Hole in the Clouds

May 2012

Geoglyphs of Southeast Baltimore

May 2, 2012

Here we see The Superconductor, a GPS track created a couple of months ago by Michael J. Wallace as he navigated his bicycle through the streets of Baltimore.

The track is invisible out on the street, of course; it comes to us as a digital recording (via a GPS app on a cellphone) of the exact path taken by Wallace's bicycle during one of his fitness rides. He designs a different track for each ride, planning it out ahead of time on maps and satellite imagery and then following the route as precisely as possible, even if he has to go the wrong way down a one-way street or retrace part of his path without moving over to the other side of the street.

"Once the recording begins," he says on his website, "a continuous pedal-powered line is created." The line becomes visible only when he gets back home after the ride and checks it out on his computer screen. It's a "virtual geoglyph," he says, painted in sweat on the "local canvas" of his neighborhood.

The geoglyph below, of a Baltimore icon, the Francis Scott key, required 6.25 miles of pedaling on a wretchedly muggy night last summer, when the temperature was 87 degrees. Wallace started the ride listening to Clash in his headphones but soon switched to the Rolling Stones. Tracing the key took 53 minutes and 17 seconds, and along the way he noticed four dead rats in the street and one dead bird.

When he got to the upper righthand corner of the key, the street he was following northward dead ended at the bottom of an embankment. "I had to muscle my bike up a steep hill to catch E. Lombard Street back towards downtown," he noted. "Sometimes that's how the road goes."

bicycle   Baltimore   GPS   Michael J. Wallace   invisible lines   maps  

Wealth Won't Save Your Soul

May 6, 2012

In 1946, a 23-year-old singer-songwriter named Hiram Williams, somewhat better known to the world as Hank Williams, performed with his band at the opening of a new Chevrolet dealership in Luverne, Alabama. That's him with the fiddle, an instrument he did not perform on very often.

It was either the evening of this show in the Chevy parking lot, or the night of a street dance right around that same time, a fundraising dance sponsored by the Luverne volunteer fire department, when Hank Williams passed out drunk and had to be driven back home to Montgomery, an hour away. The designated driver was Howard Morgan, then captain of the Luverne fire department. "Hank Williams wasn't anything special in those days," Morgan recalled. "Just another cowboy singer."

Chevy dealership openings and volunteer fire department fundraisers were pretty much the only work Williams could get at that time; he'd been fired from his radio show for "habitual drunkenness," and a few months earlier he'd flunked his audition at the Grand Ole Opry. But he'd just made his first recording, which he may or may not have performed in Luverne that day: "Wealth Won't Save Your Soul."

His first record was a dud commercially, but by early 1947, with "Move It On Over," Hank Williams was on fire. During the next six years he wrote and recorded thirty songs, eleven of which made it to number one on the charts. His concerts all over the country drew thousands of adoring fans; never again would he have to perform in a Chevy dealership parking lot in Luverne, Alabama.

His final recording, a few weeks before his death on January 1, 1953, from abuse of alcohol, amphetamines, seconal, chloral hydrate, and morphine: "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive."

On January 4, 1953, the city of Montgomery, Alabama, saw the largest crowd in its history gather to pay final respects to Hank Williams and to listen to Nashville stars performing his greatest hits. The funeral had to be moved to the city convention hall. Luverne volunteer fire chief Howard Morgan and his family were in Montgomery that day, stuck in traffic as the line of funeral-goers stretched for miles.  Our friend Martha Morgan was two years old at the time, sitting in the backseat, too young to understand the occasion but definitely alert to the scene, to the sight of car after car after car after car; Hank Williams's farewell traffic jam became one of Martha's earliest childhood memories.

Alabama   music   Hank Williams   1946   Luverne   (Image credit: Alabama Department of Archives and History)   (h/t: Martha Morgan)  

The Floating Egg

May 9, 2012

The National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing is an ellipsoidal dome of glass and titanium completely surrounded by an artifical lake; the only entrance to the three theaters inside the dome is via a tunnel underneath the lake.

The architect is Paul Andreu, a Frenchman who spent most of his career designing airports, including those at Dubai, Cairo, Shanghai, Jakarta, Manila, and both airports in Paris.  He's been busy lately working on structures for the Olympics in Kazakhstan.

architecture   Beijing   opera   reflection   National Center for the Performing Arts   (Image credit: Trey Ratliffe, via stuckincustoms.com)  

North American Superheroes

May 10, 2012

In the eye of Mexican photographer Dulce Pinzon, the superheroes of the twenty-first century include millions of Mexican immigrants in the United States, including Elizabeth and Enrique Alonso, shown here. These men and women show their super-sized courage and devotion when they leave home and family to live among strangers in a strange land, working ferociously hard at the hardest jobs, all so they can send remittances to their families back home. In 2009, when Pinzon dressed the Alonsos as The Fantastic Twins to reveal their superhero status to everybody around them at their workplace, in a Manhattan restaurant, they were sending home $400 a week to support their family in Puebla, Mexico.

Mexico   work   immigrants   restaurant   monkey   Elizabeth and Enrique Alonso   (Image credit: Dulce Pinzon)  

The Professors

May 15, 2012

Of the various dogs who've come to live with us over the years, only one–this one–was named Professor Brophy. We called her Professor for short. Professor was a dumpy-looking brown dog from the pound with big jaws and an unfortunate personality, to put it mildly; she snarled at people when they tried to come in the house and then snapped at their heels when they tried to leave.

You may ask why we invited such a beast into the family. Well, obviously, Professor was smart enough not to treat us as rudely as she treated outsiders. Maybe she did what she did because she cared for us and felt she had to protect us from dangerous intruders. Or maybe she really despised us right along with everybody else but realized she'd better suck up to us.

Whatever was going on in that professorial little dog brain, it kept us hopeful for a while. And mixed in with the trying times were some very, very nice days with Professor–such as this perfect summer afternoon up above treeline on Mount Washington. That's Professor Stein following along behind as Professor Brophy breaks trail; a good time was had by both.

Mt. Washington   landscape   dog   mountains   New Hampshire   Norman   Professor Brophy  


May 16, 2012

<iframe width="600" height="420" src="http://maps.stamen.com/toner/embed#11/40.0098/-75.1111"></iframe>

Lucky Strike

May 16, 2012

When I lived in North Carolina in the 1970s, downtown Durham was dead, dying, decrepit, and pretty much a mess. They were still making Lucky Strikes in town, but the old tobacco mills were already mostly abandoned, and by 1987 every last one of them was shuttered.

When I visited Durham last week, I don't think I saw a single empty mill. They are all restaurants now, or condos, or shops and galleries and studios and offices. In back of the Lucky Strike chimney is a baseball stadium for the minor-league Durham Bulls. A couple blocks away is a new theater complex, where Wicked was playing.

There are umpteen hundred old mill towns in America that died and stayed dead. And then there are a few that did this sort of thing. As for the cigarettes, I'm told that Lucky Strike is one of the major clients of the 1960s-era ad agency in Mad Men on TV, and that Luckies are still being sold today, filtered and unfiltered both. I don't know where the cigarettes are made, though–maybe Malaysia?

streetscape   restaurant   repurposing   Durham   NC   factory   mill   downtown   chimney   gentrification  

Based on Glory

May 20, 2012

There was a lot going on this weekend in Philadelphia. The new Barnes Museum opened with $5,000 a plate gala festivities, but I dunno, I went to the 2012 Kinetic Sculpture Derby instead, in the Kensington neighborhood of north Philly.

There are lots of rules for the Derby: vehicles must be people-powered, "pilots" must wear helmets (under those beehives, no doubt), everybody must be in costume, and also: "Sculptures must be decorated in a recognizable theme, or unrecognizable, as long as it is glorious."

No electricity is allowed, "unless it’s human generated for spectacularness."

And finally, after hours of parading through miles of Philadelphia streets and attempting to cross a mud pit near the finish line, winners are selected from among the derby entrants. There is an award for nerdiness, another for artwork, another for most spectacular breakdown, and so on. But in every case, the judges are to choose "based on glory and glory alone."

First prize Saturday had to go to the weather, which was about as glorious as May sunshine can get. Beyond that, at this writing, I have been unable to find out who won but it is certain that there was more than enough glory to go around.

streetscape   Philadelphia   crowd   parade   Kensington   festival   Kinetic Derby   bicycles  

South Philly

May 28, 2012

Felt like I was doing research for a tourist guidebook this weekend, hanging around the Italian Market. Shopped at Anastasi's, Fante's, Isgro's, and then it was time for a roast pork sandwich from George's with broccoli rabe and provolone.

But truth be told, the real significance of this kind of a weekend here in twenty-first-century America has nothing to do with research or tourist guidebooks or even with Philadelphia. It's all about blogging, of course. Bloggers can go outside and do a little grocery shopping and then eat lunch somewhere and then go home and sit down at the computer and type it all up. I apologize, I really do, y'all deserve better, and I'll try to do better by you from now on out.

Philadelphia   9th Street   Italian Market  

Walls Come Tumbling Down

May 29, 2012

The machine that's demolishing Mt. Olive AME Church in the neighborhood is something you can rent in New Jersey. The jaws at the business end of the thing are heavy-duty grapples; you rent a regular excavating machine on caterpillar treads, remove its digging bucket, and pin on the grapple. The two-tined jaw opens and closes against the stationary three-tined jaw, which is reinforced, as seen here, with a rod called, appropriately enough, a stiff arm.

The cultural and economic forces that are demolishing Mt. Olive AME Church and a whole host of other churches in the neighborhood are something else again. These church buildings, many of them built from stone like this one, have sat here for a hundred years or so, sometimes changing denominations as the nearby population changed. The latest wave of immigrants to the neighborhood doesn't seem very churched at all, and so the old buildings get put on the market. Developers snatch them up and tear them down for a chance to build several new houses at once, in a part of the city that's already densely built. New houses--row houses--sell readily here to people who want to walk to work and/or to stores and restaurants. The new residents evidently are not interested in walking to church.

Soon, the excavator and its grapple will be loaded on a truck to go back to the heavy equipment lot in New Jersey, and we'll see five three-story row houses rise up on this lot, with squared-off bay windows and ten-year tax exemptions.

demolition   Philadelphia   work   neighborhood   church   heavy machinery   history   demographic change   Mt. Olive AME Church