Tuesday, February 26, 2008

425 reminder

Don't forget, I will not make City in History class tomorrow(Wednesday), because i am the featured program at the Rotarians' meeting in Kennewick at noon. We WILL meet on Friday, no question, as usual. I am sure that this news will devastate everyone, but please try to recover in time for Friday...

Monday, February 25, 2008

Required reading on Russia

This morning, I referenced the article by Clifford Levy in Sunday's New York Times about the Putin election "campaign" as played out in a regional Russian city, Nizhnii Novgorod. Click here to access it from the International Herald Tribune, which you can read without registration. It is definitely required reading for understanding this incarnation of Russia.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

More exam resources...

I mentioned the other day that the last in the New York: A Documentary Film series, "New York: The Center of the World," has a website on which you can find the transcript of the broadcast, as well as other helpful features. You can also access descriptions of the other episodes, but there are no transcripts. Nonetheless, it might be worth your time to look at the Big Apple history section...it certainly won't hurt. Click here to go there(if that makes any sense).

If you scroll down this page, you will find a great site for the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, which is the subject of one of the two questions in part II.

Onward and upward, as my grad advisers used to say!

Monday, February 18, 2008

The 425 exam cometh...

...and just in time, some thoughts on those pesky questions on part II of the test...

Here’s a few things to think about…

On geography…remember that New York has probably the best, or at least one of the best, natural harbors in the world. That was very attractive at the time New Amsterdam was founded, and even well before, since we know a number of explorers landed there to look around. If ships can come and go easily, and find the kind of natural shelter from the ocean tempests that New Amsterdam offered, then it’s very likely that the mainland will become a commercial center.

Because it was so ideally positioned and equipped to become a commercial center, the city was a magnet for immigrants seeking work. And because there always was work for newcomers, those newcomers tended not to venture farther, which helped make New York the most dynamic city in the country. And of course, those immigrants all arrived by ship, until well into the 20th century…

Related to that is the Hudson river, which flows into the Atlantic at Manhattan and allows access to the north American inland. It allowed far more when DeWitt Clinton’s enterprise and brain power was applied to cutting a waterway that linked the Great Lakes and the Hudson. There’s natural geography and man-made geography, or rather man helping natural geography along…both were key to New York’s becoming the commercial HQ of the north American continent.

In the revolutionary war, New York just happened to be located right in the center of the American colonies…it was about equidistant from Virginia and Boston. This meant that if the British took and held New York in the war, they could probably hold most of the rest of north America. But they failed to hold New York, which goes a long way towards explaining their ultimate failure to hold onto the American colonies. So goes New York, so goes the rest of the nation.

And then there is the island factor…because Manhattan is a slender piece of land with finite space, the buying and selling of real estate has always been an obsession there, from the time that the Dutch bought “Manahatta” from the Lenape in 1624…remember, the city’s first millionaire, Mr. John Jacob Astor, made most of his millions by buying up as much of the island as he could and reselling--after he quit the fur trading biz. The finite space factor also determined what the city would look like…if you are on an island and you want to make $$$, you pretty much have to build up. Remember all the skyscrapers, e.g the Flatiron building, Woolworth’s, Empire State and Chrysler before the WTC…they didn’t just go up because people wanted tall buildings. The higher they go, the more office space and/or apartments you can build and the more rent you can charge…that was the imperative behind the WTC’s being 110 floors/tower.

Does this help? What you really need to do, granted probably not before the exam, is make a pilgrimage to Gotham and look for evidence yourself. In any case, you'll be an informed visitor when you do get there.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Dumb and dumber?

There's a new book out by Susan Jacoby probing the depths of, and the reasons for, American anti-intellectualism. There's always been a strong undercurrent of disregard and even scorn for the life of the mind in this country, beginning with life on the frontier. Who were the teachers there? The ones who couldn't DO anything, like clear away trees or build houses.

The New York Times report on Jacoby's book offers some contemporary evidence of American ignorance, including the following:

The American idol stalwart, Kelli Pickler, on a recent episode of "Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?

"Ms. Pickler threw up both hands and looked at the large blackboard perplexed. “I thought Europe was a country,” she said. Playing it safe, she chose to copy the answer offered by one of the genuine fifth graders: Hungary. “Hungry?” she said, eyes widening in disbelief. “That’s a country? I’ve heard of Turkey. But Hungry? I’ve never heard of it.”

A recent National Geographic poll that discovered

that "early half of 18- to 24-year-olds don’t think it is necessary or important to know where countries in the news are located. So more than three years into the Iraq war, only 23 percent of those with some college could locate Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel on a map."

But what exactly was it that moved her to plumb the depths of her countrymen's ignorance? It happened on New York's darkest day, 9/11/2001.

"Walking home to her Upper East Side apartment, she said, overwhelmed and confused, she stopped at a bar. As she sipped her bloody mary, she quietly listened to two men, neatly dressed in suits. For a second she thought they were going to compare that day’s horrifying attack to the Japanese bombing in 1941 that blew America into World War II:

'This is just like Pearl Harbor,” one of the men said.

The other asked, 'What is Pearl Harbor?'

'That was when the Vietnamese dropped bombs in a harbor, and it started the Vietnam War,' the first man replied."

At that point, Jacoby said, she decided that she needed to write the book. I had a student once who, under severe stress, wrote on an exam that Lyndon Johnson dropped the atom bomb on north Vietnam, but that's not quite in the same category.

Sheesh...we've got some DUMB people in this culture, dumb and dumber.

Nightmare time again

It's happened again...this time at Northern Illinois University in De Kalb, Illinois, about sixty miles from Chicago. A gunman described as a "skinny white guy with a stocking cap on," dressed all in black, opened fire on a geology lecture this afternoon on campus. The latest reports indicate five are dead and several others in extremely critical condition. Read the latest here.

Every time this happens, I am first outraged--people have no right to bring their private grudges and weaponry into a place of peace and exploration and reflection. That is a severe trespass on all that I treasure. Then I wonder how long it will be before administrators will be putting up metal detectors and checkpoints at key entrances to the classrooms and offices. That is the way I've always known universities to be overseas. You can't get in any campus buildings there, generally speaking, without proper documentation and/or someone coming to confirm that you are expected.

Finally, of course, I wonder how and when it became acceptable to exorcise your demons on innocent people in a place where people come to learn and improve themselves. What's happening to this culture? Can someone explain this to me?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Congressman Tom Lantos and The City in History Class

How are Califorinia Congressman Tom Lantos and your City in History class possibly connected? Congressman Lantos is a Hungarian Jew and the only Holocaust survivor elected to the U.S. Congress. He grew up in a small town just outside of Budapest and he was saved by one Raoul Wallenberg, who you will learn more about when you study Budapest.

Congressman Lantos passed away yesterday. He was 80-years-old. Here is the Washington Post article where you can read a little more about his remarkable life.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

A thought for the upcoming holiday...

Valentine's Day is nearly upon us, and so is Champagne, a great gift for just about anyone, or at least anyone who enjoys a little drink or two. In that spirit, I remind you of Mme. Bollinger, the sometime grande dame of the Bollinger Champagne houses, who spoke of her devotion to the bubbly stuff in a l961 interview:

"I drink it when I'm happy and when I'm sad. Sometimes I drink it when I'm alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I'm not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it, unless I'm thirsty."

That pretty much sums up my attitude towards Champagne...one of the great thrills of my life was visiting some of the great Champagne houses in the eponymous region of France and taking a tour of Pommery, which you see above. It would be a sin to visit Lafayetteland and fail to pay a visit to Champagne...I heartily recommend it.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Triangle narrative site

There is a terrific site sponsored by Cornell University that is dedicated to the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of March 25, l911 in New York City. You can find a summary of events, chronology, photos/illustrations, original newspaper articles from the following days, and closeup shots of turn-of-the-century sweatshops(which actually are indistinguishable from 21st century sweatshops). Worth your time and attention...

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Four excellent questions

This is the time of year when people are contemplating life changes and/or changes in direction--grad school or no grad school, taking a year off, quitting the job in favor of going back to school, things like that. I was just reading a riff on risk from a prominent surgeon who is called upon to make life-or-death decisions virtually every day in his work. This individual always asks himself these four questions before proceeding:

What is the best thing that can happen if I do this?

What is the worst thing that can happen if I do this?

What is the best thing that can happen if I don't do this?

What is the worst thing that can happen if I don't do it?

You will notice that most of these questions lead to doing whatever it is you are reluctant, or afraid, to do, so if you are looking for courage or support in taking a risk, or going out on a limb, take a copy of these questions and block out some answers...

p.s. one of my graduate advisers, the late, great Robert Francis Byrnes, always told people to "do what you are afraid to do." That's pretty good advice, too, and good practice.

Today's 425

By popular demand, a summary of today's City in History: we talked briefly again about the "second wave" of immigration, which brought millions of east/east central europeans and southeast Europeans to the lower east side of New York. There were some questions about assimilation, i.e. whether today's New York City immigrants have the same burning desire to become Americanized, learn English, etc., as their predecessors. The answer to that is yes, and no...there is a six-year waiting list for free English classes, so the desire to learn is there, even if the money and resources are not. On the other hand, people are more able to keep up with things in the old country via the Internet, and often can work in their ethnic enclave rather than get out, e.g. Russians who work in Russian establishments in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. All the local institutions and businesses speak Russian there, and there is Russian-language media there, thus not so much need to leave there and socialize with non-Russians. So, yes, there is a desire to assimilate, yet also circumstances that permit people to remain in their own world within greater New York.

One of the consequences of the crowding of all these people into lower Manhattan was the (further)congestion of streets--then, as now, it's very hard to make your way above ground there. Thus was born the necessity of the underground, or subway. The city fathers decided that New York would have a subway in the early l890s, and employed mostly Italian unskilled labor to dig the tunnels. In October l904, what is now known as the Lexington Avenue Line debuted to great fanfare, and the subway was launched. Unlike most subways in Europe, you pay the same amount wherever you are going in the five boroughs, so there was now incentive to move out of crowded Manhattan into Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx. You would not be financially penalized on your commute to work from there...so that is a great example of necessity--an immigrant influx--being the engine of invention(the subway).

We also looked at the three major New York newspapers, the New York Times, and then the two tabloid rags, the Daily News and the Rupert Murdoch vehicle, the Fox News of print, the New York Post. These are reliable guides to what is going on in the city today; which you prefer is a function of your tastes in media. If you'd rather see the New York Mayor referred to as "Mr. Bloomberg," you'll probably like the Times. If you like him as "Bloomie," the tabloids are your cup of tea.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Grand Central on PBS

Make sure you watch, or tape, tomorrow night's American Experience on your local PBS station(out here, AE usually airs at 9 pm). It's all about the most splendid public building in the world, Grand Central Station in New York City. Built at the turn of the last century, it is going strong a century later, as a subway and train station, mini-shopping mall, luscious food hall host, restaurant venue and peoplewatching mecca. If you park yourself for awhile in the Oyster Bar downstairs from the main terminal, and order a martini at the bar, you can find yourself transported back to prewar New York, when People in the Know drank nothing BUT martinis. I dislike them intensely, in fact they trip my gag reflex every time, but I've choked a couple down in my time, in order to drink in something of retro New York.

On a related note: New. York. Won. The. Superbowl.

425 midterm

As promised, the midterm for City in History, the "New York" exam...

History 425—Spring ’08, the New York exam
Midterm exam –for Friday, February 22, 2008

This might seem to be an ambitious set of questions—you’re not wrong—and that is why I scheduled the exam for a Friday. I will be in the room before l2 for all those who would like to get an early start and will plan to stay until l:15 for anyone who wants some extra time.

Directions Part I(50%): Answer the question, taking care to use specific details from the readings, lectures, videos and any independent readings or investigations you have done:

This question will be based on the text City in the Sky. It will be general, not excessively concerned with details, but will test your understanding of the fundamental facts behind the campaign for and construction of the World Trade Center.

Directions Part II(30%). Answer the agreed-upon question—you won’t know which one until test day—again, using some or all of the materials to which you have had access:

1. It is often said that geography is destiny. Write an essay in which you explain(at least in part)how geography helped shape New York’s destiny from its origins to the present. Be sure to back up the points you made with specific names, dates, facts, etc.

2. The Triangle shirtwaist factory disaster was a dark chapter in New York history, the
darkest in New York history prior to the attacks of September ll, 2001. Outline the
circumstances in which the employees worked, explain how and why they died and conclude by indicating what changes it brought to the life of the city.

Directions part III(20%): Identify, describe and GIVE THE SIGNIFICANCE of the following. You will be asked to do TWO among these on test day(which two, you don't know): “Clinton’s Big Ditch,” Shearith Israel, St. Patrick’s cathedrals(old and new), 1624, John Jacob Astor, Peter Stuyvesant, Emma Lazarus/The New Colossus, Alexander Hamilton, Grand Central Station.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Best of New York, part deux

Germann has pointed out that I have shamefully neglected to include within the best of New York the immortal NEW YORK YANKEE baseball team. I humbly offer my mea culpa and wish to send you now to the official website of the BRONX BOMBERS, where you can check to see how many hours, minutes and seconds remain until pitchers and catchers report, get news on the new additions to the roster and progress on the new-and-improved Yankee stadium, plus buy official Yankee gear, of which I must have an entire roomful by now. I realize we are operating in a Seattle Mariners environment, but their fans should look at this historically...there is not a more storied American sports team, with the possible exception of the Boston Red Sox, than the Yankees. You need to know about the Yankees if you are interested in New York, because a passion for the Yankees might be the only unifying factor in the city besides the mania to make money...every immigrant group has its own TV station and its own Yankees beat reporter. It was quite a shock in December to see even Russian-speaking public access TV speculating on the team's chances in 2008. And Yankee baseball caps are a cultural statement, both here and abroad...the coolest people worldwide are in NYY headgear.

And then there's the civic chauvinist factor: New York is great, New York should always win, GO YANKS!

I wish to point out that the METS don't figure into this calculus, because they are not Manhattan, they are the SUBURBS. Plus, they are parvenus, only on the scene since the l960s. It would be unthinkable to root for them.