January 2013

Posted by Ellen

This 1880s-era bridge connecting the Allegheny County courthouse with the jail in downtown Pittsburgh is a fair replica of the seventeenth-century Bridge of Sighs in Venice, which connected the prison with the interrogation chambers in the doge's palace.

In Pittsburgh as in Venice, prisoners being escorted across the bridge were said to catch a final glimpse of life on the outside before disappearing into the labyrinths of judicial inquistion and disposition. In both cities, too, the bridges and buildings survive to this day; the courthouse building at right in this picture is still an active courthouse, though the jail building at left now houses the county Family Services agency.

Modern-day photos, however, reveal an oddity: the bridge now appears to loom much higher above the street than it did back in 1903, when the picture above was taken. An urban-improvement project known as the Hump Cut, completed in 1913, flattened out major downtown streets in Pittsburgh, lowering Fifth Avenue here by several feet.

Posted by Ellen

Almost half of all the cocoa beans that come to America–shipped from cocoa farms mostly in Ivory Coast and other West African places–sail up the Delaware River to the Port of Philadelphia and nearby ports. In Philly, the cocoa-bean facility is at Pier 84, where a warehouse about as long as three football fields is dedicated to cocoa handling and storage.

The beans show up here in burlap-type sacks, which have to be manhandled out of the hulls of cargo ships and onto the warehouse pallets. There are cranes and forklifts, of course, but it's still the kind of job for which an awful lot of the hardest work has to be done by hard workers.

Why is Philadelphia the port of entry for so many beans? Because Pennsylvanians make chocolate out of them, at factories all over the state, including a Godiva plant in Reading and a Hershey's operation in some town near Harrisburg with an amusement park. . . .

Posted by Ellen

Photo from 1963, as captioned by the photographer:

On the left: Father's chair; on the right: Mother's chair; not shown: Father and Mother. Why they're not there is unknown; possibly I chased them out to take this panorama, which film grain fans may detect consists of two 35mm Tri-X negatives. Otherwise, Father would be reading the papers, Mother doing a crossword and both, perhaps, watching the TV, which was all the way across the room behind me. Up the stairs to the left is my room, and I'm otherwise evidence in a younger version in the photo on the desk. Elsewhere are displayed other family members, including my brother, sister, maternal grandmother, youngest nephew and aunt-by-marriage. Notable book collections: Heritage Press editions of Dickens, Twain and Carroll on the left, a c.1915 set of the Books of Knowledge on the right. Also, various beloved gimcracks and tchotchkes. Items on the erroneously-dubbed (by Mother) "tilt-top table" at the left indicate it's around Christmas. Finally, in the rack at right, a Sunset, "The Magazine of Western Living," which, of course, is the kind we were doing at the time.

Posted by Ellen

One variety of redwood tree, the dawn redwood, is deciduous, dropping its needles in the fall. This same variety happens to be the only kind of redwood that will grow in the eastern United States; this example of a dawn redwood appears to be thriving in the Fairmount Park arboretum in Philadelphia.

Dawn redwoods may be the midgets of the redwood family; coast redwoods and giant sequoias in California reach heights greater than 300 feet, while dawn redwoods, though very fast-growing, may not get much taller than 200 feet. Their potential height is not known for certain, however, because the oldest dawn redwoods in America are only about 70 years old now, descended from a single specimen found in China in 1944. In California, coastal redwoods and giant sequoias live for hundreds or even thousands of years.

Dawn redwoods were known to scientists from the fossil record long before the live specimen was found in China; they were assumed to be extinct. Fossilized dawn redwoods dating back to the Eocene, 50 or more million years ago, have been found in many parts of the world, including Greenland and islands in the Arctic Ocean, which had a tropical climate at the time. It is believed that the trees became deciduous in response to the extreme light-dark cycle of their high-latitude habitat; even though winters were not cold, they were very dark, rendering leaves or needles useless.

The young man in the tree, of course, is Hank, who is a college student studying ecology and climate change.

Posted by Ellen

Signs at the end of an el platform in West Philly.

Posted by Ellen

Dressed in madras and all over that jungle gym in East Meadow, New York, probably circa 1959–Joe Stein with his boys: Normy, Richie, and Bobby.

Posted by Ellen

Wired minaret in Marrakesh.

Posted by Ellen

A camera hanging from a kite flew over the neighborhood a couple of weeks ago and snapped this view of the community garden in Schuylkill River Park.

The garden, which contains 70 plots that rotate every six years to area gardeners on a lengthy waiting list, was started about thirty years ago in an abandoned brickyard at a railroad siding. In the early years, plants were watered from 55-gallon drums filled at a nearby fire hydrant.

Since 2009, gardeners have participated in Philadelphia's City Harvest Program, which provides produce to city food cupboards. The seedlings set out into the garden for City Harvest were started from seed by inmates in Philadelphia prisons. Through this program, the annual contribution to food cupboards from Schuylkill River Park is about 500 pounds of fruit and vegetables.

Looks like this year's winter weather hasn't been much of a challenge to the plantings here, at least not yet.

Posted by Ellen

The Russian painter Ivan Shishkin was illustrating scenery in Poland in 1890, when he completed this painting of the swampy forests of the Pripyat, or Rokitno, marshland. Today, the spot where he set up his easel could be in Ukraine or Belarus or Russia or perhaps extreme eastern Poland.

But the scene he painted may or may not look much the same. The marshes of Polessia remained lightly settled throughout much of the twentieth century; the forests there provided years of cover for partisans fighting for and against the Nazis and the Soviets.

Then came the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986, which devastated much of the countryside, leaving large stretches radioactive and uninhabitable. Not all the wildlife has returned. Although herons have again been reported, "mushrooms and berries," it is said, "set Geiger counters screaming."

Posted by Ellen

A taxi driver on the Greek island of Ikaria made himself a life-sized stone taxi on the wall outside his house.