Sunday, September 30, 2018

City Notes: DC and elsewhere

Who knew?

***That baobab trees grow in the middle of Dakar, capital of Senegal, according to today's (9/30/18) New York Times. Tall mighty specimens standing up against the urbanizing tide, threatened by climate change - how will they hold out, these beloved symbols of national pride?  They are going fast - half of them gone in the past 50 years because of drought and development. There is a modest effort to protect them, but, according to the report, no major government program in place.

***That Washington's Metro system is so overwhelmed with 'lost and found' objects, mainly the inadvertently misplaced kind, that it is no longer possible to call to find out if a certain pair of black-rimmed prescription glasses has been turned in  by a conscientious citizen or an overnight cleaning crew. Instead, a spokesperson answering the phone at headquarters, just after getting off a train and discovering my favorite spectacles  missing, is told I must come in person to Metro headquarters in suburban Hyattsville, Md., and search through the mountain of possibilities. If I had lost a cell/smart phone, however, I might be able to reclaim it with some (digital?) identification.

***That mayors in many cities across the land are the new hope for  enlightened civic engagement. Regard the number of books being published with this view. The latest is from the mayor of Oklahoma City, and he is even making the rounds of bookstores like a celebrity hawking his wisdom.

*** New in Seoul, Korea, via the October's Atlantic magazine: "Rapidly expanding" stress cafes to ease the urban soul. Offerings there include oxygen generators, apparently since air quality in that nation's capital is so bad. Like having a home in the city, reports one client. And a side benefit: social encounters of a low-key variety especially prized in a nation with a marked competitive edge.

*** And from the Smithsonian this month, a gorgeously illustrated spread on the ancient city of Petra in Jordan, resurrecting the reputation of a formerly grand capital  for the Nabateans, a very cosmopolitan people. All brought to life with the help of modern technology. You don't have to pay much to get there, at least not as much as the team doing 3-D images for a virtual reality tour.

*** Never say the bard wasn't up to date, or that Washington's Folger Theatre doesn't know  how to connect with audiences. Coming on top of a splendidly energetic (i.e. visceral and voluble) production of 'King John,' one of Shakespeare's lesser known history plays, the landmark event space has commissioned an 'immersive' performance piece deliciously (invitingly) called 'Confection,' for a limited run in March 2019 from New York-based Third Rail Projects. Advance word says the short experiential work was inspired by the Folger Shakespeare Library's collection, plus the upcoming Restoration comedy Nell Gwynn. What's that again? Bits and bites, oral and sensual, on offer in the  semi-sacred Reading Rooms throughout a 45-minute show.  Staying Modern in Style, I'd say.
Does the banner phrase ( press release material) "A rollicking rumination on opulence"  entice you? It ought to also pierce you with thought as well about the role of sweets in everyday life.
Also  note that the work is being done in association with Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures, a Mellon initiative in collaborative research, convened by the Folger Institute.


Monday, September 24, 2018

'Magic' City (?)

What to make of a place that dubs itself in promotional literature a 'magic city'? Is such a boast hiding a worry that ordinary accolades don't measure up?


I read from local promotion material how Billings was named for Vermont native Frederick Billings, who made a fortune as an attorney and real estate developer during the California gold rush. Billings used some of that fortune to invest in the Northern Pacific Railroad, and acted as the company president for a few years. It was during that period that the railroad was stretched across Montana. A new town was created between the Yellowstone River and the rimrocks to the north. The town, which soon overtook nearby Coulson, was named Billings to honor the railroad president. Frederick Billings never lived in the town, though he donated large amounts of money to support it. His eldest son, Parmly Billings, was the only member of the family to live here.

So the man who gave his name to the city (or is it town - with only 110,000 people?) never lived there. The magic was his money. The way was paved with gold, and the good fortune of the historic river along which Lewis and Clark tree on their very meaningful way west.  There's a perverse admiration for the built-in respect for commerce as the boon to life. A major boulevard - to give the street the grandest possible distinctive name - called Grand is lined with casinos, or seems that way so numerous are the signs. The lure of the deal, the mirage of riches. Dark rooms and plenty of neon. 

Downtown: A fledgling independent cinema showing feature films; an outdated theater with touring shows and occasional performances by a local symphony. An excellent secondhand book store. A respectable art museum. A modern looking library.  But mostly  large scale truck and auto and horse or bull riding in a stadium arena east of town as well as the annual fair. In  the western end an extravagant sporting goods store featuring a Ferris wheel, an aquarium and a taxidermy exhibit of animals great and small, not to mention an extensive selection of firearms and ammunition for sale.(The miniature bowling alley especially popular with families on an outing when  snow moves in.) No happy-go-lucky electric scooters on downtown streets and sidewalks - not yet. No rental bikes. Intercity buses exist but have only limited schedules. A Frenchman married to a Billings native has started an authentic (i.e. he does all the work himself using starter dough he brought with him from Singapore, of all places ) bakery that produces  real baguettes on a daily basis.
 Proof at left of the kind of enterprising spirit that is alive in offbeat areas (i.e. neglected, or otherwise underutilized and abandoned): a former grocery on Minnesota Ave. 'south of the railroad tracks ' - yes, literally, with all that implies - where low income housing prevails.  The wall sign proclaims Kirks Grocery, now reconstituted as an art gallery space recently taken over by musician/artist Shane deLeon. The early 1900s red brick building operated by two brothers, one of them named Richard Kirk, between 1907 and 1936. In addition to offering contemporary art, the owner - a Billings' native who only recently returned home to promote art and music events in a brand new space.  DeLeon's faith and optimism is contagious. Think lower East Side New York or London's Shoreditch before developers moved in - and similar infusions of fresh energy in smaller cities elsewhere (I.e. Lancaster, Pa.,,arch conservative by reputation now touted as 'the new Brooklyn').  It's a quirky town, the kind that inspires ambivalent loyalty but seldom outright bragging and statement of magnificence that Missoula and Bozeman produce from  visitors and denizens alike. Why, then, did Outside magazine in 2016 call Billings a  "Best Town" ?  Doubtless two well established rival medical clinics (one with a connection to Mayo) helps in the counting but they weren't mentioned. The focus was on outdoor living and affordability, pointing out comparisons with "already discovered Montana adventure hubs like Missoula and Bozeman" - on the fact the town is, quoting one resident, is 'in a renaissance stage."  Yes, the river is impressive, and so is the town's natural setting nestled beneath a 300-foot high sandstone rim called the High Line (as far from the New York site of the same name as you can get) bordering in uneven formation across nearly the entire northern boundary.  Seen here from a car window...the looming barrier under the fabled big sky, like a wave about to topple onto the inhabitants below. 

 Contrasts are constant, both in views and weather. And conflicts are common in territory built in myth upon man's rights as opposed to those the government sometimes claims. Witness the sign posted this summer by a downtown coffee shop owner objecting to a published report of an altercation that had taken place on the premises.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Namesake

 It's both forbidding and fulfilling when a newborn grandchild is given your own first name- almost as though he/she were a clone without complications. My first name is one that friends never would know  I own, though it is  common enough. A name I had more or less renounced  through the years as cumbersome, having too many syllables,  too long for a byline.  Still, I admit it is attractive and can be  shortened into a simple sometimes-too-cute moniker.

 Katherine aka Katie, Kate, Kathy, Kat, Kay, etc.

Note that however one hopes to  hide or renounce the official name, no easy way exists to write it off a birth certificate, or a marriage license. Thinking back, I might have preferred to keep the first of my given names and renounce or ignore the dull middle 'Ann.'

The gesture made by my son and daughter-in-law, parents of six-week-old Katherine Grace,  is personally fulfilling in the  grandest sense: acknowledgment, one hopes, of filial respect and  affection. A honor of sorts. Daunting. There is the initial rush of flattery, the appreciation of continuity. On  reflection, however,  consider what this does to a  newborn bearing the name of a living relative (me, the grandmother, in this case)?

Grandmotherhood is becoming a science.. Esoteric articles on familial relationships have expanded to include the outliers - those in-and-out second tier parental ties, the varieties of which are immense now that elders are staying around longer. When, indeed, elders more often than not are energetic professionals with lives of their own rather than the stereotypical spry wry oldster pictured in a rocking chair - ideally on a porch. I have several rocking chairs and several porches, as it happens. Even a hammock in the yard. I hope one day to be able to take those little ones on a swing through parts of the world I have come to love.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The roots of urban...etc.

What does it mean to be urbane? To say of someone he or she has that quality, has a personality defined by a single word? On the surface, urbane implies a certain sophistication - a sense of having lived well in urban places, the quality of 'knowing.' But to know what? To be able to cope in the urban environment without succumbing to either a cynicism or hubris when exposed to daily 'slings and arrows' of congestion and confusion?  A cut above the fray?
Decipher the paragraph below. Are these people on their way to, or already a part of, what it means to be urbane?

The Global Village for Future Leaders of Business and Industry® is an applied leadership and cross cultural training program. Designed for young professionals and experienced students, the program attracts those who share the dream of building a leadership career in industry, who strive to make a positive change in life, and who want to form an active and thriving global network. Since its inception in 1997, more than 1400 leaders representing 121 countries and territories in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, North and South America, and Europe have attended. During the five week intensive program, the Global Village intern will learn and live amongst a diverse group of more than 100 peers, coming from more than 45 countries, representing a myriad of cultures, speaking multiple languages, and learning and offering unique perspectives based on varied cultural and educational backgrounds. http://global.lehigh.edu/iacocca/globalvillage

Certainly, what's implied is that diversity itself reaps rewards in improving civilization (however THAT is understood).  The program is ostensibly a university offering but it is backed by the U.S. State Department of cultural and educational services. And note, of course, the word village is a stand-in for any gathering, permanent or temporary, of people from various backgrounds sharing  a common goal of, well, sharing. What better defines the committed resident of any city block where close proximity requires (requests?) a civil outlook.

Civil: as in 'civic' as in civitas - variously defined as citizens constituting a state, especially a city-state, living under the rule of law. I like to keep this in mind whenever I set out walking. Immediately I am drawn into the life of others living around me.  Instantly I register what looks 'right' or 'wrong' about the scene. A piece of trash that needs picking up. The car parked in a 'no parking/handicapped' zone. A tree limb in the way that should be moved to the colorfully named tree box (whether or not a tree exists there). A flaneur - traditionally described as a solitary gentleman of the  boulevards in great cities - is a more romantic character. He/she (please consider  women  in this category) strolls for the sake of it, observing, or, as philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote, "goes botanizing on the asphalt." Amazing what might turn up.

Locals please note: I recently 'took a turn' on an offbeat street in Washington's NE Union Market area, and found opposite a beauty products supply office-turned-gym the site of an as yet unopened pub-restaurant curiously named St. Anselm. What's to stop me from opening the heavy door? To know the story behind such a storied name. The owner, or business head of the firm, I am told, was called Anselm but the name already was taken so the saint honorific was added, however odd, it seemed, for an interior decorated by stuffed animals and the like. The real life St. Anselm,in fact, has a connection here. Just as odd, it seemed to me, the firm out of Philadelphia also owns the popular noisy upscale Diplomate bistro-restaurant on the now thoroughly gentrified 14th St. NW.  You never know what you can learn by wandering and wondering. A credit here to the thoughtful book by Rebecca Solnit, "Wanderlust."