December 2012

Posted by Ellen

During World War II, service flags like the ones hanging in these windows, could be seen in houses all over America. Within the red border of the window-hanging was sewn a blue star for each family member serving in the military. Gold stars acknowledged those killed in action.

The steps these children were playing on in 1942, along N Street SW in Washington, DC, were bulldozed a dozen or so years later as part of one of the country's largest "urban renewal" projects. All the residential and commercial neighborhoods in the city south of the national mall were condemned and all the residents evicted. The buildings were torn down and even much of the street grid scraped away, as a team of builders and designers led by I.M. Pei sought to start over from scratch, to create a 1950s-style urban utopia.

Before the urban renewal, Southwest Washington had been home to several generations of European immigrants and African American migrants from the South. Irish, Italian and Eastern European immigrants, possibly including these families, lived in the neighborhood west of Fourth Street SW, which was then known as Four and a Half Street. The street addresses here would have been very near Four and a Half Street. East of that street, mostly in more decrepit houses, lived African Americans, some of whom had come to Washington as freed slaves before or soon after the Civil War. The two adjacent neighborhoods both produced musical stars in the twentieth century: Marvin Gaye and Al Jolson.

Urban renewal wiped away all the homes, schools, stores, and other buildings except for one church, a fish wharf, and Bolling Air Force Base. A freeway was built through the middle of the new emptiness, with office complexes and new apartment buildings on either side. The project went the way of much mid-century city planning: people did come to work in the office buildings but went home every night as soon as they could, and people did live in the apartments but got in their cars and drove away to shop, play, and generally live their lives. Except at rush hour, neighborhood streets were empty.

It took another half-century, until 2003, before Southwest Washington got its first real grocery store. There has been something of a revival in recent years, as new stores opened and area parks were developed, giving people a reason to go outside and walk around. New apartment and condo projects have increased neighborhood density.

What happened to the thousands of people who were expelled from Southwest in the 1950s, possibly including the people in this picture? I'm not aware that anyone has kept track of them. Not to belittle their fate, but in one way or another, what happened to them happened to millions of Americans throughout the last century. In America, city people rarely stay put in the same neighborhoods generation after generation. People change and seek out different kinds of neighborhoods, and/or the neighborhoods change, pushing people out or leaving them uncomfortable and precariously clinging to homes in places that aren't what they used to be. 

Posted by Ellen

A lot was going on back in late October, on Philly Photo Day 2012. Eighteen hundred people around the city took note of some piece of the action, snapping photos submitted to the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center, which printed each and every image for its current show. This one is by Daniel Groff; for others, look here and here and  here.

Posted by Ellen

Tampa photographer Bob Croslin spent months at Florida's Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary before the birds felt comfortable enough around him that they would sit for formal portraits. This one is a redtailed hawk.

Posted by Ellen

Fish swim amongst rippling reflections in Yves Saint-Laurent's Moroccan oasis, the Majorelle Gardens in Marrakesh.

French painter Jacques Majorelle designed the gardens in 1924 as a botanical conservatory for desert plants and a celebration of Moroccan style and color. But ever since the 1950s, when Majorelle suffered serious injuries in a car accident and returned to France, the gardens languished unattended. Saint-Laurent, who had a vacation home in Marrakesh, bought the place in 1980 and worked for years to restore it. Per his directive, his ashes were scattered here following his death in 2008.

Posted by Ellen

Music Pals For a Lifetime, by James Conner.

Conner grew up in rural Noxubee County, Mississippi, where he learned to draw from correspondence lessons off the back of a matchbook. He left Mississippi after high school, first for Vietnam and then for about twenty years in Detroit, where he worked as a police sketch artist. But the downward spiral of layoffs that was crushing Detroit eventually reached into the police force and claimed Conner's job.

He was devasted, he said, until he realized that losing his job meant he could finally go home. He'd been homesick his whole adult life, missing Mississippi. 

He was no longer young by the time he got back home, but he married and started a family and went back to school, studying art at the University of Mississippi. He taught art for a while, then took the plunge and became a fulltime painter. He said he was trying to become the black Grandma Moses.

Like Grandma Moses, he is drawn to images from his rural childhood. He seems homesick still for his southern roots. But unlike Grandma Moses, Conner is a trained artist with a twenty-first-century eye, and he is a black artist, with a complicated relationship to southern experience.

In this painting and many others, young men carrying guitar cases venture out into the world. In some of the paintings, they travel, perform, try to make something of themselves. In some, they are headed back home again, for whatever reasons. In at least one of Conner's works, the man with the guitar is stuck in the crossroads. I like this picture; the guys with guitars have places to go, dreams to work out, and probably hard times ahead, but at least they've got each other.

Posted by Ellen

The United Nations Conference on Climate Change opened a few days ago in this brand new convention center in Doha, capital city of the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar. The venue is "ironical," according to a columnist for India Today in Mumbai, because "talks about cutting down fossil fuel emissions and sustainable development are being held in the mecca of opulence and fossil fuels."

Qatar has the world's highest per capita income and also generates the world's largest per capita carbon footprint.

The "high-level" work of the conference is set to begin Tuesday, with attending nations each being given three minutes to address the group on climate-change and carbon-dioxide control issues. The conference banquet is set for Tuesday night; although the new building is said to offer banquet seating for 10,000, the climate change banquet will be held at Qatar's Islamic Museum in downtown Doha.

The name Doha is Arabic for "big tree," a theme much in evidence in the conference center architecture. In its central hall is French-American artist Louise Bourgeois's largest spider statue, Maman.

Posted by Ellen

I have it on good authority (from a six-year-old....) that pictures of a dog dressed as two dogs or two pirates or two monkeys, carrying a present or a treasure chest or a box of bananas, have been around the intertubes for so long that they're real yawners now.

They never got to my eyeballs till this weekend, presumably because I don't frequent the cutting-edge neighborhoods of the web. I'm old, after all, and out of it. But I'm not too old to recognize a meme worth spreading around once I finally see it.

In this context, however, it may be worth noting that if I tried to put a costume like this on my dog, he'd pee all over it. 

Posted by Ellen

At Macy's in Chicago, upstairs and downstairs, the season is upon us.

Posted by Ellen

Heed this warning. It looks like a brick patio there on the campus of the University of Montana. Most people wouldn't be driving their cars there, off-road, amongst the campus walkways and picnic tables. But somebody might try to get in close to a building to make a delivery, say. We can hope they'll see this sign and stay off the brick patio.

Because it is in fact a brick roof; deep underground below the patio are two big lecture halls. If the brick roof caved in under the weight of a vehicle, hundreds of students could be at risk.

Not only that, but one of our sons used to work as a janitor cleaning those underground lecture halls late at night. There's just no good time for driving onto the brick roofs of Missoula, Montana.