Thursday, October 29, 2015

What to Do About Four monuments to the "Lost Cause"/Confederacy in Baltimore City?

On July 9, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was read for the first time in New York in front of George Washington and his troops. In reaction to what had been read, soldiers and citizens went to Bowling Green, a park in Manhattan, where a lead statue of King George III on horseback stood. The mob of people pulled down the statue, and later the lead was melted down to make musket balls, or bullets for use in the war for independence.  Careful records were kept, and it is known that 42, 088 bullets were made.  

The Mayor of Baltimore has created a commission to advise her on what actions to take with regard to four monuments in the "Monumental City" that were created to memorialize a Chief Justice of the United States, two Generals who fought for the Confederacy, the Marylanders (some 20,000+ by the best estimate) who went South to fight for the Confederacy, and one to the wives, sweethearts, and other women in Maryland who supported and sympathized with them.  All were created with varying degrees of private funds and placed on land that was, or became, public.  They are:

Roger B. Taney Monument (1887)
Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument (1903)
Confederate Women’s Monument (1919)
Lee-Jackson Monument (1948)

For an excellent brief history of the monuments and the contemporary controversies that surrounded them, anyone interested should read Eli Pousson's  testimony to the Mayor's Commission:
The arguments as to what to do are all over the map, so to speak. One argument is  obliterate them.  Another is to move them from where they are to a more suitable place (wherever that may be).  Another, made in jest, was to exile them to Fort Carroll in the Bay, a fort designed by an Army Engineer named Robert E. Lee (one and the same) and named for one of the largest slave owners in Maryland, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll of Carrollton.  In many ways the naming of the fort designed to defend Baltimore Harbor was itself an ironic choice as Charles Carroll of Carrollton owned British Navy Stock at the time of the bombardment of Fort McHenry, and you could say, helped pay for the bombs that burst over the fort on that fateful night in September 1814 (see an essay I wrote on Carroll's fortune for "Anywhere So Long as it Be Freedom").

As to my personal opinion, I think the whole exercise needs to be re-examined and re-framed within a legally binding context that removes it from the political arena.

In the first place all public monuments in the city should be in the care and under the supervision of an a-political Public Parks and Monuments Commission (or possibly a legally reinforced CHAP) composed of staggered term limited members (six years), that has a well funded budget (half public, half private) with the legal mandate to maintain and interpret existing monuments and parks, as well as inspiring and funding new parks and monuments.  In my opinion, every neighborhood should have a public park memorializing something.  I personally like the Mike Beer bench in Stony Run Park with its notebook for those who care to reflect in it.  Given the huge spaces within blocks created by Thomas Poppleton's 1822 survey and projection of the city streets, it would seem sensible to make those spaces public green spaces shared by the row houses around them as well as providing access to others from the alleys.  In some of them you could memorialize the residents of the Alley Houses that once were crowded into those spaces.

Assuming  that such an independent commission was created by statute to take on the concerns of the community with regard to what to do about existing monuments that were created to memorialize causes and people that have fallen into disfavor (in most instances for good reason, I emphatically add), how should those monuments be treated? Should they be pulled down and melted into bullets?  Should they be moved into an obscure corner of some public land in hopes that few people would see them?  How should the very limited resources for the creation, care, and preservation of public monuments be allocated?

I would hope that the current monuments would stay right where they are but with the offensive dedicatory language removed from their pedestals, and plaques to well thought out  interpretive signage that places the statues and their creation into their proper historical context.  At the same time the city should use the power of GPS signage and social media for smart phones (there isn't a child of 9 and above who isn't familiar with, and probably has access to a smart phone) to explain its historic places, monuments, and public spaces.    Furthermore I would hope  that the monuments and public art of the city would become a  required component of a required course on the history of the city that every public and private school child has to pass before graduating.  In order for this to work well, the class should be taught on line at the same time throughout all public and private schools with the classroom teacher and his/her students  interacting with the on-line teacher/presenter/instructor paid for by the City.   At the present time a number of interactive on-line classes provided by major universities reach classes of hundreds across national boundaries.  Such a Baltimore City wide course needs to reach students in every 5th or 6th grade classroom in the city, public and private.

The recent demonstrations in which no shot was fired and no person fatally injured, demonstrated that young people of a certain age do communicate well by social media and can use it effectively to move themselves out of harms way and stage a legitimate protest at the same time. Yes, drug dealers and others exploited the children and looting got out of hand, as almost always happens to legitimate protests in Maryland (the railroad strike of 1877 is one of the best historical examples of pushing a real need for productive discourse to unwarranted violence).  Pull the monuments of the monumental city into the nexus of the next generation's understanding of why things got to where they are, and to teach what they have in the way of power to effect change, not by pulling down the monuments of the past, but by erecting new ones (virtually and physically) in the process telling the stories of the old ones in a way that the mistakes of the past are not repeated. Motivate our children to be good citizens and provide them with the opportunities to make good on their personal visions of success and achievement.


Saturday, October 17, 2015

Midtown Scholar Bookstore, October 15, 2015

Midtown Scholar

Making and Re-Making Midtown: The Midtown Scholar

Written by  Cary Burkett, Arts & Culture Desk and witf Host 

 Oct 15, 2015 2:10 PM



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The building at the corner of Verbeke and Third Street in Harrisburg's Midtown neighborhood has a green-and-red striped awning with yellow letters across its border that proclaim:  Midtown Scholar - One of America's Great Independent Bookstores.

Longtime Midtown resident Frank Hummel is sitting outside. He loves the bookstore. "It's a shining light. It's a beacon, " he says.

The store is actually a series of interconnected buildings. The main section was once a 1920's era cinema . An old art-deco neon sign is above the main entrance, although it doesn't flash.

Just inside there's a coffee bar. And there are books of course, in shelves all along the walls and in recessed alcoves. There are sections of handsomely-bound sets of classics and sections of used paperbacks.  Doorways open into rooms full of more books. Steps lead down to a lower level, with rows of more fully-packed bookcases.

An ornate iron staircase leads to an upper gallery. It holds yet more books from many different eras -poetry, drama, music - and comfortable reading areas with padded leather chairs right out of a 1920's detective novel.

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 A Rare Book section is on the lowest level. There's a children's section next to the bakery bar, which has its own entrance.

By all accounts, the Midtown Scholar has had a tremendous impact on this neighborhood.  But just how did this remarkable bookstore end up here?

The story begins at Yale University where two bookworm academics met as graduate students.  He was Eric Papenfuse, studying American history. She was Catherine Lawrence, studying British history.  Sparks flew when they discovered their mutual love of books.

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Eric Papenfuse

Papenfuse smiles as he recalls, "When we first met, she was the only person up to that time that I had met who had more books than I did."

Lawrence is quick to point out that they were all bought second hand, at library book sales.

They studied books and bookmaking in their courses. "When we were in graduate school," Papenfuse says, "our favorite pastime was to go on sort of weekend excursions and go used-book-hunting."

It wouldn't have been hard to predict that Eric Papenfuse and Catherine Lawrence would get married. And it wouldn't have taken a crystal ball to guess that they might someday found a bookstore together.  It would have been tougher to foresee that Eric Papenfuse would become the mayor of Harrisburg.

He states, "It was something that I had no interest in when I was in graduate school or moving on. I wanted to run a business, I wanted to teach, I wanted to read books. I did not want to go into politics. My venture into politics has come out of my civic involvement, which has been born of the bookstore."

It all comes back to the bookstore.  But when the couple moved to the Harrisburg area in 1999, their plans were to be teachers. She had just landed a job at Messiah College teaching British history.

Still, when they got to their new home, Papenfuse remembers, "We were shocked to find that there was really no bookstore in the capital of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania."

One thing led to another, and they began to research the possibility of establishing a bookstore. They looked at different locations in Harrisburg. Some real estate agents actually discouraged them from looking within the city proper.  But one of them, Ray Thorne, helped them find a rundown property in Midtown, which had been the old Midtown Post Office.

The two reminisce about the poor shape of the building which would become the first location for the Midtown Scholar. They recall the graffiti, the holes in the roof, the gray, peeling paint.

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Catherine Lawrence

Lawrence says, "We would not have recognized on our own that it could be just what we needed. It provided a really quaint, charming space like a Georgetown/DC type of walk-up bookshop."

Papenfuse chimes in, "There was even a little loading dock on the back, and we wouldn't have looked there had it not been for the Midtown Cinema. I think that's a really important point."

The Midtown Cinema helped bring the Midtown Scholar to the area. It marked an important milestone in the changing face of the community.  Many at the time had all but given up on the neighborhood, including the family that was selling the building. "They were so down on the area," says Papenfuse, "that they could only conceive of us opening an adult book store. That's literally what they said. And we said, 'no it's going to be a scholarly book store'. And they had no idea what to make of that."

But the couple had a very clear idea of what they wanted to make of it. From the beginning, even at this first location at the old Midtown post office, the vision was for a bookstore that would be a community gathering place.

Lawrence wanted it to be, "a bookstore where you communicate with other customers while you're there, and have a common and community discussion."

Papenfuse expands, "We wanted a location where people could talk about books, where they could have intellectually engaged ideas about all sorts of issues of the day.

The store seemed to meet a need in the community. At a time when many other  bookstores were closing down as sales moved online, The Midtown Scholar expanded. It quickly outgrew the location at the old post office. It moved to the much larger current building in 2009.

The bookstore's impact in the community has been felt in wide-ranging ways. Mayor Papenfuse cites the founding of the Friends of Midtown as an example.

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"That was an idea that was born at the Midtown Scholar," he says. "And Friends of Midtown today has become a sort of foundational non-profit for the neighborhood that involves a lot of people in everything from economic development to beautification."

The bookstore was also among the first to host political debates, candidates nights and forums on civic issues.  Lawrence points out that many art groups regularly meet at the Scholar.

"We have a group called Art Kaleidoscope in which you have art critique groups, we have an association of graphic designers that meets several times a month, poetry cartels and poetry groups...there are a lot of folks who find this as a great meeting place from around the region to come and talk about the arts or participate in the arts."

The monthly artwalk known as Third and the Burg had its beginning at the bookstore.

Papenfuse says, "These were different things that were larger than the Midtown Scholar that really represented collaboration and an effort to community build and create a new business district for Midtown."

"And an arts district," Lawrence adds, "specifically a business and arts district."

The Midtown Scholar has fulfilled the goal of being a community gathering place for diverse groups. And all the groups meet surrounded by the books. The books become a symbol for ideas and conversation.

"We believe books transform," says Lawrence. "Ideas change people's minds and affect people's directions and sensibilities - tie people together or fracture them apart - and so, books transform."        

The vision of Mayor Eric Papenfuse and Catherine Lawrence for a bookstore called the Midtown Scholar has also had a transforming role, helping change the face of the community where it is located.  

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