July 18, 2012
Everyone knows what to see at Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado: the cliff dwellings of the Pueblo people who occupied the Four Corners region from A.D. 600 to 1300. Soon, though, there will be good reason to stop at the entrance because the park is building a new Visitor and Research Center, scheduled to open late this year, that will give a state-of-the-art museum to its remarkable collection of archaeological artifacts, ethnographic material on the Native Americans of the Southwest and Santa Fe Indian School painting. Considered as a whole, it’s one of the oldest and biggest museums in the national park system.
Another one of its treasures is a collection of jewelry and ceramics given to Mesa Verde in the 1940s by architect Mary Jane Colter. Born in Pittsburgh in 1869, she attended the California School of Design in San Francisco, then went to create and decorate buildings for the Fred Harvey Company which ran shops, restaurants and hotels along the Sante Fe Railway. Among her masterworks are Hopi House, Lookout Studio, Hermit’s Rest and the Watchtower on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, all stunning examples of the American Arts and Crafts movement that take their inspiration from Hopi, Zuni and Navajo design, as well as Spanish-Mexican hacienda architecture. Between 1900 and 1940 Colter also worked on landmark train stations in Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City and Los Angeles.
At a time when women spent their time in the kitchen and parlor, Colter made her way in a man’s world, striding over construction sites and seeking artifacts all over the old Southwest, her hair in an untidy French roll, her radio tuned to a Mexican music station. On forays around the Four Corners region she collected baskets, jewelry and pots, while getting to know the Native American craftspeople who made them. She used most of the treasures she found to decorate Harvey Company buildings, but kept some for herself, eventually retiring to Santa Fe where she died in 1958.
Colter was a close friend of the archaeologist Jesse L. Nusbaum, who excavated Mesa Verde’s Balcony House and served as the park’s superintendent from 1921 to 1946. So the museum there seemed to Colter a suitable home for her art.
But she never wanted the 530 pieces of jewelry she bequeathed to Mesa Verde to be known as the Mary Colter Collection. “I think she didn’t want it to be about her. She wanted it to be about the artists,” said curator Tara Travis. Later some of Colter’s ceramics were added from the old Southwest Museum in Los Angeles.
When the new Visitor and Research Center opens at Mesa Verde, 30 Colter pieces will be on display, including a silver Navajo pin shaped like a biplane, heishi necklaces made of delicately strung shells, and tie slides carved from the vertebrae of cows and goats—all showing, as Travis explained, that “Colter had an interest in how artists used materials—shells, stones, turquoise and silver—and everyday objects to create works of art.”
The mastery of the Native Americans who made them should be overwhelmingly apparent. But I can’t think of it as anything other than the Mary Jane Colter Collection.
July 16, 2012
Map lovers, rejoice! The United States Geological Survey, headquartered in Reston, Virginia, is about to complete a massive project to digitize its cache of approximately 200,000 historic topographic maps, previously available only in print or in some cases out-of-print, meaning that people searching for a special old topo had to go to the archive in Virginia to take a look.
Who cares? Geographers, geologists, hydrologists, demographers, engineers and urban planners, to be sure. Also people interested in local history and genealogy, says the USGS. And, if you ask me, travelers who want not only detailed maps for pursuits like walking and biking, but information about what a place looked like in the past. For instance, the course of rivers before impoundment by dams, villages that have grown into cities, vast empty spaces in the West now crossed by superhighways, mountain ranges reconfigured by volcanic eruption.
Some of the oldest maps in the USGS Historical Topographic Map Collection show the Chicago Loop in 1929; Tooele Valley, Utah, in 1885; New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1888; Colorado’s Mosquito Mountains in 1886. When taken as a whole, the collection can be considered a National Map, a cartographic library of “last resort,” says archive manager Greg Allord, containing hard-to-find maps when all other sources fail. Allord says that scanning is now complete, though processing may take until September and some maps found in other libraries will eventually be added.
Meanwhile, it doesn’t take much computer-savvy to search the collection by state, scale or original map name. I just tried it, successfully downloading and printing a 1886 topo map of the Escalante River watershed in southern Utah. What will I do with it? I don’t quite know, but it’s free because the collection is in the public domain and making it broadly accessible is part of the program’s mandate.
A few definitions may be useful for laypeople who want to try it out: A topographical map shows physical features and elevations, usually with contour lines. Topo mapping done by the USGS generally divides the country into quadrants, or quads, bounded by two lines of longitude and two lines of latitude; the most popular are 1:24,000 in scale (one inch on the map representing 2,000 feet on the earth surface), available in sheets that show 64 square-mile areas.
Since the advent of digitized maps, new words have been added to the cartographic lexicon like georeferencing (a method of adapting old map information to contemporary computer-based geography, a study now known as Geographic Information System or GIS) and metadata (background map information, sometimes part of the legend), not to mention technical computer terms like Bagit, TIFF, GeoPDF—but let’s not even try to go there.
There was, of course, no such thing as georeferencing when the USGS was created by Congress in 1879, chiefly to locate and describe potential mineral resources in great swatches of the country that hadn’t been closely studied. By then the government had funded several surveys, marking what Clarence King, the first director of the USGS, saw as a turning point, “when science ceased to be dragged in the dust of rapid exploration and took a commanding position in the professional work of the country.”
John Wesley Powell, the great Colorado River explorer and second director of the USGS (1881-94), believed it was impossible to convey geological information without a topographic component, though he came under fire from Congress for the added expense it entailed. As a result, topographical surveying has long been intimately connected to geology in the U.S. (unlike Britain, which has separate divisions for topographical and geological mapping) and the USGS is part of the Department of the Interior. The oldest maps in the USGS collection come from Powell’s time.
It’s fitting to note that the Smithsonian Institution was a supporter of Powell’s surveying expeditions; indeed, he went on from the USGS to serve as director of the Bureau of American Ethnology, later folded into the Smithsonian Office of Anthropology. And even now the connection remains strong with the USGS and the Smithsonian cooperating on the Global Volcanism Program, which publishes a Weekly Volcanic Activity Report detailing geothermic events that may someday require new topos.
July 11, 2012
It’s fascinating to watch the focus of interest move from one gentrifying neighborhood to another in greater metropolitan New York. Once upon a time it was SoHo and Park Slope, Brooklyn; today it’s DUMBO, which stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, and the Lower East Side, where hip shops, stylish new hotels and restaurants have replaced garment workshops and pushcarts selling fruit and vegetables.
Days gone by in that neighborhood—east of the Bowery and south of Houston Street—come alive at the Tenement Museum in an Orchard Street apartment house where a long chain of German Jewish, Irish and Italian immigrants tried to make good in America. Tours of the building reveal how they lived from 1863 to 1935 with no electric lights, heating or indoor plumbing. Some made it out of the Lower East Side, while others who couldn’t manage to pay the rent moved to even worse neighborhoods.
The Tenement Museum also offers walking tours, one of which I recently joined. The first question I asked the guide on the pavement outside was what exactly is a tenement? I wanted to know because I live in what I assume was a West Village tenement building, characterized by its layout—two apartments in back, two in the front, on each floor—a fire escape climbing the facade and a tight, narrow internal staircase. The guide elaborated on the definition, describing a tenement as a building housing three or more unrelated families, originally with exterior wooden steps linking the floors, where housewives dried the laundry.
In the 1860s the Lower East Side was deluged by a wave of immigrants from Germany; known as Klein Deutschland, it had the fifth-largest German-speaking population among cities in the world at the time. The garment industry provided jobs, along with cigar factories and pushcarts. At 86 Orchard Street, a sign that says Max Feinberg identifies a brick building that now hosts a chichi Mexican restaurant as the former home of Majestic Hosiery.
Around the corner at 133 Allen Street, where there was once an elevated train and the city is building a bike lane—back to the future, as they say—we stopped in front of the Church of Grace to Fujianese. It’s a Christian worship place for fairly recent immigrants from China’s Fujian Province, but before that the building served as a bathhouse for the district’s great unwashed.
More characteristic of the Lower East Side in the late 19th century are the myriad synagogues tucked between storefronts like the Kehila Kedosha Janina temple at 280 Broome Street, home to a small, obscure sect of Judaism that grew up in Greece during the Roman era, and the former Congregation Poel Zedek Anshe Ileya, now a Seventh-Day Adventist church at the corner of Forsyth and Delancey streets, which actually began its long life as a German Presbyterian Church complete with a rose window around 1890.
Across the street Sara Roosevelt Park, named for FDR’s mother and opened in 1934, runs in a narrow strip between East Houston and Canal streets. The city established the park at a time when it hoped to provide one acre of green space for every 600 people. Now the ratio is more like one acre for every 12,000 in the densely packed neighborhood, and the park has welcomed serendipitous new enterprises like the Wah Mei bird garden and the M’Finda Kalunga community garden, opened in 1982 partly to commemorate an abandoned nearby African cemetery and partly to stem drug dealing that was rampant in the area.
Just east of the park at the intersection of Rivington and Eldridge streets, we stood in front of the University Settlement, a welfare organization founded by wealthy, educated New Yorkers in 1886 to aid immigrants by providing education and social services. It continues to do so now, though the clientele has changed since the neighborhood’s German immigrant days.
The Tenement Museum walking tour lasts for two hours and covers much more ground than this. I was exhausted by the time I finished. Fortunately, places for refreshment abound in the neighborhood, from cool cafés like 88 Orchard to Yonah Schimmel’s knishery at 137 East Houston, which has been baking authentic knishes filled with potato, cabbage and spinach since 1910.
July 9, 2012
You have to drive the north coast of Kauai—Hawaii’s Garden Island—past Kilaueu Falls, the condominium metropolis of Princeville and funky old Hanalei to find Taylor Camp. Once you get to Ha’ena State Park, where the Na Pali Cliffs guard the island’s impregnable west coast, park the car and thrash through the jungle to Limahuli Stream, which debouches from the mountains on a gorgeous beach.
A band of young people came to the same place in 1969, most of them refugees from strife-ridden college campuses and Vietnam War protests. They drifted in from all over the mainland, looking to turn down the volume at the end of the blaring 1960s and pitched tents in a North Shore park, playing beach volleyball in the buff and smoking marijuana, activities that ultimately got them evicted.
Enter Howard Taylor, brother of movie star Elizabeth, who bailed them out of jail and invited them to settle on a beachfront property he owned that had just been condemned by the state. His kindness was also an act of revenge because the state would have to deal with the squatters before they could turn the place into a public park. “It’s your land and they’re now your hippies,” he told officials. After joining the campers for Christmas dinner in 1972 with his celebrated sister, Taylor left them to their own devices.
For the next five years the hippie haven that came to be called Taylor Camp aggravated locals, who had no idea how to cope with their first exposure to the mainland counterculture. At the time, the pineapple and sugar cane industries were faltering and Kauai was enveloped in a sweet dream state, its population dwindling, its beaches still the domain of local surfers.
Semi-permanent treehouses made of scavenged wood and plastic replaced tents at Taylor Camp; a garden was planted, shaped like a mandala; residents started a co-op, built communal toilets, showers and the Church of the Brotherhood of the Paradise Children, where discussion ranged from Kierkegaard to the Tantras; couples swapped partners, babies were born, wild parties and homegrown pot attracted newcomers.
The story is told in a documentary film, Taylor Camp: Living the ’60s Dream, produced by John Wehrheim, who lived nearby in the early 1970s. The lavishly illustrated, accompanying book describes the seven-acre encampment, inhabited by about 100 people in its heyday as something different from a commune. “It had no guru…no written ordinances. It wasn’t a democracy. A spirit that brought forth order without rules guided the community,” Wehrheim wrote in the introduction.
The film is an even more vivid evocation, thanks to interviews of people who lived there, now aging baby boomers with jobs and families who seem no worse for the experience. In fact, most look back on their Taylor Camp days as the best time of their lives, though a seamier undercurrent can be felt in descriptions of the community’s post-halcyon years when hard drugs and rowdy transients arrived.
Many of the mellow, early settlers moved on, though it took the state until 1977 to close the camp down. By then the ’60s were over and Kauai was on the verge of a real estate boom that brought developments like Princeville.
For people who recall flower children with nostalgic fondness, Wehrheim’s book and film are all that remain to tell the story of a serendipitous time and place where a footnote to the history of the 1960s was written. Of course, it would be even better to go back to the North Shore of Kauai, to follow Limahuli Stream to the beach and to lie in the sand, remembering the way we were.
June 25, 2012
It isn’t the biggest, shiniest, most up-to-date and detailed globe in the world. But the American Geographical Society’s 18-inch Rand McNally Terrestrial Globe is doubtless the most precious because it was signed by 85 of the greatest explorers in modern times: from Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart to Neil Armstrong and John Glenn. Not only did they sign it when they got back from netherlands (and netherworlds), they charted their courses on it in wavering ink lines across oceans and continents.
The Fliers’ and Explorers’ Globe, as it’s called, sits beneath a dark cloth, like a covered bird cage, in the Brooklyn home of the AGS, the oldest national geographical organization in the U.S. Founded in 1851, the AGS devotes itself to geographical research and education, sponsoring expeditions, supporting studies and disseminating information to laypeople with a strong interest in geography. As such, it takes a somewhat more scholarly approach than the Washington, D.C.-based National Geographic Society, which tends to focus more on photography and popular geography.
The AGS may not publish glossy magazines and make television specials, but it has the prized globe, given to the society by John H. Finley, a former society president and editor in chief of the New York Times. Finley kept the globe in his office at the paper, inviting newsmakers back from the jungles and poles to sign it. In 1929 he gave the globe to the society, which continued the tradition up to the present day.
In April at the St. Petersburg home of the Russian Geographical Society, two more John Hancocks were added to the globe, those of Valentina Tereshkova (the first woman cosmonaut in 1963) and Alexei Leonov (a 1965 space walk pioneer). It was the first time the globe had been taken outside the U.S., making it far less well-traveled than its signers, for an occasion marking the 75th anniversary of Russian aviator Valery Chkalov’s pioneering transpolar flight from Moscow to Washington, D.C., in 1937. Chkalov died the following year, piloting a prototype fighter plane, but both his grandson and great-grandson were on hand for the ceremony.
The U.S. and Russia have a surprisingly long history of geographical cooperation. In 1912 Russian scholars joined the 13,000-mile AGS Transcontinental Excursion; others later took part in the society’s Latin America mapping effort; more recently Russian geographer and businessman Mikhail Slipenchuk offered to underwrite the creation of 12 replicas of the Fliers’ and Explorers’ Globe, one of which now stands next to the original at the AGS in Brooklyn.