812 from the battle of Borodino to the expulsion of the French, proved that the winning of a battle does not produce a conquest and is not even an invariable indication of conquest; it proved that the force which decides the fate of peoples lies not in the conquerors, nor even in armies and battles, but in something else.

While several characters in the BBC film stand out as exemplary – in particular, Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Count Pierre Bolkonsky – the Bondarchuk version is by far the better cinematic experience. Released in 1967 after a seven-year production at a cost of $100 million, the film would total nearly $1 billion to produce today; the version made available to American audiences was trimmed from 507 to 363 minutes. Bondarchuk actually created four films in one, with seamless transitions between the four parts: “Andrei Bolkonsky,” “Natasha Rostova,” “1812,” and “Pierre Bezukhov.” While some scenes occasionally bog down with some dated, quasi-psychedelic camera work, the film delivers powerful reminders of the hellishness of war.

I made the mistake of assuming that all versions of Bondarchuk’s film were equivalent, and unwittingly selected the edition marketed by Kultur Films. This version is dubbed over into English, and the viewer misses the experience of hearing the splendor of hearing the Russian language. In addition, the quality of the print from which the Kultur VHS was mass produced was of somewhat diminished quality, and there are problems with lighting and contrast throughout. The Kultur version is also the shorter of the two, with over 100 minutes of Bondarchuk’s original edited out. Most distracting was the aspect ratio in the transition from theater screen format to the cropped format of American television sets, as titles of the various sections were chopped off. This was most notable in the “1812” segment, where only “1-8-1” made it on the screen.

Despite these technical flaws, and the dubbed version, I found myself replaying many parts of the Bondarchuk film to revisit some of the more extraordinary scenes. During the BBC version, I found that I could walk away for a moment and miss only some dialogue, but during the viewing of the Bondarchuk film I was afraid to leave my seat for fear of missing something important. Bondarchuk’s experimental techniques, such as his innovative uses of aerial cameras, kept me riveted to my television set, and caused me afterward to scour eBay for a DVD of the version recently reissued by the Russian Cinema Council (Ruscico). This film is most deserving of the sobriquet of “grand epic,” and is worthy of inclusion into a university curriculum on European or Russian studies.

Aug 19, 2005

The Curious Case of the Death of Daniel Blanton

Left: Toledo Police crime lab, 1950

A fresh layer of snow covered Tecumseh Street on Toledo’s near South Side, obscuring the presence of abandoned houses and trash-strewn vacant lots where once stood the homes of proud industrial workers. Danny and Rhonda Brown’s neat bungalow, along with those of a few of their neighbors, stands in defiance against creeping urban decay.

Even at the late hour in which we met, people were still walking on Tecumseh Street. Danny, who had come outside to greet me, nodded a silent greeting to a bundled-up man trudging through the slushy street. Many Toledoans find the streets to be safer than the sidewalks for pedestrians in the winter; Danny’s house was one of the few on the block in which a week’s worth of snowfall had been shoveled.

We were meeting to begin the process of documenting the events that led up to Danny’s erroneous conviction and wrongful incarceration for the 1981 murder of Toledoan Bobbie Russell. However, we began to discuss a long-forgotten event from 1950: the shooting and death of a man named Daniel Blanton.

“Let’s talk to my Aunt Mollie; she knows the story better than I do,” Danny said, dialing his maternal aunt.

Danny’s mother, her sister Mollie and other family members moved from Demopolis, Alabama to Toledo in 1945. The post-war North seemed to offer employment opportunities to southern African Americans. Mollie said that conditions in Toledo were a disappointment to the new arrivals.

“We didn’t do any better here than in Alabama,” said Mollie. “There were no jobs, and the discrimination against blacks was almost as bad here as it was down South.”

Mollie talked about riding on a bus with her sister, and how the young black girls were expected to treat whites with deference.

“We used to have to say “yes ma’am” and “no sir” to white children,” she said. “As far as I am concerned, the racism we saw here was not very different than Alabama.”

The family moved into a small two-bedroom house at 1504 Basswood on Toledo’s east side.

“There were three brothers, their wives, and five children living in that house,” she said. “We were a family, but that’s too close for comfort even for a family.”

Left: 1504 Basswood, circa 1955.

Daniel Blanton lived two blocks from the Toledo Terminal Railway. He made an arrangement with the railroad company to pick up coal from along the tracks. He used the coal to light the fires of old people in the neighborhood, said Mollie.

“He would carry a basket with him to collect the pieces of coal,” she said. “When times were bad, this was the only way people could afford to heat their homes.”

Blanton would sometimes sell the coal for extra money, according to Mollie.

“He would do whatever he had to do to feed his family,” she said. “Daniel was a real family man.”

Mollie should know: Daniel Blanton was her father, and Danny Brown’s maternal grandfather.

Blanton was walking the tracks on a winter’s night in 1950, poking in the snow to look for the large chunks of coal that bounced out of the rail cars. The railroad easement in which Blanton made his coal-gathering rounds butted up against the property of a number of industrial facilities.

“My father was walking along the railroad tracks when he passed a factory,” she said. “The night watchman saw a black man walking out there in the night, and made the assumption that he was stealing the company’s coal.”

What happened next is disturbing even by the standards of violence-jaded television viewers. The watchman, convinced that he was observing criminal activity, decided to engage in proactive security measures: he gunned down the unarmed Daniel Blanton next to the Toledo Terminal train tracks.

“He was just walking his regular route, picking up coal, and he was shot while on the railroad’s property,” Mollie said. “Gunned down like a rabid dog.”

Blanton lived for only a short period of time after the shooting, finally succumbing to infections from his wounds a few weeks later. Mollie said that the promise of a better life in the North ended that cold night.

“Who cared about another dead nigger?” she asked. “I have never understood why an unarmed man with permission to be where he was could be killed, and the shooter walks away like nobody’s business.”

This is an unpublished essay derived from research on the case of Toledoan Danny Brown, who spent 19 years in prison for a crime that he did not commit. DNA evidence freed him, but the Lucas County Prosecutor's office continues to deny Danny either a retrial or a full exoneration.

Photos were courtesy of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library's "Images in Time."

Aug 18, 2005

Taft: Governor, Criminal, and Embarassment


The televised court proceedings today of the trial of Ohio Governor Robert Taft brought to a national audience the systemic political maliase that has beset Ohio government. In the interest of his state, Taft should resign and save Ohio from continuing to be seen as a state where corruption is the first order of business.

Unfortunately, partisan politics will likely prevail, and Taft will stubbornly serve his remaining 16 months as a devastated, ineffectual leader who will hurt efforts to improve the state's economy. The Republicans will not initiate an impeachment campaign against one of their own (despite a few brave calls from GOP members for Taft to resign), and the Democrats will benefit in November 2006 by keeping the weakened convict in the governor's mansion until the next election.

Meanwhile, average Ohioans pay the price for Taft's recklessness and stupidity. Little significant legislation will pass in this political stalemate, and Ohio will continue its steady decline. There will be no school funding reform, cuts to higher education will continue, and taxpayers will continue to fund a wasteful state bureacracy that sucks, vampire-like, the economic lifeblood of "The Heart of it All."

Enjoy your remaining months, Mr. Governor. Your selfish desire to keep your office is perhaps the worst damage that you will inflict upon the formerly hallowed Taft family name.

Aug 16, 2005

Toledo and the Great Depression


Left: Unemployed Toledoans lining up for food, 1932.

Signs of a weakening economy manifested themselves in Toledo well before the stock market crash of 1929, in which the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost over 50% of its valuation. Black Thursday, however, was not a root cause of the Great Depression, but rather a bellwether of a deepening world economic crisis.

On the week that news of the crash first reached readers of the Toledo Blade, ominous signs of an economic downturn were evident. Auto dealers were running desperate-sounding ads in the hope of spurring a backlog of inventory, and the futures markets for such commodities as steel had been in decline for many months.

The Blade had begun to use the word “depression” to describe economic conditions as early as July 1930, although the editorial staff continued to downplay signs of trouble well into 1931. Paul Block, editor and publisher of the Blade, frequently exhorted readers to avoid negative thinking, as well as to do their civic duty by increasing their consumer purchases.

Unemployment began to quickly rise in Toledo by 1931. The Merchants and Manufacturers Association estimated in 1930 that as many as 18,000 Toledo workers were jobless. The Toledo Blade reported that there were 15,000 unemployed workers in October 1930; this, of course, does not include the many thousands of under-employed workers who scraped by on any available part-time work. The federal government did not begin to keep systematic statistics on unemployment until 1948, and estimates vary as to the extent of the problem in Toledo as the Great Depression worsened. However, conservative estimates put unemployment in Toledo at 25% in 1932, and as high as 50% in 1933, considered by most economists to be the national trough of the Great Depression in the United States.

Left: Hooverville on the Maumee, 1933.

As a center of manufacturing, Toledo suffered the fate of many American urban areas in the Midwest; industrial areas had some of the highest rates of unemployment during the Great Depression. As a region, the Midwest experienced job losses in the industrial sectors of nearly 40% by 1933. The Toledo Blade reported that 25,000 meals were served at an aid facility set up in September 1931 at the Terminal Building. By 1933, nearly 60,000 residents turned to the city of Toledo for food; the cost of the emergency assistance reached $1.7 million.

The large number of unemployed Toledo workers contributed to labor unrest during the years of the Great Depression. While the 1934 Auto-Lite strike, which was a seminal moment in American labor history, had its roots in wage and working condition disputes, hundreds of unemployed Toledoans joined the striking workers on the picket lines in May 1934. The Ohio National Guard was ordered in to Toledo to advance on the assembled protestors, and on May 24 the Guard opened fire on the group, killing two men and injuring hundreds of other activists.

While FDR’s New Deal policies helped reduce unemployment, they were by no means a complete cure. By 1940 the jobless rate in Ohio remained at 15.9%, many times the level of “normal” unemployment touted by mainstream economists. Only the onset of the Second World War, with the accompanying demand for war matériel, would finally get Toledoans back to work.

Above photos courtesy of Toledo-Lucas County Public Library's fine image database, "Images in Time."

This essay is an excerpt of research I recently completed for a fiction writer.

Aug 13, 2005

Power and Privilege: The Undercurrents Running through John Singleton Copley’s American Portraiture


Left: “Young Lady with a Bird and a Dog,” currently housed at the Toledo Museum of Art

John Singleton Copley’s career in colonial America brought him into an elite circle of privileged citizens: politicians, educators, and the wealthy. Paul Revere, John Adams, and Patrick Henry are some of the more noteworthy subjects who sat for Copley . As one of the most prominent colonial American artists, his work had great influence on his peers; his greater legacy, however, was the effect that his paintings had upon the understanding of colonial America by future generations.

“Young Lady with a Bird and a Dog” is typical of the work Copley developed prior to leaving for Europe in 1774. The portrait is that of a prepubescent girl, perhaps eight years old, who is clothed in a flowing silk gown of a bright pink color. A black-and-white spaniel flanks her; the girl is grasping a ribbon held taut by a knot on the arm of what appears to be a George II or Chippendale library chair. Perched upon the teal ribbon is a small turquoise bird, which is perhaps an Australian Little Lorikeet, whose face is an iridescent red. In the scene, the subject is kneeling on a plum-colored suede pillow with tassels.

Behind the girl is a crimson velvet drapery trimmed with a goldenrod material. The drape nearly conceals an immense pillar, and the existence of a rural landscape behind the drapery perhaps suggests that the column supports some type of manorial portico.

The lighting used by Copley is focused on the young girl; it is clear that he intends for the piece to be centered upon her. The pets, as well, direct their reverential gazes towards the girl, suggesting that this child of privilege commands respect simply by nature of her birth. The lighting also creates an almost three-dimensional effect, as the young girl seems to move out of the painting.

Copley’s brush techniques vary throughout the painting; the silk dress, for example, is composed largely of smooth, even strokes, while the brass studs on the library chair are raised nearly one-quarter inch from the canvas. The thick coat of the spaniel appears to have been constructed of many paint layers, making the dog stand out from the picture.

The overcast setting in the background, though, provides a sharp contrast to the idyllic childhood scene in the foreground. This thematic conflict could represent some coming turmoil in the child’s life; the utilization of stormy weather as a metaphor for crisis travels across cultural and historical borders. It could be argued that this was a subversive effort on the part of Copley to introduce an element of discordant protest into what was nominally just another portrait-for-hire.

The tempest might also represent an attempt on the part of the artist to establish a sense of Gothicism into the scene; perhaps Copley is seeking to create an impression of tragic valor in his young model. It is possible that Copley was simply trying to create an image of nascent nobility in his depiction of this progeny of prosperity.
Clearly the subject is depicted in a manner suggesting considerable wealth; whether this child was indeed the daughter of a family of great means, or one that wished to produce this aristocratic impression remains unknown. A researcher has posited that the girl was Mary Warner, daughter of a wealthy Bostonian. The fine silk clothing worn by the child and the luxurious accoutrements would only be considered archetypal for members of a prosperous segment of society. In addition, ownership of extravagant pets such as tropical birds and specialty dog breeds would be beyond the means of all but the wealthiest members of colonial culture.

The architecture of the scene, whether genuine or contrived, leaves little doubt that Copley intended to create a portrait that evokes a mood of unmistakable affluence. Peasants and the middling sort, if they could even afford portraiture, would not wear the garb of a well-to-do member of society. Furthermore, the scene projects a sense that this particular child has both plenty of idle time and expensive playthings with which to fill this time.

This artwork illustrates one end of the income spectrum in eighteenth-century colonial America; Copley, as one of the preeminent artists of the era, distinguished himself with his portraits of society’s most influential members. One source has calculated that over 60% of his subjects had income ranked as “high” or “very high” (“high” being defined as greater than 300 pounds per year, and “very high” being defined as greater than 500 pounds per year) . His greater influence, however, may be on successive generations, as his works helped define a historical epoch.

By focusing almost exclusively on wealthy subjects, Copley’s portraits and their popularity have inadvertently skewed modern American understanding of colonial America. The common perception among contemporary Americans is that the colonies were populated, in large part, by free Anglo-Saxon persons of considerable material wealth; this romantic notion of a noble American heritage stands in stark contrast with the fact that the great majority of inhabitants were poor, of ethnicity other than English, and likely to be enslaved or in some form of bonded servitude.

The painting, while providing a glimpse into the life of the child of privilege, is also revealing by that which it does not depict: the austere life in colonial America that awaited persons without money or influence. The work has no representatives from lower classes in colonial society; this is most likely due to the wishes of the person who commissioned the work, instead of being a statement on the artist’s class-consciousness. Nonetheless, since works like Copley’s have seemingly cornered the market in American colonial imagery, the net effect is the same: extant images create lasting impressions, while history not recorded in canvas, folklore, or print is relegated to the ash heaps of obscurity.

The young girl in Copley’s painting surely enjoyed a life not removed from the finer comforts of the day; she most likely grew up in a large house with servants in an important colonial city, like Boston or Philadelphia. It is to be expected that her father was an important figure in his chosen field, whether commerce, politics, or law.

The educational opportunities enjoyed by wealthy young women certainly exceeded those of their less well-to-do contemporaries; however, by today’s standards, colonial women received an inferior education in comparison to colonial men. Children were generally separated, with girls attending “dame schools” to learn basic skills like reading and writing.

Our young maiden was subject to many of the epidemic diseases of the period, particularly smallpox , scarlet fever , and yellow fever. There were no miracle medicines to cure the ailments of the eighteenth century; survival was largely a matter of genetics and luck. The likelihood that this child would live to age 20 was not a safe bet; it is not until that age that children typically had been exposed to the most dangerous diseases.

In addition, she shared the same poor sanitary conditions as her contemporaries: no running water, lack of septic systems, and wells that often were contaminated by privies. The elite of the eighteenth century lacked the health and sanitary services that are taken for granted by the poorest modern Americans.

Proper nutrition for Copley’s young girl was also a dubious proposition; nutritional knowledge was in its infancy, and diet-related disorders like rickets, scurvy, and anemia were endemic to colonial America. In addition, such nutritional deficiencies negatively impacted the body’s ability to resist and fight infection, making the sufferer of nutritional disease even more likely to succumb to passing epidemics.
Modern notions of the noble colonial American of English aristocratic extraction may make excellent fodder for a romantic novel or television miniseries, but they bear little resemblance to the harsh realities of colonial life.

While certainly a renowned painter by both colonial and modern standards, John Singleton Copley nonetheless distorted the picture that future generations would have of colonial America by his subject selection. While his motives may have been simply those of the opportunistic entrepreneur, the end result remains unchanged: Copley’s body of work contributed to an inaccurate portrayal of colonial America by future historians.

Aug 11, 2005

Weepy Pet Tale

I have always found stories from pet owners to be something I didn’t identify with, especially people who write about the death of a treasured pet. Maudlin, tacky, self-absorbed; I was never at a loss for words to find ways to denigrate pet stories.

I love my chocolate Lab Hershey, and consider him a member of the family. He is a good-tempered dog who never bites, barks menacingly at strangers, and –until recently – kept the neighborhood opossums, raccoons, and rabbits away from my gardens.

Like all pets, Hershey has developed unique bonds with the various family members, even my wonderful (but canine-suspicious) wife. If you were depressed, that innate dog ability to detect human emotions kicked in, and he would paddle over to give you a sloppy kiss to cheer you up.

But HistoryMike write a sappy blog entry or newspaper article about his dog? Never!

I am a serious writer, whatever the hell that is.

My dog’s veterinarian told me today that his hip dysplasia and arthritis had reached the point that his canine spinal cord was being distended, and that the only option left for Hershey is to be euthanized.

“No way, it’s not his time,” was the defiant response of my youngest son, ignoring the fact that the dog is pitifully hopping on three legs, and can’t climb steps any longer. “He has at least another year left.”

Another year of decreasing mobility, escalating pain, and loss of sensation.

This is just a dog, right? So why am I bawling my eyes out?

Aug 9, 2005

Pragmatic Materialism: The Epistemological Evolution of Jeffersonian Beliefs And Their Continued Influence


The Jeffersonian period is often characterized as an era heavily influenced by Enlightenment thinkers. The influence of rationalist philosophy certainly can be detected in the writings of such men as Benjamin Rush, David Rittenhouse, and Jefferson himself, and Enlightenment beliefs with regard to individual liberties, private property, and oppressive monarchies are evident in most of the theorists falling under the label “Jeffersonian.” However, it is overly simplistic to shrug the philosophies of this period off as second-rate or neo-Enlightenment derivations, for the Jeffersonians developed a philosophy of pragmatic materialism that should be recognized as an advanced epistemological system in its own right. Moreover, this practicality influenced not only the earliest years of the republic, but also generations of American thinkers; by extension, it is not an overstatement to argue that the pragmatic materialism espoused by the Jeffersonians was a primary developing factor in the evolution of the market-focused America of the postmodern world.

The Components of the Pragmatic Materialism of the Jeffersonians

It is important to note that members of Jefferson’s inner circle of like-minded thinkers did not subscribe to an organized theological or philosophical school per se, save the umbrella-like American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. Each individual possessed unique religious beliefs, and there was some variety between Jeffersonians in the manifestation of their respective views. Nonetheless, the high degree to which Jeffersonians agreed on philosophical issues makes a strong case for the validity of a model of “typical” Jeffersonian beliefs.

The Jeffersonians believed that the human mind and the process of thought were material entities, and that physical forces caused them to act as they did. Rush, for example, argued that the Divine creation of man, depicted in the “breath of life” passage in Genesis, “thus excited in him [man] animal, intellectual, and spiritual life, in consequence of which he became an animated human creature.” This physical process of jump-starting the lungs provided the force that drove every human function, including mental activities. For Jeffersonians, the human mind and thinking were active, material processes, and they scoffed at metaphysical explanations for thought. Jefferson himself argued that thought was “an action of a particular organization of matter,” much like magnetism and gravity. Continuing on this track, Jefferson questioned how a metaphysical, non-material entity like spirit, “which has neither extension nor solidity, can put material organs into motion.”

Concurrent with this belief in the material basis for human thought was the Jeffersonian conviction that the great variety in human minds reflected the variety found in the physical attributes of any animal. Rush declared that the differences in the minds of men were akin to differences in human physiques. Jefferson argued that “[a]s the Creator has made no two faces alike, so no two minds, and probably no two creeds.” Thus intellectual, political, and theological conformity were not ideals to the Jeffersonians any more than, say, blond hair, green eyes, or any other physical characteristic. The development of ideal standards of thought ran counter to the designs of the Creator, in whose infinite wisdom begat intellectual variation among humans. To attempt to build such models of ideal thinking not only risked offending God, but were the vainglorious blunders of fools.

In keeping with their materialist philosophy, Jeffersonians believed that the human conscience was also a physical process; they called this the “moral sense,” and it functioned in the same manner as any of the five classic senses: taste, smell, sight, touch, and hearing. Man, according to the Jeffersonians, was the only creature hard-wired for the moral sense, and it was this characteristic that most set man apart from lower forms of life. Jefferson argued that “the moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm.” Physical forces acted on the moral sense and produced effects, and the Jeffersonians believed that man’s environment could either improve or degrade his conscience. Rush believed that this principle was best demonstrated in the example of alcohol:
The effects of certain drinks upon the moral faculty are not less observable than upon the intellectual powers of the mind. Fermented liquors, of a good quality, and taken in a moderate quantity, are favourable to the virtues of candour, benevolence, and generosity; but when they are taken in excess, or when they are of a bad quality, and taken even in a moderate quantity, they seldom fail of rousing every latent spark of vice into action.

Immoral behavior, then, was a function of physical factors, such as environment, heredity, and experience. Individuals could make choices, but stronger or weaker moral senses could lead men astray. Morality was a matter of health, not spirituality; to cure men of immoral behavior required a physician to treat the underlying causes of the dysfunctional moral system. A moral code would be no more useful than an attempt to legislate ideal levels of hearing or sight. However, Jeffersonians believed that the removal of factors causing a degraded moral sense could bring about an improvement in behavior. Rush has been called the Father of Temperance not because he took a strong stance against alcohol consumption, but because he lent scientific credibility to the argument that restricting alcohol use would lead to a rise in the general level of morality in a given population.

The key to promoting moral behavior, to the Jeffersonians, was to educate citizens on the ways in which optimal moral health might be obtained. Priestly and Rush each produced texts that purported to demonstrate the role of good habits in producing a healthy moral sense. Moderation in earthly delights was important to a healthy morality, and Jeffersonians advocated physical exercise combined with hard work as necessary elements. The rural homestead was the ideal environment for the strengthening of moral sense, as the vices so often concentrated in cities would not find an advantageous growth medium on the farm. In addition, Jeffersonians believed that the isolated nature of agrarian life acted as a shelter against the morality-degrading elements of the city.

While influenced by the skeptical views toward religion by Enlightenment thinkers, Jeffersonians nonetheless maintained beliefs in a Creator. In general, they can be categorized as Deists, although each retained individual religious views and attended a variety of types of churches. Boorstin argued that a more accurate description for the religious beliefs of the Jeffersonians would be to use Paine’s “Religion of Humanity.” Mainstream Christians they were not, although Jeffersonians viewed Christ with awe and respect. His message, though, had been distorted and perverted by dogmatic organized religions, in the eyes of Jefferson.

Like all elements of Jeffersonian philosophy, the Creator was a material being. Priestly argued that, by defining the Creator as a material being, “He was ultimately more real than the spiritual God of the metaphysicians.” Jeffersonians scoffed at the logical paradoxes of Christianity, such as the belief in the Trinity, divine communication through spiritual revelation, and the idea that a non-material Creator could bring forth a material world. Jefferson and most of the members of his circle viewed Christ not as a divine Messiah, but as a great social reformer and the greatest classical moralist.

The Residual Effects of the Pragmatic Materialism of the Jeffersonians

Students of history have a tendency to compartmentalize the period being studied as somehow removed from relevance to their world. One can, for example, examine the horrors and excesses of the European witch craze, and derive consolation from the “fact” that humans have evolved since that time, or that humanity has somehow learned from its past mistakes. This approach, of course, ignores more recent acts of genocide, such as the policies flowing from the minds of leaders like Hitler, Pol Pot, or Pinochet. Separating oneself from the past also prevents people from recognizing how past beliefs can have influence that extends into modernity. Jeffersonian materialism helped shape the nascent United States, and this pragmatic philosophical outlook is still evident in contemporary American society.

The previously noted effects of Jeffersonian materialism – in particular the pragmatic medicine of Benjamin Rush – on the temperance movement can also be seen in its modern equivalent: the American war on drugs. Like the Jeffersonians, today’s drug crusaders do not appeal to Biblical sources for morality, but instead draw connections between drug use and immoral behavior. Users are portrayed as degraded, beast-like creatures whose craving for intoxicants causes them to engage in the most reprehensible behavior; these actions, however, are the direct result of the introduction of the material that destroys morality, and are not attributed to metaphysical causes. For both Jeffersonians and modern anti-drug devotees, alcoholism and drug addiction are diseases that can be treated, and addicts are simply people whose vices have eroded their moral faculties.

The overt anti-Calvinism of the Jeffersonians has shaped contemporary American attitudes toward the intersection of religion and politics. It was important for Jeffersonians that people of different faiths achieve social harmony, and they were believed that religious orthodoxy would likely lead to theocratic tyranny. Jefferson himself frequently spoke out against the threat of religious despotism, as evident in the following quote:
(T)o compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness.

In a letter to Prussian naturalist and explorer Baron Alexander von Humboldt, Jefferson further refined the disfavor with which he held the prospect of a society dominated by religious orthodoxy:
History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.

The Jeffersonians were a group of thinkers whose faith in man’s ability to subdue the forces of nature led their collective belief in progress and a promising future. In this respect the Jeffersonians are perhaps most influential into modernity, for many Americans still hold fast to the cultural doctrine of America as a land of perpetual progress. This faith in progress and the image of the can-do nature of Americans have unbroken connections to the pragmatic materialism of the Jeffersonians.

These men loathed the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, and took issue with the idea that man of was incapable of actions that would affect his destiny. The Jeffersonian belief that man could effect change and improve his lot in life is one of the most sacred tenets in the mythology of modern America, and many people still cling to the conviction that this is a land of opportunity for hard-working individuals. The rhetoric of last November's Presidential campaign provided plenty of examples of 21st-century Americans who espouse beliefs in the Jefferson-inspired ideology of America as a nation of perpetual progress. Witness the remarks of President George W. Bush to the annual convention of the American Association of Community Colleges:
And it's one of the reasons why I'm optimistic that America will lead -- continue to lead the world when it comes to innovation and change. And that will be good for our people. That will be good for the revitalization of what I call the American spirit and the American dream.

Senator John Kerry is also no stranger to the concept of an optimistic future for the United States. In his speech to the Democratic National Convention, Kerry invoked rhetoric that surely draws its inspiration from the Jeffersonians:
So much promise stretches before us. Americans have always reached for the impossible, looked to the next horizon, and asked: What if? Two young bicycle mechanics from Dayton asked what if this airplane could take off at Kitty Hawk? It did that and changed the world forever. A young president asked what if we could go to the moon in ten years? And now we're exploring the solar system and the stars themselves. A young generation of entrepreneurs asked, what if we could take all the information in a library and put it on a little chip the size of a fingernail? We did and that too changed the world forever… It is time to reach for the next dream. It is time to look to the next horizon. For America, the hope is there. The sun is rising. Our best days are still to come. Goodnight, God bless you, and God bless America.

Though dead nearly 200 years, Thomas Jefferson and his circle of like-minded thinkers continue to influence the way in which Americans think about themselves, their government, and their future.

Aug 7, 2005

Beaches and Privatization

On a recent trip with my family to North Carolina’s Outer Banks, I was struck by the difficulty we faced in finding access to the beachfront. Oceanfront property, consisting mainly of condominiums, hotels, and palatial estates, occupies almost the entire coast. While no one (as yet) has found a way to privatize the beach, since much of it spends part of the day under high tide, the net result in many communities is that legal beach access is restricted to property owners fortunate enough to afford the astronomical costs of oceanfront real estate, or to renters who can find reasonably priced lodging.

The community of Emerald Isle, which is located near the southern end of the Outer Banks, makes for a relevant case study. There are two public beach access points in the community, neither of which has a parking lot. Signs posted on the nearby streets warn would-be scofflaws that parking bans are vigorously enforced, and the visibility of the bubble-topped police cruisers reinforces that threat. Many of the business establishments feature similar warnings on parking restrictions, leaving travelers who wish to visit the beach without the legal means to do so.

Thus, can barriers to a “public” beach be created that, in effect, privatize it?

Aug 3, 2005

Paving Over The Railroad: A Trip To The Lathrop House

The following is an adaptation of a previously unpublished article that a national publication bought and then shelved.

Left: The Reverend Lucien Lathrop, circa 1860

The Lathrop House is a nineteenth-century building in Sylvania, OH with purported connections to the Underground Railroad, and a considerable body of historical evidence links the site to the larger effort of transferring slaves from bondage to freedom. It was recently shorn from its foundation and moved to a new location in Sylvania’s Harroun Park.

The house was off-limits to the public during the controversy over its relocation, and my attempts to persuade decision-makers at St. Joseph’s Church (the building’s owner) to let me tour the building were not successful. While cordial, church contacts declined my requests to enter the building, tour the grounds, or to set one proverbial foot on the property. In the interest of historical research, I did, however, commit the act of trespassing, gathering photographs and impressions on two occasions.

There is substantial evidence that the site may indeed be worthy of its rumored status as a Railroad station. A wide variety of documents from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries make mention of the site and its oral history. In addition, one of the early owners, Reverend Lucian Lathrop, was a politically active, avowedly anti-slavery citizen; among other doings, he attended the Free Democratic Party convention in 1849, which adopted a platform stating “slavery to be a moral, social and political evil.”

The site’s physical proximity to the Ten Mile Creek ravine also lends credence to traditional claims; one can easily envision the ravine’s potential as a surreptitious conduit for human contraband. Finally, the hidden room in the basement and the tunnel leading to the ravine certainly suggest that the house served purposes that needed to be veiled.

Civil Disobedience

On April 22, 2004, I joined with a fellow subversive and photographer (actually, my fifteen-year old son, Ben) on a reconnaissance mission. My previous visit had been limited to longer-distance viewing, since it was in conjunction with a protest march. We pulled into the driveway and began our odyssey of misdeeds.

Knowing from press reports that church officials adopted a “zero tolerance” policy towards trespassers, we pulled into the driveway knowing that our time was limited. Ben began snapping photographs as I pointed out historically significant details. Nearby magnolia trees were in full bloom, and an agitated bumblebee kept me in constant surveillance.

Also watching our activities, it turns out, was the Sylvania Police Department, whose members approached us after we had taken a mere fifteen pictures. Two uniformed officers approached us as we came from behind the house.

“Hello there!” the sergeant called out. “The church requested that we ask you to leave the premises, as this is private property.”

We exchanged pleasantries; I sympathized with the officers for the awkward position that the church’s stance put them in.

“Did you know that the City of Sylvania will be moving the house to city property?” the second officer asked, motioning towards an asphalt lot. “We might turn it into a museum.”

As we returned to the car, I noticed a small group of people across the street at St. Joseph’s Parish. One of the onlookers wore a clerical collar; they did not return our proffered waves. Visions of Christ and the temple moneychangers ran through my head as we drove away from the site.

Bidding the officers adieu, we drove around to the other side of the ravine, which has been turned into a municipal green space known as Harroun Park. The ravine empties into Ten Mile Creek; most likely it is the remnants of a Black Swamp era waterway.

From Harroun Park, we hiked back through the woods until we reached the rear of the Lathrop House. Having been interrupted in our evidence-gathering mission, we finished taking photographs and examining the sight from the relative cover of the ravine.

A Parish of Privilege

The future status of the site is in doubt, with the aforementioned demolition deadline looming. St. Joseph’s refuses to consider any proposal that contains even a sliver of the building’s black walnut log foundation remaining on site, and preservationists prefer that the church leave the building intact.

As the largest and wealthiest parish in the Toledo Diocese, St. Joseph’s Church has the financial wherewithal to mount a costly legal battle. In addition, the newly appointed Bishop Blair demonstrated that he is unwilling to challenge the position of St. Joseph’s in this announcement on April 6, 2004:

I believe that this compromise solution, far from destroying the heritage of our African American brothers and sisters, can serve to foster that heritage for the sake of everyone, whatever our race.

The church’s original intent was to demolish the structure, as noted in the original demolition permit. Public outcry and eminent domain threats then forced the church to consider other alternatives, and the decision was finally made to relocate the structure.

A Path to Freedom?

Runaway slaves emerging from the ravine might have looked upon Reverend Lathrop’s house perched upon the hill. The hidden stairwells and tunnel were located in the rear of the house, but have since been razed.

The route to freedom most likely continued northeast from the house, following an unnamed creek that flows behind the house (we gave it the name “Lathrop” Creek).

Runaway slaves might have continued down the ravine along the waterway. This stream, which currently flows at a trickle, travels approximately ¼ mile until it empties into Ten Mile Creek.

Just past this juncture, Ten Mile Creek meets its northern branch, which forms the western boundary of Toledo Memorial Cemetery. The joined streams form the official beginning of the Ottawa River. With its access to downtown Toledo and Lake Erie, the Ottawa River likely served as an important corridor in the Underground Railroad.

Standing sentry at the rear of the site is a 100-foot canoe birch tree, perhaps the tallest birch I have ever seen. It dwarfs most of the other trees in the ravine, and it looks almost freakish with its albino countenance in the midst of darker hardwoods. Many of the other trees have begun the springtime frenzy of exploding into vivid hues of green, but this birch is still budding. Perhaps, like preservationists, it was holding its breath until mid-May 2004, when the house with which it has shared nearly two centuries may fall victim to the wrecking ball.

Left: Lathrop Family Reunion photograph (10-04-1896) at Lathrop House

The contributions of the Lathrop family to the abolition movement and to the Underground Railroad have a longstanding oral tradition, and numerous family documents attest to Reverend Lucian Lathrop’s role as a conductor. The destruction of the site of the historic Lathrop House was a tragic loss to the memory of this abolitionist, and an insult to any ex-slaves who sought shelter at the site on their journey to freedom.