May 27, 2010

Life Along the Silk Road, Susan Whitfield

The cities between Kabul and Chang'an are famous to us, and saw wealth in the first millenium CE, because of the trade routes between East and West, also between Tibet and India. They were ecologically fragile, with scant or unreliable water supplies and terrible weather. But there were dozens of kingdoms, cultures, entire religions that rose or survived in this web of cities connected by traders. (Perhaps it's an example of island biogeography for ideas.) Also, cloth and paper -- and the religious trading societies seem to have been widely literate -- survive pretty well in dry cold salty territory.

Whitfield summarizes the general history, and the kinds of records we have and the history of those records, in the first chapters. Each subsequent chapter is a biography or pseudo-biography of someone with a reasonably characteristic life, one era to the next, over 250 years from 750 CE to 1000 CE. None of these lives are easy, given the combination of marginal ecological existence and the tides of conquest running in all directions, but that makes them exciting to read about.

There are wonderful pictures, of the objects and wall-paintings that survive, or at least survived long enough to be photographed. (Whitfield works at the International Dunhuang Project at the British Library, which links web access to collections all over the world. She argues that Aurel Stein was more responsible for saving some of the artifacts of Dunhuang from destruction or smuggling than not.)

Interesting early 'bio-signature': illiterate persons putting a forefinger down under their name, and the positions of the joints marked on the contract.

The long story of life on a hard trade route reminded me of two other books that I don't seem to have mentioned. The Mummies of Urumchi, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber, describes the astoundingly well-preserved mummies and fabric salt-frozen into the edge of the Tarim Basin desert as the last water dried up about 1000 BCE. One of the points of contention is where the mummified civilization came from, and who, if anyone, are their descendants now. Whitfield describes rather a lot of the small civilizations of 1000 CE as being of unknown origin, even down to 'East or West?', although I suppose we have a better guess at their descendants. Wayland Barber is also an experimental archaeologist, someone who understands the evidence by figuring out how to use or reproduce it; her specialty is fiber and cloth, still important in Whitfield's period; the "Silk Road", after all.

Or, considering ecology more than trade, Eagle Dreams, by Stephen Bodio: what it's like to hunt with a golden eagle in Mongolia. There was a lot of romanticism in that book, about how tough the steppe-dwellers are compared to lowland dwellers. Certainly they are. They're also clearly at the top of a food-chain with a narrow base; Bodio describes his confusion at looking at grazing-grounds that seemed to be made of rocks only, no grass. Consuming a higher proportion of what's available probably crowds out more of the creatures that could live there if humans didn't. Bodio seemed to assume it was ecologically virtuous (or at least, defensible despite its carnivorous, aggressive, gunpowder-happy style) because the absolute consumption seemed lower. I suspect absolute consumption is actually pretty high, because it takes a lot -- of calories, to start with -- just to survive there; it's comfort that's low. On the other hand, it's (a version of) a system that did co-exist with large wild animals for hundreds of years, so can be at least locally reasonably sustainable. (One is not socially allowed to keep a hunting eagle for more than a few years, which is an impressive social stricture given how hard they are to catch and train.) On the third hand, I don't know that the steppe pastoralists have been a local lifestyle on a historical timespan.

Whitfield's period overlaps Tibet's time as an expansionist military empire, which still confuses me. How did they support the manpower? Did the expansionism export young men and import NPP? How is this related to comfort vs. consumption, as in the Mongolian example? It fits ibn Khaldun's theory of conquerers-from-the-desert becoming soft, conquerable city people, sort of.

Find in a Library:

Life Along the Silk Road

The Mummies of Urumchi

Eagle Dreams

So wrote clew.

March 19, 2009

Farmers of Forty Centuries, F. H. King, D.Sc.

I'd like to find a contemporaneous review of this book. King toured China, Korea and Japan with an expert eye on their intensive, sustainable agriculture and what seems to me to be a radically approving tone for his day. There were still anti-Chinese settlement laws and riots up and down the West Coast, after all, and Jack London was mocking foreign farmers specifically for their prudence and industry. Current reviews of this (it's still in print) are all in the trail of Wendell Berry, who approved; I looked it up because of a half-crankish reference in a composting journal.

King, for someone clearly approving, comes across as a transparent, inquisitive author, who must have had a busy translator to extract all the techniques and price-lists and explanations that make it into the book. Mostly, this is a travelogue with 'pods' (in Elise Hancock's words) of dense agro-tech exposition hanging off; and many photographs of a startlingly pre-industrial world.

The frame of King's curiosity, though, is his claim--as a Wisconsin professor of agriculture--that the U.S. could not possibly sustain its wasting methods of agriculture, its intentional losses of topsoil and nutrients, and that the Far East had a long history of supporting high populations, and probably knew something we needed. From the Preface (by a Dr L. H. Bailey):

We in North America are wont to think that we may instruct all the world in agriculture, because our agricultural wealth is great and our exports to less favoured peoples have been heavy; but this wealth is great because our soil is fertile and new, and in large acreage for every person. We have really only begun to farm well.

Following, many details of how the fields are leveled, green and muck manures preserved and spread, crops and fallow rotated, irrigation accomplished, markets made. King points out early that the areas around the China Sea are of naturally high productivity, being warm and well-watered (by rain, as well as rivers that bring them silt); but the astounding effort put into farming every square foot, into dredging that silt out of an enormous delta--by human labor--to raise and, indeed, create the land, is no less amazing. King was always happy to notice what clever tricks cycled nutrients, but modern lazy I, I notice that the cleverness usually relies on human effort and a good bit of desperation. There were also devastating famines in China, over those forty centuries. I don't know if they were less common there than in, say, Europe; and this seems crucial to enthusiasm for the book... If we are to consider if this is a good plan for humanity (and many permaculture enthusiasts do), then I want to know how many population crashes that 'sustainability' requires. King quotes an interlocutor saying that in poor years the girl children are sold or given away, which King refuses to believe.

It would be nice to think that we could have a less dense population, and still recycle as intensively, leaving a margin for ourselves and natural systems. It seems unlikely to me. Not just the physical labor, but the constant attention, seem to me to be so extreme that we would not keep them up without a constant fear of personal failure and starvation:

But above any other factor, and perhaps greater than all of them combined in contributing to the high maintenance-efficiency attained in these countries, must be placed the standard of living to which the industrial classes have been compelled to adjust themselves, combined with the most rigorous economy which they practise along every line of effort and of living.

The permaculture doomers assume that we'll have that fear soon enough, and will want to know how to survive; fair enough. Or possibly we will teach our robots to do it for us. Wall-E would have been a much, much better movie had Wall-E found a copy of this book.

Interesting details: comparing the smallest unit of currency, the cash, about 1/1750 of a US dollar at the time, to the smallest unit, used "On the Pacific coast [of the U.S.], where less thought is given to little economies than perhaps anywhere else[...] the nickel". Foot-propelled paddlewheel passenger boats cost less per passenger mile than the US railway tariff. King suggests diverting the lower Mississippi over the "200 miles of country" behind its levees, in order to preserve and increase fertile farmland. "Everywhere we went in China, the labouring people appeared happy and contented, and showed clearly that they were well nourished. The industrial classes are thoroughly organized, having had their guilds or labor unions for centuries." The compost practices were detailed and labor-intensive; Chinese villagers built clamps of mud over aging compost; the Japanese National Department of Agriculture published plans for a handsome stercorary. (It's evident that Japan had more timber than China.) There's a reference to 'parking' but the word means 'making a park of' land, planting trees.

Find in a Library: Farmers of Forty Centuries

So wrote clew.

January 24, 2009

The Jewel House, Deborah E. Harkness

Harkness opens with four pages of justification for calling her subjects' studies science; if I understand correctly, the word is used contemporaneously for investigations into the natural world, but "scientist" is not used, and also there's some resistance to calling just-pre-Royal-Society work "science" because they were Natural Philosophers, and not empiricists, etc etc.

But! The strain of this book is that the Royal Society rooted in, even fed off parasitically, a broad and deep community of investigators of all kinds; just not reliably English gentlemen. Cities in the sixteenth century had many immigrants; England called them "Strangers", who could win their way to "denizen". And many of these people were traders in useful or artistic or natural wonders, and exchanged descriptions and specimens with colleagues and relatives across Europe as well as new colleagues in all stations in England. At this stage they're still putting together a pointillist picture of the world, discovering that some accepted truths are fables and others understate the wierdness of reality; plants and insects are brought across continents in what, saddlebags?, it's amazing any of them grew; and even collecting and ordering and copying others' knowledge is hard and useful, since print culture is just getting started.

But London, and traders, are not the strongest power in England, and combinations of courtiership and self-aggrandizement by better-born Englishmen -- sometimes much worse scientists -- shouldered aside the Strangers. From this vantage (I'm exaggerating Harkness' argument considerably), the Royal Society was a step backward, freezing out foreigners and hands-on experimenters in its insistence on making science gentle.

This argument is embodied on pp. 212-213. Hugh Plat was a brewers' son (and a lawyer) and rich but London-y, not courtly; his book Jewell house of art and nature is practical and tested knowledge, gathered from many walks of England; applied science, but how not science? On the other hand, Francis Bacon, son of a courtier (and a lawyer) wrote The New Atlantis, which sets up all science in a gorgeously funded, but centralized and presumably controlled, campus.

But Salomon's House was not a wishful romance. Instead, it was a dressed-up representation of the real world of science in Elizabethan London. The streets of the City already boasted several libraries, James Garret's fantastic tulip garden, James Cole's curiosity cabinet, and Giovan Battista Agnello's elaborate chemical laboratories and furnaces. St. Bartholomew's Hospital, where Clowes and Baker worked alongside other physicians and nurses, was known throughout Europe for its cutting-edge medicine, and John Hester's shop on St. Pauls' Wharf belched out all sorts of aromatic fumes as he made powerful new chemical medicines and herbal concoctions for hs urban clientele. The City's workshops produced delicate clocks and mathematical instruments, as well as perpetual-motion machines and large engineering devices. The City of London was already engaged in the study of nature, and [...] did not need Bacon's encouragement [...]

Much later (p. 250):

Those who commented at all tended to criticize Bacon for his unwillingness to do the work of science, as well as for his lack of appreciation for what was already being done.

Find in a Library: The Jewel House

Or the original The jewel house of art and nature..., if you have academic access.

So wrote clew.

January 18, 2009

Fares Please!, John Anderson Miller

"A Popular History of Trolleys, Streetcars, Buses, Elevateds, and Subways"

Pretty much an anorak take on the subject; lots of details of how successive transit vehicles were built (lots of excellent illustrations), some details of economic and legal development, and a general assumption that history is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. The copyrights are 1941 and 1960, but 1960 was probably a renewal; the final chapter "Transit in the Modern Age" has nothing later than 1941.

Here's a detail for Seattle and Portland, or anywhere else that had more snow than plows this winter, and disagreement over whether that was dreadful planning:

Nobody had ever thought of removing snow from the public streets until the horse-car came along. Then it had to be done so that the wheels would stay on the rails. This, however, interfered with sleighing. In Boston, the Mayor and Aldermen solved the problem by forbidding the street-railway companies to clear the tracks at all so long as sleighing was good. The companies could operate passenger sleighs, they said, and charge the same fare as on the cars, but the snow had to remain on the tracks until it melted away of its own accord.

Find in a Library: Fares Please!

So wrote clew.

September 07, 2008

Bitter Melon, Jeff Gillenkirk, James Motlow, intro. by Sucheng Chan

Locke is a rural Chinatown, maybe the only one surviving in the U.S. I don't think it's much architecturally; three blocks of frame houses built for floods, an enormous vegetable garden, and some levees. Bitter Melon is about the history seen in the surviving Chinese residents, and combines some old photographs with current ones and with transcripts of their reminiscences.

The town is unusual because U.S. discrimination against Chinese residents was so vicious for so long, forbidding them basic legal and economic rights and also the right to naturalize at all. Chinese communities were violently driven out of locales all over the West through the late 1800s (and probably later, but that's what I have a map of). For that matter, the Chinese were forbidden to naturalize or to own land as aliens throughout the West until 1952.

But, back to rural Locke; if driven out of most towns, and also the agricultural muscle of early California, where did the Chinese go? Most of them seem to have lived in field houses of large farms, or have been sharecroppers; Locke was unusual because it was a town run by the inhabitants and for regional Chinese workers, but it was on Locke land and the inhabitants didn't own it (until 2004!!). Which makes me think about various utopian and dystopian schemes, I must say; the river street was mostly run by and for the houses of gambling and prostitution, and then there were two blocks of houses, and then the community gardens, which are clearly managed to the inch so must have been surveyed and willed on.

The second most interesting thing, after the political wrongs done to the Chinese, is the view the survivors have of the rest of the country. Now, this is a delicate and nuanced thing; it's not as simple as the legal history, it's the impressions more or less tactfully conveyed by people with wildly different temperaments and histories. It's a good book to read on a hot afternoon when you miss your grandparents and can put up with some meandering in their memory. There's an interestingly contradictory line of comments about American blacks; that they were worse treated than the Chinese were, but some of the Chinese still dislike them, though certainly not all, and that whole civil rights noise was very un-Chinese... but admirable. The line on Mexican-Americans is a lot more straightforward, that despite more protective laws they are now what the Chinese were ninety years ago. And, although Locke was overwhelmingly in support of the Kuomintang, one resident remarks that the Chinese were treated horribly in the States until the U.S. was intimidated by Mao; you get the impression that someone who mightn't naturally approve of Mao had evidence that his ruthlessness was required, in this troubled world.

Third, I wanted more about the gardens; more than half the town by area, after all. These are vegetable gardens run by people who survived sharecropping, on the Delta soils of Yolo County which were rich to start with, and with a gardening tradition that wastes nothing. It's mildly famous that the Delta islands are losing topsoil at a measurable rate every year, as it blows away, decays away, and is stripped for turf. I would very much like to know if the Locke garden is shallower than it ever was. In the one photograph, it looks as convex and fluffy as the best feather bed.

Find in a Library: Bitter Melon

So wrote clew.

July 13, 2005

Classical Greek Architecture: The Construction of the Modern, Alexander Tzonis

Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee 
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade, 
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten, 
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour. 

A while ago City Comforts had a minor theme on columns, colonnades, classicism and neo-classicism in architecture. One of the obvious problems was that 'classicism' is regularly redefined. I don't think the discussion there really settled on a definition; David Sucher felt that the term is used to mean anything pre-automobile, especially with columns and cornices. The architects (?) were earnest that classical architecture is a language in which c. and c. are words but not required words; they didn't demonstrate this in Backus-Naur. I found an online version of Vitruvius, which I boiled down for a comment (copied below); he's very appealing, I think, in his combination of aesthetic and practical concerns.

Classical Greek Architecture stood out on the new-books shelf of the library for its size and glossy whiteness. Its purpose seems to be to reprint some lovely, probably pre-WWI photographs of classical ruins, especially the Acropolis, said ruins sizeable and white on unpeopled hills. Most of those ruins are of temples and temenos, temple complexes, not places many people lived; but the book also has site plans of entire cities, and close-ups of columns and bases.

The text was probably speaking to those who already know; for one thing, its 'modern' seems to mean 'not archaic', and almost to mean 'rational'. There is a little historical comment on one of the more recent 'moderns', which explains some of the anxiety around The Decipherment of Linear B. 19th c. and 20th c. scholars, especially German ones, really wanted the classical Greeks to have come as a group from Northern fastnesses and immediately leapt to greatness, without cultural cross-pollination; so the language of a pre-greatness not-blond group wasn't 'supposed' to be Greek. Perhaps there was a little crosstalk between that theory and the desire to remake the world that led also to what we think of as Modernist architecture. That's my interpolation; Tzonis is explicit that classical revivals have been used for all sorts of political movements, not all compatible with each other, and indeed that the Homeric age itself was doing exactly the same thing: "forging a Hellenic identity through reconstruction of the past." (p. 23)

Even inside that reconstruction, there was a split now familiar; Tzonis, partly in tracking cultural cross-pollination, remarks that technicians, builders and makers, were already thought of as naturally cosmopolitan and often expats; he cites the Odyssey, Herodotus, Plutarch. Culture at large found innovation worrisome because it might be impious.

They had plenty of innovation, including the introduction (possibly from Egypt) of gridded urban planning, to which the Greeks used to separate public/business and residential areas and also to reflect the democratic equal allocation of land shares (p. 150). Of this: "stoae began to flank the main streets... enhancing environmental comfort and enabling social interaction." Also, "the stoa became the first kind of building in ancient Greece that was used as a means of defining an outside area... of forming places, rather than simply as an independent object inserted in space." There's a lot more by Tzonis on how the columns around a building made it a discrete spatial object, unlike the stuck-together palace complexes of the Mycenaeans; and also an object that was an expression of a total rational plan, of world-making. The pictures show the grid beginning to apply to everything, not just the buildings in a new town and the columns along the building but the elements of the frieze and the stones themselves of the wall, all on the same grid. It still looks pretty good; I expect it stunned the perception of anyone who had seen only natural, never comprehensible, geometry. This is where Tzonis sees the modern; systematic thinking, with "no place for falsehood or accident".

Therefore I can believe a great deal of architectural mysticism on the part of the Greeks, although it's hard to believe that, for instance, the Myceneans didn't experience their palaces as defined places. I was also struck by how the technical challenges of building were being met by columns; the Telesterion of Eleusis held thousands of people, the Thersilion has a surprising arrangement of columns allowing (I think) good sightlines for the people in it.

ISBN: 2080304429

Moving from Greece to Rome, Vitruvius appeals to my practical sense. My cherry-picking of his On Architecture, copied from City Comforts, where we were arguing over the usefulness of classicism for cities with cars:

I was going to say what Chris Burd just said about the grid being classical even if you think it's obvious. I'd go a little further and say that the enthusiasm that built the courthouses and public squares in the gridded railroad towns was often consciously, if naively, classicist.

About how classicists would deal with the urban car: there's precedent, of course. The city is built to be navigated on foot, and wheeled traffic for heavy deliveries is limited to after dark. Works for me. Heck, it might take the Eleusinian Rites to build transit in Seattle. (I am mixing my references. Sorry.)

Seriously, though, you could consult Vitruvius to see if the canonical classical architect is concerned with plan as well as elevation. One summary of Book V, put up by Bill Thayer, runs:

"In which the author warns you that architecture is highly technical, then proves it in spades in his exposition of civil public spaces: the forum, the basilica, the theatre and its porticos, the palaestra and the baths; harbors. "

There are specific measurements for pillars and so forth, but part of the Classic habit was the reasoning given for the standardized site designs. Particularly 3-Rules-relevant stuff:

"for the convenience of the spectators, the intercolumniations must be wider; and the bankers' shops are situated in the surrounding porticos with apartments on the floors over them, which are constructed for the use of the parties, and as a depôt of the public revenue. "

"The basilica should be situated adjoining the forum, on the warmest side, so that the merchants may assemble there in winter, without being inconvenienced by the cold. "

"The tribunal is in the shape of a segment of a circle; the front dimension of which is forty-six feet, that of its depth fifteen feet; and is so contrived, that the merchants who are in the basilica may not interfere with those who have business before the magistrates. "

And, my favorite; a completely utilitarian reason given for a cornice:

"The [curia] walls, moreover, at half their height, are to have cornices run round them of wood or plaster. For if such be not provided, the voices of the disputants meeting with no check in their ascent, will not be intelligible to the audience."

Later he worries about the walkways of the city; they should ideally be protected, verdurant, well-drained, and made of charcoal that will serve as fuel during sieges.

In book VI he considers private buildings. He also manages to explain why every climate except that of Italy develops inferior people, but the discussion of climate starts with:

"These [private buildings] are properly designed, when due regard is had to the country and climate in which they are erected. For the method of building which is suited to Egypt would be very improper in Spain, and that in use in Pontus would be absurd at Rome: so in other parts of the world a style suitable to one climate, would be very unsuitable to another..."

His practical argument for arches: beams sag and are very hard to repair in place. The upper story, he says, can be built as you like, beams or arches, because it can be redone if you get it wrong.

So wrote clew.

July 08, 2005

Swing Shift, Howard M. Brier

What I principally enjoyed in this WW II story was the careful namechecking of Seattle and Puget Sound places and sights, including the Kalakala, which was considered an eyeful back in the day too.

The second-best bit was the tale of a young North Dakota lad becoming entranced with heavy industry and forging his way to competence through a love of logistics and a great facility at making friends. He walks down to the waterfront his first day off the train and meets the son of a shipyard owner; on his way to the recommended work he meets an old bosun type who explains shipfitting. He also gains the regard of the owner by reading Walt Whitman.

The espionage plot wasn't as good, because he was pretty stupid (Tell the Grownups, subcategory iii: Tell the FBI) and didn't suffer for it; the German-named saboteurs with little black mustaches get caught.

No ISBN, and it isn't listed by Worldcat even though I checked it out of the Seattle Public Library, which generally does show in those listings. Behold a gap in the internet, tho' I guess I'm doing my bit to darn it.

Brier, Howard M. Swing Shift. New York: Random House, 1943.

So wrote clew.

May 24, 2005

Rebuilding a Legacy: The Story of the Starbucks Center Building, Heather Macintosh

Starbucks has its main offices in a building that used to be Sears' Seattle distribution center. There were intervening decades of dispirited abandonment and tentative rental, so as tales of heroic real-estate development corporations go, Nitze-Stagen's is not totally implausible. And, as this sort of book goes, Macintosh does a good job of not just writing corporate hagiography.

I want to remember two things: one, that the Sears towers were built to hide the water-tanks needed for the newfangled fire sprinklers. The buildings seem generally to have been very practical and not unasthetic like that; concrete pillars set to allow decent light into the workspaces, for instance. There was a train siding running right through the building, too, because Sears' business was intermodal. (I guess the US didn't import enough finished goods to warrant an integral dock, back then.)

The odd thing is this assertion:

In Seattle, many of the industrial district's old warehouse buildings that would have been eagerly adapted to loft spaces in the 1980s and 1990s had been demolished in the 1930s in favor of smaller, wood-frame structures. (p. 44)

We had a district of concrete warehouses and knocked them down in the Depression to build (mostly two-story, giant pole-barn) wood structures? Why on earth? It's hard to imagine that the wood buildings ever had lower running costs, even. What did I miss?

Dewey: 725.35028 M1892R

ISBN: 09762369057500

So wrote clew.

May 22, 2005

How Women Saved the City, Daphne Spain

A dozen threads of US history cross here, and Spain keeps them competently aligned. I'd enjoy a book of more reckless assertions as to what caused what, but this careful one would have to be written anyway.

Threads: the Woman Question; good government; architecture; volunteerism, especially the US strain; racism, ditto; immigration; urbanization; de-urbanization; religion; urban planning. Dear me, that's only ten threads, but the Woman Question here is wound up of at least three.

The city saved women while women saved the city. In the late nineteenth century, US habits were fracturing. More and more women had jobs and educations; work flooding into the city off the farm; the cities were jammed with immigrants. The world barely knew how to build for such dense crowds of people. City governments were weak or laissez-faire or outright corrupt; they weren't always trying to build physical infrastructure, let alone the social service network that would keep immigrants and refugees from remaining an immiserated class. Some of the movement was of black citizens, out of the rural South, and the immiserated classes were played against each other.

These fractures aligned and into them women drove a lever that shifted the whole mass. Many respectable young women had to support themselves, and arrangements for their living in the city had to be made. Also, women were going to work, including well-off women who did not work for pay: as Dr. Harriet Clisby wrote,

women who wanted to escape the "immense imprisonment of life which was stifling them" (p. 187).

Some of them avoided direct competition with men by doing the work men left undone. Finally, in a brilliant ideological feint, they combined these two things by phrasing the whole project of making cities livable as housekeeping and mothering. Many a leaflet accepted, sweetly, that women had their proper sphere; but made clear that the sphere was considerably larger than one family home. The home could not be kept safe and clean until the city was safe and clean.

If that argument didn't take, there were theological ones:

Settlement workers... were among the first to identify it [urban poverty] as a systemic problem rather than a personal failing. ...the Social Gospel defined poverty as a public issue warranting institutional reform... Thus the Social Gospel strongly justified women's work outside the home. (p. 63)

The YMCA, the Salvation Army, and the NAACP all grew in this era and worked on these problems. The YMCA of course built huge, complicated domiciles in the cities, which were homes to many poorish working women and must have been fascinating work for the women running them. I love the floorplans; the Cleveland YMCA headquarters had an interior gymnasium with a running track, as well as a library, classrooms for millinery and bookkeeping and more, and of course bedrooms offices dining-hall and chapel.

And in other places there were precedents; the last clean, well-drained Cities Beautiful had been Roman. I hadn't previously thought about the logical association of classical style with public, everyday, mens sana in corpore sano construction, but I should have, even if they didn't combine baths and libraries:

New York City's [public] baths were huge, with one hundred showers (and fewer tubs). They were modeled on Roman public baths with classical pilasters, columns, arches, and cornices. (p. 132)

The settlement houses didn't survive in their own names, largely because so many of their functions were absorbed into city government (and subsequently run by professionalized men). The settlements were houses for college women living in some of the tougher poor neighborhoods, with the intent of improving the lot of the neighborhoods by living among them and sharing knowledge, rather than going among them and granting bounty. (Certainly some of this knowledge was useful-connection knowledge, e.g. how to shame the city into collecting street trash.) The most famous of these was Hull House; Jane Addams' Twenty Years at Hull House is at Project Gutenberg. Hull House itself is mostly gone. Spain has some rather trenchant comments on how many of these practical donation-funded buildings were destroyed as unimportant, despite having been 'firsts' of many kinds - often the first public libraries or baths, for instance, only later supplanted by Carnegie or city edifices that spent some of their money on famous architects. She calls the humbler works 'vernacular architecture', referring to John Brinckerhoff Jackson's 'vernacular space', always shared.

The women's clubs are less famous now, but I think they were more accepted then. A hundred years ago many nice respectable quiet wives and mothers were also clubwomen, that is, member's of women's clubs, and some of them may have played bridge all day but some of them built refuges for unwed mothers. Spain's book doesn't talk about them much; it seems to me that they intentionally fluttered under the radar and looked harmless at all times. Seattlites might remember that the Harvard Exit movie house is in a building originally built for a women's club; surviving members are occasionally interviewed, and they usually come off as not feminists but precursors of feminists.

Clubwomen might have been more likely to talk about the City Beautiful than to agitate for labor rights, for instance, but in doing so they served as infiltrators rather than shock troops. It wasn't all cornices; that City needed to start with paving the streets. (Somewhere in here is a contemporaneous remark assuming that the mess of overhead wires will, of course, be buried as city development catches up with technological change. Oops; we haven't gotten there yet.) Urban planning became a feminine concern because the lack of air and water was unclean and unhealthy, the lack of schools unfitting, the lack of playgrounds unwise. No-one needed playgrounds when rich children lived in parks and farms and poor ones worked; city parks and playgrounds had to be retrofitted into corners. They were ambitiously designed, with sandboxes and educational vegetable gardens. They were also segregated by race and often by gender, and not separate-but-equal.

The failure of these various movements to attack racism is depressing. The Salvation Army might have done the most of the white-founded groups; it was originally English. Various branches of groups that theoretically worked for all poor people refused to work for blacks, and the ideology of sweet womanhood didn't stretch to cover it. The schools and colleges built by black women are all the more heroic, and there were decent exceptions, but it's a repeated failure of principle elsewhere. There's an awfully familiar ring to some of it, the seemingly irreducible residuum of underpaid, necessary, labor in the reproduction of labor. Nannie Helen Burroughs, who was not willing to save only the 'talented tenth',

advocated the unionization of domestics because "the women voters will be keen to see that laws are passed that will give eight hours a day to women in other industries, but they will oppose any movement that will, in the end, prevent them from keeping their cooks and house servants in the kitchen twelve or fifteen hours a day." (p. 164)

On the other hand, the Social Gospel was reliably willing to stand up with organized labor and worker's rights, as they were then being developed; and there were scientists and utopians reducing the required effort. Some had read Edward Bellamy, and were probably planning neighborhood cafeterias (how old is deli?); others built the Rumford Kitchen with the science of Home Ec.

The June 2005 Heifer International newsletter, World Ark, that arrived as I was reading this has a review of How to Change the World, by David Bornstein, which is apparently about the rise of nonprofit entrepreneurial

"citizen sector" and the tremendous growth of nonprofits that are tackling social problems that government or business have failed to solve or even address. (p. 25)

After a volume on the comprehensive invention of social-goods institutions a hundred years ago, this didn't sound all that new, but the big change is that the ideology then was female Virtue, Religion, and Cleanliness; and now the ideology is Entrepreneurship. The substances overlap constantly, since they're attacking similar problems, but the metaphors are tremendously different. It's probable that there are insoluble contradictions in the new hopeful ideology, too, but I expect there's a generation of work to be extracted from it first.

ISBN: 0816635315

So wrote clew.

February 25, 2005

London Labour and the London Poor, Vol.2, Henry Mayhew

In some trial works near the metropolis sewer water was applied to land, on the condition that the value of half the extra crop should be taken as payment. The dressings were only single dressings. The officer making the valuation reported, that there was at the least one sack of wheat and one load of straw per acre extra from its application on one breadth of land; in another, full one quarter of wheat more, and one load of straw extra per acre. (p. 415)

This followed by a description, precise to the names of streets and ponds, of where the sewers of London were going to be constructed. I think many of the neighborhoods were among London's good ones, at the time of construction, which is rather a reminder of the stench in which mid-Victorian luxury must have lived. The poor south side of the Thames had less political pull and naturally worse drainage, and as this book was being written plans for its sewerage were incomplete.

The civil engineers are not much named, which is a pity, as they had bold hearts: the size and fall of the system was great enough that one major line was to go over the river Lea, while another went forty-seven feet under the river at the same place; eventually the lower was to be pumped up to meet the first (two steam-engines were needed, so three were specified) and... well, not applied to agriculture:

"the level of the inverts of the parallel sewers will be eight feet below high-water mark, and here it is intended to collect the sewage into a reservoir during the flood-tide, and discharge the same with the ebb-tide immediately after high-water; and, as it is estimated that the reservoir will be completely emptied during the first three hours of the ebb, it may be safely anticipated that no portion of the sewage will be returned, with the flood-tide, to within the bounds of the metropolis."

Mayhew does optimistically point out that since all the refuse will be collected in one place, it could the more easily be sold if a market for it was finally established.

No link or citation; I picked this up proofreading at Distributed Proofreaders. Eventually the result will be available at Project Gutenberg, but it's a large book in small type and isn't going through the system very quickly...

There is a decent chance that WorldCat can find you a copy in a local library.

December 22, 2004

The Ecology of Urban Habitats, O. L. Gilbert

Scraping through rubble-fields and road cuts for ecology surely doesn't produce pretty pictures, but it has all of the original naturalist's charm of fascination with living things for their own sakes. This is an English book, and I, in a city not two hundred years old, in a house considered oldish for having made it through one century, am fascinated by how urbanization eventually falls into patterns to which creatures (humans too) can adapt. Between toxins and introductions, there's been plenty of pressure. (Evening primrose may have ?speciated? developed races? since its naturalization from New World imports.)

Plaggen soils are soils made by more than a hundred years of living and manuring, which appear in cities with gardens or allotments (or livery stables, I should think); I'm delighted with the new word 'pararendzina', which seems to be what rubble becomes as it turns back into soil. Maybe only brick rubble, I don't know because most of the uses on the Web aren't in English, and it isn't in the index of either Soil Genesis and Classification or the Keys to Soil Taxonomy; both of those are US-centric, of course. We might have plenty of anthropic soils, but until we normally reuse them instead of moving to greenfield sites I guess we won't bother with fine distinctions among the rubble.

Although, mm, the Hood Canal Bridge is having to move its reconstruction staging because of the enormous graveyard found next to the existing bridge. Fourteen hundred years of known human habitation there might have changed the soil type; I wouldn't even assume it was a small habitation, since the Hood Canal without industrial inflow was so benign, so flourishing, so productive that (as my other half remarked) even we might have survived there. Was it foolish for that culture to develop art and leisure and IP law instead of industrializing to be ready for the West when it arrived? We should hope not; neither writing nor reading this is likely to defend us from aliens, should they suddenly appear in orbit, or even from epidemics, much likelier to appear with one urbanizing world.

ISBN: 0412282704

December 21, 2004

Owning Up, Michelle Miller-Adams

Subtitle: Poverty, Assets, and the American Dream

My summary: Assets, not income but wealth, is what keeps people (families, communities) out of poverty; US poverty-reduction programs ignore, or sometimes rule out, asset accumulation; the US could help the poor build their own assets and become self-sustaining for less money than we spend on helping the middle-class and rich accumulate assets; there are examples of useful programs in several very different circumstances.

I'm going to back up and read the earlier books on how assets are at least as important as income, because the numbers look interestingly explanatory. First on the list is Assets and the Poor, Michael Sherraden.

The case studies were cheering, in that the projects they cover did at least some good where much was needed; they also cover widely varying assets, from house equity to community interaction to 'soft skills' to natural resources to small-business competence. Some of the principles carry over between; the successes tended to work with people who were the most nearly successful of the poor, and let them recruit others by example.

The Battle Creek neighborhood rescue did something unexpected and clever; they put work and money into raising house prices, without worrying about gentrification. Battle Creek (built mostly for cereal factories) still has a fair number of owner-inhabited houses, and not a lot of risk of gentrification, and the reasoning was that dropping house prices were causing rational owners to put less and less maintenance into their houses, as they couldn't have gotten the equity back out. Loaning money to rehabbers, and street-landscapers, reversed the cycle in at least some blocks, before all the original inhabitants sold to developers.

Overall, the book is cautious and practical and determinedly bipartisan, repeatedly pointing out how many programs there are to subsidize middle-class saving, how clearly salaried workers benefit from default saving, how helping asset accumulation leads to self-reliance and self-restraint, etc. And who could be against self-reliance?

Well... I like the summary of the post-WWII plutocratic political program being one of risk transfer. If you transfer a lot of risk to other people, you will eventually be able to buy anything else you want at a penny on the dollar when the dice come down against them; "The time to buy stock is when blood is in the streets. " Late Victorian Holocausts makes a good case that this practice is how Europe, especially England, overtook the wealth of what is now the Third World; and even some case that this was intentional. There had been, for instance, large public works for irrigation and flood management and famine relief, which were supplanted by markets in good years (when it was not too politically expensive). Their lack in the bad years left nations impoverished. There are public goods that pay off rarely and are still worth their price.


Off in metaphor land, I thought of buffered soils and delayed neutron fractions. Soils with good buffering don't change as rapidly as outside influences push them; e.g., they have stocks of nutrients or charge held in reserve. Without buffering, shocks are more often lethal to plants, which makes the whole system even more susceptible to the next shock. Nutrient stocks are obviously an asset, and they are metaphorically appropriate because they're usually built up over a long time; the fraction of organic material that breaks down most slowly is important.

On further thought, I don't think the slow neutrons are a good metaphor for assets, although they may be a second-level metaphor; a society with a sufficient number of asset-buffered actors in it is... easier to regulate? I don't think that's what Jefferson expected from sturdy independence. Never mind.

ISBN: 0815706200

December 16, 2004

Soft City, Jonathan Raban

...the city goes soft; it awaits the imprint of an identity. For better or worse, it invites you to remake it, to consolidate it into a shape you can live in. You, too. Decide who you are, and the city will again assume a fixed form around you. Decide what it is, and your own identity will be revealed, like a position on a map fixed by triangulation.

A large argument! nor a provable one. Most of the book is much more specific, though, usually a precise account of the social changes afflicting the poor and grimy London neighborhoods Raban lived in as a young freelance writer in the 1970s. I should think it was nearly unreadable for a couple of decades while it was just out of date; it is aging back into interest. For the US, at least, some of the interest comes from the image of London as a city permanently decaying and being renewed block by block (fashion and mortgage rules between them froze the renewal for a couple of decades in the States). Raban's general descriptions probably fit New York a decade later and smaller cities now.

Bits I liked: several sections analyzing the minimalist, anxious style of white-paint, open-floorplan gentrifiers. A little of what Raban assumes matches a history of Victorian London:

This style is a strategy of urban disengagement; it is a deliberate renunciation of almost every possibility afforded by the city. [...] (Significantly, London is unique amongst capital cities in that its middle class regard it as a right to live in a whole house and not in an apartment.)

Raban goes on to say that his gentrifiers are buying not just real-estate but the idea and practicality of neighborliness; "Community is becoming an increasingly expensive commodity". I wonder how that played out over thirty years. Community doesn't seem like a commodity that would stay bought.

There are many sections on surface, and style, and style communities and signals, and even on what kind of shopping is neccessary to maintain style; part of the argument is that the size and motion of cities requires them. Raban manages to discuss all this with very few brand-names or shop names, and only loose descriptions, which is probably why it's still readable; but I think the descriptions are specific enough that someone who was an adult in the '70s would know what he was talking about. (White-painted Moroccan birdcages were stylish? Ouch.) The birdcage chapter also summarizes Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, which categorized the street masses by their occupations and access to materials; but Raban divides his contemporaries by what they buy. I am never much impressed by claims that consumer identity has explanatory power; sumptuary laws date back at least to ancient Rome, so consumer identity can't be new and thus doesn't automatically explain whatever new thing is under discussion; but it may be that sumptuary laws and consumer identity are an urban phenomenon. (That would make David Brooks urban; a laughable concept from my vantage, or a cheerful one if it means urbanity is really winning, or a depressing one if only the shallowest parts of urbanity are winning. On the other hand, Mayhew evidently divided all people into the Settled and the Wanderers, and explained urbanites rich and poor as being Wanderers, and nearly subhuman to boot; no side of this argument is new.)

Of course, I like his description of Moroccan birdcages as the use of culch in fashion, or possibly the use of fashion to keep the culch-pile well churned.

Raban only leaves London twice in this book; once while visiting Cambridge, where he is surprised by the isolationist attitudes (and tax policy) of each district of Boston; and horrified by its effects in, for instance, Roxbury, which (I guess) wouldn't have fallen so far in London, because London recognized itself as a city and connected all its parts. After all Raban's outsiderness and observation, after his praise of London's contingency and privacy, after his despair in his youth not fitting into villages and small towns that weren't playing at conformity, Roxbury moves him to a moral opinion, phrased with remarkable lack of vanity: "More than anything else, I would like, sometime, to be a capable citizen."

We live in cities badly; we have built them up in culpable innocence and now fret helplessly in a synthetic wilderness of our own construction. We need—more urgently than architectural utopias, ingenious traffic disposal systems, or ecological programmes—to comprehend the nature of citizenship, to make a serious imaginative assessment of that special relationship between the self and the city; its unique plasticity, its privacy and freedom.

ISBN: 1860461077

September 27, 2004

Storybook Style, Arrol Gellner, Douglass Keister, Douglas Keister

A bookful of pretty pictures of goofy houses, mostly small West Coast imitations of romanticized rural Old World houses; half-timbering, tiny turrets, pointy roofs, etc etc. They complement Susan Susanka's basically modernist small, efficient, utilitarian houses, although I don't think Susanka's fans would find the Storybook houses intellectually respectable. Christopher Alexander could mount a better defense.

Hot-country traditional styles make at least as much sense in most of California as glass boxes do. The sublime goofiness of the style doesn't just transplant architectures but translates them; Seattle has some surviving Spanish/Moorish 1920s architecture that looks both subtly wrong and subtly right, because the eaves and so forth have been altered to deal with our rainfall and seasonal solar angles. I suspect the adorable Berkeley and Carmel cottages have rather more windows and outdoor porches than would have been comfortable in the originals.

There's a surviving silent film of Hollywood's improbable architecture, "Hollywood the Unusual", which I found as an extra on a DVD of "The Garden of Eden" (which the SPL has, Seattleites). It has a wider range than Storybook...; not just the half-timbered 'village shops' and Graumann's Chinese Theater, but imposing pseudo-ancient-Egyptian architecture and 'Moorish' gas-stations. Also, there are people in 1920s plus-fours or tea-gowns dancing through the gardens to a new piano score. This is the sort of record that current copyright law puts at risk.

The movie "The Garden of Eden" was charming, and its star very pretty, although the plot was half-slapstick half-sensation and not very intellectually respectable. The heroine wasn't just a feeble Imperilled Pauline, either, she's as active as a comedienne usually is. In other serendipity, we get some truly delightful combinations underwear, villains in lipstick - usual in the silents; why? - and what may be the earliest filmed scene of a concert audience waving lighters in the dark.

ISBN: 0670893854 (Storybook Style)

August 08, 2004

The Vatican to Vegas, Norman M. Klein

Subtitle: The History of Special Effects

Even with time to read this I doubt I'd know whether it's a brilliant angle on image and power, or a well-elaborated coffeehouse theory. The first section is "Scripted Spaces and the Illusion of Power, 1550-1780", and with alterations to the dates that could stand for the whole book. It's all about the geometry of masque design being used to direct the masses through a pageant that distracts us from the conditions of power. This is now obvious when looking at Baroque constructions; it's obvious but we pretend it's unimportant looking at Vegas versions of the rest of the world; there may be quotidian, and more powerful, structures in any daily life. Klein also draws examples from movies, especially SF; shopping-mall cities (Jerde); and software designs, especially of space, including social space, including social space taken abstractly and built by cell networks and phone etiquette.

Since it's largely concerned with special effects as an attack on democracy, an attack focussed on public space, there's a final bit on post-9/11 politics.

The language is maybe overheated, a bit theory-inflected, but the fever fits the subject and I think he might even consider lit-crit jargon as a virtual reality of its own. There are certainly enough examples that I could skim over the theory language.

And, finally, he may have an actual argument about why dirigibles are bubbling up in the SF&F subconscious. Someday I will go back and read that argument properly.

ISBN: 1565848039

June 11, 2004

The new Seattle Public Library

I don't like it. It will grow on me, if only from a Pavlovian association of the place with its contents. The librarians will be clever and thorough in mitigating its navigation problems by providing maps and signs. The Architecture, though, is maybe a fifth part an interesting try at a Machine for Information, maybe a fifth part actively stupid, and more than a fifth humorous because it's already so dated. It was instantaneously passé when the third Matrix movie was a disappointment.

The aesthetic dorkiness has its charming side, though. I'm fond of Seattle partly because we're a provincial, optimistic, overambitious, pratfall of a place; very homely, even when tremendously annoying. The library and the sports stadiums will be our cultural bookends to the fortunate 1990s, reminding us what we spent and what we thought would save us.

I also look forward to no-budget dystopian films being made in the library, with Blöödhäg soundtrack.

What specifically don't I like about it? From the outside, the pompous, looming approach on 4th, in which the entry has all the appeal of a pore. Seattle doesn't need to shade its streets, and the high overhang won't protect that door from much rain. (Next visit, I'll start on 5th and see if that feels better.) Then the navigation is hideously, hilariously bad, so that the librarians have already taped up (tidy and color-coördinated) copier notices explaining where to go and how to get out. There's all this whooptedo about the easy navigation and the spiral of books, but (postponing the question of whether the Dewey line is really how we access books) you don't walk in and meet the books, you walk into a sort of distant-concierge hotel lobby on 5th or a crowded industrial arrangement of dead ends on 4th. The lobby on 5th presents vast vertical space with no books. The children's and multilingual books are on floor 1; 2 isn't public; 3 is other fiction (all of it?); the spiral is floors 6 to 9. You don't get to see the spiral when you walk in (I didn't find a good overview of it anywhere). The building doesn't invite you into the knowledge of the ages, rather it does more to hide the books than I would have thought possible in an open-plan, glass-walled building.

I suppose many people will be more comforted by the "mixing chamber" combined reference and information desk than I am, and I am content in the expectation that the librarians will make a good thing of it and make it an abstract introduction to the Horn of Plenty. All that concrete isn't abstract, and I disdain it for disdaining that spiraling horn.

It isn't the modernism I dislike; I enjoyed the temporary library, which spent the interim years in an authentically construction-surfaced installation in a convention-center building.

Just plain dim details: the stairs in the book spiral are incredibly noisy. The boxed-in stairwells are of a different material and aren't noisy, so I suspect the noisy ones were chosen because they look cool. There are what seem to be water sprays (for fire suppression, I can't remember the name) that are boxed in most of 300°, by the glass wall of the escalators on one side and by their heavy brackets on the other. Maybe they pop out and wave tentacularly in event of a fire. The continuous ramp concrete floor of the spiral is ribbed with cast-in-place level supports for the bookcases , etc. Where there aren't bookcases, these 1" or 2" teeth extend into the corridor floor a few inches; enough for me to trip on, as the corridors are narrow enough that I hug the wall going around corners. The verticals next to these teeth are mostly sheetrock, e.g. boxes around supports or stairwells, and it's slipshod that the teeth and the sheetrock don't match.

The lower end of the purportedly-important Book Spiral has already been commented on by one of our newsweeklies; it stubs out without ceremony or explanation, facing yet another drop filled with I-beam supports (which are covered with rough black fire retardant, to bolster the cheap-SF-movie effect), with no way in or out visible. I don't like the top of the spiral much better; you finally pass the Special Collections which are in a glass-walled Don't Touch city. Again, an actively disinviting transition from finding materials to using them.

I'm dubious about whether this is really a "light-filled" library. There's a lot of inaccessible space with an angled glass wall above and below, and maybe this will bring in comfortable indirect light year-round, and maybe it will be a wearying greyness all winter. I like grey, I go west and wetter from here to relax, but a building to concentrate that would be a bit much even for me. I hope someone did extensive solar modelling.

I liked the floor in the multilingual section a lot. Making the organizational principle of the books the spine of the building is a pretty idea. I sort of like the perpetual keyhole views through the grid-skin. The book-transport system is cute. I, mmm, I hope I'm more cheerful on my next visit. I don't like not liking my library. (I love the Capitol Hill design, although I think it should have more room for books, and I was horrified when the roof leaked catastrophically last winter.) The popup power strips and wireless access at the study tables aren't as good as the stunning blue leather and brass scholar's fitments at the British Library Reading Room, but they are attempts at being as useful (I should check whether the desks are comfortable for non-computer work.)

Back to the Dewey spiral... There are good reasons why our book-ordering systems map to the number line, but I don't think that's a good map of how we use them. (I Am Not A Librarian. Ignorant Pontification Ahead. Not Much Worse Than Everything Else So Far, Though.) Trotting up and down the spiral, making constant use of the rubber markers in the floor, I really, really noticed that books on related subjects aren't usually next to each other in Dewey. The back-and-forth pattern in boring old rectangular stacks is okay because you don't have to go the length of each bookcase, and sometimes you luck out and everything is on the same physical corridor. So the perfect Library is arranged with an infinite number of petals, extensible as their subjects grow, but all opening to the student in the middle: the one corridor collapsed to a point: the one place we want a Panopticon. (The BLRR catalogue tried, eh? but the actual books were elsewhere. I wish I could find a picture of the desk furniture.)

A spiral could have the elevators as the single point, stretched out by mere physical necessity; but I don't think this one does. I didn't stop at every stop but the elevator mostly doesn't face books, that I recall.

Well. More later. May this embarrass me a decade from now when it's obvious that the library is the help and pride of the city.

April 18, 2004

Growing Clean Water, B. C. Wolverton, Ph.D., John D. Wolverton

The elder Wolverton was a NASA scientist and is an environmental engineer. Indeed, this book is published by his engineering company and is a tacit advertisement for their work, case-study by case-study. They don't mention any of the competing designs, let alone the homebuilt oddities. For homebrew or humor, try The Humanure Handbook. If you're wondering how your small town can improve its municipal water-treatment system, though, the dead-earnest prose won't be a drawback; it sounds like an educational filmstrip. (I think that's a professional requirement for aerospace engineers. The book dedication implies that he was thought dangerously exuberant at NASA.)

One photograph of sewage treatment lagoons looks much like the next to me, but I did enjoy the discussion of which plants do good phytoremediation in theory, and which survive in practice. Native ones survive. So does water hyacinth. Water hyacinth is famously invasive, and this book doesn't discuss how to cultivate it in your treatment lagoons without guaranteeing its perpetual presence in all your other waterways. Maybe it's already ineradicable, and we might as well plant it somewhere useful.

The discussion of how many contaminants are becoming common in water is sadly familiar. Phytoremediation of heavy-metal and radioisotope contamination can't be the whole answer (you have to harvest the contaminated plants), but it's cheering to think that biological wastes can be more effectively managed than they are. There's a plan in this book for treatment of both water and air coming off a CAFO, which is one extreme need; and a optimistic comment that even a dense city, say, Sydney, could stop dumping sewage onto its beaches by building a skyscraper treatment plant. First sludge digestion would happen in the basement. The methane produced by that would be used to pump the result up to planters at the top of the building, and the water would switchback through increasingly clean swamps in each story, emerging as limpid as a Wordsworth stream. Alarming thing to go up in one's neighborhood, I admit, but not logically more alarming than pouring it untreated onto the rivers and beaches.

Unstylish as it is, I find this much more convincing than the cherryblossom posturing of Cradle to Cradle.

ISBN: 0-9709791-0-X

March 17, 2004


Culch (or cultch) is stuff that isn't actually trash, but is waiting to be reused. It usually lives behind the barn. The word comes from the bed of crushed shells and rock that oysters breed on. It's what a bricoleur wants to have around, or sometimes what a compulsive hoarder thinks they're keeping.

My mnemonic false derivation is "cultural mulch". There are different mulches, some fast, some slow, some not as useful as they seem. The town dump can set aside a section for culch. A middling city can support several exchanges. A native NYNYer once described that City's culch system to me as one involving neither planning nor storage. No-one has room; storage is expensive; quite useful stuff goes out to the sidewalk daily, so that those who need stuff don't hoard it in advance. Instead, they go out for circuitous contemplative walks and trust that the city will provide. After all, you only need something good enough to be adapted.

That's probably a tropical system, no matter NY's physical climate. Cold hardwood forests don't cycle matter nearly as quickly; instead they can store carbon a long long time. (My mother inherited her father's culch pile, as well as her mother's store of probably-reusable buttons and cloth and pots. I don't think the domestic culch was called culch, though.) The classic New England culch pile rewards long planning by reducing dependency on the market. To investigate; does Braudel mention culch, when distinguishing between the three layers of economic activity?

I think it isn't culch when it changes ownership, either; the rag-and-bone man in Waste Not Want Not, and the trashpickers in Land of Desire or Gaffer Hexham in Our Mutual Friend, are pursuing a commercial trade.

I wonder what the words for it are in other languages.

January 12, 2004

Seattle and the Demons of Ambition, Fred Moody

Subtitle: A Love Story

The sweet naivete, boom, and disillusionment of "old" and "new" Seattle are the stage for the fiscal naivete, recklessness, and resignation of the author, an old Seattlite. He was poor but honest, an alternative journalist, until he was finally swept up in the dream of riches - alas, just late enough to lose almost everything. Likewise, he follows the career of one unworldly but technically adept sculptor in granite and radioactivity; and a bunch of would-be-worldly programmers, most of whom lose vast heaps of money; and Bill Gates, of course.

These are combined because, to Moody's eye, Seattle's innocence was lost to the money of the tech boom. We had innocence? Needleless seamstresses and Boeing's Star Wars money *ever* had innocence? I wonder. There's a lot of dirty Seattle history as well as the claim of a 'lost age' of consensual politics. I actually thought of the WTO protests, with which Moody opens the book, as a sign of innocence; the chamber of commerce, or whatever, thought it would be a feather in the city cap - the protesters thought protest might change things. Innocents all.

I was somewhat amused by Moody's move in the late '70s, early '80s to Bainbridge Island to get away from the uncool, gentrifying changes in Seattle. I'm amused because my family moved there at about the same time, when I was a kid, and B.I. was in my experience much more status-conscious and social-climbing than most of Seattle was a decade later.¹

I add this scrap of my personal psychological history, because Seattle... is full of Moody's. He's all about the self-defeating, polite, work-to-live ethos of Seattle, with a restrained but identifiable undertone of "But in the 60s...". I think it's very odd that he didn't notice for years (decades?) that this is an inheritance from Asian settlers, as well as Scandinavian ones. When the consensual politics is consensual, it's great, although it isn't quick. When the work-to-live principle leaves room for what people actually do - ski, build wooden boats, cook, commit more socially recognized arts - also delightful. Moody's mockery and despair at the unimaginative, expensive city efforts to be "world class" by building copies of anything big that other cities have has all my sympathy. I still live in the city itself, so am domestically affronted by the rotten-borough sports stadiums, to start with.

But he loses my sympathy, nearly my comprehension, by a fixed and inexplicable failure to see that technocracy has also been a long Seattle inheritance - mining, Boeing, aluminum - and that many technologists are as purely moved by the passion for what they're doing as more abstract artists are. His unworldly artists are victims; his unworldly programmers are comic children. How he could write this way after several immersive histories of Seattle tech endeavors, I don't know. I'll have to read them.

A friend of mine, when I expostulated on this, said it was obvious most techies are just in it for the money and hate the actual work; he adduced the career of a friend of his.² It's a sloppy argument, analagous to my dismissing all "art" because I know people who are "artists" out of a desire to be cool and shocking and free of petty social constraints of decency. ¹¹

On the other hand, I can understand being too annoyed to admit that the numerate and logical get joy in what they do and money to boot. To be fair to Moody, he sees the joy in Bill Gates and in some of the people at the HIT Lab. He just finds it hard to see in anyone (except Gates) who's practical at managing money; I think that's a bit of "But in the 60's..." leftover. He says it better than that:

... I felt it myself: an unpalatable, unendurable mix of horror, envy, disgust, and prurience.

Was that a good state of soul to look for startup work in? No. He overreached, he fell, he sat through the Slough of Despond at And afterwards he started working for the Metro bus authority, which he describes as thoughtful, civic and determined; and observes Gates giving away money to mend market failures the rest of the country won't conceptually admit. There's still some old Seattle here.

It would be interesting to compare Seattle, San Francisco, Portland, and Vancouver B.C. for their reactions to wealth, bust, and social shock.

ISBN: 0-312-30421-8

¹ I asked my mother how she saw it as an adult; she said that it probably had had hippie cred until right about when we moved there - my parents weren't looking for status fights - but not necessarily more than Fremont or Ballard or South Park, even at the time. I can see Moody's belief as one in good faith, then, although I don't think it's very perceptive. Or maybe these things are particularly bad for teenagers, although I know my parents experienced them too.

²This makes me slightly ill, as I don't expect this to produce technology that's very good for people. When the coders are weirdos who love what they're doing, they can someday convert us to the same weird love; but how is someone who hates it to begin with to know that it doesn't have to hate us back?

¹¹It's an eternal battle, the attempt to substitute wealth for coolth, or v.v., or either for virtue.

November 12, 2003

Bridge, Church and Palace in Old London, John E. N. Hearsey

This isn't as good a book as Old London Bridge. It doesn't tie its three subjects together at all well, has few anecdotes that aren't in Home, and doesn't have much storytelling sense of how history was changed by the buildings, or people affected by them. Also, worse illustrations.

Query: what is a Chapter House? the kind attached to a cathedral? I've read the Barchester novels and I still don't know. The Cathedral of Salisbury says:

The Chapter House was the meeting place of the Cathedral clergy or Dean and Chapter who sat on the raised plinth seating, the east end reserved for the Dean, Precentor, Chancellor, Treasurer and Archdeacons and principal officers. The head marking the Dean’s stall has a triple face, sometimes said to represent circumspection - one of the qualities needed in a Bishop. (Some however say it is the Master Mason looking at his completed work). The name 'Chapter' derives from the practice of reading a chapter of the Bible at their meetings.

An entertaining banking precedent, from Hearsey:

A curious legacy left by this Bishop to the cathedral was a thousand marks to be put in a chest kept in the treasury, from which a poor layman might borrow £10 against a suitable pledge. The Dean and principal canons could borrow £20, the Bishop between £40 and £50, and noblemen and citizens £20. The loan was valid for a year, and if the pledge was not redeemed after that, the preacher at Paul's Cross would declare that it would be sold in fourteen days' time. The chest had three keys: one ket by the Dean, the second by the eldest canon resident and the third by the Warden of the Old Fabric.

Cavendish's The Life of Cardinal Wolsey, which gives descriptions of banquets in York Palace, later Whitehall, sounds like source material for E. R. Eddison's Fish Dinner in Memison.

Hearsey, John E. N. Bridge, Church and Palace in Old London. London: John Murray, 1961.

September 23, 2003

The Growth of Victorian London, Donald J. Olsen

Olsen ascribes most of the pleasures of London, the built environment, to the work of the Victorians. In so doing, he spends much time defending the suburbs, particularly the richer ones with varied architecture. He often makes the argument that anything still as enjoyable as the Victorian suburbs were and are is in itself good.

Oddly, on the way, he made their Victorian inhabitants seem less and less charming. The social and aesthetic argument he returns to again and again is that the Victorian taste is individualist, for variety and specificity and self-expression, and that the changes in experience that a suburb-and-city life provides on a daily schedule are wonderful.

But most of the houses built were really very like each other, by his own admission, and although he argues that that was 'only' to save money, he admits that they were popular. The Victorian impulse to make things distinct also wanted to put them in a hierarchy of value, especially anything involving class, and the suburbs practically invented class segregation:

Why England, for centuries one of the freest and most open of European societies, should have become by the twentieth century the one most obsessed by class is a question to which no satisfactory answer has yet been given. Whether or not the social geography of Victorian London helped to further that obsession, it certainly reflected it.

And, on inspection, most of the evidence that individual expression was the goal of architecture is from builders' and architects' professional journals. Obviously they gained profit and professional status by making this claim. It seems to me that the inhabitant only wanted the new style when it had been approved; a great many of the nonprofessional statements are not about style, but about how important it is to keep anyone poor from living near anyone richer, even if the poor are decent and their housing isn't being replaced.

Really, compared to shoving everyone below you on the social ladder further down, attempts to climb up after the rich look benign.

Classification, family sentiment, and a combined envy and scorn of the French turn up as often as individualism. All were concerned in the insistence on houses instead of flats. In a flat, one might—even a lady might—pass someone of a different station on the stairs. Nor did they allow Panopticon oversight of one's servants. Olsen quotes Builder, vol. xxxiv (1876) p.291:

The most important of these [objections to living in flats] is perhaps the manner in which the servants of all the families inhabiting the same house are lodged together in the upper or mansard story, with a separate entrance from the street, and thus entirely apart from all supervision from their employers except when actually on duty.¹

All the rooms, numerous even if they had to be tiny, provided each member of the family room for self-development, or maybe presented a hierarchy of power and privacy and propriety. I can believe it depended on the family as much as the architecture. I still like the fact that Oliver Sacks' large Edwardian childhood house had two piano rooms, so people could practise in clashing musical styles. Still, I'm not convinced that it was an innately good impulse, or even usually a benign one.

One essential suburban quality, repellent to its detractors, cherished by its inhabitants, is that of make-believe, the denial of the economic basis of its existence, the exclusion of other classes and of any sort of manufacture, the relegation of essential trades to segregated back streets. ... The most successful suburb was the one that possessed the highest concentration of anti-urban qualities: solitude, dulness, uniformity, social homogeneity, barely adequate public transportation, the proximity of similar neighborhoods - remoteness, both physical and psychological, from what is mistakenly regarded as the Real World.

Mmmm. Condemned out of his own mouth again, I think. If the city depended on the suburb the way the suburb did on the city, or if I thought the image of the perfect, pretty, moral life were not used to transfer actual power from the poor to the rich, then it would not matter what was Real. But the Victorian suburbanization depended, as ours does, on always selling people the outside ring, which gets more depressing and cheaper specifically because suburbs leapfrog past it. What it liked it destroyed. Some neighborhoods and ex-towns were luckier or better planned, but on the whole it's still beggar-thy-neighbor.

I wish I were more familiar with London, the author assumes it. I was amused by his explaining that the Victorians thought of railways what 1970s Londoners thought of motorways (although, of course, the Victorians thought of roads with horses and bicycles on them, and the 1970s had seen both rail and autos.) Apparently the thing about traffic is that no successful city has ever built its way out of it (so we might as well walk).

Other subjects: the wide variety of intentions and results from the noble and foundational estates, which kept ownership of the property and could (didn't always) control what was on it, through 99-year building leases and 21-year repairing ones. The poor are always with the argument, though they don't say much nor is much said about them. They finally escaped the slums when the railways were ?required? to provide workingmen's fares - at 5.30 AM the trains into town were cheaper than for the 9 AM office commuters. Not clear whether this was for the benefit of the poor, or because there couldn't otherwise be any workers living in reach of London's massive needs. All sorts of private enterprise for infrastructure, sometimes possible because of the huge contiguous estates, very frequently bankrupt before finishing.

¹ Heaven forfend.

ISBN: 0 14 055182 4

September 10, 2003

Derailed, Joseph Vranich

A summary of how badly Amtrak has failed the interests of passenger rail; some plausible reasons why; and a slightly outdated argument for its piecemeal privatization. Vranich has worked for Amtrak, likes trains generally, is a high-speed-train proponent.

Amtrak hasn't worked for anyone, doesn't like its customers, and is a proponent of redefining 'high speed trains' to get Amtrak more funding. I summarize, but even though I really like riding trains, riding Amtrak hasn't given me reason to distrust Vranich's tables of damning data.

Vranich's proposed solution is all about privatization, and looks a little scruffier now than it did in 1997 when this was published. As he wrote, Japan's railways had had wildly profitable privatizations in the '80s but were suffering as Japan's depression took hold; likewise for some examples about airline profitability as private ventures - which are a bit less convincing after the post-boom's airline closings, national airline subsidies, bailouts. Also, Britain's privatized rail isn't a gonfalon of glory for the process. So I would worry that the very good results reported during the economic booms depended on the booms.

A much more interesting argument, which Vranich adumbrates but does not, I think, ever say, is that train travel is now valuable because of cities. (He's so Northeast-Sprawl-centric that he may think it goes without saying. Even there, surely there's been some change in the popularity of train lines as the urban centers they were built with decay and regrow?) The death and tortured sort-of strangled-by-Amtrak-and-highway-authorities rebirth of rail in the States lines up very well with the death and rebirth of our cities.

The romantic view, and Amtrak in some unhealthy combination of romance, dog-in-the-manger, and Congressional pork, think of 'real' trains as long-distance trains. Japan and Europe have their glorious high-speed trains, which can compete with air travel. At, oh, an hour of plane flight, merely fast trains are competitive. (With longer security checkthroughs on planes, trains get another little edge.) But what makes a medium-distance train trip competitive with air between Seattle and either Portland or Vancouver, BC is not the shorter lines, or the roomier seating, but that I live in the city in Seattle - and am usually visiting the city itself at either end - and the trains pick me up and drop me off where I want to be. The airports are all to heck and gone; Portland's is convenient because they -- built a train.

Train travel also depends on the trains being even vaguely on time: Vranich's book explains that the long-haul train that goes all the way to California is under Amtrak's control, which is why it's almost-but-not-quite-dependably late; the BC-Seattle-Portland one is as much as possible a state endeavor, and is much nicer and more reliable, except when the long-hauler comes through and bollixes it up.

When the cities are really both ends of most travel, e.g. BostonNewYorkPhiladelphia, also increasing parts of California, commuter rail comes into its own, and obviously nothing carries as many people - thinking about London and New York reminds one that the subway and the elevator were equally needed to achieve those densities. There's something of a balance between the annoying non-privacy on the train, and the ability to do something other than drive. I like transit because I can't think about anything deeply while driving, not without becoming a total danger to myself, others, street trees. So driving is lost time, where the bus and walking aren't. The lagniappe that may finally get lots of people onto commuter rail is, as Brad DeLong remarked, WiFi access.

The routing problems are still hard, where two systems have to share rails or switchpoints. One of the oddities of Britain's privatization, it seemed to me, was to break the system into regional carriers - and then claim they were supposed to compete with each other, as though a trip from City A to City B could substitute for a trip between other cities. As with air travel, the interesting specialties are more likely to be between really different kinds of travel; private varnish scenic cruises, executive express commuter trains, seasonal car-carrying trains to and from snowy regions. All of these are likely to share some tracks with each other and with the freight trains.

Any train-ignorant computer nerd at this point is thinking, "Okay, packet switching protocol, collision algorithms - I guess we need collision avoidance algorithms - Shannon, innit? Model me something with competing trains over common lines, and tell me how to isolate the variables they're really bidding for - speed, reliability, ability to run really long trains. Cool problem." The freight companies have clearly solved some of it w.r.t. covering repsonsibility and costs for the tracks themselves - as the brownout over the Northeast showed this summer, that can be a hard problem in deregulating.

Nothing so specific in Vranich's book. I must go look.

ISBN: 0-312-17182-X

August 27, 2003

Old London Bridge, Gordon Home

A seventy-year-old history book is usually a historical source itself. This one is not shocking in its views; it is, rather, sweet, considering with equal affection the many stages, makeshifts, and heroic repairs of the bridges that have stood where London Bridge does. Unlike Black Lamb, Grey Falcon or even Three Men on the Bummel, this 1931 book makes WWII sink into the background of the imagination. Disasters happen. Traffic patterns are eternal. (How eternal? London Bridge, the sand in the pearl when the world was London's oyster, might be where it is because just before the Romans¹ got there sealevel was 12 ft. lower and there was a low-tide ford. That's even better than the army-horse/train-gauge story.)

Bridge-building was a medieval work of charity, so Church foundations were set up to build and maintain them. The houses and shops that lined the old Bridge were meant to help fund it; their rents went toward upkeep. This did not prevent money being borrowed from or for the Bridge. It's a nice idea. Columbus may be trying it again.

I was reading Margaret Frazer's The Bastard's Tale while reading Old London Bridge, and was amused that a political scandal in the first appears (noises off; the procession would have seen the Bridge) in the second. Better yet, for real roots of fluff fiction, a joust fought for pride by knights in armor; on the Bridge itself, which was on average only twelve feet wide, and was in many parts covered by the houses' throwing out upper stories to meet each other in midair. I presume shop-signs would have been taken down for the event.

"The King to all and singular, our Sheriffs, Mayors, Bailiffs, Ministers, and faithful subjets, within and without our liberties, to whom these present letters shall come: Greeting. Know ye, that because our beloved and faithful John de Welles, for the perfecting of a certain Passage of Arms within our Kingdom of England, against David de Lyndeseye, of Scotland, Knight, as he appears to have been calumniated by the said David--he is petitioner to us for the security of the said David, with his followers and servants coming into our Kingdom aforesaid..." ...Then follows a clause covering the chance of any outlaw seeking to enter England in Lindesaye's protection... The date of the document is January 22nd, 1389-90.
The day for the encounter arrived, and the two knights fully armed in the plate armour of the period were conducted to the Bridge, where a daïs had been erected for Richard II and the members of his Court. All the suitable positions were occupied by the nobility, and elsewhere the populace crowded every available corner. When all was in readiness the heralds gave the signal and the two horsemen, spurring their heavy horses, charged full at one another. Spears were broken, but both warriors remained seated firmly in their saddles. "The people beholding how stiffelie earle (sic) David sat without moving, cried that the Scottisman was locked in his saddle. He hearing this, leapt beside his horse, and verie nimblie mounted up againe into the saddle, armed as he was, to the great wonder of the beholders."
With fresh spears a second course was taken and once more the weapons were splintered "and yet without anie great hurt on either part." At the third collision Lord Welles was borne from his saddle and fell heavily to the ground, being "sore hurt." The onlookers appear to have thought he was killed, but Lindesay was quickly off his horse, and, kneeling by his side, he tenderly held him in his arms until the doctor came to tend his wounds.

Valor and tenderness made the Scotsman popular in London at the time. I wonder if he did not remain more famous in Scotland; He was proclaimed and belted Earl of Crawford in 1398 - and Crawford is the shining family in the twelve long, Dumas-dense historical novels by Dorothy Dunnett.

Hundreds more years of complicated engineering and its complicated funding are decorated with charming anecdotes that happened near the Bridge. The house/shops had rooms right down into the piers, and loading-doors for stock at river level. Tricky, as the Thames was so thwarted by the bridge that the fall of water through it was sometimes five feet high. Even more efficient, one house built a pen for food fish into the protective starling.

With mixed efficiency, the city grain stores were at one end of the bridge, near shipping and mill-power but sadly vulnerable to mold.

The illustrations are jackdaw and plentiful - copies of amateur archaeologists' drawings of old work exposed by new; trade cards from the successive trades that clustered there; stonework from old bridges long since moved. Home's prose isn't as delightful as Picard's, but he appreciates a good phrase found elsewhere.

Home, Gordon. Old London Bridge. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1931.

¹Of course this history starts with the Romans. I don't understand the determination of the English to see themselves as the last Romano-Britons, and I wonder often if it existed before the British Empire, and the poem on the statue of Boadicea suggests one heck of a grudge; but like their obsession with gardening, it produces some wonderful books. From Auden's Bathtub Thoughts (c. 500 - c.1950):

Hail, future friend, whose present I
With gratitude now prophesy,
So thought, I thought, the last Romano-Briton
To take his last hot bath.

August 23, 2003

Ecology of Fear, Mike Davis

Subtitle: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster

Los Angeles, as I understand the argument of this book, is profoundly invested - both psychologically and economically - in its image as a bucolic idyll, as someplace where Nature is so kindly that people can be relaxed and free. No-one familiar with Freud, or nineteenth-century Christian theology, or the dullness of stories in which 'nothing happens' would be surprised that this investment led to an opposite fascination with LA as the victim of fictional disasters. Davis argues that urban planning and politics have actually increased the number and damage of disasters, especially in the poor regions, but also in some expensive ones.

I don't think the evidence that LA is especially popular for disaster fiction was very compelling - there is a great list of disaster novels and movies set there, but of course London and New York and Tokyo have plenty of their own. Does LA have more, proportionately, than its importance as a city warrants? And anyhow, it's probably the easiest place for LA-local filmmakers to set their B-movies. Are there Bollywood disaster flicks, and where are they set? On the other hand, it doesn't really matter if LA has an unusual quantity of them; he only needed to convince me that the Eden/Apocalypse cognitive dissonance is unusually strong in LA. Since I find it unusually strong about LA even among people who haven't lived there, that's plausible.

The fury at stupid waste - building in ways that invite repeated disasters, and wailing in surprise when they reoccur - was more convincing, esp. a nearly-funny summary of the apparent refusal of locals to believe that they get tornadoes, no matter how many houses the last "waterspout" destroyed. Worse planning shoves all the risks into the poor neighborhoods and funnels all the rescue money into the rich ones; the treatment of fire risks in Malibu was the most startling thing there.

I was most impressed with the enjambment of subjects. Many of his subjects are enormously different in tone: tables of historical data, citizens quoted on their sense of the normal, catchy pictures from lowbrow movies, statistics about pest control, dense geological maps. Davis doesn't repeat himself, didn't write several basically independent sub-books, and maintains an even pace of argument throughout.

ISBN: 0-8-50-5106-6

June 10, 2003

Restoration London, Liza Picard

More Pepys!

Picard was fond of Pepys, and fond of London, and happy to spend possibly quite a lot of time reading original documents from Pepys' era in London; she also has a felicity of expression something like Sarah Caudwell's. Do all British tax lawyers write like that? Should we read Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce straight?


London Bridge, built up with houses, deserves a book of its own; see Ex Libris, a good novel set there.

Petticoat breeches:

"'all open, like a short petticoat, having no sewing up between the legs'...heavily trimmed with yards and yards of ribbon, and also they were worn at half-mast, hanging precariously from the wearer's hips, no longer attached to the doublet...The gap was filled by an expanse of billowing linen shirt filled with point." [lace] (p. 117)

But no skateboards.

A 1792 drawing of a 16th-century mansion composed largely of windows; small panes, but large windows running around three stories at least, including the ground floor. Expensive! Seems to be set around a courtyard, perhaps a private one, maybe the windows were safe because of that. All the house that isn't window is heavily carved. It's grand and pretty.

Samuel records eating an enormous amount of meat, and no vegetables; personal taste, descriptive bias, or was that actually what people ate? Recipes are ambiguous (one 'grand sallet', p. 152, would do James Lileks proud: violets, capers, preserved oranges, and a architectural or geometrical arrangement stuck with rosemary and hard-boiled eggs and lemons. However, there is legal and economic evidence of a steady flourishing market in vegetables and fruits. She assumes that people ate them but didn't bother to talk about them.

Other good recipes: what looked like a pie but actually contained a live snake:But 'this is only for a wedding to pass away time', which can drag at such gatherings. (p. 153) Also, Take a male Pike, rub his skin off whilst he lives...(p. 155)

Complicated common beliefs about sex; female orgasm was believed necessary to conception (except by at least one midwife), and women were spoken of as dangerous sexual devourers, but Pepys' and other descriptions of actual dalliance are sometimes very explicit that the woman couldn't have enjoyed herself and the man didn't care. Picard can cite a period of six months in which Samuel did not lie with his wife (who he loved and admired) but did have encounters of various casual sorts with other women. Maybe it was the religious madonna/whore split, although that seems too etiolated for the age and man in question; maybe it sublimated guilt about the dangers of childbirth. After all, with no contraception and a serious risk of death with each pregnancy, a man would be helplessly moved not to have sex with a woman he loved; and the rationalizations around a double batch of helplessness would be severe. Not that I have any evidence for this; it just allows one to think a little more kindly of half of Pepys' behavior.

By 1671 there were fifteen Quaker boarding schools, of which two were for girls and two were coeducational. (p. 187)
Have you ever heard a well-trained actor reading Chaucer aloud? He sounds like a drunken Cornish bumblebee trapped in a jar of honey - with impeccable erudition, I am sure. Now turn your mind the the early years of our present Queen's reign; her broadcasts to the nation on Christmas Day could have cut glass at 50 paces. Between the two eras the Great Vowel Shift has occurred. (p. 199)

Maybe there are examples of each online.

Marriage - although theoretically marriage was indissoluble and well-defined, Henry VIII had fuzzed up the first, and actually the second was complicated by the sort-of-indissoluble condition of betrothal. I think The Knight, the Lady and the Priest has the background on why the Church philosophically needed to recognize private mutual promises as marriage. In practice, between human hotheadedness and parental opinion and what all, it wasn't always clear who was betrothed. Even a marriage recorded in a church register has to have been hard to prove if the participants wouldn't say where it had been. Finally, people abandoned by their spouses seem to have technically been married until they could prove they were widowed, but in practice were considered widowed after seven years. Collusion would have sometimes been irresistible, I should think.

ISBN: 0-380-73236-X

May 19, 2003

Low Life, Luc Sante

Here are 356 pages of enjambed facts on New York City's low criminal life from 1840 to 1919, laid out neatly by subject (theater, drugs, police, orphans, riots). Figurative and specific characters repeat from subject to subject, as do waves of immigration, unrest, graft, fiscal panic, and fire after fortuitous fire. Everything happens three or four times, getting bigger and more professional and dirtier by the half-generation. All the specifics are horrible: brass eye gougers, child-gang saloons with child-prostitutes, riots the size of battles, disease, crowding.

Edith Wharton wrote about "Old New York" at the end of Sante's period. Two books could be made of the border between his version and hers. One could be on the power relations between the people they described - nothing is made in Low Life; death rates are terrific; all the money, and most of the people, have to come from some marginally more stable world.¹ Another could be on the difference and similarities of their nostalgia. Sante's was both for the abandoned cheap Lower East Side he lived in in the 1970s, and the shreds of neighborhood and myth it had; and those myths were half post-WWI radio and movie plays made of scraps of memory of the late Bowery and gangland and immigrant days; and their loyalties and turfs dated back to Civil War stresses.

Petty error of fact: he gets the intent and itinerary of Fanny Trollope's visit to the States wrong. He cites the 1949 edition of her Domestic Manners of the Americans; maybe she obfuscated it herself. More oddly, he writes that "...about the rest of America she is remarkably unsnobbish, and her book was something of an advertisement for the young country." That isn't what the Tories in England thought; it isn't what she meant; and I don't think it was the received view in Cincinnati in Trollope's day. More on that later.² Sante, drenched in accounts of bloodshed and immiseration, might not have taken her descriptions of the unmannered provicials as she meant them.

¹ See Fat of the Land, Benjamin Miller, for how the working poor lived in and on garbage.

² A biography of Fanny Trollope says "...wax figures of Mrs Trollope appeared in the form of a goblin; she was portrayed as an ugly harridan talking to a black devil... and satirized... One American reviewer commented on the 'curious coincidence of her name' (p. 174; Fanny Trollope, Pamela Neville-Sington.)

ISBN: 0-679-73876-2