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People, Places, Stuff

Rock Art and Rocks in the Head

Official maps often leave out sites where the earliest inhabitants of the desert Southwest made art on rock: chipped or cut petroglyphs and painted pictographs. Both are highly vulnerable to vandalism which is why some of the best examples remain secrets known only to archaeologists and park rangers. Time and weather also take a toll on ancient rock art sites, but why humans mess with such compelling vestiges of the past is incomprehensible to me.

If you’ve visited a rock art gallery like Petroglyph National Monument outside Albuquerque or come across a stray sample of rock art while backpacking in the Southwest you know the fascination of the images, though their precise purpose remains mysterious. Some are abstract, others representational like the remarkable hunting scenes at Little Petroglyph Canyon inside the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station in southern California, the largest known concentration of petroglyphs in the Western Hemisphere. Dating them is difficult, though there are clues; for instance, it’s thought that equestrian panels were made after the arrival of the Spanish who introduced horses to the area beginning around 1540. Panels with figures wielding sticks--weapons known as atlatls, used before the bow and arrow--could be tens of thousands of years old.

So it was with great anticipation that I made a recent visit to Carrizo Plain National Monument, a 50 mile-long valley in the high country east of California’s central coast. Bounded by two dry mountains ranges with a wide alkaline lake in the middle, it was a spiritual meeting place for the Chumash and Yokut Indian people who gathered at a sandstone hill on the west side of the valley, split almost in half, exposing interior faces that proved irresistible to rock artists. The religious significance of the suns, moons and anthropomorphic stick figures on Painted Rock’s interior walls is unclear, but the site is still sacred to present-day descendants of the Chumash and Yokut people.

For this reason and the fact that Painted Rock is a nesting place for endangered hawks and falcons, access is strictly-regulated. To get there I joined a national monument tour, offered on Saturday mornings in March, April and May. After viewing the plain from Soda Lake, tour parties caravan to the Painted Rock parking lot, then walk a half mile to the site. When we got there, we split up and took turns viewing the pictographs, each group limited to 10 minutes.

I’d seen the amazingly well-preserved petroglyphs at China Lake, off limits except on special tours run by the nearby Maturango Museum, so I was prepared for marvels. Imagine my dismay to find little left at Painted Rock besides pale, indecipherable lines and splotches, testifying to decades of desecration. The ranger who guided us said teenagers used to take beer kegs and spray paint to the rock. And though vandalizing such sites is a federal offense, that didn’t stop someone with a shotgun from using one of the panels as a bulls-eye. The whole experience made me rethink my resistance to eliminating rock art sites from maps. If people won’t behave, what else can you do? Read More 
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Mesa Verde's Mary Jane Colter Collection (But Don't Call It That)

From Smithsonian

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 1940's by architect Mary Jane Colter. Born in Pittsburgh in 1869, she attended the California School of Design in San Francisco, then went on 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 lives 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.  Read More 
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A Treasure Trove of Old Maps at Your Fingertips

From Smithsonian

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. Read More 
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Indian-Americans Moving Up in the Hotel Industry

In India: A Portrait, a new book by Patrick French, I found this curious travel tidbit: A potel is a motel run by someone from the Gujarati community of Patels; Indians now control around half of all U.S. lodging properties, and the officers of the Asian American Hotel Owners Association are Hemant D. “Henry” Patel, Tarun S. Patel, Chandrakant I. “C.K.” Patel, Ashwin “Ash” Patel, Alkesh R. “Al” Patel and Fred Schwartz.

Fascinated, I did a little more research and discovered that there are 3 million Indian-Americans, 50,000 of them called Patel. The name is especially common in the Indian state of Gujarat, originally meaning village headman. But how did Patel come to be synonymous with hotel ownership in America?

Chandinand Rajghatti, a writer-editor for The Times of India, told the story in one of his Indiaspora columns from 2004. The trend took shape in the early 1970’s when dictator Idi Amin expelled some 70,000 people of Indian background in an effort to make Uganda homogenously black African. Many of the refugees landed in England and the U.S. where they entered the lodging industry at the lowest level, as in Mississippi Masala, a 1992 film about a forbidden love affair between a black carpet-cleaner (played by Denzel Washington) and the daughter of an Indian immigrant from Uganda (Sarita Choudhury) who works in the housekeeping staff in a small motel.

From there an article in USA Today picked up the story. Gujaratis have long had a reputation for hospitality, making them naturals for the hotel industry. A willingness to live on the premises and do the hard, menial work of motel-keeping instead of paying staff, made them prosper especially in limited-service, budget accommodations. Gradually, though, Patels moved up, buying into major hotel chains like Marriott and Sheraton. For instance, Philadelphia-based Hersha Hospitality Trust, begun in 1984 with a single motel, now has 78 properties--including Hiltons, Hyatts and Wyndhams--accounting for over 10,000 rooms.

The high-tech savvy of Indian-Americans is well know; in iIndia: A Portrait author French notes that they are responsible for one in every 6 Silicon Valley start-ups. But their domination of the hospitality industry came as good news to me in these hard-pressed times, with the gap between the rich and the poor looking ever more uncross-able. Talk about a good old American success story. Read More 
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Elizabeth Bishop: Travel and Poetry

Poetry and travel are uncommon bedfellows. Like Emily Dickinson who famously wrote “I never saw a moor/I never saw the sea,” versifiers tend to stay home, writing. When the poet’s subject turns to place it‘s generally about what’s outside the front door--the Ireland of Yeats or Wordsworth awakening in the English Lake District.

One noteworthy exception was Elizabeth Bishop, winner of the 1956 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and U.S. poet laureate from 1949 to 1950. Born in in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1911, she was orphaned at the age of 15, though left with enough money to do as she pleased, which included going to Vassar and living in New York, France and Key West, the setting for her first book of poetry North and South. It opens with The Map. Land lies in water; it is shadowed green. Followed by fanciful map-gazing that points up the world of difference between cartographic symbol and terra firma reality.

After her debut Bishop struggled with both life and verse, alcoholic and depressive, eking out each of the relatively few poems she produced; as modern and intuitive as her mentor Marianne Moore, as cerebral and fastidious as Dickinson. Her most famous poem One Art pays homage to both her muses and alludes to her secretive back story, opening with the memorable line: The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then more stamps in her passport, culminating in a 1951 trip to Brazil where she stayed for 15 years, living with the architect Lota de Macedo Soares, who designed Flamingo Park in Rio de Janeiro and committed suicide in 1967. Bishop wrote a 1965 article on Rio for the New York Times Magazine and got a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation for an, alas, never finished book of travel essays on Brazil.

While there she did complete what I think of as her masterwork, Questions of Travel, published in 1965. It starts with thoughts for the cruise ship passenger in Arrival in Santos--Here is a coast; here is a harbor/here, after a meager diet of horizon, is some scenery-- then deepens in the poem that gives the book its title and rings in my ears whenever I sit here, thinking about going there. I can’t say exactly what it means, only that it asks those of us who travel to compare our preconceptions to what we find when we reach our destinations. And to wonder why we want and need to go anywhere. Here are the last stanzas:

Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
to imagined places, not just stay at home?
Or could Pascal have been not entirely right
about just sitting quietly in one’s room?

Continent, city, country, society:
the choice is never wide and never free.
And here, or there…No. Should we have stayed at home
wherever that may be?

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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 push carts selling fruit and vegetables.

Days gone by in that neighborhood--east of the Bowery and south of Houston St.--come alive at the Tenement Museum in an Orchard St. 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--fire escape climbing the façade 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 hung drying laundry.

In the 1860’s the Lower East Side was deluged with a wave of immigrants from Germany; known as Klein Deutschland, it had the 5th largest German-speaking population among cities in the world at the time. The garment industry provided jobs, along with cigar factories and push carts. At 86 Orchard St., 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 St., 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 the Church of Grace to Fujianese. It‘s a Christian worship place for fairly recent immigrants from China’s Fuzhou 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 Kodosha Janina temple at 280 Broome St., 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 around 1930, runs in a narrow strip between East Houston and Canal Steets. 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 Kaluma community garden, opened in 1983 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 which lasts for two hours covers much more ground than this. I was exhausted by the time I finished. Fortunately, places for refreshment abound in the neighborhood, from cool cafes 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 1890. Read More 
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